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When games rely on an active online player base to populate their worlds, what happens when we pick up these games in a few years time only to find that no one is playing anymore?

Tom Battey, Blogger

April 9, 2014

11 Min Read

Now is the time to be playing Dark Souls II. Just under a month since launch, the world of Drangleic is teeming with activity, the ghosts of other players teeming around me as I explore, sometimes materialising to irritatingly shank me in the spine. Glowing signs litter the ground near the sites of tough battles as recently victorious players offer their services to those less fortunate in exchange for souls and special items.

But it won't last. I remember my return trips to the original Dark Souls, months or years after launch. The game was a wasteland. Summoning other players to help was almost impossible because anyone still playing had beaten the game multiple times, become Dark Souls professionals. And player-on-player combat was equally frustrating, as the only people left playing were seasoned die-hards and knew every cheap trick in the book. Fighting an endless stream of backflipping heavily armoured clones was no fun at all.

To get the most out of Dark Souls II you need to be playing it now, when the game is still fresh to even the most hardened of fans.

For those that don't know, I'm a huge fan of Dark Souls. Dark Souls is one of my favourite games ever. I love the crumbling medieval world, I love the crunchy combat, I love the towering bosses, and I love how the game refuses to hold your hand at any point. So it was a given that I'd set aside a hefty chunk of time to really get stuck in to the sequel as soon as it arrived.

It was cool being one of the frontrunners in the new game. I'd encounter enemies that I knew everyone else in the world must be getting stuck on from the sheer number of desperate messages and player summon signs near them. I'd encounter areas that were clearly intended as multiplayer battle arenas, but that stood empty as not enough people had reached them yet to really engage with one another.

Dark Souls 2 Coop Cooperative online multiplayer is a key component of the Souls franchise.

I recently went on holiday (real-life holiday, not Dark Souls holiday), a holiday that involved not playing Dark Souls II for a week. Firing the game up again on return, it already feels different. I'm encountering players who are on at least their second playthrough already. It's harder to get summoned to help others near the start of the game now, because the majority of players have already raced past these points. Someone announced on Twitter this morning that they've already cleared every achievement in the game. Now that's some serious devotion to Dark Souls.

But it makes me wonder what will happen to this game over the next few months. When does the optimal period for playing it end? How will a new player's experience of the game in one, two months' time be different to mine playing on day one?

It's an issue that's relevant to all online games - how can developers keep the game experience inviting to newcomers after the initial rush of the launch months wear off?

Often they can't - competitive online shooting games are notoriously impenetrable to newbies once a dedicated player base has been given enough time to master the game. People with a passing interest in a game like Titanfall have perhaps a couple of months to get invested before the online game becomes dominated by the seasoned hardcore. Joining a Call of Duty match today without a firm familiarity with the franchise is an exercise in swift and repeated death.

But these competitive games are less interested in constantly introducing new players as they are in cultivating a dedicated fan base from the players who buy the game on near enough day one, and keeping them playing until the next release in the series shakes things up and allows another brief window for new players to join the community.

Massively multiplayer games have a different approach to player acquisition and retention after launch; these are games that are intended to be around for years, even decades. These games have to attempt a balancing act between remaining accessible enough for new players and staving off boredom and content exhaustion in their die-hard players. Regular expansions that introduce new content that can be enjoyed at different levels by newcomers and veterans alike are employed to keep these games viable.

A game like Dark Souls sits somewhere in the middle of these two approaches. It's not a competitive game with the replayability required to keep a hardcore fan base actively playing for a year or more - or at least not aside from a few truly dedicated players. It's also not quite a persistent world built to keep people playing indefinitely for years - it's a huge game with a long post-game tail, but it doesn't offer the same 'endless' playability as a truly massively multiplayer game like EVE or World of Warcraft.

Instead it's this strange new-ish thing, a primarily single player experience that is nonetheless actively shaped by the activities of its worldwide player base. Dark Souls II today is a different game to Dark Souls II only three weeks ago, and will be a different experience entirely in a year's time.

Destiny Bungie's Destiny looks set to rely on Dark Souls-style seamless multiplayer gameplay.

This sort of slowly-changing quasi-multiplayer experience is going to become more common as more games begin to adopt this hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous multiplayer elements. Bungie's Destiny looks to ambitiously combine single- and multiplayer experiences in a seamless online world, and Ubisoft's upcoming Watch Dogs allows players to directly and indirectly affect each other's games in a manner not dissimilar to Dark Souls.

These games now exist in a strange place, a place with a limited time span. It used to be that the game you bought would provide the same experience for as long after purchase as you chose to play it. A copy of Super Mario World plays identically today as it did on launch - providing you've managed to keep 20 years worth of dust out of the cartridge, anyway.

Even competitive multiplayer games tend to remain relevant until the next game in the series is released - hardcore Halo players will tend to continue playing the most recent Halo game until a sequel arrives. The experience may begin to stagnate as fewer new players join, but after a few months it will remain a fairly stable experience for those dedicated to the game.

That's not the case with a game like Dark Souls II, or Destiny or Watch Dogs. These games require an active player base to deliver the intended experience, but also have a finite amount of content, a suggested endpoint at which all but the most dedicated of players are likely to stop playing the game.

It makes games feel more like an event, something that exists at a set point in time. Dark Souls II feels like an event right now - I'm experiencing the game fresh alongside countless other players, and sharing that experience with even more people through social media. One day everyone is screaming about one particular boss on Twitter; the next it's mentioned no more as the bulk of the player base pushes past it.

But this won't be the case in a few months time. The 'event' that is Dark Souls II will effectively be over; the game will still be completely playable, but this experience of visiting it with fresh eyes alongside thousands of others will be gone.

And that makes me wonder what will happen to these games in many years time. Super Mario World is still 100% viable after 20 years. Dark Souls II may perhaps be 70% viable after that length of time - that's an arbitrary value invented by me based on how much value I feel the multiplayer component adds to the overall Dark Souls experience.

But what about a game like Destiny, something that looks to place a much greater emphasis on the multiplayer component than Dark Souls? Will a game like that even be worth playing when almost everyone else in the world has stopped playing?

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand I love the feeling of games as an 'event'; being part of the Dark Souls II community from day one adds an element to that game that's just impossible to emulate in a completely static experience. It's like going to the theatre and experiencing something live, something that may be repeated but will never be exactly the same again, as opposed to going to the cinema and watching a print of something destined to be repeated thousands of times. It feels more alive.

But I'm also aware that this is something I can only really experience once; if I'm hit with a burst of nostalgia in a few years' time and decide to revisit Dark Souls II, then I'll still be able to play the game, but it will be impossible to recapture the experience of playing in the launch month. That makes it all the more important to savour this first play through, which makes it all the more delightful - but I am somewhat saddened by the fact that the games we play today are destined to effectively vanish, to remain as memories rather than something tangible we can revisit again and again.

What we gain in a sense of shared wonder and camaraderie, we lose in true longevity and the ability to act on our future nostalgia. The future classics of today will be, by the time that future rolls around, only a shell of their former selves.

Tom Battey is an author and person who sometimes writes about videogames. He writes at tombattey.com and does the Twitter thing @tombattey.

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