At the start of a console generation, publishers try to push whatever the big new thing is. Last generation it was HD gaming, online multiplayer, and motion controls. This generation didn’t really have anything like that. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One offer no shiny new bullet-point features that weren’t available on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (at least not at launch). Instead, the manufactures decided to refine a lot of the ideas that those consoles put in place. This didn’t effect sales at all, but you could see why a publisher would be scared by this. Without a ‘big new thing’, what would consumers get excited about. In response to this, some publishers tried to create their own ‘next big thing’, and three of the largest ones landed on asymmetrical multiplayer.
I should first define what I mean when I say “asymmetrical multiplayer”, because it’s a really broad term that I’m using to talk about a very specific concept. Generally, asymmetrical multiplayer means any multiplayer mode where two competing sides have different abilities. Splinter Cell’s Spies vs. Mercs and Left 4 Dead’s versus mode would both fit this description. But those games aren’t what I’m talking about here. I am focusing on games where one player is competing against a group of players (typically four of them). And the three games which fit this description that I’m going to talk about are Shadow Realms, Fable Legends, and Evolve.
Before getting into each one of these game’s ultimate failures, the immediate death of this genre, and why this idea never caught on, it’s important to note how pervasive this trend was. While these ended up being the only three games of real note to get announced, they came in such quick succession that it seemed like asymmetrical multiplayer was the future of all multiplayer. When Game Informer ran an article reporting that Shadow Realms had been cancelled, they referred to it as “part of the 4v1 trend”. No explanation or elaboration on what that meant; it was just a known thing at that point. Saying 4v1 was just as normal as saying open world. It was a piece of jargon that became common place in the industry.
Shadow Realms was both the last of these games to be announced and the first to be cancelled. Being developed by Bioware Austin and published by Electronic Arts, it was a significant game. It was also the most ambitious of the 4v1 games. While Fable Legends and Evolve were almost focused entirely on the 4v1 concept, Shadow Realms was being pitched as an episodic, story-based RPG that also happened to be a 4v1 multiplayer game. In Shadow Realms, the one was able to set up traps and annoy the four as they tried to complete their objective. After rumors of the game being either cancelled or rebooted in January 2015, Shadow Realms was officially cancelled in February, only six months after it was announced.
Fable Legends, Microsoft and Lionhead’s entry into the 4v1 race, was in the public eye for a lot longer before ultimately being canned. Announced in August 2013 and cancelled in March 2016, Fable Legends was shown at multiple trade shows, was the first game announced as being cross-play between Xbox One and Windows 10, underwent a move to a free-to-play model, and had multiple public betas (including one that was going on when the game was cancelled). It was a very similar game to Shadow Realms, with the one acting as the evil character who was trying to impede the progress of the four heroes. The game’s cancellation came alongside news that Lionhead Studios was also being shut down.
Evolve from 2K and Turtle Rock was the only one of these three games to make it to market. It was a little different from the other two, with the one being a monster that the four were trying to hunt. After being released in February 2015, things initially seemed to go okay for Evolve. The game reviewed well, and Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick said that the game was a permanent franchise for the publisher. However, Evolve’s launch was also filled with controversy over the game’s… ‘ambitious’ plans for downloadable content. The game’s player base evaporated, and in July 2016 Turtle Rock announced that they would be “relaunching” Evolve as a free-to-play game. People reacted positively to this, and the player base improved significantly. However, this wasn’t enough for Take-Two who made the decision to pull support for the game in October.
So returning to the original question; Why did these games and this genre fail? There is definitely an argument to be made that these are all individual cases that can’t really be compared. Shadow Realms was the third free-to-play multiplayer game EA cancelled in short succession, Fable Legends was in development for a long time and had gotten some rough previews, and Evolve was a victim of excessive DLC and a lack of content. However, to go from 4v1 being the new normal to not existing within the span of two years signifies to me that there is something more to this and that this concept is rotten at its core.
As a basic concept, asymmetrical multiplayer has its flaws. One of the roles is bound to be more fun, so that makes those in the other role bummed out and wishing they were on the other side. Plus, if a group of five friends is playing the game, what do they do about voice chat. Ideally, they are playing the game to have fun with each other and hang out, but do the four want to constantly be giving their plans away to the one? These are somewhat minor issues, but they are questions that a person would have asked themselves when buying one of these games. The uncertainty was bound to make some people just want to stick with their traditional multiplayer shooters.
But perhaps the bigger problem was that asymmetrical multiplayer was an innovation nobody asked for and felt forced. People are happy player their traditional multiplayer games, as can be seen with the success of games like Overwatch and Battlefield 1. These two games both brought something new to the genre, but they were refinements and twists on older ideas, not an entirely new approach to multiplayer games. When asymmetrical multiplayer was being hailed as the future of videogames by both the publishers and the press before any of these games hit the market, it felt forced. In fact, everything about Evolve’s marketing specifically felt forced, including Turtle Rock’s attempts to position it as the ‘next big E-Sport’. Using marketing as a way to push your game as revolutionary before the game has a chance to prove itself is a risk. When Evolve fell, it fell hard. Any publisher pursuing the genre afterwards would draw automatic, unflattering comparisons to a game that became nothing more than a message board joke. This was probably discouraging to say the least.
So what’s the lesson to learn from all of this? Is it that developers and publishers shouldn’t experiment with new ideas and should instead just work on refining existing concepts? Of course not. Developers should experiment, and I’m glad that these games were able to fail in order to show us that this wasn’t a direction the industry was going in. However, when a developer is experimenting, they shouldn’t position their experiment as revolutionary when it really isn’t. Even if Evolve was successful, it wasn’t going to surpass established first person shooters and redefine E-Sports right out of the gate. Developers and publishers with experimental games should be conscious of the fact that their games are experimental and act accordingly. Asymmetrical multiplayer, with Evolve leading the pack, was the failure of marketing bravado just as much as it was a failure of game design.