Are single-player videogames in trouble?

Online multiplayer games are hugely popular, but has this come at the expense of the single-player experience?

Recently, Titanfall developer, Respawn Entertainment, commented on the lack of single-player in its upcoming mech-based FPS stating that only a small fraction of gamers would actually see the mode through to competition.

Respawn co-founder, Vince Zampella believes that the trade-off between the effort a studio has to go through to create a traditional story mode simply isn’t worth it, at least for a team as small as Respawn.

Talking to Gamesindustry, he said “We make these single-player missions that take up all the focus of the studio, that take a huge team six months to make, and players run through it in eight minutes.” He continued, “And how many people finish the single-player game? It’s a small percentage. It’s like, everyone plays through the first level, but five percent of people finish the game. Really, you split the team. They’re two different games. They’re balanced differently, they’re scoped differently. But people spend hundreds of hours in the multiplayer experience versus ‘as little time as possible rushing to the end’. So why do all the resources go there? To us it made sense to put it here. Now everybody sees all those resources, and multiplayer is better. For us it made sense.”

Zampella does have a fair point, even if it’s a little exaggerated. A small team can only accomplish so much, and so a more focused title is a much better option. However, if your six months of work can be run through in a very short time, then arguably you should be rethinking your development. And, I seriously doubt such a small percentage of players would abstain from seeing a story through to its conclusion. So, is it the fault of the player, or the fault of the development team for not making the game captivating enough?

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Sadly, Respawn Entertainment isn’t alone in its belief, and last year Blizzard’s Rob Pardo also stated his belief that the single-player game had an uncertain future. He claims that such games are far more difficult to make, and don’t see the same level of return as multiplayer-centric titles.

However, can you take such a comment at face value when a studio specialises in multiplayer RPGs, specifically, World Of Warcraft? It’s easy for the developer of a hugely successful and profitable multiplayer title to condemn single-player, but are such claims credible? Is the single-player experience a dying breed?

Online surge

There’s certainly no doubting that over the last few years online multiplayer take up has skyrocketed. Granted, people were playing games online on the PC long before consoles piled in, but the console market made the online experience mainstream, and in turn, bought in much more money for publishers and developers.

It didn’t take long for the likes of Halo, Call of Duty and FIFA to firmly establish their wide-reaching multiplayer credentials, and now almost every single game released features some form of multiplayer, whether it suits the online medium or not. If it doesn’t, many gamers and critics instantly comment on the lack of an online mode.

If this is a game like CoD, then fine. It’s expected for FPS titles such as this to feature online functionality, and with their single-player campaigns usually being woefully short, the online modes need to take up the slack if you’re going to get any form of value. However, if it’s a game that really doesn’t suit online play, often all you get is a sub-par single-player title with an online component shoe-horned in, in order to tick a box.

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The issue of short story modes is perhaps one of the biggest culprits contributing to the supposed demise of the single-player game, contrary to Zampella’s claims. Many AAA games released of late feature such a shockingly short, and often mind numbingly unoriginal campaign or story that many simply refrain from buying them. There’s a whole section of the gaming community that prefers single-player titles, and can’t afford, or won’t pay for a title that’ll last only a few hours.

CoD is a prime example if this, and if you’re not interested in multiplayer, you’ll get only a handful of hours worth of action, and feature-limited AI bot matches, purposely stripped down as if to punish you for not wanting to go online. For this you’re expected to pay ¬£40-50.

Now, stack this up against a game like Skyrim. It costs punters the same, but has a single-player experience that lasts feasibly for as long as you could ever want. It’s a single-player haven, and it’s sold like gangbusters. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that a solid proprotion of all gamers who bought it also played it through to completion, perhaps more than once.

So what’s the deal? Quality, pure and simple, I’d argue. The demand for single-player isn’t dying out, by any means. Yes, multiplayer interest is higher, and naturally has dented the market for single player, but the biggest potential problem for the solo player is quality.

Games like Skyrim, Uncharted, The Last Of Us, Deus Ex and GTA prove that if you make a good single-player experience, people will flock to it, and play it through. If, on the other hand, you treat the solo player like second class citizens and churn out yearly six hour long monotonous campaigns, then people will switch off.

Sadly, this fact also backs up some of the claims that single-player is in trouble because, as with many things, it boils down to time and money.

Development costs

It’s not breaking news that games cost a lot of money to make in the current climate, and big name AAA releases have budgets that meet or even exceed that of a Hollywood movie. And, any company worth its salt is going to want to find a way to maximise profit and minimise cost, it’s the nature of good business in any industry, including games.

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With this in mind, think of the cost of creating a full-length single-player game, with unique levels, full, voice-acted script, masses of resources and so on. It’s expensive stuff. Now, take multiplayer. This usually requires a selection of smaller-scale maps, far less in the way of script or depth, and all assets can be re-used. There’s no need to really worry about game length, and as long as you have enough maps and a good engine, players will plough countless hours in. It’s still expensive, but far less so than a complex and involving story mode.

So, of course some developers and publishers want a drop in single-player demand, it makes perfect economical sense. The CoD business model is dependant on it, as are so many other online-heavy titles. That’s why the single player is often so streamlined in length. Companies spend less, but there’s a huge market for the online component. I’m surprised such titles as CoD have had a single-player component for so long to be honest, and it’s certainly a good example of a game that doesn’t need a solo mode.

Still, even though the desire to lean towards multiplayer is understandable, it’d be a crying shame for single-player titles to thin out, as from a solely end-user angle, there are things such a game can do that multiplayer can’t.

Immersion

Take the matter of immersion and escapism. Often, single-player games are to multiplayer as books are to going to the movies. One is a personal, at your own pace journey that you can lose yourself in, and the other is an entertaining event that can be greatly affected, good and bad, by others you’re forced to share it with.

