The Decline of Split-Screen Gaming

When Mikey the Gamer got his first Xbox in 2002, he and his friends couldn’t wait to come home after school and fight side by side against the forces of evil. They huddled around his 30-inch CRT television which flickered whenever his mum had the oven on, each of them peering eagerly at their own division of the screen. These were the early days of split-screen gaming, and since then it has experienced a dramatic rise and fall. We can wax nostalgic over the golden days of local-cooperative and offline multiplayer all we want, but the unfortunate reality is that split-screen is dying, and once again it seems the gaming community is (at least partially) bringing it upon themselves by prioritising frame rate and graphics over substantive gameplay.

For those unfamiliar, split-screen gaming involves multiple players on a single console playing on the same monitor. It allows players to either cooperate or compete while sitting in the same room. Many players, myself included, have always found this the most exciting and enjoyable form of competitive gameplay. However, in a society evermore obsessed with interconnectivity, game developers seem to be pushing us in the opposite direction. There are of course several reasons why far fewer games offer co-op campaign and offline multiplayer:

  1. The near-ubiquity of high-speed internet connections has fostered the ascent of online multiplayer. In the 2000s, upload speeds were insufficient to support the graphics, frame rates and real time renderings that are required for a passable gameplay experience. Ping and latency issues caused lag between players, which in a First-Person Shooter (FPS – not to be confused with Frames Per Second) is both frustrating and usually unplayable. This is no longer the case, and online play allows players to enjoy the full size of their screen all to themselves, while still interacting with other human players in the virtual world.
  2. Since Pong was first conceived, game graphics have been improving at a fantastic rate. For every popular game sequel, consumers demand improved graphics, physics and in some cases frames per second (this makes games appear smoother). These improvements require great leaps in computing power, which have always been available to developers until more recently. Expectations for in-game realism have become so high that they’re beginning to outrun available processing power within consumer consoles. This is one of the key reasons for the decline in split-screen gaming. When running split-screen, a console must process two instances of the same game simultaneously. This sacrifices graphics and frame rate, and is clearly a concession many developers are no longer willing to make. They’d prefer to force players online for multiplayer, keeping local graphics dialled to the max.
  3. There is an undeniable financial gain for developers to forcing players online. Online subscription fees are very standard these days, with most players accepting them without protest. A lack of local multiplayer also forces more copies of a game to be sold, and as a corollary, more consoles to begin with. Rather than Mikey the Gamer’s friends coming over to his house to play, each of them must now own their own console if they wish to join the fun. I will discuss this point further next week, as the evolution of cost structures within the gaming industry is fascinating to say the least.
  4. Eliminating split-screen reduces the development time on games. AI bots, or the non-player characters that a player would fight against locally, do not have to be programmed into online-only multiplayer games. By allowing players to fight more centralised NPC opponents in an online forum, processing power can be focused wholly on internal graphics as opposed to also running the AI bots. This is entirely avoided when human players face one another without the presence of NPC opponents, which further reduces development time.

I would love to think that the average gamer is willing to forego the highest tier graphics, frame rates and seamless renderings for local cooperative gameplay and offline multiplayer split-screen. The trend, however, speaks for itself. Consumers seem more than happy to buy Halo 5, Overwatch, and countless other online-only multiplayer games, content to put the days of split-screen gaming behind them in lieu of impressive visuals. There are of course some gaming experiences that can only be achieved in massively multiplayer online formats, such as the recently discussed EVE Online. That style of game requires online play, and there is undoubtedly value in opposing new players you’ve never met and interacting within a vast network of existing competitors. This said, there is a reason that the Wii U has had such enduring success. It remains one of the last bastions of pure local multiplayer. Games like Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros, and Mario Party allow a completely lag-free experience between friends while eliminating constraints of 4K graphics and immeasurable frame rate demands. Mario Kart 8 in fact unashamedly lowers both graphics and FPS when switching from 1 to 2, and from 2 to 4 players. Some players clearly understand and accept this, because it’s not what the game is about. If a game prioritises graphics over fun, that is a game I would steer well clear of.

There are several exceptions to the trend. Star Wars Battlefront and Black Ops 3 both boast excellent split-screen capabilities, while maintaining pretty graphics and seamless gameplay. They also offer online play of course, but the split-screen capability is such a crucial factor in their respective successes. As a side note, the general size of modern televisions allows even a halved screen to be at least the size of any screen we used to play on alone.

I genuinely hope split-screen makes a triumphant comeback across the board. I believe it would bring the gaming community closer together, rekindle the human interaction between players and make those clutch headshots so much more palpable. Unfortunately as time goes on, it becomes less and less likely that a 4 player split-screen James Bond 007 Nightfire remake for PS4 will ever become a reality.

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