26 October 2008

Local multiplayer and its ramifications...

While reading that gamasutra article i was doing a little research to see about the ratio of games with a *local multiplayer component to single player/online multiplayer only. Unfortunately there isn't much hard data out there for people who can't afford to pay ridiculous amounts of money to access it.... so i turned to wikipedia. Then i compared the top selling games on most of the home consoles (ignoring games that i didn't know - especially japanese only ones) and checked the ratio of the above conditions on each. Some of the consoles don't have a lot of data such as the Dreamcast or Gamecube but this is all just anecdotal research anyway so i'll count them anyway.

*This includes 'take it in turns' games like Super Mario Bros. 1-4

Single/online only: 26
Local multiplayer : 11
SNES MegaDrive
Single/online only: 27 5
Local multiplayer : 14 4
N64 Playstation Dreamcast
Single/online only: 15 53 3
Local multiplayer : 19 15 4
Gamecube PS2 Xbox
Single/online only: 16 77 12
Local multiplayer : 9 73 5
Xbox 360 Wii PS3
Single/online only: 17 9 6
Local multiplayer : 12 15 2

Looking at those numbers the ratios of non-local to local multiplayer for each generation are as follows:

NES 1 : 0.42
SNES 1 : 0.52 (MegaDrive 1: 0.8)
N64 1 : 1.27 PS1 1 : 0.28 (DC 1 : 1.33)
GC 1 : 0.56 PS2 1 : 0.95 Xbox 1 : 0.42
360 1 : 0.71 Wii 1 : 1.67 (PS3 1 : 0.33)

It's interesting to look at the popular consoles of each generation and indeed the most successful (these two terms aren't necessarily the same) and how they correspond with the audiences we typically expect to game and how those audiences have expanded and evolved over time (hindsight is brilliant, ain't it?).

Generation 1:
Not sure about the Master System but i don't think it was very popular by comparison to the NES. Anyway, this generation came in the middle of the first great death of gaming when everyone, their dog, cat and grandma gave up on gaming after the successes of Atari and Commodore. It's unsurprising that the number of local multiplayer games for the NES is fairly low. Back in those days, although there were a loads of popular MP games, most were single player affairs due to the generally solitary nature of the gamer culture.

Generation 2:
The number of MP games has increased (and is my recollection of my SNES and MegaDrive) and this reflects the increased numbers of gamers and their want to play together and enjoy experiences. Single player-only games are still prevalent.

Generation 3: (The aborted Saturn probably should be included here but i think of that as a .5 of the last generation)
The established console giants have an increased number MP games on offer - in fact they outstrip the SP games. Both consoles are much-loved by their owners even if sometimes a lack of games is cited as their downfall, and in nintendo's case, needing more memory for some games later on in the console's lifecycle. On the flip side is the Playstation. It was the most successful console of that generation but had the least number of local MP games in its top selling list, lower even than previous generations. Why?

I think that it all comes down to market. The PS1 was primarily marketed at 'older' gamers. No, not the silver surfers or 30+ yr olds we think of these days. No, i'm talking about the late teens and 20-30 yr olds. Yeah, those guys will all of their disposable income and lack of family commitments. I'd argue that it's purely the reason why the PS1 was so successful - they tapped a market that had grown up with the successful NES, SNES and MegaDrive but perhaps weren't being served so well by the slightly more kiddy N64 and Dreamcast offerings. Another aspect of this time period and market is that most of the players are single men who play alone. Sure there are some MP sports and fighting games that these guys play together but otherwise there wasn't much need to have co-op or MP in most games.

Generation 4:
This is the most interesting generation by far and shows the problem with the fickle gaming market. The PS2 was the most successful console this generation (though the Xbox could hardly be called a competitor considering how late it was introduced) partly due to the PS1's success and partly due to the ever increasing gaming populace. The PS2, under the guidance of people like Phil Harrison, invested in more casual or mainstream games whilst also catering to the hardcore market - a difficult line to walk - and while it suffered under the weight of many mediocre titles, it had more than it's fair share of classics. It was the everyman console, seemingly as dedicated to children's titles and mainstream family multiplayer titles as it was to the hardcore FPS and third person action titles and it's almost 1:1 ratio in sales shows this well.
By comparison the Gamecube and Xbox really struggled due to their much narrower and less flexible approaches: targeting primarily families/young people and the hardcore audience respectively.
While i enjoyed both my PS2 and Gamecube, it was only games on the PS2 that i felt i could play with my friends.... in fact i didn't have any multiplayer games on the gamecube to play with my friends... which may have contributed to that feeling :)

Generation 5:
This latest generation is quite easy to explain but it also provides disapointment and possibly a direction for future console generations. The Wii is currently the most popular/successful console because it's sold for a profit and targets previously untouched audiences whilst making gaming socially acceptable. The Wii is the first 'board game' console - one that can be pulled out at parties and almost universally accepted. They also stuck it right in the mainstream media's eye: on talk shows and in the news, which gave it unprecedented coverage and therefore 'buyability' from the public. This also requires a large portion of local multiplayer titles to enable the social positives that the Wii is championing.
Contrary to this the 360 and PS3 have focused on the online experience which has resulted in a reduced local multiplayer environment. Both consoles have a narrow focus on the hardcore segment of the market (no matter how envious their glances at the Wii's marketshare is) and this online environment targets this audience of primarily 15-30 year olds who will game with friends that are far away rather than together in the same room. This choice (along with their expensive consoles) is coming to bite both companies in the ass as we head deeper into the console generation. The 360 can be considered a success from Microsoft's point of view but it's been purely an exercise in brute force rather than any sort of delicacy and i think that shows in both the hardware troubles, the abandonment of the original Xbox and the new software end for the online experience. The fact that the concept of the '360' is constantly evolving rather than staying true to its original premise is a sign of its weaknesses. The PS3 is in a similar situation though because they waited until the hardware was set and the general focus of the Playstation brand (and the successes of the PS1 & 2) should mean that it would do as well, if not better than the 360. Unfortunately their pricing scheme is completely divorced from the reality of what consumers will pay and their hardware (and lack of documentation/software libraries for that hardware) means that they're left playing catch up in a market that has all the bases covered.

The reason why there will be no clear hardcore winner this generation comes down to both Microsoft and Sony missing steps in the development processes of their consoles... while the Wii, excellently targeted at the (and i hate to put it this way) faddish mainstream, will win because of the crystal clear focus of Nintendo on their market - even if they are leaving their previous hardcore audiences out in the cold.
Conversely, they're also the the console that's providing the successful local multiplayer component that is, in my opinion, required to be successful in the mainstream. If both Microsoft and Sony started to emphasise the 'local fun' rather than the solitary online fun for their consoles and ecosystems they might manage to steal some of that more mainstream market from Nintendo - instead of doing what they're currently trying to do, which is trying to ape Nintendo.... everyone is good at something and you can't suddenly decide to change that halfway through a product's lifecycle. It just harms development of the original premise and pushes away the customers you already brought into your sphere of influence.

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