"Everything is more fun with friends."
That's the simple philosophy of Splinter Cell: Blacklist creative director Maxime Beland when it comes to making video games. He takes second to let that sink in before qualifying it. He really means "friends," not just strangers you meet online. Obviously, strangers can be annoying and really ruin a game.
"Having a beer is fun, but having it with friends is better," he says. "It's the same with games."
It's hard to argue with that logic, which is why playing with friends is at the centre of Blacklist , the latest in the Tom Clancy-inspired military espionage franchise, and indeed at the core of Ubisoft's general attitude toward games. While Blacklist – the first release from Ubisoft Toronto, due in August – will see super spy Sam Fisher battle terrorists in a brand new single-player adventure, the two-player co-operative and multiplayer online modes are also baked into the overall experience.
Blacklist will feature a "strategic mission interface," a sort of in-game hub from where players can easily jump in and out of all of the game's modes. Rather than presenting the modes as simplistic choices in a plain, old menu format, players will access them by moving around Fisher's mobile headquarters and talking to different characters.
It's this sort of integration, where social experiences with friends are part of the overall design, that will differentiate good multiplayer games from those that just have such modes tacked on, Mr. Beland says.
Both the co-op and multiplayer modes were shown off to journalists at a preview event at the Toronto studio last week. Blacklist will see the return of the popular Spies versus Mercenaries multiplayer mode, which has teams of either two or four heavily armed players guarding objectives from a similar number of agile and stealthy hackers.
The previous Splinter Cell instalment, Conviction, had the co-operative mode – where two players jointly worked to complete missions – but it lacked the competitive option, which had otherwise been present since the franchise's 2004 instalment, Pandora Tomorrow. Mr. Beland and his team decided to bring it back since it was the most-requested feature from both fans and journalists.
Such games as the upcoming Destiny from Halo creator Bungie – and even Watch Dogs from Ubisoft Montreal – are taking the multiplayer concept even further by incorporating such features into single-player stories, where friends can influence the events in each other's games. Blacklist stops short of that, but the trend toward more of this is unmistakable, Mr. Beland says.
Many players who prefer solo experiences may bristle at the idea, but how much they ultimately like it depends on how it's implemented. Mr. Beland mentions Candy Crush, for smartphones and Facebook, as an example of a game that doesn't do it well because it requires friends to jump in and help you when you've become stuck.
"That's not making my experience better thanks to my friends, that's forcing me to ask people, and post on their walls to join me," he says.
A game such as Ubisoft's own Trials HD , on the other hand, incorporates multiplayer into single-player well because it displays friends' "ghosts," or shadows of their own timed runs, so you can race against them even when they're not playing. As Mr. Beland says, he never played Trials with one particular friend, yet "he was always in my game"
The multiplayer movement isn't just a gamer-driven trend, it has also become a business necessity. While piracy tends to grab the headlines as the industry's big problem, game publishers are usually more upset about the used market, which costs them an estimated $2-billion a year in the United States alone. A single-player game that can be finished in a few hours and that doesn't have a multiplayer mode can be deadly, given that it can be traded in within a day or two. Once a title hits the "used" bin at EB Games in any sizeable quantity, the publisher can pretty much kiss away any hoped-for profits.
As a result, game makers have had to come up with numerous creative ways over the past few years to keep people from trading in their purchases, from extra downloadable content released months after the initial launch to one-time online activation codes to, of course, multiplayer modes. If the multiplayer is intriguing enough, the publisher can then sell extra content – such as new map packs – for it. It's why several franchises that have long been single-player only, such as God of War, for example, have recently added in multiplayer functions.
The downside to the trend is that creating a good multiplayer mode can greatly inflate a game's budget, and therefore potentially what consumers have to pay for it.
One potential solution to the budget bloat issue is to carve a game up into its component parts and sell each separately. Mr. Beland says he was in favour of doing that with Conviction's co-op mode, but the idea was dropped because of other considerations. Fans could easily view a publisher as being greedy, for one.
Still, with the inevitable move toward digital distribution of games, it's a growing possibility. Titles such as last year's hit The Walking Dead from Telltale Games, released in episodic form over the course of several months, are driving new ways of selling games.
"Any creator of video games has to consider, 'What does this mean for my franchise and how do I make sure that I'm considering what players want and satisfying their needs?' " says Jade Raymond, Ubisoft Toronto's managing director. "We do have to be thinking along those lines."
Some franchises will naturally lend themselves better to multiplayer modes while others just won't work no matter how hard developers try to shoehorn them in. Splinter Cell, Ms. Raymond says, is one of the lucky ones, with the asymmetrical play of Spies versus Mercenaries proving to be fairly unique in a field of shooter games that are trying to mimic the reigning king, Call of Duty.
"You shouldn't make a multiplayer if it's just tacked on, I don't see the value," she says. "We're lucky with Splinter Cell that we have a very original multiplayer that's part of the history of the brand."
Even with additional modes bloating budgets and possibly price tags, analysts say the industry is moving in conjunction with gamer trends, despite the complaints of a vocal minority. Multiplayer modes look like they're here to stay, and if anything will become even more prevalent in the fast-approaching next-generation consoles.
"While multiplayer raises game costs, it tends to result in higher sales," says Wedbush Securities research analyst Michael Pachter. "The tradeoff is generally worth it, and is expected for first-person shooter and action-adventure games."