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The Golden Age of Multiplayer: How Online Gaming Conquered Video Games

Gaming is more social than ever before, and while single-player still has its place, online multiplayer has become the dominant mode of video game culture. How did this happen?

Jay Torres

Globally, there were more than 1 billion gamers playing online in 2022, emphasis on playing online. Gaming has its eras. We’re living in the golden age of online multiplayer.

This golden age began a few years ago. In May 2016, Blizzard Entertainment released Overwatch, a team-based hero shooter that pits players against each other in game modes like capture the flag. A year later, Epic Games released Fortnite Battle Royale, a cartoonish survival game in which up to 100 players duke it out to be the last person standing. Gamers suffered no shortage of online multiplayer titles in the late 2000s and throughout the 2010s, but these two titles, Overwatch and Fortnite, brought the subculture to critical mass.

Fortnite in particular was the sort of pop-culture phenomenon that created a generation in its own image: in this case, a well-armed but nonetheless friendly and colorful caricature dancing like Donald Faison in Scrubs. Epic Games recruited a spectacular variety of mainstream entertainers—Travis Scott, Ariana Grande, and even Christopher Nolan—into the very sort of virtual playground now commonly known as a metaverse, projected to define the future of the internet at large. (We’ll see.) Hell, Fortnite created its own celebrities in gamers like Ninja, who boasts more than 18 million followers on Twitch—the most on the entire platform—in large part due to his streaming of Battle Royale. Fortnite inspired crazes. Fortnite was both the cause and consequence of major breakthroughs in online multiplayer gaming.

Now, the cultural clout and commercial stakes for online multiplayer video games couldn’t be higher. This time last year, Microsoft announced its $68.7 billion acquisition of video game publisher Activision, which is responsible for Call of Duty. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission sued to block the deal on antitrust grounds. Some of the scrutiny concerns Call of Duty in particular; competitors and critics fear Microsoft might eventually lock PlayStation users—customers of Microsoft’s main gaming rival, Sony—out of the player base for the most profitable online multiplayer franchise in the history of video games. (Microsoft keeps promising not to do this.)

In October, Blizzard launched a long-anticipated sequel, Overwatch 2, hosting more than 25 million players across all platforms in the game’s first 10 days online. Epic countered with a new “chapter” of Fortnite—a new map, new mechanics, new rules—available to more than 250 million active players across all platforms. At face value, Epic’s approach to Fortnite seems more modern than Activision’s approach to developing an Overwatch “sequel.” Many multiplayer hits are still going strong more than a decade after launch: World of Warcraft (2004), Roblox (2006), League of Legends (2009), Minecraft (2011), and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (2012) are notable examples. In August 2013, Square Enix released Final Fantasy XIV, the odd MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role-playing game, in a long-running and largely offline single-player series. A decade later, FFXIV hosts more than 27 million users total, with more than a million players on the servers on any given day. The biggest online multiplayer games often become subcultures unto themselves.

Single-player is still a vital format for video games. In fact, this format marked its own commercial and critical milestones in the past decade: Grand Theft Auto V outgrossed James Cameron’s original Avatar—the biggest blockbuster in movie box-office history—two times over. The Last of Us proved the viability of complex characterizations and mature storytelling in video games, and this month, HBO premiered its long-anticipated (and so far acclaimed) television adaptation of the 2014 D.I.C.E. Awards Game of the Year winner. The biggest game release of the past year wasn’t Overwatch 2 but rather the single-player, open-world adventure game Elden Ring, with nearly 18 million copies sold to date. But even the single-player success stories of the past decade are intertwined with the multiplayer boom. Elden Ring is primarily a single-player ordeal but also boasts online co-op and player-versus-player modes. Naughty Dog is spinning The Last of Us into a multiplayer concept as we speak. Grand Theft Auto Online just got a PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S release last March. This isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game.

This isn’t a done deal either. The esports industry—once the subject of so many trend pieces about the future of multiplayer and video games in general—is still very much in development. It now faces an uncertain outlook as the major esports organizers, such as Activision and Riot Games, and media partners, such as YouTube and Twitch, struggle to generate revenue within reach of live sports. Still, the trend line within gaming is clear. In a recent survey, MIDiA Research saw a stark generational shift. “While the overall preference for the single player mode holds true across all age segments, the degree to which the single player mode is preferred differs significantly with age,” the report said. Older respondents preferred single-player games quite decisively; younger respondents were far more likely to either prefer multiplayer games or to be open to both formats.

