A Multiplayer Illusion

A long stretch of desert highway extends before me as my engine growls angry. My thumb pulses on the accelerator button, trying to hold my RPMs just short of redline, and my trigger fingers are primed above the buttons that will function as a gear shift. I am at the wheel of a souped-up 1970 Mustang Boss 429, a classic and ostentatious muscle car that has in raw power all that it lacks in grace and subtlety.

The race starts, and, despite my best efforts, wheels spin uselessly on asphalt that may as well be ice. Next to my car a ghost vision of another car appears and begins to urge itself forward down the track as my angry car struggles to find purchase. I’m not worried. Grip isn’t why I’ve chosen the Mustang. I am thinking about the straightaways. I’m thinking about just the right amount of power to apply to the rear-wheel drive on the apex of turn four to swing the back end around just enough to take the turn at high speed. I’m thinking about what the engine sounds like at exactly the right moment to up-shift. Let the wheels spin for now. I have no intention of winning the race at the starting line. I plan to win it on the straightaway on the other side of the track.

It is a plan I see through to fruition, as eventually the pure guts of the beefy 429 sail through the ghostly apparition of my rival, a time that he may have set days or weeks before. By the time I sail back across the finish line, I’m a couple of seconds ahead, and somewhere a friend has been beaten in a race he didn't even know he was competing in.

As a result, right now, I’m beating forum goer Xeknos in a number of races within Forza Horizon. Or at least, I was the last time I checked.

Unlike a lot of people, I’m not anxious in social situations. This may not come as a surprise to some of the more senior readers of the site, but I kinda like being the center of attention. Where I feel anxious is before the social situation. Whether I’m going out with friends for an evening or flying across the country to visit people I haven’t seen for a year, I inevitably have to spend the hour or day before my excursion not allowing myself to cancel and stay home. I think it is this same anxiety that prevents me from making the effort and time to put on my headset and jump into a virtual world with friends.

I want to have the experience and memories, mind you, of having interacted, engaged and connected with people. I just don’t necessarily want to have to actually do it.

Enter asynchronous multiplayer, my technological savior and solution to the problem of having to play with friends to get the experience of having played with friends. Don’t get me wrong, I like my friends. And when I’m actually getting myself in the mix, I usually can’t imagine anything I’d rather be doing, but I am a creature of Newtonian laws, and an evening at rest tends to want to stay at rest.

I therefore tend to enjoy games like Forza Horizon or the countless others these days that tracks your progress against a friends list or allows you to compete against a ghost of a friend or provides a leader board or integrates into social media. In these environments I have this wonderful illusion of being social, and I feel connected to a world that is now happily operating on my timetable. But I suspect in practice these games that might have been the gateway to becoming more social in my gaming have provided me nothing more than another layer of justification on my isolation.

I’ve never actually spoken to Xeknos in Forza Horizon. Never traded paint with him around a corner. Never had to deal with the shame of spinning out on a tight corner only to watch him sail on to victory. Never had the thrill of sling-shotting around him on that straightaway where I know I have the advantage.

Just because I beat Xeknos or Nei on some race tracks (and I totally did!) only means that now I have someone else I’m supposed to beat there. And ultimately, it begins to occur to me that, though the context is a nice veil, the practical difference between a single-player game and one with this kind of asynchronous competition is achingly slim.

It’s an illusion, of course. I am ultimately only competing with and against myself. After all, should I beat my rival and he not in turn beat me, the game simply provides me someone else just a little tougher to compete against. Even once I exhaust my friends list, the game goes and finds someone who did just a little better than I did and all of a sudden I’m up against DaN00bKillr, who might as well be any other NPC the game might have dreamed up. Functionally it’s doing little more than providing context for a personal high score.

In a real multiplayer game, though, it’s not really about the race itself. And even if it is, any one race is guaranteed to be fundamentally different from the next, partly because both sides are fallible, whereas in the asynchronous mode I am always racing against a fixed point that represents someone else’s best effort as of the time I play. The ghost is never going to suddenly skid out on the last turn, or try a different car or agree to a race where we can only drive in third gear. The ghost is the deep flaw of technology realized in stark relief. It has no personality, no flexibility, no unpredictability.

The longer and harder you look at it, asynchronous multiplayer seems like no kind of multiplayer at all. Or, if it is, then it is multiplayer stripped of soul and substance. You can really only get out of it what you bring to it in the first place. Its only real value might be in the idea that if you play it, you might at some point actually want to pull the trigger and play directly with a human, instead of virtually.

Unfortunately, It has never proven a gateway for me. I’m no more likely to challenge someone to a live race in Forza or jump into a co-operative game now than I ever was. If anything, the opposite has been true. These safe delivery systems of asynchronous multiplayer gaming have become irresistible in their own way, and supplant rather than supplement. Why would I race someone in real time? I’ve got their ghost in my machine whenever I want them.

