Naughty Dog recently announced that they have decided to end the development of the multiplayer project known as The Last of Us Online. In a statement published on the studio’s blog, the team revealed that the “massive scope of our ambition became clear.” In order to finish the project, they would need to “put all our studio resources behind supporting post-launch content for years to come, severely impacting development on future single-player games.” Surprisingly, Naughty Dog even said that they “had two paths in front of us: become a solely live service games studio or continue to focus on single-player narrative games that have defined Naughty Dog’s heritage.”
There was a time when The Last of Us Online was going to be the apparent centerpiece of PlayStation’s plan to release 12 live service games by 2026. PlayStation recently announced that they have cut their previous plan in half, though it’s not currently known if one of those six upcoming games was supposed to be The Last of Us Online. However, between the bluntness of Naughty Dog’s statement, the reported problems with Bungie (which could affect their Marathon project), and some growing resistance towards the previous push for more live service titles…well, this decision could prove to have quite the impact on the industry for some time to come.
While there will certainly be much to say about that topic in the coming months and years, for the moment, the thing that hurts most certainly isn’t the continuing struggles of the live service industry. For that matter, I’m not even especially upset by the specific loss of The Last of Us Online given how little we knew about that project and its developers’ obvious struggles and frustrations with the whole thing.
No, what bothers me most about this announcement is the realization that The Last of Us‘ brilliant Factions multiplayer mode has officially died for nothing.
For those who don’t know, the original version of The Last of Us (which launched on PS3 in 2013) included an online multiplayer mode called Factions. As the name suggests, Factions saw up to eight players collaborate with their teammates and compete against their enemies across various objective-based game types. At a glance, the mode may have looked like yet another pack-in multiplayer mode not dissimilar to the fun (but largely forgettable) competitive multiplayer in the Uncharted games.
What made Factions special, though, were all the ways the mode was designed to take advantage of The Last of Us‘ unique universe. Yes, you ultimately needed to kill the enemy team, but novel gameplay mechanics like resource gathering and interrogating enemy players for objective information made Factions feel not just true to The Last of Us but refreshingly different from nearly everything else out there.
Unfortunately, Factions never seemed to be able to find the audience it arguably deserved. There are reasons why we called it the most underrated multiplayer mode ever. Maybe it was the popular early perception that Factions was a tacked-on multiplayer option or perhaps Factions was just a little too different for its own good, but Factions’ dedicated and vocal fans never seemed to be able to convince enough people that one of the most impactful single-player titles ever also featured incredible multiplayer. However, there was always hope that a future version of Factions might garner the kind of widespread love and attention that always seemed to elude the original incarnation of that mode.
Those Factions faithful soon endured a series of heartbreaks. While Factions was ported to the PS4 version of The Last of Us, the game’s PS3 servers were shut down in 2019. Considering that the PS5 remake of The Last of Us did not feature an updated Factions mode (or any other version of that concept), the PS4 port of the game remains the only official way to access Factions as of the time of this writing. While that version of the game maintains a functional player count most of the time, it is obviously dwindling as time goes on.
There was also a time when Factions fans held on to the hope that The Last of Us Part 2 would feature an updated version of that mode. However, in 2019, Naughty Dog confirmed that That Last of Us Part 2 would not include any online multiplayer. As a consolation, the studio assured Factions fans that they will “eventually experience the fruits of our team’s online ambition” and that the team is “as big a fan of Factions as the rest of our community and are excited to share more when it’s ready.” It was later revealed that Naughty Dog’s statement was an early reference to the now-canceled The Last of Us Online project.
So after all this time, all those promises, and all of that potential, Factions fans are left with their memories and what community the mode’s PS4 servers still support. I suppose that isn’t technically nothing, but given how high hopes for a Factions successor once were (and how thoroughly they’ve been dashed since then), it almost feels like it would have been kinder for someone to say years ago that the mode was dead and simply never coming back.
Mind you, it’s not that I don’t enjoy some live service games or that they don’t have a place in the industry. It’s just that it’s taking publishers a long time to realize that there is only so much room for games that are theoretically designed to be the only game someone plays for a very long time. It was always absurd for PlayStation to think they could release a dozen such titles in only a few years, and it’s a shame that a studio like Naughty Dog got caught under the wheels of that process. When a studio that has worked on some of the most acclaimed single-player games ever says that they were worried about having to become a live-service studio, the greed that fuels that corner of the industry has clearly inflated it beyond the point of logic.
It’s especially cruel to realize that we could have had multiple Factions multiplayer modes in the time it took Naughty Dog to plan, develop, and cancel The Last of Us Online. We could have had a Last of Us Part 2 multiplayer mode, an updated version of Factions released alongside the arguably overpriced The Last of Us PS5 remake, or even just more substantial updates to the PS4 version of the game. Any of those things would have been preferable to the relative nothing we are left with.
For quite some time, Factions has stood as not just a singularly brilliant multiplayer experience but a cruel reminder of a time when studios could make smaller and more unique multiplayer modes that weren’t expected to eventually generate revenue equivalent to the GDP of a small country. There is some hope that The Last of Us Online‘s unceremonious cancellation will be one of the decisions that inch us closer back to those times. Of course, that will be a cold comfort for Factions fans who will have to endure at least a few more years of that mode being a symbol rather than an enjoyable multiplayer experience they can easily continue to play and share with others.