In recent months, I’ve spoken with a variety of developers and players, and I’ve asked them to weigh in on a simple premise: Online multiplayer has become the dominant mode of video game culture. Most agreed; some wondered whether the multiplayer boom would eventually come at the expense of single-player game development at the major studios.

Gaming is more social than ever before, and gaming is extremely online. This shift was long- and hard-fought. It’s the story of exponential improvement in telecommunication infrastructure and matchmaking algorithms. But it’s also the story of a once-fractured subculture maturing, for better or worse, into an almost seamless monoculture.

“Multiplayer” used to mean a couple players splitting an arcade cabinet or two to four players splitting the controllers on a home console. Multiplayer was social, but multiplayer was local. You didn’t have seamless, far-reaching access to a seemingly bottomless player base filled with strangers. Yet.

The proliferation of home consoles killed video game arcades in the late 1990s, so by the 2000s, multiplayer gaming was quite fragmented. For one, PC gamers and console gamers weren’t on the same page. The PC nerds in the university computer labs of the 1990s were playing Quake and Unreal Tournament together on local networks. Meanwhile, console gamers were waiting for products with online capabilities; console publishers were waiting for gamers to upgrade their home internet connections from dial-up to broadband and cable. In the meantime, we had LAN parties. In the 2000s, gamers would haul their hardware to some filthy tech den with routers and screens set up for attendees to play en masse—sometimes casually, sometimes competitively—on a local network. The video game critic Merritt K, currently an editor at the gaming publication Fanbyte, recently published LAN Party, a crowdsourced, limited-release collection of amateur photos documenting “the energy-drink-fuelled, furniture-rearranging, multiplayer gaming trend and its nocturnal participants.”

“For a long time, the stereotype of computer gamers, and I think just gamers in general, was [that] they were locked in their rooms on their own,” Merritt tells me. “For a brief period, you did have to leave your house.”

The first online multiplayer boom began on PC in the late 1990s with the launch of Ultima Online and EverQuest, two foundational MMORPGs. EverQuest, which was particularly influential, is a team-based fantasy game inspired by Dungeons and Dragons and old-school, text-based RPGs; online players form guilds to embark on raids, quests, and other explorations. The popular console RPGs, such as Final Fantasy, were decidedly solitary games. Final Fantasy XI, the first MMORPG in the Final Fantasy series, which launched on the PlayStation 2 and PC in May 2002, “began when the upper management of the development team became obsessed with EverQuest,” says Naoki Yoshida, the director of the aforementioned Final Fantasy XIV.

In theory, EverQuest could have been a PlayStation game. 989 Studios developed the title under Sony, but the game launched exclusively on PC in March 1999 when the original PlayStation simply couldn’t connect to the internet at all. When Final Fantasy XI released three years later, it wasn’t just the first MMORPG in the Final Fantasy series, but also one of the first online multiplayer games of any kind to run on the PlayStation 2. “[Final Fantasy XI] was the result of us taking on the challenge of MMORPGs, a leading genre at the time, on a console,” Final Fantasy XI director Yoji Fujito says. In the long term, Final Fantasy XI went on to become one of the most successful games in the series, with more than half a million active subscriptions at its peak in 2006. But at launch, it was a curious experiment in a console market still underprepared for the internet.

Enter Microsoft, the Xbox, and its game-changing online platform, Xbox Live. The service let players buy digital copies of games and connect to multiplayer servers. Sega had tried to implement such features a couple years prior, publishing the earliest console MMORPG, Phantasy Star Online, for the Dreamcast, which had a rudimentary dial-up modem installed within the console. But the Dreamcast notoriously flopped against the PS2 upon its arrival in 2000, and Sega ended up exiting the console market altogether. Meanwhile, Microsoft found a formative megahit for the Xbox in Halo 2, an intergalactic first-person shooter with well-balanced, fast-paced online multiplayer modes.

The streamlining of online multiplayer gaming on all platforms largely comes down to netcode. This is, basically, the work of connecting different players running different copies of a game in different places on different internet connections—somehow resulting in a smooth playing experience for everyone. This can make or break online play in many genres. The netcode in competitive shooters and fighting games needs to properly handle high-precision button presses down to a frame of animation. Halo 2 had suitable netcode for the time, decent enough to support a broad player base in online matchmaking. Halo 2 was by far the best-selling game on the original Xbox and a spectacular breakthrough in online matchmaking. Finally, the console gamers entered the chat.

Halo revolutionized online play while also still offering a substantial single-player experience. Other franchises would go on to de-prioritize or even outright discontinue that second part.

