Are Big-budget, Single-player Video Games in Trouble?

EA's boss says "linear" games are less popular with gamers than they once were. Is the end nigh for cinematic games like Uncharted?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Huge games that last for dozens of hours. Mobile games that can fill a few idle minutes. Shooter epics that take in small armies of players, and intimate experiences that pit a single mind against a fiendish puzzle. Technology has given rise to a multitude of genres and all kinds of video games – far more than anyone could have even dreamed of back when the medium was still in its infancy in the 1970s.

In recent months, however, there’s the question of whether a very particular kind of video game can survive in an industry where replayability and continued revenue are becoming ever more important for a studio’s bottom line. We’re talking about single-player games – the big, cinematic kinds that include the likes of Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and The Last of Us. Sure, those games were all major successes in the past, but is there a future for such an expensive and increasingly risky subgenre?

At least one publisher appears to have asked itself a similar question. In October, Electronic Arts took the drastic step of closing down Visceral – the studio behind the popular Dead Space horror shooter series, plus a forthcoming Star Wars action game dubbed Project Ragtag. In essence, the closure meant the end of Visceral’s Star Wars game, too, since EA made clear that its aim was to “pivot” its design away from a “linear” experience and towards something that “players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come.”

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An in-depth report on the making of Ragtag over at Kotaku reveals some of the complications going on behind the scenes, including an apparently stretched and demoralized team of developers – partly because of the financial under-performance of Dead Space 3, which, in the word of one team member, left them with the sense that the whole firm was “on borrowed time.”

In the end, EA decided to cut its losses, close Visceral, and scrap Ragtag altogether. While the publisher talked in delicate terms about pivoting its design, Kotaku’s report maintains that EA Vancouver’s essentially starting from scratch on a new game of its own. It’s unclear what respected video game writer and designer Amy Hennig, famous for her Uncharted games at Naughty Dog before she headed to Visceral, will do now that Ragtag’s over. 

The reasons behind the game’s collapse are manifold, but EA’s chief financial officer Blake Jorgensen attempted to sum up the situation in a recent talk at a tech conference in Arizona.

“As we kept reviewing the game, it continued to look like a much more linear game,” Jorgensen said, adding that these types of experiences are things “people don’t like as much today as they did five years ago or ten years ago.”

Certainly, EA’s own output points to a firm more enamored with games like Star Wars Battlefront II, Need for Speed Payback, and FIFA 18 – the kind of open-ended, games-as-service titles that can bring in lots of after-market revenue with things like DLC or loot boxes. From a publisher’s perspective, it’s easy to see why: Jorgensen may think that “linear” games are less popular than they once were, but they also represent a problem for the studios that make them. As mentioned above, they’re expensive – the budget on Ragtag was thought to be $100 million – and their replay value’s low compared to a multiplayer game like a Star Wars Battlefront entry. Add to this the rise of “let’s play” videos on Twitch and YouTube, where we can watch the story beats from a multi-million dollar game without even buying it, and you can see why some publishers might balk at investing their money. 

Of course, the big hitters of the genre, such as Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto and Naughty Dog’s Uncharted and The Last of Us, are all reliably popular. But beyond those, making expansive, single-player games is fraught with danger: the troubled production and muted reception to Mass Effect Andromeda – a sequel from BioWare, a studio once thought unassailable – may have been partly behind EA’s current line of thinking. Then there’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a long-awaited sequel that failed to surpass its predecessor, either critically or financially.

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The tail end of 2017 represents a volatile and, from one angle, fascinating crossroads for publishing giants like EA and Activision, in fact. As EA announced Visceral’s closure and the “pivot” of its Star Wars game, the controversy of Battlefront II and its approach to loot boxes blew up. As EA’s statement on Reddit about the game’s exploitative microtransactions got angrily down voted and government bodies began to wonder aloud about whether loot boxes were gambling or not, the publisher took the drastic step of temporarily disabling microtransactions altogether.

Over in Activision’s camp, hit shooter Destiny 2 has gone through a rough patch of its own since it emerged that the game quietly constrains the amount of XP players can earn organically by playing the game – all the better to coax them into spending real-world money on Bright Engrams, Destiny 2‘s equivalent of loot boxes. The discovery caused such controversy that Bungie was forced to respond with a statement – “We agree we need to be more open,” that kind of thing. 

So while EA may think that “linear games” are less popular than they once were, it also appears to be the case that some of the money-making tactics favored by publishers – loot boxes and other kinds of microtransactions – aren’t necessarily beloved by the gaming public. At best, they’re tolerated through gritted teeth. When they suffer from public relations storms, as Star Wars Battlefront II has, then the damage to a studio’s bottom line can be almost as pronounced as a poorly-received single-player game – just look at the falling EA stock prices reported this month.

Meanwhile, 2017 has brought with it a few examples of expansive, single-player games that show the genre at its absolute best. Horizon: Zero Dawn offered a compelling plot and world, while at the same time providing lots of reasons to explore and experiment with its mechanics. Likewise The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey – games that riff on their franchise’s lineage while bringing broad, solo experiences that feel new, relevant, and worth revisiting. Capcom’s Resident Evil series, which suffered a bit of a wobble with its last entry, got a creative shot in the arm with the genuinely frightening Resident Evil 7.

As ever, the video game landscape is in a constant state of flux, as ideas are tried out and audiences respond. Things like rising costs may pose challenges for games in the vein of, say, Uncharted or Visceral’s deceased Star Wars game, but titles like Breath of the Wild, Zero Dawn, and others like them prove that, in the right hands, the genre still has plenty to offer.