MP%203.jpg['Alt Space' is a regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column by critic and writer Phill Cameron, discussing the relationship between the personal computer and gaming. This time, he's looking at the technical pitfalls regarding how PC gamers play -- or don't play -- together.]

Opening Ports....

Lowering Firewall...

Authorising False Localised Network...

Attempting Connection...

The heart flutters. The false hope that resides in every PC gamer's heart surges, hoping that you've not forgotten the tiny, insignificant setting that will mean that the game will throw up the rude, course and unwelcome error message. Multiplayer games really haven't come a long way.

The internet was supposed to be a huge boon, something to let you reach out and touch someone. For gaming, that 'touch' was usually with high velocity rounds or razor-sharp blades. But, well, it was still something we were looking forward to.

The problems were that the developers couldn't, and haven't, moved fast enough, and more often than not you'll get nothing back from the fickle 'refresh' page when looking for servers, or your friends will have some inscrutable 'NAT' configuration that means you're out of luck, and back at square one, bored and frustrated.

With multiplayer modes coming packaged with almost every game released, and broadband becoming so prevalant that if your ping is over 100 you're in trouble, you'd think that making a connection was the least of your worries. The problem would seem to be the alcricity of progress; the games are becoming vastly more complex, and they are still supposed to be able to throw around all that data at the right speeds for continuous play, and that's just during a match.

The recently released Demigod has faltered at this particular hurdle. A game where you play a titan ascending to godhood through battle, it was intended to be a huge free-for-all of strategy gaming, played out in multiplayer on a persistant stat-tracking system called the Parthenon.

The problem was, the developers underestimated the players, and more specifically the people pirating the game, and the sheer amount of queries sent to their servers overloaded them, making organising a multiplayer match almost impossible for the few weeks after release. Thanks to the diligence and hard work of the people over at Gas-Powered Games, they've mostly rectified the situation, allowing the rather good game to be played with nary a worry. It was still a rather embarrassing oversight, regardless.

It does highlight perhaps the greatest weakness of the PC platform; diversity. You'll struggle to find any two systems alike, be it hardware or software, so when creating a game with a multiplayer component, you have to make the code versatile enough to accomodate most comers. Even the hardcore PC gamers out there may struggle if they have to open ports, restart routers and create false networks to just play a game. In most instances, the effort just isn't worth it.

MP%202.jpgI bought two games recently, both of which had multiplayer modes which, while not the reason I bought the game, where something I was interested in. That neither of them could find a single person to play with was not because the servers were deserted, and no one was playing; it was merely that some nebulous part of my PC was preventing it from operating properly. The main reason this is so frustrating is that the tools are in place to make it work.

I claim that Multiplayer has stagnated, not moved forward since the early days of the internet, but really, that's not true. Valve's Steam service has made a huge leap forward in multiplayer, with games like Team Fortress 2 and Counterstrike almost always gauranteeing a connection, and a comprehensive server browser to find your best fit. That they've released the framework for all this, 'Steamworks', for free for any developer to use not only makes ignoring it a silly mistake, but it also shows up some of the larger studios for their shoddy multiplayer components.

I'm not sure if it's pride or ignorance, but the smaller, lower-budget indie games seem to have embraced Steamworks, using it to track leaderboards and allow people to play with each other, while the larger developers have largely ignored it. The biggest exception to this rule is Empire: Total War, which utilised Steamworks for its multiplayer. Most notably, this is the first game in the series to be introducing a multiplayer campaign mode, allowing for huge matches spanning over years (of game time), something that Creative Assembly have not been able to do before. Whether this is down to Steamworks isn't clear, but it certainly can't have hurt.

All this raises the question of whether the PC needs a standardised system to allow people to have a consistent experience of playing together. Games for Windows Live is attempting to make this true, attaching itself to GTA IV and Dawn of War 2, organising the multiplayer for both games. That neither is particularly easy to set up a multiplayer match for is hardly encouraging, but the ideas are in place to make playing games with each other easier.

MP%201.jpgIt may perhaps be that there are a few big players competing for dominance, and a few other major publishers forcing their multiplayer systems down their developer's necks, but right now, it seems that having a simple time joining a game online is more the exception rather than the norm.

In the interest of making sure that I wasn't an isolated case, a simple Google search of my issues was enough to find the vocal masses sharing the problems. With multiplayer playing an increasingly important role in the enjoyment of the majority of games, the negligence of making a robust system is puzzling at best.

There's a reason Team Fortress 2 has racked up almost 150 hours of playtime with me so far. It's mostly due to the fact it's a brilliantly made game, but the fact that it's so easy to get in and out of games is just as important. People don't like to be forced to jump through loops just to make something work, and the ease with which your multiplayer works is often the deciding factor on whether people will even bother playing it a month after release.

[Phill Cameron is a regular writer at The Reticule, a PC gaming website. You can contact him here, and follow him on Twitter here.]