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The future of gaming is lonely (and online only)

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Last week, 343 Studios announced that Halo 5: Guardians would be dropping split screen co-op for the campaign mode, joining the vast number of only-online multiplayer games that seem to be the status quo for this console generation. Popular multiplayer shooters, like Destiny, Titanfall, and any recent Battlefield game, also have made the same decision to nix the option to play with friends on the same television. Video game publishers, it appears, are putting an end to couch play.

In most of these cases, the issue is simply one of hardware. Split-screen multiplayer means twice as much processing taking place locally to accommodate each player’s screen, which means most of these games simply can’t run split-screen on the hardware that’s available while maintaining the level of graphical quality that gamers have come to expect from the current console generation. Even Nintendo, known for couch play in series like Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart, and Mario Party is feeling the squeeze. Mario Kart 8 is noticeably less smooth when playing with three or four players on split-screen, and its latest multiplayer hit Splatoon barely offers offline play at all. It’s no coincidence that the majority of games that feature split screen co-op on PS4 or Xbox One are ported last-gen remakes, such as Borderlands: The Handsome Collection, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, or Diablo III.

The best option for multiplayer play is to have two televisions, two consoles, and two copies of a game. But even assuming both you and a friend are willing to make the not-insignificant investment, the resulting experience is a separate collection of people sitting alone in front of their TVs. A co-worker and her boyfriend play games together in the same apartment in separate rooms. The only way console gamers today can play together is to be apart.

The only way console gamers today can play together is to be apart

That’s a shame, because there is value in playing together on the same couch. It frees you from being reliant on spotty internet connections, DDOSed online services, and often poisonous online communities. It’s also an intimate social activity. We’ve taken an opportunity for people to spend time together and stripped it of any social context it once might have had. It’s easy to make digital memories when you share them in the real world.

Most of my fondest gaming experiences aren’t of beating a boss or one-hundred-percent-ing optional collectables. It’s losing to my brother at Madden, running through Halo campaigns with my friends, and late night Smash Bros. tournaments with my roommates when we probably should have been studying. For me, at least, the games themselves weren’t the focus, but they provided context to allow these social environments to form.

The last hope for couch co-op today is ironically the usually desk-bound PC, which, despite the drought of local multiplayer, is thriving with indie titles like Mount Your Friends, Sportsfriends, ROCKETSROCKETSROCKETS, TowerFall, and Speedrunners. Where big name publishers ignore local play, indie developers have stepped up.

At the end of the day, I’ll be playing through Halo 5’s campaign, probably even online. But even though I’ll be playing a Halo campaign focused on the biggest group of players yet, I have no doubt that I’ll be playing more alone then I ever have.


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