Re-reading some recent Penny Arcade material, I noted a simple but very important phrase about playing games for fun rather than dominance. It struck a real chord.
There’s no real reason to worry about the industry forgetting about the single-player experience, not as long as Nintendo makes games. What is worth a second look is balance. On one hand you’ve got stuff that’s clearly all about the lone gamer that manages to utterly beg for a multiplayer component (pick a Nintendo title – almost any will do). On the other, there’s games like Lost Planet, which is a pretty enjoyable 1P ride, but has some fairly serious problems in multiplayer. Shall the twain never meet? Don’t wave Gears of War in my face, it’s not there yet either… though it’s one of the more promising starts in that direction.
Sony and Microsoft are each telling us that they’ve got the real next-gen experience, never mind what the other guy says. I’m not seeing it yet from either of them. Graphics this, graphics that. The PS1 had pretty awesome graphics when it was released; so did the Dreamcast, so did the PS2. A graphics arms race is just as pointless as one involving thermonuclear weapons – hell, probably moreso. The real next generation’s about something else, in my opinion; building worlds. Not pretty backdrops where you hide behind stuff and fire over obstacles – worlds. If I want to jump off the end of that pier where I found the COG tags and swim out into the ocean, why shouldn’t I be able to? If you want to keep me following your predetermined path, put shark-equivalents in the water, or make my heavy COG armor drag me down quickly enough that I’d better get back on land fast if I don’t want to die. Either one of those things is fine, because it shows you cared enough about the semblance of believability to put that detail in there. But go the extra mile and actually put in the code for it. Don’t throw an invisible wall in my face. That’s what differentiates last-gen from
next this-gen; the details. Every game should, within reason and resources, be a sandbox. Every blade of grass ought to deform or rip out of the ground when something interacts with it. Even if the grass doesn’t look so real you can see your reflection in the dewdrops, if it acts like grass, that’s more than most dev teams have done and a big step in the right direction.
There are always going to be people who play games to win, rather than to enjoy the experience (see also: success of 360’s Gamer Points). When you’ve got the world complete enough and involving enough that you make even those players stop occasionally and whisper “wow” to themselves, you’ve got a game worthy of this shiny new “next” generation. When your world is that complete, you won’t have to ask how you integrate the single- and multiplayer experiences, because it’ll be obvious. That’s a place gaming could really stand to go, if you ask me.
Ahem. Addendum. Yeah, fighting games will be fighting games, etc.; I’m not asking for Virtua Fighter to become Shenmue or Street Fighter to become some overblown Megaman. Again, there’s room for an immense improvement in detailing, while keeping the experience close enough to its arcade roots to be simple and fun.