In the modern era of gaming, the humble local multiplayer mode is an endangered species.
As a teenager, my friends and I would often gather together for a weekend of intense multiplayer gaming. These get-togethers were preceded by long nights seeking out the Golden Gun in Nintendo 64’s GoldenEye, and culminated in massive Xbox LAN parties where all of us sat next to each other but had our own television and console. That way, we could surprise attack each other in the heat of battle and witness the reaction live. Much of the fun came from our proximity — the chance to see the whites of our opponent’s eyes as we emerged from behind a corner to wreak havoc on them.
Today, rather than letting gamers share a couch to play together, an increasing number of game developers are choosing to allow only online multiplayer for their games. Only a fraction of recent big name games allow split screen multiplayer, either in co-operative or competitive gameplay, to let two players in the same geographical space enjoy a game together.
As convenient as being able to play over long distances online may be, many players find themselves missing the camaraderie and competitive vibe that comes from being in the same room as an opponent. Personally, I don’t have much interest in playing online multiplayer games anymore: the experience is far too muted and lonely when I can’t see my fellow players’ reactions. For example, one game I have absolutely no interest in playing online is poker. The intrigue of the game comes from attempting to read the face of opponents, which means that the internet-enabled version of the game simply isn’t the same experience.
Thankfully, this is a challenge that many gamers have put a lot of effort into overcoming. Computer and video game enthusiasts are always eagerly seeking out ways to make their online gaming experiences more personal, and lately, they’re using video chat services to do so. It’s a simple hack: they just turn on their webcams while playing against each other so the experience is that much closer to being in the same room.
But since the first gamer had the idea to video conference while in multiplayer mode, standards have risen. It’s not acceptable, for instance, for the webcam to take away from the bandwidth needed to run the games without lag. It’s also not cool if the webcam requires too much setup or attention, as that distracts from the gameplay itself. For video chat services to truly meet the needs of today’s online gamers, video needs to not only be capable of high quality video and audio, but also needs to fit seamlessly into the gameplay experience — perhaps beginning with the design of the webcam itself.
Dispelling the Lonely Gamer Myth
It’s more common now for games to feature integrated voice chat, but every now and then, games leave this feature out. Some have good reasons: legacy gaming giant Nintendo, which prides itself on its child-friendly image, has been notoriously uncomfortable with the idea of allowing voice chat amongst online players – especially in circumstances where gamers are playing against strangers.
While the company’s intentions are admirable, a lack of communication tools can hurt core gameplay. The company’s recent game, The Legend of Zelda: Tri-Force Heroes, requires teams of three players to work together to solve puzzles. In the absence of voice chat, the game allows players to send pictograms to each other to communicate, but the vague nature of these tools has left many players frustrated, making it difficult for gamers to communicate together online.
Competition for Attention
The gaming community has never been keen on standing still, and as video conferencing technology continues to evolve, there’s likely to be plenty of changes to the popular video chat service that gamers use.
The problem that many gamers struggle with when it comes to video chat services is that the majority of platforms, such as Skype, are designed to be a primary activity. When video chatting, most users are focusing entirely on the person on the other end of the call, and aren’t expecting their computers to be doing much else.
In gaming, though, this is far from the case. The primary activity gamers are involved in is the actual playing of the games, and this has to take priority over the video chat, which merely adds to the multiplayer experience. As such, many gamers have found standard video conferencing software to be unhelpful, since many programs take up too much of a computer’s bandwidth and processing power. It’s often even difficult to get computers to display a games window and a video chat screen at the same time, which can make the entire gaming experience a lot more frustrating.
Not satisfied to take what they’re given when it doesn’t do the job, many industrious gamers prefer to craft their own video chat tools to meet their exacting standards. Such is the case with projects like Live Rounds, a video chat service created by two Israeli gamers to overcome challenges in communication while playing Heroes of Newerth. Their homebrew application hovers over the game window itself, allowing players to chat together without seeing a negative impact on their gaming experience.
So What Comes Next?
Of course, there’s a second challenge to get video chat to work alongside gaming – multitasking doesn’t always come easy in gaming situations, and it’s all too common for video chat windows to distract play. Gamers have to find the balance between paying attention to their friends and keeping their focus on the games they’re playing.
This is one area where video conferencing may not necessarily win over simple voice chat for many players – at least not in its current form. Players can’t be distracted by what’s happening on their friends’ screens when they can’t see who they’re playing against, and for this reason, as it currently stands, many gamers prefer just to hear rather than see their friends while playing online.
The question of overcoming the distraction to the player that video conferencing technology creates will be key to the next generation of video chat options for gamers. Developers need to create a service that’s both unobtrusive and expressive; an option that gives players’ friends a presence in their room but that won’t distract from the gameplay.
It’s possible that augmented reality technology will help to achieve this, projecting an image of players’ friends in the same room to make video chat more similar to actually having a friend in the room. As this technology is still a long way from being viable, though, it’s likely that the biggest breakthroughs in gaming-specific video chat will come from players themselves, as with Live Rounds, as gamers find new, easier ways to watch each other while playing games.
The Upshot for Video Chat in Video Games
Gamers are a flexible group – they naturally look for the best ways to enjoy their games together, and as more options for video conferencing appear, they’re more than happy to explore each new service and platform.
The best video chat services for gamers work with the technology that they’re using – through providing an affordable, easy, and bandwidth-friendly platform, they’ll augment, rather than detract from, the online gaming experience. Developers who can provide this form of service will likely see a large support from the gaming community – but in cases where professional services let players down, it’s likely that gamers will continue to create their own bespoke alternatives.
Local multiplayer may be dying out, but as gamers turn instead to video chat during video games to be able to communicate freely with their friends, they’re getting the next best thing to being physically in the same room.
Depending on how the development of video chat goes, it might just be enough to draw me back into online gaming.
Image source: Flickr CC user Marco Arment