The Hyper-Iteration of Console Multiplayer Games

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Last time while picking at Gears of War: Judgment for iterating too soon on a perfectly good multiplayer game, I noted that this is a very common problem on consoles this generation. I’m hoping that it starts to change with the onset of new hardware, provided new business models are allowed to exist on that hardware.

The general gist here is that, if a multiplayer game has good enough foundations, I don’t feel the need to move onto a new version after just a couple years. Gears of War 3’s horde mode is just as fun now as it was upon the game’s 2011 release. Super Smash Bros. Melee was just as fun at the end of the Gamecube’s lifespan (and probably today) as it was in 2001. For me at least, GoldenEye remained a cornerstone game between my friends and I from its 1997 launch basically until the Gamecube came out. Games like these can keep healthy player bases for entire console generations if you let them.

The most egregious example of how things are run today is Call of Duty. A lot of people are concerned about that franchise’s annual release schedule, and one reason is because it resets the multiplayer stage far too frequently. If it weren’t for that, I’d probably still be enjoying Call of Duty 4. I still think about reinstalling that game from time to time because none of the five entries in the franchise released since have definitively topped it.

Another issue is that this messes up a game’s viability for serious competition. I can’t find it right now, but there’s an article stating how a lot of professional tournament gamers don’t compete in Call of Duty because the multiplayer essentially resets its rules every year. eSports competitions usually involve games that people are good at because they have several years of experience on them.

Almost all the games you see these days on places like Major League Gaming are PC games, most of them several years old or more: StarCraft, League of Legends, Counter-Strike 1.6, etc. That’s the other thing: PC multiplayer games never iterate this often. Counter-Strike has been almost unchanged since the 1.6 patch back in 2003. One of that franchise’s problems is in fact that its playerbase is split between three different installments of the franchise.

Possibly most importantly from Valve you have Team Fortress 2, for which they’ve been releasing new content for almost seven years now. As a result, it’s still one of the most played games on Steam.

Now I of course understand the reason why console multiplayer games iterate so often: It’s almost the only way for the franchises to remain profitable right now. As things currently are, once you buy that game, continuing to play its multiplayer won’t put any more money in the pockets of the publisher. They need you to make more purchases.

We’re already seeing a sort of accelerated version of that idea — adding additional purchases in the form of DLC and season passes. In my opinion the system moves too fast: you have a base game release and four DLC packs launched over the course of a year — often just long enough for the next $60 game to come out. Why not just stick with the one base game and keep releasing more DLC every few months for the duration of a console generation? Why not make that base game free-to-play and support it with newer and newer microtransactions for five years?

What’s keeping the free-to-play model of League of Legends, DOTA 2, and Hawken from coming to consoles is the current online infrastructure of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Nintendo didn’t really allow patches at all until recently, and the other two still have too much bureaucracy involved in patching and updating games for their platforms.

Like I’ve said in previous posts, console manufacturers really need to free up the process by which developers update their games. Patches need to be without charge and without limit. Nintendo is already headed in this direction and Sony has suggested they are as well with the PS4. Doing so will make it much easier for F2P and other kinds of multiplayer games to survive on consoles through constant updates.

Recently, BioWare defended Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer by calling it “a service” instead of a “ship and forget” product. “You have to continue to add value,” said Mass Effect 3 live producer Scylla Costa at GDC 2013. Well, if publishers want to do this they should act like it, and stop restarting those services every two years in favor of newer ship-and-forget products.

I’m not so sure the big companies will be so quick to switch from the periodic $60 release model though. Halo, Call of Duty, and the like will probably stay there. A freer online infrastructure on consoles will probably be taken advantage of by indies more than anyone else at the start.

Here’s what it feels like will happen during the next console generation: some upstart creates a free-to-play shooter (or other kind of multiplayer-only game) on consoles supported by various pieces of DLC and microtransacitons without ever releasing sequels. It becomes such a big hit that other game publishers, including the big guys, try to follow suit on consoles.

BULLETS:

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