The great Stonehenge-sized block of reality started to fall on my head with the June issue of Computer Games magazine, which interviewed Levine (Thief, System Shock 2) saying the one thing he hated about his greatest success to date, SS2, was the multiplayer feature.

If they had to do it all over again, they would have fought harder not to include multiplayer. Electronic Arts insisted that it was necessary, and Irrational [Levine\’e2\’80\’99s development company] didn\’e2\’80\’99t want to rock the boat. \’e2\’80\’9cI hear it\’e2\’80\’99s fun,\’e2\’80\’9d says Levine when asked about the multiplayer. \’e2\’80\’9cI\’e2\’80\’99ve actually never even played it.\’e2\’80\’9d

Well, it\’e2\’80\’99s probably just the crack talking, I thought. Then this, in the current issue of PC Gamer:

Spector [System Shock, Deus Ex] and company are happy to focus on making a fantastic single-player experience. Neither Thief nor its sequel included a multi-player game, and Deus Ex\’e2\’80\’99s multiplayer component was added only after the game\’e2\’80\’99s release through a patch.

\’e2\’80\’9cYou have to work your ass off to make a multiplayer game,\’e2\’80\’9d says Thief 3 associate producer Lulu Lamer. \’e2\’80\’9cYou can\’e2\’80\’99t just [add multiplayer support] in two months with two people.\’e2\’80\’9d

\’e2\’80\’9cI don\’e2\’80\’99t want ever to overstate the sophistication and marvelousness of the Deux Ex multiplayer patch,\’e2\’80\’9d Warren sheepishly notes. \’e2\’80\’9cWe wanted to see if some of our game play choices could translate into multiplay, and I think we did a good job.

\’e2\’80\’9cAs cool as it sounds to want to get six of your friends together to play a game, I think most of the people who did that were game developers. The joy of it is sitting around and yelling at the guy in the next office.\’e2\’80\’9d

Adds Lulu: \’e2\’80\’9cSystem Shock 2 is a perfect example: We [added multiplay] because of all the noisy critical demand for a multiplayer game \’e2\’80\ldblquote and we almost died implementing it. And 16 people played it.\’e2\’80\’9d

The company estimates that since less than 50 people are playing Deus Ex multiplay at any one time, it doesn\’e2\’80\’99t make good business sense\’e2\’80\’a6

Shortly after I established there was, in fact, a woman with the unfortunate name of Lulu Lamer, it was then it sunk in\’e2\’80\’a6 the creators of some of the greatest gaming experiences of my life not only weren\’e2\’80\’99t proud of that fact\’e2\’80\’a6 they REGRETTED it.

A little background. Back when I was young, and still scared of computers, we\’e2\’80\’99d gather around the good computer in our student newspaper office late at night after the issue was to bed and play Doom 2 until our eyes bled. We only had one PC good enough to take the strain (!!), so we\’e2\’80\’99d take turns, with the leftout players cheering and jeering over the other’s shoulder, long after the caffeine high should have worn off. If there had been a toaster oven in that office I could have rigged to get a LAN going, I would have. (If I\’e2\’80\’99d known what I know now about computers, I probably could have, actually.)

Over the years, I\’e2\’80\’99d go to others\’e2\’80\’99 LAN parties, and I\’e2\’80\’99d host my own. The difference when I hosted though, was that the emphasis was on cooperative play. You and her against the AI bad guys\’e2\’80\’a6 always promising to use some kind of tactics on the next room, but never quite doing it, fighting for chain gun ammo, she\’e2\’80\’99s in the transporter, wait-two-three, okay she\’e2\’80\’99s off, poom into a room full of bad dudes\’e2\’80\’a6 and one other person you can trust\’e2\’80\’a6 oh my God do I hear spiders, chainsaw, chainsaw, where\’e2\’80\’99s my fricking chainsaw\’e2\’80\’a6

You\’e2\’80\’99d throw chips, and drink beer, and talk about that incredible spinning kill they just made, and the sheer joy of having a virtual universe to explore together, while you waited for that damn pizza to finally show up and tried to figure out who put the Talk Talk on the damn stereo again. That, Warren and Ken, is multiplay heaven.