Call of Duty, first released in 2003, began as a conventional shooter set in World War II, built around a story-driven campaign in the same vein as Medal of Honor. The fourth entry, 2007’s Modern Warfare, shifted the series in a different direction. Beyond the change in time period, Modern Warfare introduced significant online multiplayer features such as killstreaks, special abilities, and experience points, used to unlock new weapons and gameplay modes. This launched the long and ongoing trend of the series moving away from prioritizing its cinematic single-player campaigns in favor of its online multiplayer matchmaking (though there were a couple notable exceptions, like 2014’s Advanced Warfare, starring Kevin Spacey). For the most part, you now buy Call of Duty for the multiplayer. Medal of Honor, with its sustained single-player focus, never reached such popular heights.

Shooting games led; other genres followed. Sports games, with their timed matches and built-in fan bases, were a logical next step. Football initially went online in August 2002 with the release of Madden NFL 2003, a multi-platform breakthrough that brought in a huge segment of casual gamers. But the real turning point came with the introduction of “Ultimate Team,” EA Sports’ default online mode in which players “buy” and “sell”—either with in-game currency or real money—virtual playing cards to build a dream team of athletes. First available on FIFA 09, Ultimate Team would become an outrageous success across EA’s FIFA, Madden, and NHL franchises. In 2021, the game mode alone generated more than $1.6 billion in revenue—a staggering 29 percent of EA’s total revenue that year. With 325 million copies and counting sold worldwide, FIFA has gone on to become the best-selling sports game franchise on the planet. Multiplayer sports’ popularity is somewhat to the chagrin of dedicated single-player fans who increasingly complain that improvements to solo modes, such as “Franchise” or “create a player,” are routinely ignored. Meanwhile, Ultimate Team, or the NBA 2K franchise’s “MyTeam” mode, receives notable updates year after year.

Regardless of where sports-game players land on the single-player or multiplayer spectrum, most would agree that these games tend to be incrementalist re-skins of the previous releases. Ultimate Team might get a little more love than Franchise mode, but Madden 24 will not dramatically differ from 23. You’d maybe think to compare sports games to Call of Duty, which also releases (more or less) annually, but Call of Duty changes from year to year; sports games are merely tweaked and presented as entirely new games. Sports games are the exceptions to one of the definitive innovations of the online multiplayer boom: games as a service.

Take the Street Fighter series, for example. This year, Capcom is finally releasing a sequel to 2016’s Street Fighter V, but Capcom also serviced Street Fighter V with character additions, mechanical revisions, balance (fairness) patches, and seasonal updates for several years after its release. The Street Fighter V of 2023 is the same game as the Street Fighter V of 2016, but in a very different state. That is the view of games as a service. That’s why Overwatch 2 was (and frankly still is) a head-scratcher to some people. The differences from the original Overwatch don’t amount to an overhaul à la a new version of Street Fighter, but rather an expansion à la a new season of Street Fighter. In this sense, the enduring business model of sports games feels quite outdated—and it’s a sign of how much the production and culture of multiplayer video games have changed in the decades since a few of those series launched.

The major advancements in online multiplayer gaming were as much technical as they were cultural. Cliff Bleszinski, a.k.a. CliffyB, a former developer at Epic Games and creator of the notorious cover shooter Gears of War, recently authored a memoir, Control Freak, reflecting on the big shifts in video game culture in his more than 30 years working in the industry. Bleszinski bears a unique perspective on both Fortnite, which he helped name shortly before leaving the company to start his own studio, as well as Overwatch, which he had the misfortune of commercially challenging in summer 2017 with the release of his studio’s own hero shooter, LawBreakers. He talked to me about the human connections he’s seen develop in online multiplayer games: high school friendships forged in Gears of War, romances kindled in Unreal Tournament, that sort of thing.

“Online gaming has the power to really unite people in certain instances,” Bleszinksi said. “The flip side of that coin, as you obviously know, is that you put a microphone and anonymity and a monitor in front of somebody, and suddenly the worst of them can often come out.”

