The Rise of Online Multiplayer Games And The Collapse of Couch Co-Op

By | 2 years ago 

Many gamers’ first memories involve swapping a controller back and forth during the original Super Mario Bros., or memorizing the fatality combos in Mortal Kombat. Today, young gamers are far more likely to remember being cussed out on Xbox Live. Multiplayer games have undergone a massive shift in recent decades. Compared to the cozy prevalence of couch co-op games in the 90s, very few games today include local multiplayer as an option. Online multiplayer games are the new standard, but when and why did this trend begin?

The Roots of Online Multiplayer Games

Most early video games, such as Pong in 1972, featured multiplayer modes. This was likely due to expectations from analog games, which were almost always played in person with friends and family. Early multiplayer modes were often turn-based, co-op arcade games—when one player died, another would take over or continue until all lives were extinguished.

When games made the leap from public arcades to private homes, multiplayer continued to be a prominent feature. In 1987, MIDI Maze for the Atari ST allowed players to play together with up to 16 people. Many NES games also incorporated multiplayer—the original Super Mario Bros. allowed players to swap between Mario and Luigi, and Ice Climber allowed simultaneous co-op.Technology advancements allowed the inclusion of split-screen modes for racing games and shooters. It didn’t stop there. As games got more complex and began incorporating online play, LAN parties and internet cafes enabled gamers to play locally with friends, minus the risks of lag and other side effects.

Pong Screenshot


Now, online multiplayer games are the norm. Even series that feature single-player campaigns, like the Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Gears of War franchises, are better known for their multiplayer. Games that once featured only single-player stories, such the Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed series, have implemented online multiplayer in sequels. And although more games are incorporating multiplayer elements, few allow for local multiplayer; the focus is almost entirely on virtual shared gaming experiences.

3 Reasons Online Multiplayer Games Took Over

Better graphics capabilities. There are a few big reasons for this shift to online multiplayer. The first is purely practical: as the quality of graphics and gameplay increases, more resources are required. If you’re already running a game that requires a lot of power because of technical specifications, imagine doubling, tripling, or quadrupling that for split-screen modes. That kind of local play functionality may require a downgrade in graphics—a sacrifice many gamers just aren’t willing to make for local multiplayer modes. That’s part of the reason games with simpler graphics—Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart, or any of the numerous rhythm games—most frequently include local multiplayer. It’s less of a strain on the system, and gamers generally don’t sit down to play Mario Kart for a realistic virtual experience.

More revenue. Another, less benign, reason for this shift to online multiplayer is money. Many distributors cite piracy as a major cause of declining profits, and increased DRM restrictions make sharing games with friends much more difficult. Decreasing the amount of local multiplayer means that friends who want to play together need their own copies of the game, their own system, and their own subscription. The result is increased costs for gamers and increased revenue for distributors.

Distributors clearly have a lot to gain from online multiplayer games, especially with the popularity of microtransactions and the increasing popularity of DLC—more maps, more costumes, and more weapons often tempt gamers into paying more. This works well for free-to-play games like League of Legends or other MOBAs, but announcing DLC before a game’s release often draws criticism. Many players argue that paid DLC encourages some developers to omit necessary or desired player content for higher profits.

Evolve DLC Season Pass Banner

2K pushing Evolve DLC too hard?

2K’s multiplayer online-only Evolve is under fire for this very reason. The game already has several DLCs and a deluxe edition available on top of its $60 price tag. Some critics claim this is equivalent to Evolve being a free-to-play game with microtransactions. Others, who support Evolve‘s unique 4v1 approach to multiplayer and gorgeous graphics, hope that paying more money upfront will benefit and support future work. Adding more opportunities for players to pay more for games—through DLC and custom items—is a strategy that has earned developers more money thus far, so it’s unlikely to end anytime soon.

Fading demand for local multiplayer. Perhaps most important in the disappearance of local multiplayer is decreased demand. Players want better graphics, and better graphics means cutting split-screens. Since online multiplayer games sell better than solely single-player experiences, developers include them—even when they are essentially clones of other popular series. Online multiplayer games are always available (provided your internet or the server isn’t down), there are always people waiting to play, and they don’t require graphical sacrifices. Online multiplayer games also constitute more of a challenge—while your friends’ talents might be all over the place, online ranked matches mean you can almost always find somebody at your skill level.

How To Revive Local Multiplayer

Minecraft Xbox One - Four Player splitscreen

Minecraft Splitscreen Co-op

There are still plenty of fond memories to be made playing in-person multiplayer games. The shift to online has already occurred, but many series still employ local multiplayer as an option—particularly games released by Nintendo and Harmonix. If you’re a fan of couch co-op or split-screen games, this is one instance where voting with your wallet can really make a difference. Show distributors you’re willing to pay for the local multiplayer experience when it’s offered for games you enjoy. If enough people do the same, distributors will surely take notice.