Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Problem with Xbox Live

Everything's online today. Once upon a time, it was enough just to be able to whup the butt of the guy playing next to you, but gamers were soon enamored by the prospect of whupping butt cross-country. Being able to take on a real, live human opponent any time and anywhere was very enticing; it still is. So enticing in fact, that modern hardware manufacturers have endeavored to make it a key part of their console strategies. This hardware generation marks the first in which an online component isn't some random add-on peripheral that you can buy if you want. No, this cycle has made it part of the equation for all three systems, and we will most likely never again go back to that world of standing in line to play against someone.

There's a problem though, at least something that I consider to be one, and I'm referring specifically to Xbox Live. While gamers the world over look at upcoming titles and wonder about their online components, this fervor and anticipation doesn't last as long as you'd think. Unless you're looking at a major release, such as Halo 3, Rock Band, or Gears of War; the online lobbies tend to taper off in use mere weeks after a game's release. Come back a year later, and they're practically dead. That's a serious paradox there folks, and it's one that game developers are no doubt taking seriously when they're considering investing the time and money needed to bring a title online. Why incorporate an online component if no one is going to stick with it?

I first noticed this phenomenon back with the original Xbox. Everyone was playing Mech Assault, and full games were not a problem to find. That is, until about five or six months later, when everyone had moved on to the next big release. The same thing happened to me with OutRun 2. People played feverishly for a while, and then poof - they lost interest and started playing something else. About the only original Xbox title with which I had no trouble finding people to play was Project Gotham Racing 2, which most likely had to do with just how incredible it was... and the fact that there wasn't anything really like it online.

This problem hasn't just manifested itself on the Xbox 360, it's grown and multiplied like a virus. Just this past week, I tried to find someone online to play Overlord's survival mode with me. My search came back empty. Pillage? Nothing. Slaughter? Zilch. Curious to see if this was the case with some other titles, I popped in Kameo to see if someone was online. I still have those co-op achievements to get! It was a wasteland as well. I got the same results with Splinter Cell: Double Agent. Where has everyone gone?

No, I know the answer to that one. Just a glimpse of my friends list tells me all I need to know. GTA IV is number one right now, but many are still online with Halo 3 and Gears of War, and... nothing else. I see some sporadic Guitar Hero III and Rock Band in there sometimes, but these three are the only ones consistently played online. And by "online," I'm not just referring to the player being signed in to Live; I mean that an online mode is actually being played.

Xbox Live Arcade titles are even more susceptible to this, as their window to shine is usually about seven days (unless you have a week when MS releases two sure-fire soon-to-be-delisted titles like this one, with Warlords and Suduku). Ever see anyone playing Gauntlet in co-op? How about Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles? The latter is an interesting mention, because I can remember how everyone was dying, DYING to play it in four-player co-op. That frothing demand lasted about two weeks.

Why does this happen? Is it because Xbox 360 gamers are ADD-riddled and have too much cash to spend? Partially, perhaps. I think there are a few other mitigating factors contributing to this quick disinterest in all things online:
  • Too Many Games to Play. How many people are still playing Stranglehold online? Not very many, judging by my fruitless attempts to find someone. It's only been eight months since the game was released, and the lobbies are dead most of the time. With a solid online component, I'm sure Midway thought it would ride the top of the Live charts for months, instead of sinking off like a virtual Titanic. Is it the game's fault? Hardly. Who played anything in November that wasn't Halo 3? A lot of titles got their Live walking papers when Bungie's monster hit, and most haven't recovered. Even the mighty Halo itself was staggered by Call of Duty 4, which in turn was toppled by GTA IV. It's almost as if gamers have to embark on a playing frenzy to milk their investment of as much playtime as possible before it's overtaken by the next big thing.
  • Crappy Online Implementation. The most obvious reason, it alone has the power to kill anyone's desire to play online. No one sticks around for a game that has issues connecting to a lobby, disconnects constantly, or lags like a frame-by-frame examination of the Zepruder film. The XBLA games I mentioned are notorious for this. All the games I mentioned above had horribly laggy online play, some to the point of being unplayable. TMNT was especially heart-breaking, because I had more than enough friends willing to help me kick Shredder's ass, but the Foot Clan apparently hacked into Microsoft's server, thus disabling any attempt on my part to save Splinter. Damn ninjas, always so arrogant with their shurikens and hacking skills...
  • Lazy Developers. Ooh, that's right, I said it. Half-ass online play excites no one, yet we continue to see it happen. A game where you're part of a squad loses its luster when said squad always has to be A.I. Even worse are when developers add only a few modes to games that literally scream for full online co-op. GTA IV is a perfect example of this. I wanted to cruise Liberty City with friends and do the missions with them. Impossible, since the campaign is Niko's story, and co-op play would ruin the deep and thought-provoking narrative of one man's journey from one repetitive drop off mission and fetch quest to the next.
Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 used a similarly lame excuse for reducing campaign online co-op from four players to two. "We wanted to enhance the graphics in multi-player," Ubi Soft explained, and by doing so, it crippled the gameplay. If so grand was its desire for software excellence, then could someone explain to me why I never got the achievement for beating the game on Realistic difficulty, even after Ubi Soft patched the game to allow it?

Sierra's upcoming Ghostbusters game did the same thing, adding online play for only "special" missions in a mode separate from the main game. Developer Terminal Reality has stated that it believes that playing co-op would disrupt the narrative of the story. Ok, seeing that the game is being penned by the original writers and features the voices and likenesses of all the Ghostbusters, I can understand that. What I don't understand is why, in this day and age, they simply can't do like the original Rainbow Six: Vegas did. When you played the story by yourself, you got all the juicy narrative and the whole plot. In co-op mode, you didn't, but you got to kill terrorists with three pals.

Anyone who wants to play this new Ghostbusters game (which is probably everyone) is going to play through the story, so why not motivate them to do it both ways? Offer achievements for beating stages alone and in co-op mode, so they have to do it more than once. My friend playing as Egon isn't going to "ruin" the experience for me, because I'll most likely have beaten the game solo already. This is just a poor excuse.

These factors give lower profile releases virtually no online life to speak of. Overshadowed by the major apps and without the hype of the media to generate interest, they fade into obscurity, leaving many gamers unable to enjoy those games that did online right. One simply cannot be expected to play everything released on launch day, and I'm sure that many gamers don't try out certain titles until they've come down in price. Something's gotta give, as they say.

Despite this sad trend, some games manage to avoid this situation simply because of how different they are from everything else. For example, you can always find people playing Uno, and I'm sure there are more than a few titles (Forza 2 and Project Gotham Racing 4 come to mind) that will endure. For the majority of online games however, their time to shine is severely limited, and once they're gone, they're gone for good.

Anyone up for some Phantom Dust?


Carlos said...

I've never had the opportunity to play games online, but after reading this I think I will take caution when selecting to purchase an online game in the future.

snume said...

I think you may have to look into joining one of the online gaming groups like zero commit to get yourself set up with some decent adult gamers. I also find myself looking for others to play most of the same online games you're mentioning, add snumedahl11 to your xbl friends list and I'll try to get together to play some of those games with you (I need the Kameo online achievements as well)