Online multiplayer has become a key component of gaming over the past ten years. Social platforms such as PlayStation Network have paved the way for connected experiences impossible on systems of old, and driven emerging brands such as Call of Duty to the top of the charts. And yet, while those experiences have thrived on static platforms like PS3, handhelds have struggled to tempt the same rising market. But is that a fault of ill-equipped hardware, or simply a discrepancy between the expectations of the two markets?
Despite its just-pocketable size, much has been made about Vita’s ability to operate like a console. In many ways, Sony’s shiny new handheld accentuates the infrastructural strides the platform holder has made since the PS3 released in 2006. The system is a portal of connectivity, allowing you to stay in touch with friends and, fairly easily, meet new ones through the system’s location-based networking system, Near. But while Vita is an undeniably equipped social platform, does it need to be inspired by its home console counterparts when it comes to online experiences?
The backlash ModNation Racers: Road Trip faced when Sony casually revealed that the title would ship without online multiplayer was unprecedented. Consumer interest in the title – which originally presented itself as one of the bright stars of Vita’s already-sparkling launch line up – took a severe nosedive, and it’s still looked upon as the tainted misstep in an otherwise stellar launch offering. The omission was a commercial oversight — that much cannot be denied — but beyond the clamouring and conversation for a mode that does not exist, did developer Sony San Diego actually invest its resources into the right areas?
Road Trip may not include online multiplayer in the traditional sense, but it has a richer offering of connected components that have largely gone overlooked amidst the demands for an infrastructure suite. Tying into the game’s titular activity, the Mod Explorer lavishes you (and the community) with unlockable in-game goods for taking the game out and about with you and registering your travels as you play. Travel Points accumulate on an individual and community basis, rewarding players with new objects and stickers which can be used in the game’s creation toolset. Similarly, checking into popular cities rewards you with a collection of themed prizes — once the community reaches a quota of check-ins at a specific location, all players are presented with an additional in-game item.
And the location-based implementation doesn’t end there. Leaderboards are closely connected to GPS data, allowing you to create arcade-like custom events based on where you are (school, work or home). Other competitors checking in to the location can compete against the leaderboard, creating a personal multiplayer environment through more suitable asynchronous hooks.
It’s clear from the sheer amount of work that was put into Road Trip’s online offering that Sony San Diego didn’t expect pre-release conversation to be fixated on the title’s lack of traditional head-to-head. And while it’s certainly true that the developer could have implemented an infrastructure component on top of its more innovative options, it’s unclear what advantage that would give the game beyond sating the backlash of vocal fans. Ultimately, Road Trip offers an online experience much more befitting of the platform.
Contrast it against another Vita launch title, WipEout 2048, and the differences are stark. While still innovative – through its unique progression system – Studio Liverpool’s futuristic racer opts for a much more static multiplayer component. Indeed, unlike Sony San Diego’s meta offering, WipEout 2048 demands a good internet connection to power its online campaign. It’s a feature that, while functionally sound, is inaccessible when the Vita is out and about.
Resistance: Burning Skies faces a similar dilemma. Its recently revealed multiplayer component consists of a competent deathmatch experience running on the Vita’s five-inch screen. But again, while it’s an unprecedented inclusion for a portable exclusive, is it an ill-suited one? Just like WipEout 2048, Burning Skies’ offering demands a strong Internet connection, limiting play to static (presumably indoor) locations. It’s far from the portable ideal that Vita's intended to represent.
In fact, Burning Skies’ most intriguing multiplayer asset comes through its implementation of Near. By taking the system and about you’ll be able to earn bonuses by infecting (or rallying) other consoles. It’s an interesting inclusion that plays to the system’s strengths, rather than limits its portability.
And yet, other examples prove that there’s no reason for Vita to compromise between competition and portability. Launch titles Hustle Kings and Top Darts manage to provide competitive experiences that work over 3G without the immediacy of a direct internet connection. Sure, the nature of both titles appeals to the slower pace of play, but there’s no reason that, with thought, games like Resistance: Burning Skies couldn’t offer a similarly competitive multiplayer experience that’s playable on-the-go. A fleshed out version of Global Resistance tantalisingly springs to mind.
But, considering the backlash aimed at ModNation Racers’ feature set, it’s becoming increasingly vague what gamers actually want from online multiplayer on Vita. Squandering the platform’s portability seems like a misstep, but the brunt of the conversation appears to be fixated on the idea of more traditional experiences contained within a smaller shell. There’s no reason the system can’t do both, of course, but spreading resources means neither direction is likely to get the thought and attention it deserves.
As such it’s up to the Vita’s early adopters to define the platform’s maturation. The experiences players gravitate towards now will help to decide the course of future releases. The question is: do you want traditional console multiplayer fare on a small screen, or do you want developers to take advantage of the system’s unprecedented connectivity and craft something fitting and fresh?