There’s a power in stories. A power to entertain and to enlighten. Make us think and feel things we’d never considered before. For me, the best games are the ones that tell me a great story. I got chills the first time I heard B.J. Blazkowicz’s opening monologue from Wolfenstein: The New Order, and was captivated by his struggle throughout the game. I felt angry, and then sad after John Marston’s betrayal at the end of Red Dead Redemption. I was proud of what my characters had been through and accomplished in the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, these empty shells whom I had brought to life, given character, motivation, and personality. There is something undeniably special about a story told through a video game, a depth of immersion that’s difficult to replicate elsewhere. There’s a power in stories. A power to entertain and to enlighten. Make us think and feel things we’d never considered before. For me, the best games are the ones that tell me a great story. I got chills the first time I heard B.J. Blazkowicz’s opening monologue from Wolfenstein: The New Order, and was captivated by his struggle throughout the game. I felt angry, and then sad after John Marston’s betrayal at the end of Red Dead Redemption. I was proud of what my characters had been through and accomplished in the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, these empty shells whom I had brought to life, given character, motivation, and personality. There is something undeniably special about a story told through a video game, a depth of immersion that’s difficult to replicate elsewhere.
It’s not at all impossible for multiplayer games to elicit these same feelings. There are plenty of touching stories about moments shared silently between two players in 2012’s indie puzzle adventure Journey, and in Grand Theft Auto Online exists one of the best examples of the potential for emergent storytelling, as countless gifs and forum posts can attest. But these are outliers. Focus on storytelling has never been a defining characteristic of multiplayer gameplay, and in an industry that is seeing online multiplayer beginning to co-opt single-player as the foundation of many major titles some gamers are concerned that we’re seeing a decline in the single-player narrative experience.
It’s easy to make arguments for either side. We’re seeing more and more publishers embrace the “games as a service” model, a philosophy that focuses on providing long term support to games after release to encourage consumers to continue playing – and spending money on – games whose life cycles would otherwise have ended much earlier. This model generally relies on revenue from multiplayer modes to maximize profits. Publisher Square Enix recently made a pretty definitive statement on the company’s position in a shareholder report, stating:
“Gone are the days in which single-player games were of primary status and multiplayer games secondary. Lately, multiplayer games have taken the lead, and it is standard for games to be designed for long-term play.”
Elsewhere, the unhappy news about the closure of EA studio Visceral Games and the restructuring of their single-player Star Wars game has many wondering what we’ll be getting in its place. EA has long been focused on integrating multiplayer into their games and while it has since come to light that there were many factors involved in the studio shutdown, assumptions that this was a sign of EA deemphasizing single-player content sparked discussion throughout the industry.
On the other hand, it isn’t as if we’re running short on single-player adventures. 2017 saw it’s biggest day in gaming on October 27th, with the release of Super Mario Odyssey, Assassin’s Creed Origins, and Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, three brand new entries in hugely successful franchises – and all story driven single player experiences, foregoing online multiplayer entirely. Wolfenstein 2 is a first-person shooter whose setting would make the perfect backdrop for cooperative multiplayer, yet the developers declined to include this mode so as not to “dilute the single-player experience”. And we’ve seen Star Wars Battlefront 2 hyping up its single-player campaign ahead of the game’s release later this month after a massive fan outcry over the lack of one in its predecessor, echoing a similar situation with Titanfall 2 last year. These are both franchises designed “as a service” with multiplayer at their core, yet fan interest led EA (publisher of both games) to see enough value in a single-player campaign to dedicate resources into developing one for each game’s sequel.
So if publishers are still seeing value in single-player games then why does it seem as if they’re disappearing? Why is it that these days it’s more surprising to learn that a game will be released without a multiplayer component than with one? If the demand for single-player games hasn’t declined, then what changed? The answer is that the way games make money has changed. Season passes, loot boxes, microtransactions and “games as a service” are all components of this. Businesses exist to make money. As new milestones are reached and the potential for profit is realized priorities in the games industry shift. This is true of any industry. Gone are the days when maximum revenue was limited by the number of copies sold, and there is no better example of this than Grand Theft Auto V.
Grand Theft Auto V is a game defined by money. Of course, the story centres around bank robbers and the missions feature high stakes heists with millions of dollars on the line, but there’s much more to it than that. With a development and advertising budget of $265 million, GTA V is the second most expensive-to-produce video game in history. By the end of its first day in stores on September 17th, 2013 it had recouped that budget more than three times over, and since that first day on sale over four years ago it continues to appear on lists of top selling games each week. It broke scores of records for units shipped and had surpassed one billion dollars in sales before the end of its first week – all before Grand Theft Auto Online even launched. To date, GTA V has sold eighty-five million copies. When I began researching for this article it was the #4 best selling video game in the world – but before I finished it had climbed to #3. Conservative estimates put its total revenue at over $3 billion USD. To call Grand Theft Auto V the definition of a successful single-player game would be a massive understatement.