This inflexible and unfortunate fact of human nature was the toxic undercurrent of online multiplayer gaming in the 2000s. The team chat on Xbox Live circa Halo 2 was a sort of perpetual hazing ritual, a vortex of try-hard comedy and screeching harassment. A couple years ago, the popular YouTube gaming video creator The Act Man published a video retrospective titled “Xbox 360 Chat Was WILD,” which showcases a rather effective montage of all the slander and epithets I’d rather not print on this website. One popular and rather poignant comment on the video reads, “Man as a black dude as soon as I plugged my mic in the whole lobby would turn into the KKK LOL.” (This hits a little too close to home.) The eventual mainstreaming of online multiplayer gaming noticeably, if not totally, mellowed most channels. There has been some improvement in content moderation on the part of developers, but there’s also the cultural shift that Phreak, a former esports commentator who works for Riot Games, describes while reminiscing about StarCraft: player bases getting older—but also larger and more diverse—and slowly but surely revising the norms.

Fortnite didn’t just get more people playing video games together online. It also got those people spending money in new ways. The free-to-play model popularized in battle royales and multiplayer online battle arenas lowered the barriers to entry for many games, but it also introduced some unsettling business models with pernicious incentives for young and/or obsessive players. Suddenly, you could download a game with zero up-front cost and realize only days, weeks, or years later that you’ve spent more than the standard $59.99 you would’ve paid for a full-price game at launch. You got the game for free, or for $19.99 instead of $59.99, but now it’s always trying to sell you something.

These business models work shockingly well when many players dump hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours into these games. Basically, Merritt says, “Publishers have gotten better at extracting money from players, and developers have gotten better at building loops that are directly targeting people’s token reward systems.” Merritt cites Halo 2 and Destiny 2, both developed by Bungie but launched more than a decade apart, as evidence of the general refinement in gameplay loops. Halo 2 gave players a rank, “and that’s about it,” Merritt says, while Destiny 2, a “looter shooter,” entices players with ranks, levels, gear tiers and upgrades, seasonal content, and multiple in-game currencies.

“I picked up Destiny and thought, ‘I’m going to hate this; this is really exploitative and terrible,’” Merritt says. “And then I sunk 6,000 hours into it.” These games are proving more immersive than even the most engrossing and inexhaustible role-playing games. The online multiplayer game is an indefinite commitment. It has made contemporary gaming something more akin to social media, hence its influential role in the next generation of the internet.

The online multiplayer landscape is smoother than ever before but still not totally seamless. This is one of the decisive concerns in Microsoft’s pending acquisition of Activision: online cross-play. Users on different platforms often want to play together. Sometimes they can. Sometimes they can’t. Sometimes it’s complicated. Some of this player base segmentation is practical and arguably ideal. (Developers typically don’t want PC players using a mouse and keyboard to mingle with console players using controllers in a competitive shooter since the former will usually enjoy a decisive accuracy advantage.) Some of this segmentation is strategic; Microsoft would rather not bankroll a big-budget online multiplayer franchise only to split the revenue from said franchise with another publisher (or publishers), even if doing so could expand the game’s potential player base. Final Fantasy XIV supports cross-play for users on PS4, PS5, and PC, but Square Enix and Microsoft, despite assurances three years ago, have yet to port the game to the Xbox.

In a 2019 interview, Yoshida cited a couple cross-play policies at Microsoft as the main impediment to bringing Xbox players into the fold. He spoke to me separately about the larger challenges that cross-play (and the lack thereof) poses to players and developers alike. “My personal belief is that all games should transcend the boundaries of platforms in a way that the same game can be accessed from any device so that anyone who wants to play or is currently playing can become part of one community,” Yoshida says. “The day will come when gamers around the world can enjoy the same game on any platform and any device they wish.”

The forthcoming Final Fantasy XVI, releasing in June 2023, will be a stand-alone single-player entry. Final Fantasy has always been a genre mash-up of medieval fantasy and various futurisms (steampunk, cyberpunk, retrofuturism), and Final Fantasy XVI, in a throwback to some of the earlier games in the series, appears to emphasize the medieval elements. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy XIV will celebrate its 10th anniversary, and even Final Fantasy XI, launched more than 20 years ago on console with a phone-line port for dial-up on its stand-alone network adapter, will still be hosting tens of thousands of players per month. I asked developers on both games to explain how Final Fantasy keeps its brand intact despite the obvious divergence in design styles. Fujito, at Square Enix, identified “jobs,” as in a character role such as a summoner or paladin, and “magic” as perhaps constituting “the fundamental worldview of the series,” regardless of the big functional differences between the single-player entries and the MMORPGs.

Yoshida disputed my use of the term “traditional” to characterize the former sort of Final Fantasy. “Even if it is a game within a series,” he says, “there’s always the need for something new or innovative.”

That’s the thing about these games—some of them launched more than a decade ago, yet they’re still new, still innovating, and still the future of video games, regardless of how many people are playing, or where.

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