Out of the Box Issue 150

Unreal Expectations
Multiplayer matters, but not as much as innovation

Brett Todd

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This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150

Legend Entertainment stirred up controversy last year when the company announced that it wouldn’t be including multiplayer options in Unreal II: The Awakening. The Virginia-based developer explained that it was dropping that feature to concentrate on the story-driven campaign, although it didn’t take a conspiracist to posit that the real reason had more to do with the existence of Unreal Tournament 2003. After all, one can be certain that Infogrames, which publishes both games under its resurrected Atari label, didn’t want to compete with itself. There’s enough competition for PC game dollar without confusing people with a pair of similar, brand new Unreal games.
But when you make a decision like that, you’ve got to live with the consequences. And one of those consequences is negative buzz in the mod community. For as much as modding is embracing single-player content more and more, multiplayer remains its bread, butter, and jam. If you don’t include multiplayer support, the mod community isn’t going to be too interested in your product. That seems to be the case with Unreal II, which created few ripples in the still waters of the February PC game market when it shipped with nine hours worth of solo missions, an editor, and nothing else. It made something of a splash on impact, but soon sank out of sight. Recovery isn’t out of the question—I’m writing this just a few weeks after the release date, so I could be jumping the gun—although it seems unlikely because people aren’t talking about the game. Aside from complaints about length, driver-related bugs, and clunky performance, people aren’t discussing it at all.
Such a high-profile failure of the only shooter in recent memory to ship without multiplayer begs the question of whether or not such games can be successful without sidling up to online shootists. There will certainly be a few industry people to take this as a lesson well learned. But I’m not so sure that this is accurate. For while it’s a given that multiplayer will make a game more attractive to modders, it isn’t as simple as just providing the option. You’ve got to capture the gamer’s imagination before he’s going to devote his spare time to whipping up weapons, maps, and Mary Tyler Moore skins. That can be done in a variety of ways, and I don’t think that it necessarily has to involve ever-goofier variations on capture the flag. You can even do it with a strictly single-player title, but it has to give gamers more to sink their teeth into than the usual fire-guns-and-jump-around stuff.
Something more was not forthcoming in Unreal II. Although it boasted enough eye candy to turn you into a diabetic and featured a few white-knuckle firefights, it never exceeded expectations. You got a straightforward shooter that wasn’t even as groundbreaking as its 1998 predecessor. If you’re going to take any lesson away from what happened here, it’s that you can’t expect modders to get behind the mediocre. Why would anyone want to design add-ons for an uninspiring new shooter when you’ve already got its equivalent in older games with bigger installed bases like Quake III, Unreal Tournament, and Half-Life? This isn’t the case when gameplay goes beyond the mundane, however. You only need to look back to Looking Glass’ Thief series for proof of this. While both Thief: The Dark Project and its Thief II: The Metal Age sequel were strictly solo, their ingenious style of play and ominous atmosphere captivated so many people that mods are still being made.
I just hope that developers realize this and aren’t so quick to draw the conclusion that no multiplayer support equals no mod support. We need more developers willing to take risks, to try and build a presence in the mod community by doing more than just tossing in some perfunctory multiplayer features. Of course, courage only goes so far. Legend and Infogrames deserve some credit for their decision to stand behind a single-player-only product, but we need both guts and good gaming for this sort of thing to lead us somewhere new.

You’ve got to capture the gamer’s imagination before he’s going to devote his spare time to whipping up weapons, maps, and Mary Tyler Moore skins.

This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150