After procrastinating, I finally sat down and played Gigantic. It was great fun, with in-depth mechanics, branching skill trees for each character, and a vibrant art style that made everything feel unique and interesting. I thought about inviting some friends to join me; having a new game to play together is rarely a bad thing. Then I remembered something: Gigantic is dying. According to Steam Charts, only around 200 players were online when I was. In October 2017, the player peak was 704. Plus, if that all wasn’t condemning enough, Gigantic’s development studio Motiga announced it was closed due to budgetary restrictions from its publisher.
This is a disturbing trend with multiplayer games these days. Remember Battleborn? How about Evolve or a lesser-known title like Strike Vector? These are games that are dead or dying, depending on who you talk to, and they’re part of the self-defeating culture of multiplayer games.
No matter how good you are at multitasking, it’s effectively impossible to play and enjoy several games simultaneously. Thus, with every hour of the day spent gaming, you must make a choice (subconsciously or otherwise) to play one game at the expense of all others. With single-player games, this isn’t much of an issue due to the finite nature of their content. I can decide to play through Nioh for the next few weeks, secure in the knowledge that - assuming I don’t die before then - I can dive into Wolfenstein II once I beat it. Neither game is going anywhere, and even if I obsessively play Nioh day in and day out, I know that I’ll eventually get to a point where I’ve seen all it has to offer.
On the other hand, multiplayer games don’t have that luxury. By their very nature, they’re designed to have near-infinite content. Infinite variation comes in the form of the different players you face, be it due to skill level, strategy and play style, or even cosmetic options. As someone who’s poured hundreds of hours into League of Legends (don’t judge me), I can attest to the fact that, even years after starting a multiplayer game, you can still feel a desire to come back.
It’s great news for gamers who want all that content, but it’s practically a death sentence for any new games entering the market. Titles like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Overwatch, and Paladins are the exceptions, rather than the rules. More commonly, games get released, see a brief spike of players around launch, and gradually see fall-off until they lie abandoned or get tossed by the developer. Titles with an entry fee often don’t even have that luxury; see Battleborn for an example of just how wrong that can go.
That’s not even taking “versioning” into account. I’ll give publishers credit where it’s due: they’ve got consumer wallets on lockdown. On the Origin store, I could buy the “Ultimate Edition” (aka the full version) of 2015’s Star Wars: Battlefront for $40, compared to the $100+ price tag it had at launch. However, Star Wars: Battlefront II comes out in a few weeks, and you can bet that most players that stuck with Battlefront will be abandoning it to dive into its sequel.
Sure, there’s the rare instance where the sequel ends up being inferior and fans flock to a previous title in the series; there’s a reason why the original Battlefront II is still being played. Once again, though, that’s the exception, rather than the rule. Buying the latest Battlefield or Call of Duty title on launch is - in some ways - an annual or biannual subscription fee. You buy the game with the intent of playing it until the next title comes out, at which point you’re expected to move on with the rest of the fanbase.
Perhaps the worst part of all this is that there’s no real solution. Multiplayer games rely on their player base, and they get trapped in a death spiral as soon as that player count starts to dwindle. So many games on Steam get flooded with negative reviews proclaiming, “This game is dead.” Of course, if more people started playing the game, that wouldn’t be the case, but nobody wants to be the one to start that trend. Once again, why waste your time with a game no one’s playing when there are so many more popular games on the market? The big games keep getting bigger, and the small ones keep dying out. Personally, I’m just waiting for the day when I can look at new multiplayer games with excitement instead of pity. It’d be nice to judge games based on how fun they appear rather than how long they’ll take to die.