The shame of it is that I know when I play well with others I have a different experience. I know why multiplayer and online functionality isn’t just a feature in most games, but has become a driving design philosophy. Games, generally, are better when experienced with other gamers — preferably ones you know.

But in that moment when I have a choice between seeking out a friend to play a game or returning to the safe and controlled confines of the multiplayer illusion, inevitably I know which I will choose. I should check to see if Xeknos beat any of my times.

Comments

I'm curious in what other genres this type of competition is possible. Clearly you can't play against someone's ghost in Madden, Call of Duty, Street Fighter, Left 4 Dead versus, or Hero Academy, so could this mean anything other than racing? Or golf, because, yawn.

wordsmythe wrote:

I like that the first comment on this article is a fairly convincing spam post.

Even better if the time stamp was a few seconds earlier than his articles.

Which I enjoyed and am now interested to try an asynchronous game for myself.

I want to have the experience and memories, mind you, of having interacted, engaged and connected with people. I just don’t necessarily want to have to actually do it.

Someone wake me up when this becomes possible. Actually don't, just apply it to my brain and let me sleep.

My wife and I do that score chase a lot when playing Rock Band 3. She's beating almost all of you people on vocals. :p

Keithustus wrote:

I'm curious in what other genres this type of competition is possible. Clearly you can't play against someone's ghost in Madden, Call of Duty, Street Fighter, Left 4 Dead versus, or Hero Academy, so could this mean anything other than racing? Or golf, because, yawn.

This could be something interesting. Maybe in those match-3 type games. Perhaps in PvsZ or other tower defense type games as well. Maybe you could design a monster for someone to fight in an RPG type game, or fight somebody's avatar or something. This has some interesting connotations. Make your own zombie and then fight it?

Stele wrote:

My wife and I do that score chase a lot when playing Rock Band 3. She's beating almost all of you people on vocals. :p

Even Happytime Harry? That bastard!

Keithustus wrote:

I'm curious in what other genres this type of competition is possible. Clearly you can't play against someone's ghost in Madden, Call of Duty, Street Fighter, Left 4 Dead versus, or Hero Academy, so could this mean anything other than racing? Or golf, because, yawn.

The recently rebooted SSX game did an amazing job of implementing this kind of async play. At launch, with a full play last of GWJers it was amazing.

It felt 'more real' than the Horizon experience, which always had that sense of removal to me.

Sounds like a cheap way to provide an increasingly difficult opponent without having to write an AI. In some ways that is pretty cool to me. As was stated, the social aspect is removed from or drastically changed by this style of play. The real question is, is the challenge fun and do you keep coming back in order to improve your score?

m0nk3yboy wrote:
Keithustus wrote:

I'm curious in what other genres this type of competition is possible. Clearly you can't play against someone's ghost in Madden, Call of Duty, Street Fighter, Left 4 Dead versus, or Hero Academy, so could this mean anything other than racing? Or golf, because, yawn.

The recently rebooted SSX game did an amazing job of implementing this kind of async play. At launch, with a full play last of GWJers it was amazing.

It felt 'more real' than the Horizon experience, which always had that sense of removal to me.

One thing I started to do in Horizon was race my rivals ghost after every race. I start to get a better sense of else is racing at about my level, and what things I can do to increase my score some.

But as neat as the drive to each event mechanic is, it's old now. Seriously, I just want a list of races to compete in. No fast travel, just let me select the race.

That list makes it easier to see the leaderboards for each event in SSX, too. I still think the best menu system and career progression for any racing game was still PGR2 It was clean and easy to see the progression and what you needed to do.

Elysium wrote:

But in that moment when I have a choice between seeking out a friend to play a game or returning to the safe and controlled confines of the multiplayer illusion, inevitably I know which I will choose. I should check to see if Xeknos beat any of my times.

Some.

It's an interesting beast, to be sure. It's multiplayer without any of the downsides - both of us don't need to be on, we don't need to deal with anyone's internet crapping out, or any of that sort of thing. We just log on and see that someone else has beaten our time and decide if we want to go try and one-up them.

Part of me still wants to see some kind of a Goodjer Grand Prix in Forza with all of us on and racing as a pack - and I'm fairly certain we can set that up in the multiplayer races - but there is an certain allure and sense of pride when you zoom past a speed trap and see your name jump above someone else on the leaderboard. Multiplayer in a single player wrapping.

That said, I'm not sure if a front page article in which I'm the one being beaten elicits a sense of pride or shame.

m0nk3yboy wrote:

The recently rebooted SSX game did an amazing job of implementing this kind of async play. At launch, with a full play last of GWJers it was amazing.

Yeah, that's been my favorite so far, too.

