1/21/2014

What internet did to gamers

Hey everyone! I know some of you guys might be a bit too young to really remember how it used to be before every home had internet access. I often get jealous of people who were born in the 70's, because they got to experience all the great early games of the 80's as they were fresh. However, at least I was born in the 80's and that enabled me to observe the history of internet getting as common as PC's.

I remember the only DSL in our town was in our high school. The whopping 256 kbits per second were split between 30 or 40 computers. Downloading 1 MB of data was taking up to half an hour. Who would have thought that just a few years later I will have a phone with connectivity possibilities putting that snail of a DSL to shame.

And as soon as everyone started getting their private internet connection, mailing lists evolved into forums and then into social networks. Webpages evolved into vertical portals just to enable everyone to forget what a vertical portal is. Games evolved too.


The year was 1998. Remember it. I bet there hasn't been a year in game history when so many brilliant games were released: Xenogears, Metal Gear Solid, Ocarina of Time, Unreal, Fallout 2, Half-Life and Grim Fandango are merely opening the list. They are not relevant for us now though. The game that is relevant... is StarCraft. The very first video game in the world (unless I'm mistaken) that became a TV-broadcasted sport, giving birth to the whole online E-sports craze we have going on till now.

A year and a half later (respectively: November and December 1999), Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 Arena have been released to add to madness of online gaming. Everyone around me was either fragging or getting fragged. Half of the people I knew back then were in some sort of Q3 Clan, competing against each other on local or semi-local levels. It was when it ceased to be enough to sit on the sofa with friends and play Tekken. Bringing PC's over to your friends, internet cafes and LAN parties were the gamer's way of living.


In the meantime, internet kept getting cheaper and faster. Less and less people had to go to internet cafes to play an online StarCraft match. Less and less people had to drag their PCs to their friends. Instead, they could just play together online, from their own homes. Newer generations of consoles also finally got internet connectivity. Anyone who tried playing shooters on split screen knows how much more comfortable it is on separate machines.

A true age of MMO's and online multiplayer arrived. At last, playing with anyone in the world felt just as good as playing with your real life friends. At last, you didn't have to depend on the lame guys who were doing their homeworks when you wanted to play. You were, and up to this day are, a few clicks away from playing any game you like with anyone in the world. A true freedom in your own, closed room.

What internet gave us as gamers is truly remarkable. Battle.net eventually concentrated so many people that it was possible to make a gaming convention just for users of this one service (Blizzcon, if you were still wondering). Online multiplayer is now an essential feature of most of new games, giving us an opportunity to squeeze out so much more of them than just a single-player walkthrough.


But at the same time, somewhere on the way we have lost something. We have lost a good, old-fashioned couch gaming and everything it stood for. Games stopped being a medium to enjoy together with your friends, drinking juice or beer. Beating each other up in Virtua Fighter, squeezing 4 hands on one computer keyboard. Playing hot seat in Heroes III with up to 7 other people. Defeating waves of enemies together in Contra while sitting on the carpet, dangerously close to the TV screen.

Three console generations ago it was great if you had a N64 instead of a PlayStation or Saturn. Friends came over to your place to play Wave Race and Golden Eye together and then you went to your friends to play Twisted Metal or Virtua Cop. Nowadays, most games are all the same on three leading platforms (PC, PS, XBox), but you can only play within one system. It forces you to buy exactly what your friends have or you will end up playing with random guys over the internet.


And you can't really have your friends over to play games, because there is just so little titles you could play together! There's only a handful of couch-friendly titles worth mentioning that have been released in the past few years. No wonder I still have Heroes III installed on my laptop - it's one of very few games I am able to play with my friends when we get bored with killing each other in Mortal Kombat. I have even played Heroes III with random people on a train. Ten years after the game's release, I still had no problems finding guys who could play it!

Internet changed the whole dynamics of social interactions. Gamers used to gather in comic book stores and gaming arcades. They used to meet in person. Now online gaming communities give them not only a sense of belonging to some group, but also let them create themselves however they want. With all the great opportunities online gaming has given us, it has also produced hordes of teenage teabaggers talking shit to people they would never dare to disrespect in real life. Not to mention letting the naturally introverted and sunlight-deprived social group yet another reason to stay at home.

Lastly, the online multiplayer has changed the whole dynamics of skill-based gaming. The reason why single player in modern games is easy is because the difficulty level raises in the multiplayer. Single player is for telling a story and making the player used to the controls. When he wants a challenge, he goes online. The result? Nowadays, if a single player game delivers a skill-based gameplay, it's suddenly considered hardcore. Beating Dark Souls is way easier than beating Pac-Man, but nobody ever referred to the yellow round guy as "hardcore".


Luckily, there are still ways to have some fun with friends while being in the same room. Board games have done a great job keeping the casual co-op and multiplayer alive. Nintendo never really gave up on offline human interactions and kept designing new things in the field: casual gaming, asymmetric co-op or close-range minigames between DS users. Rhytm games have also had their share in bringing people back together to play on one console. 

Lately, we also see that the developers have woken up and came back to design more and more games with local co-op in mind. After retro games like Scott Pilgrim or Castle Crashers, also big studios have invested in the concept. Rayman Legends or console version of Diablo 3 are glorious examples of how the couch co-op function alone can greatly increase the number of sold copies. Honestly, when I got Rayman Legends, I stopped regretting buying two gamepads. 

The endless possibilities that internet connection gives us shouldn't make us forget about stuff that worked well for decades. It's a great thing that the industry seems to be coming round.


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