Playing Together: Why Gaming Shouldn’t Give Up on Local Multiplayer

on November 30, 2015 9:37 AM

I’ve spent the better part of two decades (and more) playing games – it’s one of my most cherished hobbies and the people I’ve met because of it have been some of my greatest friends. That’s not to say I enjoy books, movies, TV, music, or any other media I enjoy every day (and I mean every day) any less – in particular, games have leant themselves towards being a more socially-engaging experience in my life, and in particular, through getting together and playing games together with friends.

There’s no way I could possibly do all the math, but by a ballpark estimate I’d say I’ve probably spent dozens of hours with friends playing games, whether it was in a co-op story mode experience or late night multiplayer excursions. Yet, local multiplayer and split-screen experiences seem to be dwindling, and yet I hope that gaming doesn’t give up just yet on the value of grabbing a controller, a spot on the couch, and your favorite food and drinks while playing with friends.

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Who knows at this point how many total games I’ve ever played at this point: the answer is “probably way too many.” Yet out of all the games I’ve ever played, some of my most memorable are the ones I’ve played together with other people: countless matches of Halo 3 co-op and multiplayer in giant, late-night LAN parties. Going through the campaign of Gears of War 3 with my college roommate during senior year. And of course, weekends upon weekends of trash-talking and humiliation in Super Smash Bros. Brawl (most of which I was doing, rather than receiving).

Yet, I’ve had these experiences less and less, for various reasons. After graduating, friends have moved and drifted apart, as always happens in life. Others have sold their consoles or don’t invest the same amount of time into gaming as they used to. However, the more common reason I’m finding is the gradual removal of local multiplayer, co-op, or split-screen functionality from recent releases, making an experience that I used to cherish and love a dying breed.

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Halo is also the biggest example of this, and one of the local gaming experiences I’ve always treasured the most. I didn’t get an Xbox console until 2007 with the purchase of my (first) Xbox 360, and Halo 3 was one of my first games. Suffice it to say, the months after that purchase were filled with hundreds of not only online multiplayer matches, but began a more annual tradition with me and my hometown friends of getting together, setting up some TVs, and hosting all-night LAN parties.

Pretty much since then, we’ve always gotten together around every holiday season for gaming of some sort, and we’ve had a pretty diverse assortment of games. Games like HaloGears of War, and Left 4 Dead filled our LAN party nights with tons of multiplayer fun on multiple occasions like Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve. Halo in particular was always one of the biggest parts of that, in large part due to its relatively easy LAN set-up, and in being able to accommodate the most players at our parties (a necessity) even how many people we had playing at a time.

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Those nights came with all the headaches (in a fun way) that only a LAN party can provide: setting up four (or more) television sets, and consoles, and then figuring how to put 16 people into a crowded basement, living room, or bedroom. That’s without even mentioning the nightmare of setting up a network, wrangling a mess of wires, and even trying to figure out whose controller is synced up with which console. Was it insanity? Sure. But it was a fun, thrilling kind of insanity.

That isn’t to say the days of local or co-op focused experiences isn’t completely going away any time soon: instead, I’ve felt some of the best local gaming experiences of late to be on the indie side of things. Several of our game nights have been dominated by mini-tournaments of excellent indie games like NidhoggTowerFall: AscensionRocket League and more. During the summer last year, we even set-up for the insanely fun Johann Sebastian Joust, an addictive video-game version of Tag included in the Sportfriends mini-game package that, despite needing a significant amount of space to play, is also insanely fun.

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We even ventured out into more unusual shared gaming experiences than the typical multiplayer-centric nights of Halo or Gears of War. We found tons of ways to make even single-player experiences a shared, local experience, such as marathoning Half-Life 2 and its two downloadable episodes, and especially when we played Heavy Rain as a pass-the-controller-around experience, where we would watch in anticipation for what would happen next, or cringe when someone made a bad decision: or worse, killed one of the main characters.

Playing online has become so deeply-rooted into the gaming experience now that it’s hard to imagine what it would be like without it. I can’t begin to count the hours I spent in some of my earliest online experiences with titles like Halo: Combat Evolved on PC or Counter-Strike: Source (those two in particular being my go-to games for quite some time), while more recently I’ve spent plenty of time with Destiny and other online-focused experiences.

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However, playing through Halo 5: Guardians recently made me miss that experience. With the future continually growing toward online experiences more and more, shared local or co-op multiplayer is becoming a rarer feature, or at least in the higher-end, AAA development space. Halo‘s lasting legacy among my group of friends as one of our go-to titles for holiday get-togethers or LAN parties has now effectively ended, and it’s a bit saddening that we’ll have to be apart to play together.

That’s not to say it’s completely without reason – developer 343 Industries even admitted that removing the splitscreen and local multiplayer features with Halo 5: Guardians, as studio head Josh Holmes even expressed the decision as “one of the most difficult ones we’ve ever had to make as a studio” in a blog post from the company. Removing the split-screen feature from Halo 5 came at the benefit of having a crisper, sharper visual experience, and having finished the game recently, it’s easily one of the fastest and most responsive games to come from the Halo franchise yet, and an exciting leap for the series’ future.

That being said, the removal of the feature from a series that always so heavily invested in local and co-op multiplayer feels, in particular, like another (metaphorical) nail in the coffin for the feature entirely. It’s an understandable removal – surely the usage of local multiplayer contrasts drastically with that of online multiplayer. Yet, the funny thing I find is that relying solely on online multiplayer may possibly age Halo 5 faster than the previous games: we’ll have no problem playing Halo 3 or even Halo: Combat Evolved offline in 10-15 years, but Halo 5‘s offline experience will be limited to the single-player campaign in the far, far future.

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Gaming has always played a big part of my life, and I don’t see that changing any time in the near future. That’s particularly true right now, as frankly, gaming is probably bigger than it’s ever been before. In terms of the games we’re playing now (in a year that gave us BloodborneThe Witcher 3: Wild HuntFallout 4, and so many others), how couldn’t it be?

Video games and the technology that’s revolving around them are developing and changing faster than ever before, and I can’t wait to see what happens next: I just hope that it doesn’t mean that the ability to play games together with friends in the same space disappears. Online gaming provides convenience and continues to grow, but hopefully developers, designers, and those that help make the best game experiences realize that games can be enjoyed just as much when they’re played together.

 /  Features Editor
Ryan is the Features Editor at DualShockers, with over five years' experience in the world of video games culture and writing. He holds a BA in English & Cinema from Binghamton University, and lives in New York City.