Who remembers the guy who died playing World of Warcraft, alone, in an internet café? In March 2015, 24-year-old gamer Wu Tai coughed up blood, slumped on his keyboard, and died after he played a 19-hour World of Warcraft session. Crazy, right? But... where were his friends?
Growing up I had a totally different experience of gaming - Firstly, I didn't die. Secondly, I didn't play alone in an Internet café surrounded by strangers. Instead, I remember playing on my games console in my bedroom and hearing my friends frantically knocking on my front door - breathing heavily after sprinting round from their own house.
Mum/Dad answer door.
Friend: “Is Ryan in!?”
Mum/Dad: “Ryan! Your friend is here!”
Me: “Send them up! I’m fighting a boss!!’
My friends would know the call - they’d charge through the door, kick off their shoes, bundle up the stairs, burst into my room, slide along the floor like a cop looking for cover, sit down next to me and grab a controller - 2UP! We’d win, high-five and talk over how to approach the next level.
I played LOTS of video games growing up; Golden Axe, Streets of Rage, Sonic 2, Chaos Engine, Bubble Bobble, Goldeneye. Sometimes, four or five mates laughing, joking and duking it out! Don't get me wrong, I did go outside. I even played sport - for a real team - but what else are you supposed to do when it’s dark, cold and raining outside?
Gaming with friends was a great way to socialise and it genuinely brought me and my friends closer together. I say ‘was’ because I'm not talking about the modern online multiplayer, I mean REAL co-op, with your friends sat by your side, talking, working together. We’d shout at each other when playing the pseudo-3D special stage of Sonic 2 - “Quick! Move to the left, to the right, JUMP!” We’d debate over who should collect the extra life on Streets of Rage “it's yours mate. I already have 3 continues”. TEAM-WORK!
In the industry they call this ‘Local Co-op’ i.e. players share the screen offline. But today, there are so many missed opportunities for localised co-op gaming. Everything is driven towards a solo adventure or a gun toting multiplayer. Ultimately, gaming has become a lonely world and you’re either on a headset talking to a stranger, solving puzzles alone on Uncharted or aimlessly walking around a ‘never seen before’ planet on No Man’s Sky.
Whatever happened to playing games together, in one room with your mates?
The rise of easy-to-access online multiplayer seems to me the single biggest reason local co-op gaming is dying out. Longer game development time is a factor and so too is profit. Each gamer who now wants to play has to buy their own copy - double the ££.
The likes of Sony and Microsoft also have a preference towards online multiplayer because gamers are drawn towards that extra buy/impulse purchase - downloadable content (DLC) gets you extra levels to play on, extra guns, extra characters - hell, even extra clothes for your avatar! Finally, with increasing demands for better graphics and higher frame rates, games do not look or operate to their full potential during split-screen. (For you COD fans, you'd also know split screen puts you at a major disadvantage as you can’t see as far with your sniper rifle).
it seems the advancements in technology that promised to connect us are actually doing the opposite
Don't get me wrong, I still occasionally power-up my console and play on FIFA or NBA with a friend, but this is against each other.
Where did it all go wrong?
For me - Runescape in 2001. This is an online multiplayer role-playing game. You’d fight goblins and dragons, make armour, cook food and go on quests - this new world was MASSIVE! and at school, we couldn't wait to get back to our own respective houses to start work on our fighting, armour/weapon making, fishing or woodcutting skills. No more side by side teamwork gaming. Online multiplayer was where it's at.
Looking back and even more so today, it seems the advancements in technology that promised to connect us are actually doing the opposite. You log-in and play with millions of people but, in reality, you’re alone, surrounded by strangers.
So… What is the future looking like?
This year, we will see the launch of VR headsets for consoles, such as Sony's PlayStation VR. While I’m excited to experience VR gaming I fear this technology will further isolate players and force us into solo gaming. You only need to check out the price tag for Playstation VR - £349!! After buying one, who then has an extra 350 quid to spend just so their friend can play alongside side them? Yes, kids could take their own headset around to their mates, but other than 'The Playroom VR' most of the demo’s / ad's I've seen show games that are being designed with one player in mind. Many Sony ads even show gamers playing alone - one (see below) shows a guy pull off his headset and look around his living room, only to realise he’s by himself. But the virtual reality world is so cool, right? Who cares if you’re alone in a room with no mates.
To top this all off, most high-end headsets have built in sound! Perfect... You can now ignore anyone in the room with you!
Ultimately, I write all this knowing I'll likely be a dad one day, and I worry that kids won't get the same experience I had. What else do you do when it's pissing it down outside? I hope they can enjoy gaming together, side by side instead of online with a stranger. In my ideal world, developers should focus attention towards local co-op and get people enjoying the experience together again, in the same room. It's important. At least it was for me and my friends.