So with these figures in mind, it would be fair to say that anything attached to the Grand Theft Auto name will be a guaranteed success. Publisher Rockstar Games seemed to agree in a blog post at the end of 2013, promising single-player story DLC for the following year along with continued support and improvements for the fledgling GTA Online. Years went by, and the online mode continued to grow and find success with new content and regular updates, but the promised single-player DLC never materialized. Only recently in an interview with Game Informer did Rockstar comment on why the story content was shelved. Citing the commitment of resources towards launching the upgraded PS4 and Xbox One versions, the long awaited PC port and continued development on GTA Online, as well as feeling that Grand Theft Auto V was a “complete” game, they no longer felt that single-player expansions were either “possible or necessary”. There’s no reason not to take this at face value. Rockstar is an impressive company, but their resources are not unlimited – something had to be prioritized. But why Online? Perhaps because by 2016 Grand Theft Auto Online had generated $500,000,000 on its own via “shark cards”, the vehicle through which Online allows players to purchase in-game currency using real money. Considering how the online service’s success has continued to grow since then we can assume that number has also risen substantially. As successful as single-player DLC would no doubt have been for Rockstar, GTA Online proved to be more profitable and easier to manage with the resources at hand, and ultimately that decision has paid off so well that Take Two Interactive – Rockstar’s parent company – now plans to implement what it calls “recurrent consumer spending” (aka microtransactions) in all of its games going forward.
And therein lies the issue that concerned gamers are dealing with today. Game publishers are businesses, and businesses follow the money. People voluntarily pay outrageous sums for loot boxes and other microtransactions and as a result, the platforms that support these methods are given priority – and the fact is that single-player-only games don’t support them nearly as well. Yet in spite of all this, we still have holdouts. 2017’s open-world single-player RPG Horizon Zero Dawn was Sony’s best selling debut ever for a new IP and was lauded by critics. The majority of mainstream titles that Bethesda Softworks has published over the last five years – including recent hits Prey, Dishonoured 2, and Wolfenstein 2 – have been single-player story-driven games with no multiplayer component at all. Modern graphic adventure games like Life is Strange and The Walking Dead continue to captivate their audiences with the stories they tell and find critical success. We’re even seeing the companies most gamers are quickest to point fingers at for the perceived decline defending their commitment to single-player and insisting that it’s here to stay. As part of a statement regarding the closure of Visceral Games, EA executive vice president Patrick Söderlund said:
“This truly isn’t about the death of single-player games – I love single-player, by the way – or story and character-driven games (…) Storytelling has always been part of who we are, and single-player games will of course continue.”
Rockstar Games director of design Imran Sarwar said in his interview with Game Informer:
“We would love to do more single-player add-ons for games in the future. As a company, we love single-player more than anything, and believe in it absolutely – for storytelling and a sense of immersion in a world, multiplayer games don’t rival single-player games”.
So, are single-player games at risk? I would say no. There is still value – and profit – to be found in a single-player story. From a cold and calculated business perspective, a game’s plot and setting are still valuable tools in marketing and a good story can keep people reminiscing and reengaging for years to come. But are single-player games going to change? Yes. Absolutely, and most gamers won’t like it. We will see more single-player games that could stand on their own being shipped with multiplayer modes designed to support the “games as a service” model. In those that don’t (and probably also still with those that do), we will likely continue to see the season pass model used. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we continue to see loot boxes and other microtransactions popping up in single-player modes that can find a way to justify them, as we’ve recently seen in Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Hopefully, publishers and developers will make an effort to make these additions unobtrusive to our stories and experiences – but maybe they won’t.
It’s easy to decry companies for preying on our wallets, and I’m not at all suggesting that all game companies are innocent of shady practices and exploitative strategies – but these practices still exist in abundance today because they were successful. Maybe it began with microtransactions in multiplayer games, or maybe it goes as far back as the introduction of downloadable content, but the genie is out of the bottle now and there’s no putting him back. Publishers know that the copy of their game that you paid for and own is not the limit of the money they can earn for it – there is no upper limit anymore. Single-player games aren’t going anywhere, but because they work – and work so well – these spending hooks are also here to stay.
Guest post by: Dylan McDermott