Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Your game, now starring your friends!

A new trend is creeping into videogames. A trend that may well change the way we all play. But, more importantly, a trend that could really ONLY have come from videogames, being that they are essentially on the cusp of new technologies as part of their very nature.

Back in the old days, if we were really good at a game we could brag about it on a high score table. However, this was limited to the locality of the machine itself. When I topped the board on my ZX Spectrum copy of Paperboy, the only person who got to see my triumph was my sister. And she didn't care, being much more interested in her Cindy dolls. Some of the guys at school claimed they could beat me, but we never really developed this beyond the rivalry of words.

Things have changed drastically since the 1980's, of course. These days, I know exactly how poor my score in Geometry Wars is compared to those of my online friends, as well as how lacking in any kind of skill some of them also are. I can be proud that my Crazy Jump in Crazy Taxi on the XBox 360 is the 14th longest one recorded in the world, as well as be annoyed that it is no longer 2nd. Even better, because I am connected to XBox Live every time I switch my console on, I can tell if any of my friends are playing the game. Not that they do, but if they were, and tried to beat me ... I could attempt to do something about it.

It could be better. There could be a system by which I get informed when my distance gets beaten, perhaps?

There now is. The dedicated Mario Kart channel on the Wii allowed me to send a ghost recording of my best time trial performances to any of my friends, thus letting them try their luck against me. But, it depended upon me bothering to send it, them bothering to download it, and even upon us bothering to add each other in the first place thanks to Nintendo being absolutely terrified that somewhere in the world a paedophile might be using one of their consoles and therefore making the whole process so needlessly laborious. EA saw this, and thought "We could do better!", and thus set about including their idea in Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. Autolog was born, and it was BLOODY MARVELLOUS!

In Autolog, every time you do anything it is recorded and, more importantly, reported to all your friends. If someone beat you, you found out about it, and were actively encouraged to DO SOMETHING about this affront to your dignity! This additional layer of social interaction added to what was already a great game, and Autolog was considered to be a success. So much so, that EA have since included itt evolution in the new SSX title.

Now named "Ridernet", it still does everything that Autolog did. However, it now also records ghosts of your friends performances along with the time and score information. Even better, it automatically displays them when you go down a slope, so that you can see just how far behind the leader you actually are. It is particularly handy as a teaching tool, to show you the best lines. But the real genius is in how it has the potential to completely alter how we think about multiplayer gaming.

Now, it is theoretically possible for me to race you down a mountain, but to do so without ever once being online at the same time as you. In effect, we can stagger our times, so that you race at a time convenient to you, and I do the same for me. Our ghosts are recorded, and any time I beat you YOU FIND OUT ABOUT IT. A similar thing is happening in PlayStation Vita launch title Motorstorm RC, in which I not only see the ghosts of friends who are beating me, but also that of random others who are faster than me.

Back in the 80's? I would have SO been all over this! Because, when that kid who nobody liked said he had scored a million on Space Invaders, he would have not only been able to back it up, we all would have been able to see him do it.

Don't get me wrong, I totally understand how challenge is not for everybody. Some don't care about being the best, just about finishing the game. Some are happy to play on Easy, just to finish the story. To these people, this friendly level of competition may well get them interested in pushing a little harder, doing a little more, playing a little deeper. And, if not, they can always just not sign into it.

Things get more interesting when you hear what Capcom are doing with the upcoming Dragon's Dogma. In this game, you don't actually get to play with friends. All multiplayer is actually you with 3 AI companions. Where it gets interesting is that said AI companions will consist of people on your friends list. The AI will earn experience and impart knowledge and rewards on your behalf WITHOUT YOU EVEN PLAYING! If I get to fight a monster, and learn how to beat it, my AI can let you know this should you come across the same monster whilst I am in bed or out doing other stuff. Whilst this might not be as much fun as actually playing together, it will certainly prove useful to my friends on the other side of the world to me, or to those with antisocial working hours. Plus, I play a LOT of games, so the chance for the game to do some grinding on my behalf whilst I investigate another title is most welcome.

This also hints at further possibilities. There is still a massive market for singleplayer game experiences. Imagine how much better these would all be if they were tailored to your playstyle, and that of your friends? NPCs in RPGs could be based on your colleagues, acting as they would in the same situation. Instead of Lydia looking at me with contempt as she utters "I am sworn to carry your burdens.", how much better would it be for it to be my girlfriend, in armour she crafted herself, responding in character? (Admittedly, whoever got me as a companion may well tire of me teabagging dead enemies, or jumping and rolling everywhere instead of walking, but ... well, I'll never stop PLAYING while I play. You know?)

These are exiting times. Social interaction is not only a part of games any more, it is becoming a driving force for some of them. Mostly competitive at the moment, but there are clear signs that it could soon be a major component in the make-up of most games. Which is just one more weapon that our most wonderful of hobbies has, and allows it to truly claim to be the most inventive and entertaining pastime on the planet.

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