Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Does Online Multiplayer Always Make Sense?

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 29 Jan 2013 12:00
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I've got a question for you johnnies who like multiplayer. I've long harped on that I have little interest in it, but sometimes it's important for a community to field a question or two from the outside perspective so that we can re-assess the things that we unthinkingly accept. It is the duty of the child to point out that the emperor has no clothes. And we'd all be much better people if, when someone's dad walks in the convention hall and asks why everyone is dressed like Japanese cartoon characters, we didn't actually continue until we had an answer that satisfied him.

Anyway, the question. Is there really much point in a fighting game - a one-on-one type like Street Fighter or, to a lesser extent, more brawler-y stuff like Anarchy Reigns - having online multiplayer? It just seems like a terrible waste of effort.

Local multiplayer, sure, that's where the fighting game wears its princely crown. If I'm hanging out with friends then I find a fighting game works nicely as a little palate cleanser between less fluffy stuff, when everyone regardless of skill level can at the very least palm the buttons randomly and still hold their own. It's just that with online multiplayer all that social element is removed - you don't really communicate with the other player, no one's watching and cheering you on as they wait for their go, and if things aren't going so well you can't distract your opponent by leaning over and kissing them on the cheek. And there can't be the same incentive to win if the other player isn't in the room and could conceivably get all smarmy and up in your face about his victory until you want to smash him over the head with your chair.

It's the same issue I raised with Resident Evil 6's co-op: it seems like an uncommunicative human player on the other end of a space wire is indistinguishable from - and less efficient than - an AI. Shooters, strategy games, sure, online multiplayer your gregarious balls off. The freedom of movement, tactics and responses involved all require the kind of creative thinking best done by a human. But your average melee fighting arrangement, and forgive me if this seems like an oversimplification, is two people running up to each other and hoping they can press buttons in sequence in such a way that overpowers the sequence of buttons the other person uses.

The way I see it, you play against a human in a fighting game, there are two extremes. Either you're against a completely unskilled and unpracticed person who will probably hit buttons randomly until something starts working for them, in which they case they will keep doing that, or you're against a complete expert who has memorized the most efficient possible move and counter for every situation. And both of those modes of behavior would be easy to simulate with the right algorithms. The most complicated thing would be to create a player of middling skill, really. In a tactical shooter creativity is the human player's edge, but there isn't much room for creativity in a fighting game. The best possible level of skill in a fighter - knowing the exact right response to every situation the other player presents - can be achieved with a relatively straightforward AI.

Well, that's my outsider's perspective, and as I say, probably very ignorant. I have a hunch, though, that if you did some kind of scientific test in which fifty humans play against AIs in a fighting game and another fifty play against humans in different rooms with no communication or contact, then no-one would be able to confidently tell which of the groups they were in. And if that's the case, why even bother?

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