Feeling a little nostalgic before bed, I fired up the Switch while I did some work. Sitting on the home page was Mario Tennis Aces, a game I’d gotten deeply hooked on for a little while.
It’d been months since I’d checked in with the game; I hadn’t tried the new DLC characters, the singleplayer challenges, or given online doubles a crack. So I fired up the online mode, and let matchmaking do its thing.
After half an hour, one article written and a drink down, Mario Tennis was still searching. I wasn’t getting a game on the court. There was no-one to be found.
It’s a fate that faces every multiplayer game: death. For some it arrives with the closure of centralised servers, offering players one last chance to combine and say farewell. For others it is death by asphyxiation, a player base tired of waiting for a matchmaking queue that never ends.
But nothing really replaces a game that you’ve loved, or at least enjoyed, once it ‘dies’.
I had a flashback recently while I was playing Apex Legends. I’d initially started playing the game as Pathfinder, getting to grips with his grappling hook and its various uses.
Once I’d gotten the hang of flying around in a circle in the middle of a firefight, I was struck by a realisation: that verticality, and the almost circular way in which Pathfinder can fling up and around targets, reminded me deeply of Lawbreakers.
The mechanics of Lawbreakers – the flying, the way you could affect your velocity and direction with melee attacks, and the shooting – were good fun. But it was all wrapped up in an obnoxious, edgy exterior that was difficult to connect with. Priced at $US30, it was well beyond an impulse purchase for many, and it didn’t do a good enough job of teaching new players the things they needed to know before they bounced off.
Despite all the problems, Lawbreakers had a strong mechanical core. But not strong enough to survive.
The same way that real-time strategy games are no longer the popular genre of choice, the appetite for arena shooters has shrank as well. It’s partially an industry-wide change – some games work better across multiple platforms than others – and partially the changing appetites of gamers.
But arena shooters still have plenty of appeal. The speed can be addictive. Certain fanbases will always flock to games with high skill ceilings have an audience of their own, and it makes for solid entertainment.
The trick was packaging an arena shooter in the right way, which Lawbreakers tried to do with hero abilities and ultimates, as well as a variety of game modes.
Quake Champions has tried a similar tack, and principally it had a lot riding in its favour. The Quake community has steadfastly refused to let their beloved game die. The backing of iD and Bethesda offered more hope and potential than most arena shooters have had, given most arena shooters were small-scale indie titles with next to no marketing budget.
Case in point: Anton “Cooller” Singov. He’s one of the most high profile, and succesfsful, Quake players since the Quake 3 days. Just before Christmas and not long after finishing in the top 3 for the Dreamhack Winter duel tournament, he was asked on stream if he’d continue playing Quake Champions in 2019.
Just before the end of Christmas, 32-year-old Anton “Cooller” Singov – one of the most successful players across Quake 3, Quake Live and Quake Champions, was asked if he would continue playing Quake Champions in 2019.
His response? He didn’t know whether there would be enough tournaments to warrant the time, and with the game lacking a public roadmap for both its esports and future development, it’s a pretty justified view.
A quick purview of the more popular Quake discord channels and forums reveals a lot of hope for Diabolical, a game that was Kickstarted in 2016. The game was originally due for launch in 2017, although now the current plan is to hit early access in autumn with a $US15 price point.
The chatter and hope amongst Quake fans is such that new threads about Diabolical were been banned from the official Quake Champions subreddit earlier this month.
As an observer and someone who grew up with many, many fond memories with Quake, Unreal and other shooters of its ilk, it’s heartbreaking to see things in this state. There’s still nothing quite like the pace, the adrenaline and the skill that Quake and games of its kind brings together. Quake fans have been holding onto that magic for decades, keeping the community alive even when the developers had moved on.
But new players aren’t biting. And the much bigger issue is that the arena shooter formula isn’t working, and nobody seems to have a solution to stop the rot.
Once you connect to a game, its rhythm, community and pacing, that game takes root. It’s a bit like falling in love with a film: you remember the one liners, the scenes, the iconic sets and costumes.
It’s the same for the games we love. You might pick up a new game, become invested in a new community. But the stories and moments that emerge there won’t replace the ones that emerged before. They can never replace that magic. Nothing can.
I can still remember laughing with friends over PangYa, a Korean golf MMO that had floating courses in the sky and tees on the Antarctic. I still remember leaning forward on the couch, furiously flicking the right stick on my Pro Controller backwards as I struggled to assert Chain Chomp’s dominance in the final round of a Mario Tennis Aces tournament.
And these memories, memories borne out of time and investment into particular game and their particular communities, will live on.
It’s a relationship and level of affection that isn’t attributed to video games. Whenever you hear games discussed in more clinical terms, or in mainstream discourse, it’s more of a parasitic approach. Games are addictive; games are wasting your time.
It’s never indicative of the sense of community, the challenge, the relief through adversity, or the joy that carries on.
Even when a game ceases to be, those highlights never fade.