For a few years now industry bods who should really know better have been forecasting the coming of a new golden age of gaming, where millions of people come together to play over the internet. "One day every game will be massively multiplayer", these pundits say. "You'll never play alone again." Sounds awful...
The biggest problem with almost any multiplayer game - and the internet in general, for that matter - is the other users. People can be incredibly annoying even in real life, so inevitably when they are hidden behind a mask of relative anonymity, sat safely at home, possibly thousands of miles away from you, some of them can be a royal pain in the ass. Play virtually any game online and you'll find these idiots waiting for you. First person shooters have spawn campers, bot users, grenade spammers, team killers and people who just don't know what they're supposed to be doing. Only last week I finally uninstalled Unreal Tournament after two years, not because I got tired of the game, but because a significant minority of the people who play it online seem to be there purely to spoil everybody else's fun. Not to mention that I've got fed up of futilely trying to shoot people who apparently get their kicks from spending hour after hour bunny hopping across the map, constantly hurling their translocator around. Meanwhile role-playing games have more than their fair share of hackers, cheaters, exploiters, dupers and anti-social power levellers who are often so busy running to the next dungeon that they don't have time to interact with other players. Which pretty much defeats the whole point of playing such a game online in the first place.
Kill 'Em All
Needless to say this makes for a rather hostile environment for new players in particular, and all too often a game gives you little or no control over who you play with, apart from giving you the choice to quit and look for another server. Each new step in technology just makes things worse. Now there are massively multiplayer games, in which you can find yourself playing with upwards of a thousand irritating little dorks with names like MastaKilla and LeetMan-47, all of them speaking like they're tapping out an SMS text message. And looming on the horizon is the arrival of more widespread support for voice-over-IP, with Microsoft promising a utopian vision of Xbox owners screaming instructions into a headset as they work with their team mates in an online action game. The reality, of course, is that players are more likely to find themselves on the receiving end of a Tourettes-like torrent of obscenities and auto-taunts than useful tactical information. All of which paints a rather bleak picture for online gaming. Admittedly it's not always this bad, but from the widespread use of auto-aim hacks and other cheats in games like Counter-Strike to the cliquey dog-eat-dog world of most massively multiplayer titles, online gaming can be a rather hit and miss experience. How can this be solved? Well, greater accountability would be nice for a start, with less anonymity for gamers and more enthusiasm from the server ops and developers when it comes to banning cheaters and excessively annoying and/or abusive players. Ideally gamers should have permanent online identities so that they can be monitored, tracked and (in extreme cases) banned from specific games or entire online communities, either for a short period as a slap on the wrists for bad behaviour or permanently for serious transgressions. At the end of the day though some people just plain suck, and unfortunately there's nothing much that we can do about that except rely on evolution to take its course. In the meantime, single player games have a bright future.