November 23rd, 2011 | By Richard Glenn
Last week, I bemoaned the apparent demise of split-screen competitive multiplayer gaming. If you haven’t already given it a read, feel free to do so. You can thank me later.
Anyway, last week’s Rant, coupled with the ongoing onslaught of multiplayer shooters spilling out onto the market, has kept my jaded views locked firmly onto the subject of competitive multiplayer as an overarching theme of discussion, and that’s why I’m going to give it another crack of the whip this week.
So, now that I’ve stringed together a few garbled musings on the state of local multiplayer, it’s now time to look at the opposite end of the offline spectrum. What did we used to do if we needed a distraction from a game’s single-player campaign, but our friends were either out of town or, in some cases, non-existent? Enter the bots.
For the uninitiated, AI bots are, simply put, AI-controlled opponents or team-mates alongside whom one could indulge in hours of gun-toting frolicking without having to possess a decent Internet connection. Lag-free, non-abrasive and respectful enough not to deride you for your unorthodox dress sense, these artificial sprites enabled lonely gamers to play fully functional multiplayer games without having to worry about server disconnections and the balance-crushing hacks and mods that plagued many notable online games of both yesteryear and today.
What I appreciated most about bots was the fact that they offered a fairly seamless competitive experience that provided a reasonably well-grounded representation of a game’s online facets without having to jump straight into the action and get mauled by obnoxious posses of white trash pre-pubescents. With a handful of customisable bots in tow, it was possible to get to grips with the basic heart and soul of a game in a manner that still left some of the more enticing nuances that could only be explored during competitive exchanges with real human players. Think of it as a functional tutorial that could stand alone as a rewarding and relaxing game mode in its own right, much like the mandatory Christy Canyon porn flick before a titillating romantic comedy. Perhaps that was just my local cinema, but you get the idea.
Much like split-screen multiplayer, AI bots haven’t been completely eradicated in the wake of the online revolution, but I still fear for their long-term futures. Such heavy-hitting star-name titles as Gears of War and Team Fortress 2 still offer a degree of bot support, but it’s often limited to a few paltry, fragmented game modes that do little to assuage the general impression that they’re little more than half-baked rush jobs that the developers shoved in at the last second. These days, with online gameplay through Xbox Live requiring an annual subscription fee and the majority of major publishers now introducing payments for online passes, the focus of most developers has inevitably shifted into the online domain, and that means the removal of anything that offers players any semblance of a competitive experience without the need to empty their wallets and fuel the network-based technological gravy train.
And it’s a shame, at least from a traditionalist standpoint. I’m still a young sprog, constantly discovering new ways in which the world becomes an increasingly more miserable placed once that first awkward aerobics class erection has reared its head, but I can still remember a time when each and every aspect of a game could be played straight out of the box. Sadly, financial interests in these difficult economic times have been steadily eating away at the horizons of exploration, reducing the gaming industry’s capacity for diversity and the accommodation of players of various interests and walks of life. Alternatively, I can lay it out in a less flowery fashion:
More money = less variety
Less variety = less fun
Less fun = more frustration
More frustration = social unrest
Social unrest = urban terrorism
So, there you have it, publishers. You’re now supporting terrorism. Are you happy now? OK, can I have my money now, Fox News?
Anyway, it’s usually this point at which I call upon indie developers to buck the trend, and this week is no different. We’ve seen what the indies can drum up from a plethora of artistic, psychological and sociological points of view, but is there anyone out there who can work some magic with the dying art of multiplayer AI? The wretched cynic in me responds with a resounding “no,” but I’m willing to shut out the voice of pessimism in favour of a more balanced outlook. It’s a thought widely held that the most inspiring innovation in design is currently emanating from the indie games scene, but it’s also worth pointing out that indie developers have had considerable success in upholding some of the more traditionally established gaming conventions, including point-and-click adventure games, traditional first-person shooters and arcade-style, pick-up-and-play high score challenges. Would it be totally unreasonable, therefore, to hold out hope for more bot-supported indie multiplayer games in the future? I don’t think so.
But what’s your take? Do you have an opinion on the current state of the multiplayer landscape? Better yet, do you have any recommendations to satiate my hunger for bot-supported goodness? Leave a comment below and get the ball rolling. If anyone can suggest something that really catches my eye, maybe, just maybe, there could be a special prize on offer. That’s all from me for now. See you next Wednesday.