Opinion: Please stop making excuses for games with poor online gaming

My Guilty Gear -Strive- experience left me with a strange and almost stunned feeling. I loved the game, the graphics, the sound, but a barely working online lobby system frustrated me to no end. In Guilty Gear’s case, they still have half a year to fix their online suite up, which is good for them, because the first thought I had after the beta ended was “if this game came out right now, I couldn’t play it.”

We are in a state of global pandemic due to the spread of COVID-19. Most areas are currently under “shelter at home” orders, to avoid anything but strictly necessary human contact. Video games have been one of many people’s great reliefs from this pandemic, allowing us to play and hang out with our friends over great distances from the safety of our own homes.

Which is why the experience left me so stunned. On any normal day I would have looked at the beta with much kinder eyes, figuring that a broken online suite could be overcome by simply going to meetups and tournaments.

That’s one of the small pleasures of being a part of the fighting game community, we thrive off of real-life social interaction. We prefer to face each other in meatspace, just like we did in the old days of the arcade. But with that taken away from us, our play has largely been kept to online spaces, with massive tournaments shifting to online formats. Suddenly a game that I would rate a 9/10 even with a broken online system becomes a 6/10 with the exact same system since, flat out, we couldn’t play it.

A history of online issues

There are quite a few fighting games that have similar problems. Nearly all of Arc System Works' latest titles use less than stellar delay based netcode, so much so that it took a gigantic fan outcry to push them to experiment with rollback netcode for Guilty Gear -Strive-.

It's not just ASW either. Most Japanese fighting game developers suffer from the same problems. Street Fighter V's netcode was horrendous since its release and it took a fan creating a simple patch to get Capcom to finally take notice and fix their netcode problems. This happened earlier this year in February. Street Fighter V also released in February… of 2016!

And yet Street Fighter V is still considered one of the best fighting games to come out in this generation, despite having netcode that barely works.

That made me wonder, what if we are looking at things all wrong, or at least a little backward. We constantly look at online play as a sort of “bonus” to couch co-op. Video games had their origins in meatspace, after-all, and even though it’s been a long time since we started playing games online, as long as a game functions offline it’s generally viewed as complete. Besides, we always wonder about the gamers who don’t have good online connections, out in rural areas with bandwidth and data caps. They need to be able to enjoy these games too.

And while that is true, we are actually ignoring a whole other segment of the gaming populace. What about the gamers who can only play online? What about the gamers who are bedridden due to sickness? What about people who actively have trouble leaving their house due to physical or mental disability? Shouldn’t these people have the same opportunity to play the big releases as people with bad internet connections? Shouldn’t we value online and offline play equally?

It’s a shame that it took a global pandemic to see how blatantly we were ignoring that demographic.

And it’s not just fighting game developers that do this.

Online issues across the industry

Look at Bandai Namco’s Tales series, a classic series of JRPGs that was also one of the first JRPGs to have local multiplayer, yet it’s the year 2020 and half the time they aren’t even thinking about their multiplayer experience when designing the game (I’m looking at you Xillia and Zestiria) and they still haven’t done anything to bring the game online.

You can now play the PC version with friends using Steam’s remote local multiplayer function, but that’s something Steam has provided, not Bandai Namco. And it’s not like Bandai Namco has never done online gaming before! They did Tekken and Dark Souls and Man of Medan! Why do these games all get online play, when their flagship JRPG franchise which is known for its multiplayer doesn’t! Why do we keep making excuses for this?

Nintendo is notorious for neglecting its online capabilities. We still have to enter friend codes for a majority of its online titles, something that should have faded into obscurity with the Wii.

Just look at Animal Crossing: New Horizons, an extremely popular game well regarded as one of the best Animal Crossing titles ever. How does its online work? Well first you have to take a needless trip to the airport to “ready yourself” for online visitors. Then you have to choose whether you want to invite people from your friends list or via a “Dodo code” and you can’t mix and match. Then, you have to stop playing with all your local multiplayer friends, because they also don’t mix and match with online. Then you can start inviting people, but only if people decide to choose to play online, and only if your island is randomly chosen as the destination they can go to, and only if you aren't in a menu, and even then whenever someone shows up or departs you are treated to a 30-second unskippable cutscene.

How on earth does this pass for good online support in 2020? But we do! We keep saying “well, it’s better than nothing.”

And it’s screwed up that developers hold up “nothing” as a threat over our head unless they can micromanage the way we play multiplayer. Just look at the recent release of Trials of Mana. It doesn’t have any multiplayer at all, much to the chagrin of the original Seiken Densetsu 3 fanbase. Why?

Well, the dev team said that implementing couch co-op wouldn’t work with the new camera and would take too many resources away from the single-player experience. That’s fine, I understand that. What really gets in my craw is that they said in an interview with Twinfinite that “Part of the appeal of multiplayer in the original game was sitting in the same room with your friends, and experiencing the story together. Yet, this would have been lost by translating the feature to online multiplayer.”

And once again, who are they to decide that online multiplayer is simply worse than local multiplayer? Who are they to say that people who can only experience multiplayer in an online setting simply don’t deserve to?

More excuses

Here’s the crappiest part, I have to make an excuse for them again. At the time of this writing, I’m playing Trials of Mana and it is a very, very good game. I have to say and recommend that any RPG fan give it a shot, while still not supporting their decision to omit online multiplayer… and that’s hard to do because as I said before, we as a fanbase tend to ignore online multiplayer failings if one other mode is good.

We have seen this time and time again. Do any of you remember that Fire Emblem Fates had an online multiplayer mode? It wasn’t good. It caused disconnects everywhere and it was rampant with hackers. Yet the single player mode was so good, we ignored it.

What about Bioshock 2. It wasn’t the best of the Bioshock series, but it was a pretty fun game. But do you remember how barebones and inoperable its online multiplayer modes were? It barely had any maps or modes in an era when Call of Duty was dominating the multiplayer space with a multitude of maps and levels.

I can pick and choose examples from all areas of video gaming. Smash Bros. Ultimate online is so bad that there are separate tier lists for online and offline play. GRID 2019 was considered a great hardcore racing sim and its online was practically unplayable. Persona 5 is one of the best JRPGs of all time, one that I consider a 10/10 and they barely even tried to implement an online mode. The most playing online does is show you other players choices in free time and every so often rescue a teammate in a battle, which will happen maybe twice the entire game.

Steam’s Remote Local Online play capability has opened up online play to a lot of games that don’t traditionally have it, but even that has its flaws. Recently, a number of games have removed the ability to play via remote local play via Steam. Lenna’s Inception, which was our indie game of the month for February and one of the best little games to utilize local remote play, suddenly can’t be played that way anymore. Why? Especially why during a pandemic! It doesn’t have any online system of its own so why remove the only outlet we have to play together!? Also, if developers can do that, does that mean they can just elect not to opt in to the system so that we have to use their broken multiplayer rather than Steam’s universal system?

I honestly don’t know, because I haven’t even thought of these things as more than an annoyance until I couldn’t go visit my friends for their own safety, and that’s a shame.

I think I, and more to the point, we as a community need to stop making these allowances for game developers. It’s 2020. It’s been a long time since we first connected to Xbox Live, and even longer since we challenged each other to matches of Warcraft 2 over Battle.net.

Online features are not new and they shouldn’t be treated like an afterthought. A game with multiplayer should work online and offline, not just one or the other, and not just through a fix that Steam provided. It’s a new decade and times are more trying than ever. It’s time to be better, not just because we want you to, but because during emergencies like this, you have to be.