Raymond Brooks

Exploding pixels, screen-cheating, and old CRT monitors are disappearing from the gaming landscape. The foundations for local multiplayer, once staples of Friday nights, are going the way of Betamax.

Gamers of today have inevitably lost sight of something. Each other.

Local multiplayer has been around since the golden age of video games. It was a time when quarter-run arcades machines and link cables were as common as today’s smartphones. That time has long passed.

According to Bing Kung, former assistant at the now closed Hi-Tech Games, “Local [Split-screen] Multiplayer [are games that allow players] to play games on the same screen without needing an extra copy of a game and gaming system. Genres that have such a feature include shooters, racing, puzzle, and fighters.”

Most of that opinion derives from nostalgia and memories from our youth.

Two NES controllers from the game-playing area at Toronto store, Gamemania, on March 29, 2019. (Raymond Brooks)

Kung said his earliest memory of local multiplayer was playing Super Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo. “Nothing beats racing together on the same track and looking at the other player’s screen to create unforgivable mischief.”

A shared passion of games can create friendships, whether it’s taking turns on classic Mario titles, playing split screen fighting games or group matches in a computer lab. When they are forged through face-to-face interactions in front of decades old graphic chips, they can last a lifetime.

In those social environments, comradery, community, and civility are just as important as the competitiveness. As a result, gamers form essential social skills in a contained environment. The value of that is underestimated as just thirty years later, former examples of local multiplayer are dying.

The reason why can be summarized in three words.

Internet connection required.

Multiplayer has forgotten its routes. In the landscape today, most games do not offer local multiplayer. Some consoles even lack the architecture their previous models were designed to perform. Therefore, classic series have lost their signature appeal and gamers are more disconnected than ever.

Are there any solutions?

Several, but it depends on who you ask.

If you ask Kung, he values the classics and prefers the retro option.

I think it is a missed opportunity to not have split-screen multiplayer on games these days. High budget racing games such as Forza and Gran Turismo suffer a lot by not having more than two players,” Kung said.

“Granted they still sell well despite not having such a feature. Honestly, some games today are just not designed for local multiplayer in mind … To showcase something of great detail and fidelity for each player on their own quarter of the screen is very taxing,” he said.

He is not the only one with this opinion.

The founders of the video game store, Game Mania, believe retro should be maintained because there is still a community.

Mikhael McLean of Game Mania, is a long-time game collector and said, “I still prefer a set plan with people. That is why we have a game playing area in the store. That to me is more important, but the goal is for playing with friends. Getting too corporate takes away from what games should be about, which is the players.”

Julie Selelenk of Game Mania, has always had games as a part of her life and thinks digital games are not sustainable.

“I believe the current digital trend is just a phase. When people realize that they cannot hold a digital copy in their hands, the servers are down, and they are spending more money on hard drive spaces, the trend will reverse,” Selelenk said.

Whether games are in disc format or digital downloads, some players just miss the classic era.

Staff member Xavier Douce testing out an NES controller at the Toronto store, Gamemania, on March 29, 2019. (Raymond Brooks)

Taye Lemma, Game Enthusiast and competitive player said, “I have a little brother and as a child, I played video games with him. I was making sure I got two-player, split-screen games. To me it is like kind of a social thing. I can always look over and see my opponent or friend. I always thought that is fun because… you can actually see their reaction and it is better to have that human connection.”

Despite multiplayer being at the forefront of gaming, single player games deserve a place.

Kung said, “There is always room for single player games. However, such titles require creative thought and a budget that may not make as much money compared to the micro-transaction heavy mobile games … Fortunately, they create a classic beginning, middle and end, not only for stories, but for the player’s growth as an individual.”

Even with all the retro support, it is hard to ignore the corporate giant that is the eSports industry.

“Despite its fast pace of growth in relevance and attendance” said Kung, “eSports is still at its infancy in terms of development and mainstream exposure. As more companies (support) this environment, it will only continue to grow and gain more traction, so long as there are people out there who want to thrive in a competitive scene, that is properly regulated and implemented to encourage positive reinforcement.”

Although the eSports industry spans the globe, the decisions on actual game development are made by the development companies and what works best for their dedicated player base.

Geoffrey Lachapalle, an eSports coordinator at Humber College said, “When companies that want to be at the front of local area network competition vs. web-based competition, the challenge comes from saving development time by removing local area network play. This is why you see many consoles cut split-screen and games are made faster.”

However, even the games and companies that thrive in the online eSports world offer some options to offline players.

“The more that network issues occur, the more you will see companies begin to develop for offline play support, even if it is only a special client designed for the competitive level play, because it is hard to beat direct networking,” said Lachapalle. “It makes things logistically easier, mechanically more exciting, and I think overall, more competitive for everybody involved.”

With how fast the industry is moving, it is hard to believe how local games can survive in an eSports world that is constantly being streaming.

Kristopher Alexander, a Professorof Video Games, Design and eSports, said there are “two ways that [local multiplayer] survives. One through eSports because unless you have incredible developer support, it is rare that you are seeing people competing at the international and championship level overseas. The second reason is our internet is … at a stage where it is better to be local. I think it is on pause until internet services and technology develop.”

The industry of video games is a dynamic, explosive and ever-changing landscape that continues to redefine itself. It is about the content, the players, environment and nostalgia all jumbled in a mosaic of pixels and an 8-bit orchestra. Games press onward while preserving the past at the discretion of the developers and committed enthusiasts.

The parting of split-screen gaming is inevitable. It will be replaced by the demands of a new generation, but it will not be the same experience. New players will create new memories and their nostalgia will be singular instead of collective. They will lose the chance for in-person social experiences through video games, and alternatives should be available.

“Partly from nostalgia and partly from enjoyment, gamers who started thirty years ago remember they can exist in the same room while building a meaningful community that can define a generation. They definitely did for me,” Kung said.

Gamers should be remembering people by their faces.

Not their usernames.

A meaningful candle flickers out at Toronto store, Gamemania, on March 29, 2019. (Raymond Brooks)

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