It's the internet age, the age of connectedness. Ask Sony or Microsoft about the defining feature of their next-gen consoles, and they'll start telling you about "social," about playing together online, all the time. That's all well and good, but does every game need online multiplayer?
They do not, argues QWOP-maker and NYU teaching professor Bennett Foddy in a new opinion piece over at Polygon. Foddy is reacting to a perceived grumpiness about the lack of online multiplayer in new indie games like Samurai Gunn and Towerfall: Ascension, the latter of which just made the jump to PS4.
Foddy—who is also one of the designers of the upcoming local multiplayer game collection Sportsfriends—puts forth an in-depth argument for why local multiplayer will never go away, and the many ways it is inherently superior to its online cousin. He gets pretty technical in places (there's a whole section on lag), and he's sure to say that if you don't have a readily accessible group of friends to play with, there's pretty much nothing a local multiplayer game can offer you.
The most resonant part of his argument, for me, is summed up when he discusses the success of Wii Sports:
Wii Sports makes the most of what is great about local multiplayer. It lets you laugh at your friends striking silly poses. You find yourself teaching your grandmother or your kid sister how to play. It ropes people in as they walk through the living room.
When you get together to play games with friends, the space you're in becomes a ritual space, like the stage at a concert or the altar at a wedding. It's a space where you can trash-talk your friends or howl in defeat, where you can trick people, where you can laugh at their expense and dance on their grave.
It's a space where you have permission to look foolish in front of your family members. Importantly, it's a space where you can look up at your opponent's face, lock eyes and dare them to make the first move before your split-second counter-attack.
The best local games aren't just offline versions of online games — they are designed to intensify these social dimensions of gameplay.
I've recently re-discovered the joys of playing games with another person, of sharing in the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, even in single-player games. As great as it is that our gaming PCs and consoles allow us to be more internet-connected than ever—and it is great, as one gets the sense that game developers are only scratching the surface of what's possible with game-streaming and asynchronous online play—there will never be a substitute for sitting (or standing) in a room with other people, looking one another in the eye, and just playing.
Check out Foddy's full essay to get the breadth of his argument. And if you're interested in the notion of offline public and social play, check out Kill Screen magazine's 2011 "Public Play Issue," in which a bunch of writers (including yours truly) explore a bunch of ways to play games while surrounded by other people.