mgs-peace-walker-tgs.jpg[Gamers love to play together, but getting them together can be harder than it sounds. In this GameSetWatch editorial, Andrew Vanden Bossche looks at how culture and infrastructure change the way multiplayer is used from east to west, and how what works in one country may be impossible in another -- with particular reference to Metal Gear Solid's new PSP iteration.]

Do western gamers despise the very sight of one another? This a question that has been raised, with less hyperbole, by journalists and gaming executives trying to understand why ad-hoc play is so unappealing in the west.

Local, wireless, on-the-go multiplayer made Monster Hunter's PSP versions into multi-million sellers in Japan, and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker for PSP's similar gameplay comes with the hope of capitalizing on that success. And considering how poorly the PSP versions of Monster Hunter have done in the west, there's a questions of whether Peace Walker will suffer the same fate.

Recently, GamePro suggested that there was reason to suspect that Peace Walker might make it to the PS3 as a PSN title. Kojima has been saying since the earliest stages of the game that he considers it to be a full fledged title, so the report is not completely off the wall. Mostly though, the report may reflect the concern of Konami, who asked the question hypothetically, that the game--which practically requires multiplayer--will sink if it doesn't use online play.

This suggestion is not without good reason. More than a few video game writers have expressed ambivalence towards whether the ad-hoc multiplayer is actually capable of getting Western gamers together. Sony's ad-hoc party does make online multiplayer possible with games like these, but only through a PS3. Ad-hoc certainly not a feature that sold any Western previewers on the game, even though co-op is the game's primary focus.

Peace Walker is emulating many of the strengths of Monster Hunter, which has proved to be enormously successful on the PSP, selling over 4 million copies. Outside of Japan, however, that the game has underperformed and while Capcom hasn't released any official sales figures, they have called its performance disappointing.

Finding people to play with is especially important in Peace Walker and Monster Hunter, since the difficulty of both games is scaled around having allies. There is no difficulty adjustment, and what is easy for four players may be incredibly difficult for one. This is meant to encourage players to play with others, but if they can't, it will only make the game more frustrating. If players can't connect with each other, they won't have very much fun. And they'll (correctly) blame the game for this if it doesn't support the way they're used to playing with friends.

What is the problem with ad-hoc in the west? Unfortunately, there's a bit of tendency to explain away these discrepancies away as "cultural differences," as one GamePro writer did in his Peace Walker preview. It's a problem because it mystifies these differences without articulating their cause.

What does it mean that the Japanese are more "culturally comfortable" with multiplayer on the PSP? That the Japanese have grown accustomed to playing PSP with each other after hundreds of years? Or that Western gamers, frightened by the bright lights outside their basement, are unable to venture out in the world to play with others?

I don't wish to pick on him too much since Capcom Vice President of Marketing Charles Bellfield, also shares the same view, saying "Obviously the Japanese market is more attuned to social gaming in a physical sense, more than online multiplayer gaming we have in the West." This assumption is absolutely contrary to the way Western gamers actually behave.

For a long time, and even to this day, LANs have played a huge part in gamer culture, and moving a dozen to a thousand or more desktop PCs to the same location shows a considerable effort on the part of western gamers to play face to face. There's quite a bit more effort involved in doing so than playing PSP with stranger on a subway, so we have to give LAN parties credit for dedication. It would be difficult to say that Western gamers don't want to or have no interest in seeing each other in person.

That LAN support has been dropped from a few high profile games, like Starcraft 2, might indicate that this form of social play is going out of fashion. Of course, all the petitions against this decision might indicate otherwise. Regardless, no modern multiplayer video game could survive on LAN alone, as they're an enormous undertaking. But with advances like voice chat, the face to face experience becomes closer to approximate. Face to face gaming is still a concept that is certainly appealing to both Eastern and Western gamers, or simply people in general.

So no, Western gamers don't have some sort of phobia of face to face interaction that causes ad-hoc to fail. The main difference between the success of ad-hoc in the East vs the West is much more likely to be the infrastructure of the countries than their entire cultures.

Ad-hoc works in Japan because the major metropolitan areas support them. McDonalds in Japan even have free wireless for the DS, and internet cafes are popular as hangouts. Japan's population is nearly ten times more dense than the US, according to Wikipedia. Fantastic public transportation and means that the likelihood of running into someone else with the same game and system is much higher. Public transportation even facilitates a form of random matchmaking.

It isn't easy to design this kind of infrastructure for multiplayer play. After all, designers can only give the players the tools to connect to each other. They can't force them into the same rooms with each other. These are two entirely different jobs, and game developers can only control one.

Ad-hoc is brilliant because it takes advantage of existing design. Voice chat is an example of working around a lack of infrastructure, and that's part of why it's so important for Western markets. There's no easy solution to the Monster Hunter problem. Online and voice support certainly would help, but the game is also designed with the face to face play in mind. It's possible that the only real answer to this problem is to create multiplayer solutions specifically designed for the infrastructure of the target market.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine and can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]