It’s been nearly a whole year since I bought my ‘new-gen console’, I went from Xbox 360 to PlayStation 4 in case you’re wondering. It was a purchase that, if I’m honest, was eventually swung by the announcement of one big name exclusive (you know, the one that arrived a few months back and didn’t disappoint one bit). Now, with the benefit of hindsight it seems like a pretty obvious decision to have made, but at the time it was something I agonised over more than I’d like to admit. I’m pretty sure it was because I was a bit too comfortable with all things Microsoft, the presentation, the pad (which was one of, if not the very best pad to accompany any console ever), and of course the still far superior Xbox Live. And it was that final hurdle, Xbox Live to PlayStation Network that - at the time - was hardest to get over.
After all the 360 was the console that introduced me to online gaming, and allowed me to build up a sizeable group of online friends to call upon for almost any multiplayer game. From Call of Duty 2 onwards I’d been steadily filling up my friends list with people I’d met whilst playing everything from Gears of War, to Ghost Recon, Left 4 Dead, Battlefield, and all the way up to Mass Effect 3, even the likes of Dark Souls and Dragon’s Dogma provided me with a few names to add to the list. Switching to the rival platform meant that everyone I’d met, everyone I’d enjoyed those games with and who’d allowed me to enjoy those games to their fullest possible extent would be gone, I’d have to start over. Yes there were a handful of people on my friends list doing the same thing, but aside from those few, I’d have to start from scratch. Whilst imagining everyone I’d left behind would be content frolicking together in some sort of digital limbo without me of course.
I know, it’s probably not what they’re all doing these days, but I can’t be sure (and besides, the thought softens the blow). However what I can be sure of is that, after almost a year, my PS4 friends list is pretty barren in comparison to the first few months of online gaming with my 360, and I think I know why. The problem is party chat, or to be more specific the overuse of party chat.
It was Sega who were first console manufacturer to provide an online gaming service in the form of SegaNet on the Sega Saturn, which later became the Dreamarena sometime after the release of the Dreamcast in 1999. And at the turn of the millennium, it was SegaNet that also provided the world’s first party chat compatible browser. So perhaps they’re to blame for the current state of things? Well, no, despite their forward thinking - and because the vast majority of the world’s gamers were still offline, or using dial-up connections - Sega’s bid to launch online gaming on consoles failed.
However despite Sega’s costly foray into online gaming, just a year later the original Xbox launched as the first console with a built-in ethernet port. Sega had been just a tad too early it seemed, as Microsoft’s decision to commit to online gaming was well-timed and they were soon able to take advantage of the growing number of broadband users across the globe when Xbox Live officially launched in November 2002. As for Sony, they were already playing catch-up and were unable to launch their equivalent, the PlayStation Network, until 2006 when it arrived alongside the launch of the PS3 (previously any online support for PlayStation games was non-unified and supplied by the developer/publisher of each game).
Even so, by the time the Xbox 360 PlayStation 3 had established themselves over the previous generation the only way to communicate outside of a game’s lobby was via one-on-one chat channels, or text and voice messaging. It wasn’t until the tail end of 2008, when Xbox Live launched ‘Party Chat’, that things really changed into what we now see as the standard for the current generation of consoles.
This inclusion of party chat gave players the freedom to host conference call style chat groups of up to eight players, and was at first intended to be a handy feature that would allow groups of players to chat and organise events, without the hassle of having to be within a particular game’s lobby. However since then it’s slowly but surely eroded away any chance of social interaction when playing online. To the point where it’s now feels impossible to play and meet anyone willing to team up in future. Why, because everyone’s already in private parties. Instead of a quick check to see what game everyone’s playing, it appears as if most players now start up their console and look at their pre-existing friends lists’ and see what parties they can join.
Yes there’s always been people who prefer to play without a mic, it’s inevitable that on any given day there’s a certain percentage of players who’ll prefer to just avoid talking to strangers all together, fine. My problem is with the players who have their mics plugged in, but constantly drop into party chat, rather than interact with the players they’re playing alongside or going up against. I don’t care if you assume everyone in the lobby’s going to behave like screaming brats, I don’t care if you want to chat to friends playing another game, I don’t even care if you can’t speak English, drop out of the party chat and talk to the people you’re in the game with.
It’s a myth - reinforced by the popularity of exaggerated YouTube videos - that everyone online is rude, hateful and offensive. If you want to chat to friends that are playing a different game then go join them, or use one of the other thousand mediums we have the luxury of access to, don’t negatively impact everyone else’s experience by ignoring your teammates. And if you don’t speak English then, well, at least you’re trying, if you start speaking loudly or quickly we can just assume you’re trying to warn us something bad is about to happen and that we’d do well to leg it.
I’m not saying party chat doesn’t have its uses, but its chronic overuse is what’s crippling the social side of online gaming. Before party chat every lobby of every match was full of players chatting away, or you know, spouting abuse like a drunken crowd on open mic night. But that was fine, at least there was a dialogue, even if it was about your mum.
Personally I miss frantically trying to warn random teammates of some threat they were clearly oblivious to. I miss that improvised battle plan the self-designated leader would trumpet out at the start of each round. But most of all, I miss the casual ribbing that followed a win or a loss. The one that made players overly cautious after talking themselves up, or that had the potential to galvanize a team solely because of the smug remarks their opponents made at the end of the last round. There’s few things more satisfying in all of video games than making someone go all quiet after they’ve just spent the last five minutes telling you how much better than you they are, and party chat has effectively neutered all of this.
Yes, generally speaking party chat is a great function, I’m not trying to say otherwise, and it’s hard to imagine online gaming having become so prevalent without it. But remember when the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were announced, and the one hundred names limit on friends lists were to be done away with? Well it was one of the few announcements impervious to any sort of cynical backlash, and personally it’s something I’d like to take advantage of. I want that chance to talk and co-operate with the strangers in lobbies once again, to find and get to know those people. Hopefully - just like last time around - they’ll be able to enhance my entire online experience, and can help to make some games better than they otherwise could be. At the very least, surely it’s better than being stuck in a silent room with loading screens and repeated death for company.
So what, should we just abandon party chat all together? Not at all. All I’m trying to suggest is that it should be treated as a handy utility rather than a default setting, something you can use to organise what you and your friends are going to play before you load up a game. But when you get into that lobby, even if you’ve got a group of four for a four-player game, drop the party chat, engage with opposing team and have laugh winding each other up. And remember, if you do come across the occasional someone that’s being obnoxious, irritating, or abusive just for the sake of it, then there’s always the mute button.