Do single player games have a future? How multiplayer gaming will never take its place

Mariel Hurd on why single player games are too lucrative to ditch

Single player games Skyrim

There is nothing gamers enjoy more than prophesising doom. And fair do’s, it’s a hobby we share with most of humanity, but it can get a little tiring. The same debates crop up over and over, year after year, as predictable as council tax but without the excitement. My personal nominee for ‘oh god, STFU’ is singleplayer’s inevitable demise.

The lyrics change, but the tune grates on the same as ever. First, story-driven singleplayer would be wiped out by shooters. Then story-driven singleplayer and shooters turned out to be amiable flatmates, so the new threat of multiplayer mode was introduced and charged with conspiracy to dilute singleplayer. MMOGs got touted as the Final Death Nell for a while there, but they fell out of vogue the moment they started falling flat on their faces. So what have gamers done? We found something else to twist our knickers over: social/app games and multiplayer-focused games.

WE HAVE INTERRUPTED THIS ARTICLE TO BRING YOU BREAKING NEWS: RUTHLESS MURDERER OF SINGLEPLAYER STILL AT LARGE. EXPERTS ARE UNSURE WHEN, WHERE OR HOW HE’LL STRIKE, BUT THEY’RE PRETTY SURE IT’S COMING ANY DAY NOW. NO, REALLY, WE SWEAR.

Only the experts – the developers and publishers – aren’t saying any such thing. For the most part those dudes are pretty chill about singleplayer, even when they’re faced with leading questions. In a 1Up interview with four RPG developers in 2010, the general consensus seemed to be that singleplayer was doing fine.

Massimo Guarini, (formerly of) Grasshopper Manufacture, interview with Gamespot, 2011:

Shadows of the Damned

GS: How bad are the prospects for single-player-only games right now?

MG: In my opinion, single-player-only games are nowhere close to being doomed. The problem rather lies in how they’re produced, through which channels they’re sold, and at which price points. I can’t see in any way a single-player experience being less engaging or interesting because of the absence of multiplayer. Instead, I can definitely see how players who pay 60 or 70 bucks for a game can be quite sensitive to the lack of additional features that can justify their investment.

Once again, the business model must evolve. We’re still selling at incredibly high price points because we’re still operating like we were five years ago, with just higher production costs. Instead of changing our perspectives, we’re still struggling to pack games with features, extras, bonuses, achievements, in order to barely justify that price tag, which is given by excessively high development and licensing costs. We must learn our lesson from the huge, epic failure the music industry is still suffering nowadays for not being able to adapt to the digital revolution.

Eric Johnson, Valve, interview with Game Developer Magazine, 2010:

“It’s interesting to think about  — numbers suggest that the popularity of guided single-player experiences is dwindling. That may mean that the highest-quality studios will no longer be able to invest in the development of those titles, and thus that type of experience won’t improve.”

EJ: Part of it is thinking through the reasons for making decisions. You brought up piracy being a reason to not do single player, which I think is a pretty crazy analysis on an issue like that; that’s making a decision for your customers about the types of products you are going to build without, by definition, including your customers in that at all.

You’re saying that because of these pirates, you get no single player experiences, which makes no sense to me. If there are as much players that want single player experiences, you should go build that. I think there are plenty of people that still want to have single player experiences. Look at Mario; those games do really well.

YOU MAY NOW RETURN TO YOUR SCHEDULED ARTICLE.

When it comes to the anticipated tyranny of casual/social gaming, there’s a tangled ball of arguments. One is that it will wipe out Gaming As We Know It, possibly in some kind of flood, while others claim it’ll specifically destroy long in-depth games. There are more – mostly variations on those themes – and none of them quite name singleplayer as the sole victim, but it’s still regularly blamed for singleplayer’s death.

Facebook and app games do have dizzyingly high numbers of players, although not quite as high as people assume, and…no shit. They’re fun little time-eaters; something you play on the bus, or in the waiting room, so of course they’re lucrative. They’re occupying an important market niche, just as traditional singleplayer games do. Ready meals have not killed the cookware industry, patience has not killed poker, and Fruit Ninja is not the pitiless executioner of Left 4 Dead.

“But publishers want to make more money!” I hear someone at the back cry. “They don’t care about what games they’re making , they’ll see the cash and follow!”

“And that makes a lot of sense,” I say to you, Dudeattheback, “if you assume this is a zero sum game. In reality, you have a duck which lays golden eggs. One day someone offers you a similarly-talented goose. Do you shank the duck because goose eggs are a little bigger? No, you do not, because you’re paying more in birdseed but the fuckers are shitting bullion.”

Necron Annihilation Barge

It’s possible Games Workshop would make more if they dropped tabletop and moved entirely into video games. Warhammer 40K titles have a good record there, they’re cheaper and more accessible to newcomers, and you don’t have to find a social group just to play the damn thing. Despite all this, GW just released the new Necrons Codex. Why? Because they know their market. They can lease their video gaming to THQ and their RPGs to Fantasy Flight Games, make a pretty penny and lounge around on their piles of money. They have no reason to ditch us old-school dice-rollers because we turn our wallets inside out for them.

So why would video game developers? No. They’ll keep both birds. Especially when the duck’s been laying for twenty-five years, and the goose barely four.

As for multiplayer: it won’t kill singleplayer because it can’t. No, seriously, it cannot afford to. The moment you lock your story into that framework you throw away the key on most storytelling types.

Within ten minutes, I can think of these issues off the top of my head: how to set a party limit + minimum, making sure each player gets their moment, making characters who are distinct AND likeable (both playing and playing with), no faceless voiceless protagonists, immersion is a real bitch, no character can rise above the others at any point, party members must be immortal,  you cannot split the party up, having the plot require a PC to lose is risky, and a lot of storytelling  would have to take place in cutscenes.

Given the choice between that and nothing, I’ll pick up my dice bag and resign myself to playing WFRP once a week, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it pushed a lot of video gamers to try their hand at tabletop. Independent gaming stores would see an influx of new customers desperate for their RPG fix, Chessex could flog dice by the bucketful. There is a land of milk and honey, of fresh new faces in every gaming group. And then it all goes to hell because no-one wants to GM.

Won’t MMORPGs fill the niche? Again, they can’t. While they can do a lot of the storytelling, it’s still not as flexible, and the price tag is heavy. Games like Guild Wars have no subscription fee, but if you want a wide variety of RPGs you’ll soon end up with monthly payments. For a gamer who doesn’t even want multiplayer in the first place it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

The final, most important reason singleplayer won’t die is because there’s no need for it to. We’ve been kicking this ball around the playground for years and it’s getting pretty battered. It’s not that I think we need to stop stirring up storms in our teacups, but I’m bored with this one. I want something new. My vote’s for ‘Will game merchandise wipe out sequels?’.