Saturday, April 28, 2012

Let's Get Together

Oh yeah, that's right, I have this blog. Dang, huh? Been busy working on a potential something special with some older articles; we'll see. Anyway.

Competition is one of the fundamental elements of a game; the ability to win or lose or measure performance against another. It fosters investment in a game, and as more people do so, the greater a community can become for it. In the lead-up to the release of the reboot of the SSX series, I was enthralled at the idea of seeing what would come from a modernization of some of my all-time favorite games. Many people were initially frightened at the prospect of an overly serious adaptation from the very first promotional video, but fortunately the team behind the skate. series was in charge and was able to wrest the game's release free from... some of the Boilerplate Videogame In 2012 markers. I'm looking at you, "Pre-Order Bonuses", "Day 1 DLC", and "Facebook Integration".

A grim fate narrowly avoided.

It is, all in all, a commendable game, and the core mechanics manage to shine in spite of 2012 EA's Origin-shellacked trappings. One thing that seemed to trouble a fair number of people and still feels sorely missed, however, is real-time multiplayer. Leaderboards and ghost runs and the marvels of asynchronous competition are more than welcome, and the selling point of "taking down rivals on your own time" is by all means a worthy motivator. The upcoming restructuring of the ever-present time-sensitive "Global Events" and the constant presence of holographic visages riding alongside push that sense of being in a populated and active community right to its limit. And yet, despite the running data feeds and tiered rewards structures... you're always alone.

No action you take has any direct effect on any other living person's gameplay. Some might consider that a step towards fairness; no worries about collision or distraction, no threat from some uncontrollable factor ruining your Perfect Run. It's also obviously a load off of the developers not having to slave over lag compensation and player-on-player hit detection. It's not that its exclusion isn't understandable, but it's still nevertheless lamentable. Even the potential throwback of local multiplayer on a split screen was omitted.

Everyone has their own "communal gaming" memories.

It's just a bit disheartening; the mechanics for knocking down CPU characters is there, that tantalizing pointer towards an extra level of complexity... but there's nobody "real" to use it on. Geotags left behind by past riders, scores and race times posted by apparitions, little HUD "tombstones" on endurance-based "Survival" runs where foes reached their end.   For a game that makes "racing" a third of its content, it feels strange being perpetually in time trial heats. Signs of life abound, but no proof.

Look at the games with the largest, most fervent player bases and competitive scenes: fighting games, real-time strategy games and the growing "lane control" subgenre, first-person shooters, professional sports simulations... including vehicular racing games. There's simply something innate about the knowledge that someone somewhere is on the receiving end of your victory or defeat; it's the difference between the paint-trading of  Criterion's rightfully beloved Burnout series and the swarms of phantom cars in Nadeo's Trackmania games. The same gulf divides is present between a tense volley in tennis and leaderboard-jockeying in a round of golf, between a crowded poker table and counting moves in solitaire.

The drama! The suspense! The hoodies and sunglasses!

The choice the EA Sports team made determined the nature of the competition. In some cases the choice between synchronous and asynchronous seems clear-cut. In a game that focuses on collisions and wreckage, you let players run each other into oncoming traffic. In a game that prizes millisecond time differentials and precision maneuvering, you make each player responsible only for themselves. SSX seems like it could have gone either way or possibly catered to both, and it didn't. Maybe it was decided the gains from a slightly different versus mode wouldn't be worth the time and money, and if so that's a perfectly rational business decision. Of course, they also decided the title stood for "surfing/snowboarding/motocross" instead of "snowboard super-cross" for some reason, but hey, nobody's perfect. 

Just something to consider next time you drop down a slope unexpectedly feel a little lonely.

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