Are single player games doomed?
With the sudden and dramatic closure of Visceral Games by EA, the very idea of a “AAA narrative-driven single player game” has come under fire. And this isn’t the first time something similar has happened.
How Did We Get Here?
Ironically, we’ve seen an odd precursor to this when games started adding unwanted, unnecessary, and uninteresting multiplayer modes, going as far back as Metroid Prime 2 in 2004. Adding multiplayer was thought of as a way to keep players playing after they beat the game and not just sell it to a friend or GameStop. But people knew these modes were garbage, so I’m not sure if the ROI was worth it. In fact, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, since this practice is much less common today.
Around the time when this shameless shoehorning was going on, two things happened almost simultaneously in other avenues. Free-to-play mobile games rose in popularity, and MMORPG design finally found its way into ‘normal’ RPGs and the idea of shared world games rose.
I don’t need to explain how smart phones and free-to-play games have changed the industry. By breaking the game into chunks, only allowing some of the game to be played daily, locking away super rare useful times, multiple virtual currencies—do I need to list more?—it was a paradigm shift. These games are designed completely differently from traditional console games and started running the now ubiquitous microtransactions.
Shared world games, in contrast, are much less nefarious. The first game to really do the shared world with some amount of popularity was Destiny. You can play it by yourself, but there are other players in the world. You can join them or not, and that’s the most distinct difference from an MMO. It has the feel of single player but can be switched to multiplayer in mere moments. From there, we had The Division, and it looks like there will only be more and more of these types of games if Destiny 2 and the hype for Anthem are any indications.
But single player being invaded by multiplayer didn’t start there. Perhaps the one utilization that started it all is from Demon’s Souls. Briefly seeing other players as ghosts rolling through the world, investigating a bloodstain to witness their demise, or having them invade your world and fight you to the death made the game feel new and different. The game’s use of multiplayer took many people by surprise. In an alternate timeline, the Souls games might not have multiplayer at all. They’d still be popular action RPGs, but would they have spawned numerous sequels and copycats? Maybe not.
From there we can see the crumb of an idea: bring multiplayer into single player, and make them one. Make multiplayer optional, and make it achievable alone. And the evil sorcerers rubbed their crystal balls menacingly. After all, we already knew microtransactions would work, they just needed to find a way to get them from phones to consoles. Add that to an environment where you can play with your friends in an adventure that never ends, and you have yourself a damn good business model.
The biggest boon to a publisher from these types of games is that you’ll keep playing them. And it’s kind of the best of both worlds. A player like me will get a nice single player campaign with the occasional multiplayer bit, and a co-op player always has something to do, as does a competitive player.
So why wouldn’t a publisher add some shared world-type hooks into a game? It seems to only increase engagement. And also, why wouldn’t you want a player to pay you more money to get easy access to rare items, experience boosts, and the like?
That sounds greedy, but this is a business venture after all. So does this mean the end of AAA single player games? Well, it certainly doesn’t look great. I loved Prey but it underperformed, and no one is talking about it now. Even the latest Uncharted came and went. However, people will be quick to point out single player games like Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5, and even Nier: Automata that were successful this year. The biggest problem, or difference, is that these games are not developed in America, and they also have much smaller budgets—except for maybe Horizon.
Staying Single, Staying Connected
I think there is still life for what a lot of gamers, including myself, want out of games. But it might only exist in the niche or indie AA single player arena. We could still get a game like Prey or Dishonored, but maybe now it’s shorter. I’d take that over a version that had microtransactions, but I think many people would be upset. So what if we took something else from MMOs to make single player games more enticing to developers?
I’ve said for years that if Dark Souls offered a monthly subscription, I’d buy it. If I got 1-2 new areas and 1-2 new bosses every month, I’d be more than happy. Perhaps that isn’t achievable, but you get the idea. Instead of toiling for 3-4 years on The Last of Us 2, we could get much smaller experiences much more often.
And we’ve been seeing something similar happen with episodic games, but I think it could be even more granular than that.
Let’s say the game is $60 for everything. But if you just want the open world, no story missions, only collectibles, you can pay $20. Maybe 20 bucks gets you a taste of every type of mission in an Assassin’s Creed game. From there, you can pick to pay more for assassinations, for combat missions, for sailing, for another area to explore, etc. You’d pay more for what you want and wouldn’t pay at all for what you don’t. And I think developers should go nuts with costumes and other cosmetic items. By all means, go right ahead!
Obviously, these are huge changes that can’t take place overnight or even in a year or two. But if big AAA single player games aren’t financially viable at current budgets, alternatives need to be looked into. Maybe it’s the return of the AA space like we are hopefully seeing with games like Hellblade, but it better be something because I’m not playing a free-to-play, microtransaction filled Bloodborne 2 or a pay-to-win single player literally anything.
These are just ideas, food for thought. The future of single player games might look a lot different going forward. Times they are a changin’, even if we don’t like it. Let me know if you have any other ideas down in the comments below.