The epitome of games for this kind of behaviour, in my humble opinion, was System Shock 2. I still haven\’e2\’80\’99t finished it. I won\’e2\’80\’99t, either, unless I finish it with someone else. Unlike other sneakers, SS2\’e2\’80\’99s got that crisp little roleplaying component, with stat gain and skills to learn, and seemingly infinite approaches to take. The immersion factor rises exponentially, and the choices for action multiply, when you\’e2\’80\’99re the Navy guy, she\’e2\’80\’99s the Space Marine, and he\’e2\’80\’99s the Man in Black, and you hear those psionic monkeys coming for all three of you\’e2\’80\’a6 wasting such an immersive experience, wasting the glory that is Shodan herself, on trying to terrify just ME would be a tragedy. Deus Ex, same thing. Sixteen people, snort; if that\’e2\’80\’99s true I know half of them.

Look, I\’e2\’80\’99ve got nothing against single player games. I\’e2\’80\’99ve even finished one or two of them. And I\’e2\’80\’99ve nothing against LAN deathmatching; I enjoy that too, after a fashion (Online kill-or-be-killed games with strangers are inferior entertainment, though, rife with cheaters and crybabies punching out before the killing blow falls: is there anything online possibly as satisfying as seeing a colleague whip their mouse across the room in frustration at you? Why deny yourself that?). And the MMOG experience is great, even though it\’e2\’80\’99s never my real-life friends whose company I seem to keep there: if we chums did all find we were playing simultaneously, we\’e2\’80\’99d be playing something else: why WW2O when you can get Steel Beasts, or European Air War going, and order wings along with it? Why AO when there\’e2\’80\’99s SS2? Single-player promotes anti-social behaviour, and MMOGs present a whole new, and rather unusual form of interaction, both greater and lesser than real life\’e2\’80\’a6 but the LAN allows you triumph in your successes that no other form of computer entertainment can match. As more people get access to multiple computer rigs at home or the office, that number will only grow. Even Thief multiplayer could have worked, don\’e2\’80\’99t you think? It would have been different, sure, but why must there ALWAYS only be one Garrett? And you want to deny the world all that, Lulu Lamer? Because it\’e2\’80\’99s too hard to do?

There\’e2\’80\’99s something so arrogant, too, about this focussing on the single-player experience, as though we come to these worlds to commune with the designer, and no one else, on an one-and-one basis. We can follow the story that\’e2\’80\’99s been created for us, but god forbid we insert our own collective narratives into the space that was built. What would you think of a person who built a park, or a golf course or a jungle gym, even, and then only let in people one at a time, to preserve his pristine vision? Why do we accept these limits so flippantly in online realms? They want me to shout in astoundment, \’e2\’80\’9cDid you see THAT?\’e2\’80\’9d but they don\’e2\’80\’99t want anyone to hear; they want me to spend hours and hours saving my own life, but they don\’e2\’80\’99t want me to run to another\’e2\’80\’99s aid. They seem satisfied producing entertainment that promotes selfishness and isolationism: two things computer users, and society in general, could well do with less of.

There shouldn\’e2\’80\’99t even be a question of only creating single player games anymore. It should be freaking mandatory, in all but occasional cases. But the same designers who decry script based level progression and single-path solutions balk at providing gamers with the most elemental choice of all: with friends, or without. It seems just a higher form of the same authoritarianism. Perhaps the most fundamental choice of all, cast aside because of cost and time\’e2\’80\’a6 would that be an excuse with any other feature of these games? Warren, Ken, if you\’e2\’80\’99re listening: you people are universe builders, not novelists: build the spaces that we can adventure in, but please don\’e2\’80\’99t dictate the plot of our virtual lives. Stop playing puppets. When you start thinking like Ms. Lamer and friends, you\’e2\’80\’99re forgetting the lessons of the very first being to give us a new, livable realm to explore: when his first inhabitant logged in, did he ask for better creature AI, or more polys on the trees? Nope. Adam asked for someone to share it with.