Will Xbox One be the savior of niche multiplayer games?

Xbox One (Console) Screenshot - Xbox One

Some multiplayer games don’t deserve to die the way they do. Blur, Anarchy Reigns, Chromehounds -- these are just a few of my favorite multiplayer games that either died off completely or suffer from ever-dwindling populations. Divekick, a niche fighting game that just came out a week ago, but it's been a chore to find matches in and I’m worried it’s already on the chopping block. I can always find a match in Halo, Battlefield, or Call of Duty, but sometimes I want something different. I think we all do.

That’s why I’m really excited for one of Xbox One’s rarely discussed features: Smart Match. Smart Match presumably allows players to choose the kinds of games and game types they want to matchmake in and then go about their business. Were Divekick on Xbox One, I could look for matches while watching Netflix or even playing another game, and other people could do the same.

Divekick matchmaking

I can’t count the number of times I’ve loaded up a dead multiplayer game and tried to Quick Match or host a room for a few minutes before giving up and moving on. Even if hundreds or thousands of people did that with a niche game, they’d likely never find each other. If Smart Match works as promised, they can set up matchmaking without being locked to that boring lobby screen. If I could start matchmaking in Anarchy Reigns and then spend a few hours watching House of Cards, and other players could do the same, suddenly the chances for matches increase substantially.

This problem with multiplayer games has gotten so bad that you can spot a failure a mile away. I avoided picking up Hybrid on XBLA, even though I thought the game would be fun, because I also knew no one would be playing it in a week. I’ve dreamed of the day I could revisit Splinter Cell’s Spies vs. Mercs multiplayer, and now that it’s reborn in Blacklist, I’ve been rushing to get in as many matches as I can before the community fades away.

The problem is even worse when your avenue for playing the game isn’t so popular. I can forget about getting a co-op game in Earth Defense Force 2017 on the PlayStation Vita, because the community isn’t even there for the hardware, let alone some obscure game. The only real chance to play multiplayer on Vita is with the top games or in something with PS3 crossplay.

Earth Defense Force 2017 co-op on Vita

If game console designers allow this to continue, we’ll likely see a decrease in more unique types of games. When the only safe bet for game developers is to fall in line with what’s known, what’s safe, and what’s sure to draw a big audience, the chance for innovation decreases substantially. But if Smart Match is as good as advertised, those rules go out the window. Designers can make multiplayer games as strange and unique as they want, confident that the smaller audience will be able to find each other.

The idea is so good that I have to wonder if PS4 won’t have similar functionality down the road. Perhaps it already does and Sony simply hasn’t spent time showcasing it. We know the PS4 makes it easy to hop in and out of games, find your friends, and multitask in much the same way as you can on Xbox One, but this is one feature Microsoft might have a leg up on. Considering the feature is poised to save niche multiplayer games on Xbox One, you gotta hope Sony has something up their sleeve.

Smart Match is one of Xbox One’s most interesting and forward-thinking bits of tech. It’s one instance where you can really see Microsoft addressing how we play games and providing answers to questions consumers didn’t even know how to ask. This is tech we want that we didn’t know we could have, and it’s an example of Microsoft’s future vision that everyone can get behind. While many of the Xbox One’s unique features have been rolled back due to consumer outcry, Smart Match is one good idea with legs, and I hope it isn’t the end of Microsoft’s attempts at innovation.

Enjoy random thoughts about the latest games, the Sega Saturn, or the occasional movie review? Follow me @JoeDonuts!

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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