Thursday, 16 April 2015

Are Social Features Ruining Gaming?

The internet is a wonderful thing. The world is getting smaller every day as it gets easier and easier to communicate across the world in an instant. This in itself has been such a wonderful thing for the human race as we're all now closer than ever. I myself have friends across the world from Canada to Australia who I talk to more than I do with the friends I have who live in the same town as me.

With the surge in popularity of social networks it's now the norm to have a Facebook profile. In fact, whereas back in 2007 having a Facebook account brought sneers of derision or looks of confusion, it's now the case where those few people who don't have accounts are looked at like they're insane. "You don't have a Facebook? But how do you talk to your friends?" is usually the question that comes next, such is the network's ubiquitous stature (the answer to that question is a rant for another day, however).

But one area that Social networking has failed to permeate properly is gaming, so as a result developers and publishers seem to be doing their best to get players together and talking. With this latest generation of consoles, the race is on to integrate people as much as possible. Both the Xbox One and the PS4 are heavily linked to Facebook and Twitter (in fact, both encourage you to sign into your accounts when they set are being set up).  From both consoles you can instantly share gameplay videos and screenshots to your network of choice to show off something you've done or seen in a game.

When it comes to the games themselves, things are different. Now games are being built with their own "social spaces" and efforts to bring players together in faux-meaningful ways. Do you remember the hoopla that Bungie made over Destiny? Promises of drop in drop out online gameplay, seamless social integration, blah blah blah. The technology was impressive but the game suffered as a result. You had The Tower, a space where you could interact with other Guardians, which eventually boiled down to people just standing and dancing together. For all the grand promises about how the game would bring players together, it really just provided an area to dick about in outside of the main game.

Then look at the concepts in the game itself. Much was made over the game's hardcore Raids, requiring six man teams to take on extreme challenges that dwarfed what you would find in the main campaign. Bungie set some rules in stone for the Raids though, that there was no matchmaking for raids, you had to go in with six players and you all had to be over a certain level before you could even access the area.

Now, I'm sorry, but the idea of rounding up five other players on a weekly basis to grind the same challenge over and over again does not appeal to me. Forcing people together like this does not a social experience make.

It's not just with Destiny, Evolve made a big fuss about it's 4v1 hunt concept where all the hunters had unique abilities and everyone needed to work together to win. Great idea. The problem is, when playing with matchmade team mates the game is simply no fun. It's great fun if you have people you can reliably get online with whenever you want, but without those bonds or the ability to communicate the game is an unbridled mess. When I'm playing as the Monster I can always tell when I'm playing against a party or not (mostly due to whether I win or lose).

Games like these end up alienating their audience because of the vast promises made on these "social features". Destiny proved to be dangerously shallow unless you had the will, want or desire to grind endlessly for heroic or legendary gear, whereas Evolve was disappointingly thin on features and suffered due to the unbalanced nature of it's multiplayer when matchmaking was involved.

That's not to say social features are a bad thing in general. You only have to look as far as Bloodborne, with its inherited online features from the Souls series of games. There is a unique social backend to the game which is very subtle, but can prove to be incredibly useful and helpful to players of all levels. From being able to summon other players to help you in your game at any point or the ability to leave notes and messages around the level to warn other players of traps or upcoming enemies, the system isn't new, but it works in context with the game you're playing.

But the best thing about Bloodborne's social features? Neither From Software nor Sony went on a platform bragging about it. They didn't go out and say "look how awesome it is that players can work together!" No, instead it's just a feature of the game that is explained in tutorials, nothing more and nothing less.

Then there's the weight of expectation on the social side of games these days. DriveClub was universally broken from the start because of such a poorly managed yet critically integrated "club" system. Or what about Sim City with it's disastrous always online DRM and the focus on people building competing cities? Both games failed because they focused so much on doing something clever rather than being actually good games.

And for one last point, a lot of these social based work on dedicated, proprietary servers beyond the PSN/XBL set ups. So what happens when the player base drops? EA has already proved that it's not willing to keep servers switched on for years at a time and as soon as the player base in their sports games drops below a certain threshold they sunset the game and turn off the online features. This wasn't so much of an issue for games like FIFA which are annualised and don't have a shelf life much beyond a year, but what happens when Bungie realise no one is playing Destiny any more? Are they going to turn off the servers and render the always online game entirely unplayable?  All of these social based games make grand promises but at the end of the day they have a limited lifespan. When people stop playing them, the publisher or developer will eventually just switch them off.

What's wrong with a good game with a solid multiplayer that makes sense? I don't want to play a game where I'm forced to interact beyond partying up with people and kicking some ass together. I don't want to be social with my gaming, I don't want to have to post to facebook to unlock achievements or trophies and I certainly don't want to spend £45 on a game only to find that I can't play it because the weight of the world is forcing the server to buckle. Give me a game with a solid multiplayer and a good story mode and please, just leave it at that.


  1. Well said brother!! And don't forget that nowadays console based multiplayer features are being left by the wayside in favour of online multiplayer features!!

    1. I miss the days of having a PS2 multi tap and Timesplitters 2. Now THAT was social gaming