I think Elysium is on to something in the article, but for me personally I'm a fan of asynch. because, well, I have small children. As fun as multi-player is, it's very likely that over the course of an hour I will have to get up to let the dogs out, get a glass of water for an errant child, etc. My time is no longer mine alone, and asynch. gets around that at the expense of actual communication and that extra boost of adrenaline you get when actually facing someone who's reacting to you in real-time.

You can still taunt, though. I mean, that's what the forums are for.

But as neat as the drive to each event mechanic is, it's old now. Seriously, I just want a list of races to compete in. No fast travel, just let me select the race.

For the record, you can do this in Forza Horizon for competing with Rivals. For those playing, if you go to Race Central in the main plaza, you can select Rivals and directly compete against a rival in any race you've completed previous without driving to the race.

Some.

Have you checked since last night?

Minarchist wrote:
m0nk3yboy wrote:

The recently rebooted SSX game did an amazing job of implementing this kind of async play. At launch, with a full play last of GWJers it was amazing.

Yeah, that's been my favorite so far, too.

I think Elysium is on to something in the article, but for me personally I'm a fan of asynch. because, well, I have small children. As fun as multi-player is, it's very likely that over the course of an hour I will have to get up to let the dogs out, get a glass of water for an errant child, etc. My time is no longer mine alone, and asynch. gets around that at the expense of actual communication and that extra boost of adrenaline you get when actually facing someone who's reacting to you in real-time.

You can still taunt, though. I mean, that's what the forums are for. :)

Who let the dogs out?

Elysium wrote:
Some.

Have you checked since last night? ;)

... None. Back to work, I guess.

The longer and harder you look at it, asynchronous multiplayer seems like no kind of multiplayer at all.

I guess this is a kind of "multiplayer solitaire," like you find in certain board games.

Boggle (or, in this era, "Scramble with Friends") is a multiplayer game, right? But I'm not really interacting with you as I play it -- I'm just playing against your score, after-the-fact.

Same with racing ghosts in Forza, or chasing scores in Punch Quest or Rock Band.

The longer and harder you look at it, asynchronous multiplayer seems like no kind of multiplayer at all. Or, if it is, then it is multiplayer stripped of soul and substance. You can really only get out of it what you bring to it in the first place. Its only real value might be in the idea that if you play it, you might at some point actually want to pull the trigger and play directly with a human, instead of virtually.

I disagree.

Asynchronous multiplayer is essentially a live animated leaderboard, which is a sort of multiplayer. It's a laid-back, personal sort of time that still ties back to a sense of community, and in my case, family. This sort of tiered social interactivity is necessary so that a person who wants to can be both social and alone in exactly the amount he or she needs and requires, and extends the way in which society can interact with its members. For some individuals, virtual society is all they can stand to do most of the time, and there really isn't anything wrong with that.

In your gaming world, this is a person who races you virtually. In some of the worlds I see, it's a farmer gearing up his animal and ploughing the land alone in the dark of the morning for the rest of his family to plant seed later in the day. He may not be a particularly social person. That's okay. This can give him as much or as little society as he wants; though he still comfortably remains a palpable interacting part of family and community.

Arguably, all competition and all life is an illusion - that whatever sport or game we're participating in, we're really only competing with ourselves. Forza Horizon just happens to make that reality a teensy bit more obvious.

This type of play is especially good if you are competing against friends, as you can send them a trash talk text, which means they have to sit there fuming until the next time they can get to their console. Trials Evolution and Mirror's Edge were my favourites for this.

Isn't anyone else bothered by the fact you're playing against the one instance that that player did his best, and you never get to play against the 999 times he had to restart? That's why I've never been a fan of score-chasing in any games, though I've only seriously tried to compete in those systems in Rock Band. I just don't feel right if everyone playing isn't subject to catastrophic failure, not just me.

This is one of the things I love about Assassin's Creed 3. It provides leaderboards on a hundred different gameplay stats the game tracks. When I don't feel like getting my butt kicked in the multiplayer (which is great, but I suck at it), or playing the game's fun Wolfpack mode (because someone will invariably rush through and ruin the high-value bonus situations I set up), I can step back and challenge people on the leaderboards for speed and persistence.

BadKen wrote:

This is one of the things I love about Assassin's Creed 3. It provides leaderboards on a hundred different gameplay stats the game tracks.

I loved the little pop-ups: "You are now #1 on your friends list for XYZ stat"

LarryC wrote:

Asynchronous multiplayer is essentially a live animated leaderboard, which is a sort of multiplayer.

It's also much more granular and detailed. A leaderboard for Pac-Man becomes a constant comparison of points over time, with stats displayed again after each level.

And you get to see how the other person got that score.

I enjoyed Autolog in NFS Hot Pursuit. Hunting down Certis was a particular joy, even if I wasn't always successful.

I'm in a different timezone to most, and on sh*tty internet to boot, so asynchronous MP, for all its failings, is often the only taste of MP I can get.