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The popular styles of multiplayer video games have seen minimal change over the last couple generations. First-person shooters, MMORPGs, and strategy games (recently including MOBAs) still thrive in the marketplace despite the popular leaders of the genres–namely Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and League of Legends respectively–forcing competing titles to conform to their established formulas and styles, thus leading to a stagnant industry of followers rather than revolutionaries. At the same time, with the rising popularity of indie games, more unique approaches to multiplayer gameplay have had the opportunity to shine as well, in titles as diverse as Castle Crashers, Minecraft, and Towerfall. Gameplay conventions are at last being eschewed in favor of updated, refined, or altogether reimagined mechanics, resulting in delightful new styles of social gaming.
Nintendo’s New Super Mario Bros. series, for instance, introduces a welcome sense of freedom into the platforming genre, a category defined by its linearity. It’s not explicit freedom like that of world exploration in titles like the Metroid series, but more like the freedom to exploit, dismantle, and redefine the “rules” of the multiplayer system itself. New Super Mario Bros. multiplayer is cooperative on its face, but the implementation of the multiplayer mechanics blurs the line between cooperative and competitive play in a unique way that has altered multiplayer mechanics industry-wide. Players in New Super Mario Bros. can choose to be as helpful or as harmful as they please by picking up and tossing other players, jumping on their heads, or otherwise sabotaging the group’s communal success in favor of individual glory. This makes gameplay chaotic and energetic; as anyone who has played the games will tell you, it introduces a new dynamic between players that in many ways breathes new life into traditional 2D Mario platformers. The series can rightfully be criticized for stagnating in terms of level and art design, but the games are meant to be enjoyed in multiplayer, the arena in which Nintendo have decided to innovate within the series.
New Super Mario Bros. has shown that traditionally single-player and cooperative experiences like that of older Super Mario Bros. titles can be flipped and twisted into new styles of gameplay. People are often critical when multiplayer modes are seemingly “tacked on” to single-player games, but the experimentation on display in the New Super Mario Bros. cooperative mode proves that tinkering with a conventional play-style can make the old new again. As the functionality of internet-based social experiences evolves–and with it the medium of video games–so too should multiplayer gaming mechanics.
Other games already utilize these ideas. Competitive components in semi-cooperative action platformers adds new dimensions to games like Spelunky and Risk of Rain, while out-and-out competitive platforming games like Speedrunners and Towerfall: Ascension experiment with the kind of gameplay that New Super Mario Bros. popularized by rewarding the chaos of multiplayer freedom via individual scoring systems. These trends point toward wider innovation in multiplayer gaming, where the concepts of cooperative and competitive play are being blended and toyed with. What other untapped potential for multiplayer gaming is hiding in conventional gameplay styles? What could be done to role-playing, adventure, or simulation games, for example? First-person shooters and MOBA games still dominate the modern multiplayer landscape, but the innovation of competitive platforming points to greater potential for more off-beat games to find a welcoming place in the market and perhaps in time replace the all-too-familiar faces of social gaming.