In recent times, the number of new releases with split screen or local multiplayer compatibility has declined exponentially, with fewer titles each year providing options for the offline sessions of old.
The question is, will this decline continue or will split screen always have a place in video games and gaming as a whole?
Factors of the Fall of Local Multiplayer
First up, to see what the future for local multiplayer holds, we need to see what’s caused this old staple to fall into obscurity.
The main factor in the fall in popularity of split screen is the rise of online gaming.
The increasing stability of servers and internet connections has allowed the common gamer to connect with not just their friends, but also strangers from anywhere in the world to work with or compete against in any manner of games. The need to leave the comfort of your own home to play with other people has been eliminated, hence the popularity of doing so has decreased. This decrease in the demand for split screen has, in turn, led to fewer games where it is an available feature, further harming the audience size who would want to play split-screen, creating an endless cycle.
Another factor into the recent decline is the monetary reward to developers for including offline support for their multiplayer.
Developing offline multiplayer, particularly with an AI system, can take up a lot of time and resources with not much reward. In the case of competitive games, that profit is there due to the fact it can be used in major tournaments but for the casual game it just generally isn’t worth it in the eyes of the developers. It also cuts off DLC advertisement, something which is definitely associated with online multiplayer and hence can bear a decrease in profit, though this is a more minor issue.
Split screen can also be particularly taxing on the rig tackling the game, be it a console or a PC.
Modern games often already push the system running it to its limits in order to provide better graphics and all-around performance. Doing this for two players on the same device can really cause issues (depending on how the processing is handled already). A good example of this is Psyonix’s indie title and smash hit Rocket League. The online multiplayer and offline bots modes run fine on consoles, but as soon as multiple players are introduced the system struggles much more, producing both input and output lag. For many games this isn’t an issue, but it shows what split-screen can do to a system.
You would think that something that was once as vital as offline co-op would be harder to get rid of, but, as with many good things, money and technology constraints are being weighed heavily against the future for local multiplayer.
Benefits of Local Multiplayer
There is one thing that playing online simply can’t bring to the table when comparing to split-screen games; the atmosphere created by sitting next to the people you play with.
Although online voice chat is now very easy to run and is pretty stable, you can never get that full range of emotion just from listening to your friends’ (or enemies’) voices.
You miss out on the body language; the facial expressions, the body movements. In turn, a part of the action just seems missing. Anyone who has played an offline game, whether it be a 1v1 game of FIFA to the split-screen story mode of Borderlands, knows what I’m talking about. The differences seem minute until you experience the exhilaration again, reminding you why you and your friends gathered in one place to play instead of sitting at home.
There are also more obvious benefits accompanying offline competitive multiplayer games.
As can be seen from the growing popularity of eSports live events, the art of the LAN competition is far from dead. Indeed, it is as far from it as possible and is thriving in the modern gaming community, with prize money increasing every year and an ever-expanding audience.
Of course, the origins of LAN events were from before online servers existed for games, hence all competitive matches were played locally. However, in our current society, the reduced latency that comes with all players being within a close vicinity to each other is still seen as the benchmark for pro players to perform on. That way there’s no way to blame it on lag, and no way to cheat (theoretically – there have been some cases of players cheating the system but that’s a discussion for another time).
With the major competitions being held there is quite a crowd showing these days too, with audiences to rival that of some physical sporting events not being an irregular sight for the biggest tournaments (namely for League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter Strike: Global Offensive). Again, what brings them to these events is the incredible atmosphere you get from being there in person, just as there is at any live sporting event; you just don’t get it by staring at a screen in your own home.
Playing with your mates in the same room provides this same feeling on a smaller, more personal scale and it’s simply something that cannot die off.
The Future For Local Multiplayer
The ever-increasing popularity of eSports bodes well for LAN multiplayer support in games geared towards competitive multiplayer, but will this carry through into those more casual multiplayer games and the general future for local multiplayer? For example, take the Halo series. Bearing one of the most popular multiplayer formats of all time, this classic Xbox series has in recent times lost its offline component of the multiplayer in favour of only having online multiplayer.
This is an absolute disaster for anyone who has fond memories of system link matches on the older Halo games. I, myself, have fond memories of both Halo 3 and Halo Reach offline custom games, but the most recent addition to the series, Halo 5, has dropped what was arguably my favourite part of the series. As mentioned before, online multiplayer is great for its convenience, but it’s made all the more enjoyable with a group of mates in the same room, an observation seemingly lost on many modern developers.
Another notable game series to lose split-screen capabilities was Star Wars Battlefront during its recent reboot (developed by DICE instead of Pandemic Studios, the masterminds behind the first two titles). The first two games in the series provided me with many great childhood memories from playing with my friends and even my dad, while the most recent release is another title to join the list of online-only multiplayer games.
Some series continue to carry on the mantle of split-screen co-op with wild success. For example, the Borderlands series has one of the greatest co-op stories going around, in that you can play the entirety of the story with up to 3 mates dropping in or out just as easily as playing alone, with 2 player split-screen and 4 player system link on the previous generation of consoles.
Borderlands 2 was one of the highest rated games released in 2012, and for good reason. The co-op, surprisingly, is often overlooked in reviews however, most likely due to reviews generally being done in the days leading up to release and in the immediate aftermath. Still, for me, the co-op is what took Borderlands 2 from being a great game to one of my favourites, rivaled only by Ratchet Gladiator in regards to co-op enjoyment (though there is obviously a lot more depth and game time in borderlands, so it might just be the nostalgia blinding me here).
For now, competitive LAN multiplayer seems safe due to the popularity of eSports and hence we will definitely not lose all offline multiplayer options in the near future. Still, will the standard set by Borderlands, among other series, continue into the future for local multiplayer?
Sadly, only time can tell, but I sure hope they do so that future generations don’t miss out on such a classic and enjoyable gaming experience.