The Multiplayer Scheduling Problem

Here’s a little story.

Last Saturday, I got an email in my inbox from my good friend Player 1. It was a short note, and to the point: P1 wanted myself (hereafter referred to as “Player 2”) and our mutual buddies Players 3 and 4 to set aside time in our schedule to finally finish the campaign of a co-op game we’d all been wanting to knock off our lists for some time. The game was Double Fine’s Iron Brigade (nee Trenched), an absolutely delightful tower-defense/third-person shooter with a whole lot of character.

The four of us had purchased this game on the day of its release with the express purpose of completing the campaign together. All four of us. No man left behind.

Trenched was released June 22, 2011.

When I got this email from Player 1, we were a little over halfway through the campaign.

Surely we are not the only group of friends who’ve been in this situation. With the rise of online multiplayer and the advent of several AAA titles with entirely cooperative campaigns, we can’t be the only gamers to sit down and say “this one–this one we’re going to play together as a team.”

And yet we run up against the inevitable fact– we’re adults now, living adult lives with adult schedules, and it is monstrously difficult to coordinate four people to be free on the same evening when those four people live in four separate major metropolitan areas across the country.

In his email, Player 1 admitted that he was booked both Tuesday and Wednesday evenings (photography class and a social event), but was free for most other nights. Player 4 had theater rehearsals every weekday evening, but knew that he would be free for the weekend. Player 3 and his wife were helping a family member move house on Friday and Saturday, which was just as well for me, because I had two separate parties to go to on Saturday night (and nothing to wear!).

By some miracle, we all happened to be free on Sunday evening, so we quickly set a date. I made sure on Sunday morning to text my friends and try to coordinate times, and in the evening, after dinner, I sat down in front of the Xbox and booted up the game. I was ready to commit two to four solid hours of play so we could finish off Iron Brigade and try to put our efforts toward something else when I got a text from Player 4.

“I brought my Xbox to my girlfriend’s, but she doesn’t have an ethernet cable. I think we’re boned, guys.”

Classic Player 4.

And that was it! Iron Brigade got put by the wayside, and the other two gents and I played a couple rounds of Mass Effect 3 and called it a night.

As I drifted off to bed, I began to brainstorm solutions to this problem. Here are some general points of advice that I can offer to the community:

1. Set aside a regular evening in your schedule.

The problem of scheduling isn’t just for video games– folks who roll dice have been dealing with this problem for decades before Xbox Live was a glimmer in Joe Microsoft’s eye. I’m nowhere near as experienced with pen and paper as I am with a controller, but the few campaigns I’ve been a part of have always benefited from having a regular “game night” set aside in everyone’s schedule, like the “poker nights” of old–and the key here is regular. If every Friday is game night, or every other Friday, then it’s much less tempting to throw that out on a whim because Jimmy Co-Worker wants to hit up a bar after work on Friday.

I guess you could compromise…?

I’m no stranger to the fact that it can be a little difficult to pass up an offer like that in favor of going home and putting on the headset–but it’s a lot easier to say “sorry, I have a thing I do on Fridays” than it is to say “sorry, I promised my friends we’d have some quality time over the internet tonight.”

2. Have an alt ready.

Having a group of three other guys with whom you game regularly sounds like an ideal scenario: if they’re all available, then you’ve got a full team: Marcus, Dom, Baird, and Cole; Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael; Spengler, Venkman, Stantz, and Zeddemore. Unfortunately, as we’ve discovered, getting all four together is sometimes a difficult endeavor–but that’s not the only problem this poses.

For me, one of the most difficult things about scheduling game time with my bros is that any time we sit down to shoot some bad guys, my wife is usually sitting next to me on the couch with a P5 symbol floating above her head, blinking. She would be all too happy to press start and join in.

For some games, that’s not an option (Trenched is one of them), but there are a handful of excellent games that offer split-screen and online functionality simultaneously: Dungeon Defenders, Gears of War, Left 4 Dead, and, thank goodness, Borderlands 2. (You should check out Co-Optimus if you’re looking for an exhaustive list–search by system and tick the box for “Local with Online”.)

Though we’ve sometimes played Horde Mode with five people, my wife has been adamant that she’s not going to substitute herself for one of the guys in the campaign of Gears 3 (an act she explained would be a “bro-trayal” on my part), but this almost certainly means that we’re never going to get through the campaign. Ever. Remember when I said that we were halfway through the campaign of Iron Brigade? That campaign’s about 10 hours long. Tops. What’s the run time on Gears 3? 20 hours? 25? (I wouldn’t know! I haven’t finished it!) We’ve played about ninety minutes.

Look at him! He’s ashamed of me.

If you happen to be lucky enough to have a player pool that’s greater than the player cap on whatever game you’re playing, you should agree as a group that you can proceed if you’ve got a quorum of players. If you’ve got four people ready to use those lancers, then you should go ahead and slaughter some locust.

3. Dedicate yourself to smaller fellowships.

My best experiences with co-op in the age of online gaming have something in common: I’ve played with one dedicated partner and, when circumstances have allowed for it, invited others to join us. (No innuendo is intended with that statement.)

I played Borderlands with Player 1, and, occasionally, Player 4 would join us. Most of my time playing the multi of Mass Effect 3 has been spent with Player 4, as has a lot of Left 4 Dead. Resident Evil 5 was entirely with my wife, and I never hopped online to defend any dungeons unless she was available. (Did you know that Final Fantasy IX allows for two controllers? That’s an excellent game to play with your significant other.) I played through the campaigns of the Halo trilogy and the first two Gears of War titles with Player 1, though Players 3 and 4 popped in for Horde Mode or online multiplayer on occasion.

My point is that if you’d like to save the campaign of a game to be a shared experience with someone (and I wholeheartedly endorse that objective), it’s a lot easier to coordinate two schedules than four, and the experience will probably not be diminished by a dramatic amount. Maybe you should take your Band of Bros and pair it up, so that people with compatible schedules can share the adventure and no one will be really left out.

So, in any case, those are my recommendations. I’d love to hear what sort of scheduling conflicts you all have run into and what solutions you’ve come up with. Are there obvious solutions that are just passing me by? Let’s hear it!

I’ll let you know if we ever finish Trenched.

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About sinclairvox

Nate Ewert-Krocker has been both a gamer and a writer since he was very small. He believes that gaming, as a medium, deserves to be considered and chronicled with the same level of detail and attention as the rest of our pop culture. He's also an author! You can check out his fiction at www.silentworldpress.com. And, of course, the ol' Google+

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