When you play a compelling game on your own, be it an RPG, adventure, or even FPS, you can experience it as you like. It’s your adventure, your escape to another world. No one’s going to be shouting abuse, no one’s going to accuse you of cheating, and you’re not forced to participate in a certain way. Granted, this kind of immersion isn’t applicable to all games, but others relish in it.

Take Dead Space, for example. It began life as a creepy sci-fi horror tale that saw you stranded, alone, on a derelict spaceship. The ambience was spot on, and playing though it on your lonesome only served to heighten the tension and fear.

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Move forward to Dead Space 3. It’s a good game, yes, but when it comes to immersion and atmosphere, it’s pretty much all gone. The addition of multiplayer robbed the game of its once great feel, and although that’s not only down to multiplayer (DS2‘s single player wasn’t a patch on the first, either), it’s a big contributing factor.

Now, return to Skyrim and imagine if you were forced to play it with others. Sure, the massive world and open quests would be great fun with friends, so much so Bethesda is making The Elder Scrolls Online to explore that avenue. But that personal touch, the journey that you embark on and the world you shape with your own choices would be gone. Your achievements wouldn’t always be your own, and those creepy dungeons or surprise dragon attacks wouldn’t be quite the same.

I’ve had tons of great times playing online with friends, so I by no means dislike games that encourage this, but I’ve also had so many great experiences playing single-player titles, experiences that simply can’t be had with multiplayer, at all.

For example, many moons ago when reviewing Thief: Deadly Shadows, I made my way to the Shalebridge Cradle mission. This takes place in an old, burnt-out orphanage that was also once an asylum. As you can imagine, this wasn’t the happiest of levels, and the ultra-creepy atmosphere and enemy design created what was, for me, one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had in gaming, so much so that when my better half came into the darkened room and tapped on my shoulder to get my attention, I almost had a heart attack. This simply wouldn’t be possible with others involved in the game.

Repulsion

Immersion, and getting lost in a story is very important, but many find this a struggle online, mainly due to other players. Some titles are notorious for attracting a certain type of gamer. You all know who I’m talking about, those who relish in shouting vulgarities and pretending they’re some sort of sex chief. It’s annoying, off-putting and simply sours the game experience.

Yes, you can mute them, but regardless, many gamers prefer to avoid such issues, as even when you can’t hear abuse, you still have to put up with those that like to mess around team-killing, or running off to ‘glitch’ a map. It’s hardly fun, and unless you create a private game with enough friends, the public domain on online gaming is a volatile arena. Single-player has no such issues, and your experience is only affected by you.

Replayability

The argument for single-player titles often involves replay value, something that, if done correctly, isn’t an issue that troubles multiplayer. Whilst a good multiplayer game has nigh on infinite replay value, single-player games struggle with this, especially linear titles. What’s the point of playing the same levels or missions over and over if they’re always the same?

Playing against other people online negates these issues, and games are always different, but unless a single-player game is very good, and enjoyable enough to warrant replays, one time through is all most get. This backs up developer claims somewhat, and if you spend so much time and effort creating a game, you want people to like it and get the most from it. A single play through doesn’t always cut it, and it’s certainly not going to stop those trade-ins. A few games manage to be good enough, or pack in elements of replayabiltiy to escape this flaw, but many others don’t. How many players actually went back and collected all the flags in Assassin’s Creed? Not many, I’ll wager.

Second hand

Even though the Xbox One’s turnaround has now left the pre-owned market alone, for now at least, any developer or publisher saying they relish the second hand market is likely being economical with the truth. Yes, Sony may be seen as a hero and defender of gamers, but behind closed doors, surely it would have done the same thing as Microsoft did if it could get away with it.

Pre-owned games make little to no income for games creators or hardware vendors, whereas ongoing DLC, map packs and other such incentives do. A good multiplayer game is far less likely to be traded in than a single-player game, no matter how good the latter is, and lending it to a mate isn’t as likely, as you’ll both need copies to play online anyway.

That’s another tick for multiplayer, but again it’s from a corporate standpoint, not a gamer preference per se, and it certainly shouldn’t be taken to mean single player games can’t make a profit.

Access for all

It’s a diminishing concern, but as much as big companies may like to ignore it, there are also those users who don’t have Internet connections, and so depend upon single-player to fulfil their gaming desires. If multiplayer ends up dominating release schedules at the cost of single-player, the gaming possibilities for such users will thin out. And remember, there are some places, even in well developed countries, that simply don’t get good Internet connections, so it’s not always about lack of funds or choice.

You also have to consider the cost of multiplayer too. On top of any ISP cost you may have, if you’re a console gamer there’s the added cost of a possible subscription to the console’s service. Previously only the Xbox 360 required this if you wanted to play online, but with the arrival of the PS4, so too will Sony’s service. If you can’t afford this, you’re scuppered.

In conclusion

The real debate about the fate of single-player games, as with many things of a gaming nature lies with the gamer. As long as people buy single-player games, and there’s a market for it, then there’ll always be developers making them, and the majority of big award winners still come mostly from the single-player stable, with recent hits like BioShock Infinite, AC3, The Last of Us and Far Cry 3 all embracing excellent solo campaigns.

Of course, if less and less time and money is spent developing them, and single-player game quality takes a nosedive in favour of multiplayer, then this will spell bad news for the solo gamer.

Regardless of the claims and arguments, single-player will still be around for some time, there’s currently too much demand for it. And although single-player games can suffer from excessive cloning, multiplayer games are far worse off, with carbon copies filling genres of all types, especially FPS, which reached saturation point a long time ago. Single-player titles aren’t going anywhere quickly, then. But they could use a bit more love…

Gamesindustry

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