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Edge Magazine #162 May 2006

Throwing the online switch

Edge #162, May 2006

I spent a long time refusing to play games online. My experience of it had been hampered by connection problems, and horrible computer boys who'd memorised every single last inch of their games, and knew exactly how to humiliate and frustrate novice players (presumably the only way these pallid, palsied social inadequates can assert any sense of control over their lives). I found online gaming so unwelcoming that I genuinely couldn't foresee a time when any right-minded individual would choose to play online against a bunch of faceless strangers over, say, playing against friends in their living room. Friends who viewed playing games more as something fun to do rather than as a way to plug up gaping wounds in their sense of self-worth.

That's all changed now, of course - I'm a card-carrying online gamer, having swallowed the largest slice of humble pie my gullet could accommodate. In fact, I'd go as far to say that since discovering the joys of online gaming I've spent more time playing games in the last six months than I had in the previous three years.

Truth be told, a lot of my resistance was borne out of certain industry commentators proclaiming that online gaming was firmly established when clearly that wasn't remotely the case. For a long time it was all a bit like John Logie Baird inventing Celebrity Big Brother before the TV. Even so, while the likes of Xbox Live, World Of WarCraft and Battlefield 2 may have literally rocked my trousers over the last 12 months, there's still some way to go before online gaming is as ubiquitous as some people already seem to think it is.

Why, some lunatics are even predicting that online multiplayer gaming is poised to kill off singleplayer gaming. According to one Lars Butler: "Linear entertainment in singleplayer is to media what masturbation is to sex."

No, Lars Butler is not a committed lunatic, nor a man who only thinks in sexual metaphors. Lars Butler is actually a former vice president of online operations for EA. Worryingly, Butler isn't alone in his dirty thinking. "The entire videogame industry's history thus far has been an aberration, a mutant monster only made possible by unconnected computers", bellows one Raph Koster, former chief creative officer at Sony Online Entertainment, speaking, as was Butler, on an online gaming panel in California.

For far too long now gaming executives have been declaring the death of the singleplayer game, and for far too long I've been feeling a sense of creeping dread at the back of my pants.

According to Koster, "The players, once they go connected, they don't go back. They find it difficult to go back to experiences where they can't share experiences with others."

By that reckoning I'm clearly something of an aberration, as far as 'the players' go. The two games I'm playing most at the moment are the multiplayer side of Call Of Duty 2, and the not-even-slightly-multiplayer-let-alone-online Black. Now get a load of this crazy assertion: I enjoy them equally. I don't sit there playing Black whilst bemoaning the lack of online component; I enjoy it for what it is. A ghost train, a playground of destruction, a mostly linear, finite experience, but a beautifully designed one.

Presumably if Koster and Butler worked in book publishing they'd be advocating that paper fiction was a thing of the past, and we'd all soon be pulping our novels in favour of live roleplaying and murder mystery dinner parties. I mean, it's an absolutely mental point of view. Some types of game simply don't work online - just look at what happened to Resident Evil when Capcom tried it.

I'm still mourning the premature demise of the 2D platform game since game designers became obsessed with polygons (thank god for the Nintendo DS). Am I now to think that online gaming is going to lynch even more of my favourite genres? Heck, it's not even genres - just the simple joy of playing a well-designed game on my own. It's the difference between feeling like Bruce Willis in Die Hard and actually being part of The A-Team, I suppose.

Of course, I've been proved wrong before. Maybe a company like Valve will surprise me and release an entirely multiplayer Half-Life 3, and I'll have to eat the rest of that humble pie (by which time it'll probably have gone off, and I'll get the runs). But I'm certain that - providing the suits don't get their way - solo gaming will never go away, nor will there ever be a demand from players to make it go away. Let's face it, sometimes you just want a quick wank without having to pay for a prostitute, and go into that whole thing of pretending how she is, and choosing what you want off the menu, and having to apologise when you bite her...

Too much detail?

Still, I'll say one thing for Xbox Live - I've now been called a faggot by actual Americans, Dutch, French, and (on one particularly memorable occasion) a Brazilian. I don't recall that ever happening in Super Mario World. Truly, that is progress.

Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television

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