©2010 Alex Hilton
There I was- in the middle of the desert in the presumed blistering heat with my rifle, waiting nervously for any sign of an enemy when, suddenly, one jumps out of the sand dune and shoots me in the head.
I was playing Far Cry 2 online with a group of people I didn’t know, and despite having just been taken out, was having fun.
But it just wasn’t the same as when I played local split-screen multiplayer with my friends and family at home- especially with extra game AI-controlled bots.
I remember the time when we first got our Xbox 360 and played Perfect Dark Zero. Most of the people who played video games in my extended family (which is very big if you read my earlier Wii article) would come over and take turns playing the game as a co-operative team versus the bots. It was a fun day that had many laughs and was enjoyed by everyone.
You didn’t need a mic to co-ordinate. Your teamates were next to you and you knew them so you didn’t feel awkward directing or being directed by strangers like I do on Live. You could ramp up the difficulty by giving the bot army more members and working together meant less sore egos or newbie or bad players feeling, well, bad.
I miss the old times of fighting off bots with people I know in the same room or even using a bot army to beat a friend that is too good for me to win against without some help. You could arrange the games to even out the ‘teams’ in a way you mostly can’t online, where generally the better you are the more you are rewarded.
The older consoles like the Nintendo Gamecube, Playstation 2, and the old Xbox didn’t really have an online multiplayer to the same extent as the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, so the game developers made an effort with local multiplayer. These days most of them don’t bother even including local split-screen and bots are all but extinct.
The Nintendo Wii is a new console that has local multiplayer but that fact has made the Wii more popular.
The problem with local multiplayer was that at best a maximum of only four people could play at one time (unless you used multiple consoles in system-link on Xbox), so the game developers introduced bots, which are computer-controlled enemies that you can fight, to add some more numbers to the scenario so the game would be enjoyed more.
Was online really the future of multiplayer gaming?
But the consoles wanted to copy the PC and have huge online battles of real thinking players networked from all over the world in massive strategic pitched battles, with each player sitting alone glued to his screen and talking over mics.
Yet online multiplayer is not the only way of the future.
Gaming is largely going back to the future with Microsoft and Sony so desperate to grab some of the success of the Wii and its at-home ‘play together’ fun focus with their upcoming Project Natal and motion controller ‘Arc‘.
Online gaming has become a mixed experience with lack of local servers affecting gaming here in Oz and elsewhere, trying to find a game to join sometimes a challenge, unpoliced inappropriate activities that alienate many, gamers flocking only to certain games (making all the efforts of some developers on a multiplayer component a complete waste of time), overly competitive and intense teamwork-focused gaming, and games that deter new gamers while rewarding experienced ones.
Online-only games don’t seem to be the holy grail either.
What happened to the console-based MMOs (Massive Multiplayer Online) that were announced or released over the last several years? These are games very popular on PC that you can’t play without going online.
The console MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) have been cancelled or delayed indefinitely. I believe that with the exception of Final Fantasy XI on 360 there have been none so far this gen. Age of Conan, Star Trek Online, Lord of the Rings Online, APB…all missing or with release dates off into the TBA future. That shows that online-only gaming isn’t seen as viable or popular enough for most console gamers, or very very hard to produce for consoles.
There are a few games that are multiplayer-only like SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs: Confrontation for the PS3 which is a game without a single player aspect at all. It started plagued with problems and wasn’t nearly as popular as the earlier SOCOM single player games were.
For the 360 the online-only shooter Shadowrun failed to make a significant impact.
Even the recently released much publicised online-only shooter MAG for PS3, allowing 256 gamers to play at once, isn’t apparently setting the world on fire, with Modern Warfare 2 still king of online gaming. This article by collegenews.com argues that MAG is a mostly good underrated game hurt by hype, but admits:
“MAG will not be for everyone. It’s not very friendly to casual gamers, due to its restrictive faction system, class customization and inflexible demand for teamwork and coordination. There are also balance issues and glitches that will hopefully be addressed by patches. Finally, the controls, admittedly, could have definitely been designed better.”
That lack of comfortable accessibility is the problem with online multi. It can be intimidating and discouraging. Playing at home with people you know with computer-controlled bots isn’t going to intimidate even non-gamers much and you can always find a game as long as you have people around to play with. If you have bots, you don’t even need anyone else.
I am not saying that online multiplayer is bad; I’ve had good and bad experiences playing online.
I am saying that I and it seems most gamers still demand good single player experiences first; more than that- I believe many gamers would welcome the return to popularity of local multiplayer and bots. Keep online multi, but don’t abandon offline and bots. The people who want bots can play with them and the people who don’t like them don’t have to use them.
Are Bots still relevant and fun today?
They are not intelligent (except the online human inhabited variety) but are used in large numbers which makes them a challenge to defeat adding to the fun factor of the game. Still, offline multi is limited to 2 player co-op on one console.
Some people have a problem with bots. They say that bots are too stupid and are predictable which makes the gameplay worse. I agree somewhat but there is a way of using bots as enemies that can still make the game enjoyable. For example in past games with bots you could raise the difficulty of the bot or you could, in some older games like James Bond: 007 Nightfire, make the bots have more health or be more strategic.
Or you could make the bots stupid and easy to kill but have hundreds of them, like in Gears of War 2‘s horde mode where huge numbers of moderately strategic bots attack you and you have to try to fight them off. Call of Duty: World At War‘s zombie mode does this with even stupider bots but lots of them and it’s great fun, though again with only 2 players offline on one console.
I was disappointed when I found out that James Bond: Quantum of Solace didn’t have bots or split screen in its multiplayer, especially since every Bond game since the N64’s Goldeneye had split-screen.
When TimeSplitters 4 was announced I was very excited because if a TimeSplitters game didn’t have bots or local multiplayer it would fail- it was the best bot-based offline multiplayer game I’ve played and that was its strength. But then trouble hit the developers in 2008, and who knows if we’ll see it ever get released.
Bots are needed in games to make multi more enjoyable, whether they are weak but in large numbers or smart and can adapt to your every move (like the enemies in most single player campaigns). They need to be brought back by gamemakers so gamers online or off have more options to play, no matter how many others are available.
I may now be going back to my Xbox 360 to play single-player-only Mass Effect 2, but after that I’ll be sure to gather some family and play the old James Bond: Nightfire on our Gamecube or Wii. In the end, old game or new, it’s about fun. And bots are still fun.
Bring Back the Bots!