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The Multiplayer Problem

September 9th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Uncategorized

This recent article at Joystiq raises the problem of reviewing multiplayer games. Vladimir Cole says that the disparity between the critical opinion of Starcraft, among other games, was significantly different from the user opinion, largely because reviewers couldn’t predict how enthusiastically the multiplayer universe would respond to it. “Starcraft earned an 88 rating on Metacritic but a 9.5 rating from users,” Cole writes.

His numbers are a little misleading. If you use Gamerankings, the disparity is reversed – 93 per cent from critics, but only 88 from users. Computer Games Magazine, Computer Gaming World, Gamespot, PC Gamer and GamePro all gave it scores of ninety or higher, so any “multiplayer gap” is completely illusory in this situation.

This arguable piece of evidence shouldn’t obscure Cole’s basic point – how can you review a game in multiplayer if there is no multiplayer community? I doubt that it is “systematic”, whatever he means by that, but it is an issue.

Take my early impressions of Age of Empires III based on the demo. Some people are looking at it and saying that they can see evidence of how great this game is going to be in MP. Based on what, I’m not sure. I couldn’t make that leap. And considering how important the MP community is to the continuing sales success of Age of Kings, this is something that any review of the final game will have to consider.

I’ve only reviewed multiplayer games after the release date, so it’s not too hard to see if MP gamers are rallying around a title. But the failure of online gamers to take a game to heart is not the same as the game being bad. You can probably accept that a very popular multiplayer game is a good multiplayer game, but the inverse is not true. Age of Mythology is an amazing game in all respects, but is a relative failure in the multiplayer community, especially when compared to its predecessors.

So what’s a reviewer to do when there is not a large virtual community to get beaten repeatedly in? I’ve sometimes been fortunate to find colleagues and friends who were early adopters of a title, so I play against them. They can help point out things that they are experiencing, and there is generally time to debrief afterwards. We don’t all have great LAN setups to put a game through its paces, and I would argue that my encounters with friends and colleagues is more similar to the average gaming experience.

The single player experience is still the core of PC gaming. Most people who’ve bought Age of Empires never play multiplayer for long, and many of the best selling games have no multiplayer component at all. Sims and Grand Theft Auto’s success came in a world of growing broadband penetration and the growth of multiplayer. The 4 million World of Warcraft subscribers and increase in MP on consoles means that the tide is probably turning.

When that finally happens, reviewers may have to reorganize their thinking.


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