Some of my favorite video game memories involve sprawling single-player campaigns. I love getting absorbed into a well-written RPG, wading my way through a difficult turn-based strategy campaign, or waiting patiently for Metal Gear Solid 4’s cut-scenes to finally end.
I’m primarily an offline gamer. Most games I prefer to play solo, or with a friend via couch co-op. It’s not that I’ve never played MMORPGs (Ultima Online, woo!), but there’s just something about single-player gaming escapism that I prefer.
Unfortunately, some game publishers seem to think that players like me are a dying breed and that the “future of gaming” revolves around entirely multiplayer competitive games built on cash-grabbing microtransaction pay-to-win platforms. This shift is troubling and makes little sense from a consumer-satisfaction perspective.
What Do The Fans Want?
Kotaku reports that EA shut down the developer Visceral Games and canceled their in-progress Star Wars title. The game was intended to be a single-player action / adventure in the vein of Naughty Dog’s highly successful Uncharted series. Why was it canceled? Apparently EA didn’t think it had any potential to be monetized as a single-player title. I suppose they forgot about the $60 fans would already be paying for the game.
The Star Wars game they DID release this fall, Battlefront 2 (2017), does feature a single-player campaign and is focused on an Imperial POV after the events of Return of the Jedi. I’m glad to see DICE’s efforts focused on telling the story of a new protagonist.
However, this campaign’s existence was primarily the result of fan outcry, as the Xbox One / PS4 release of Battlefront 1 had no campaign and few single-player or couch co-op options. After all, PS2-era Battlefront 2 (2005) had two lengthy and entertaining single-player offerings in the form of Galactic Conquest and Rise of the Empire, taking 20+ hours to wade through. Not to mention a veritable buffet of co-op options both in the campaign and multiplayer modes.
This time around EA and DICE appear to have listened to fan feedback, but what did they ultimately deliver? A campaign that can be completed in 5 hours or less. Five hours. Yikes.
Even the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare had a campaign that took ten hours to beat. Unfortunately, each subsequent CoD title’s campaign got shorter and shorter as the focus on multiplayer grew.
To some extent this lean toward multiplayer can be justified, especially if there’s fan demand. Yet in the case of Battlefront 2 (2017), criticism from the community can’t be ignored. I won’t wade into the latest controversy, but EA missed the mark by a longshot by over-monetizing the BF2’s multiplayer model. When they used the franchise’s “Battlefront” moniker, there were certain expectations about the experience that came along with it. Ignore those fan expectations at your own risk.
Gaming has always been a commercial affair. But at least up until this point, the creative teams responsible for our favorite franchises were free to focus on creating a great game first and foremost. Now it feels like publishers are forcing developers to focus solely on creating the most lucrative monetization model possible and then hammering a multiplayer model on top of it.
It’s not that gamers don’t want single-player games…it’s that some publishers don’t like that they’re difficult to monetize. Expansion packs containing more content (a perfectly acceptable practice) are a far-cry from loot boxes, and they ultimately cost more to develop and thereby make companies less money. At the end of the day, profit margins and the almighty dollar become more important.
From a completely selfish business standpoint, I get why some publishers are steering away from single-player games. It takes significant resources to carefully write and construct a compelling story, find actors and actresses to record extensive dialogue, and juggle every other complexity crafting a fully fledged single-player experience. It’s much more cost-effective to create a story-lite multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) or shooter where players can compete. Then loot boxes can be added on top to give players new weapons, new skills, new skins, etc.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with making a game like this as long as your players know what they’re getting themselves into. And in fact, I believe it’s perfectly acceptable for franchises to venture into different genres. The problem occurs when franchises that are known primarily for their single-player campaigns are watered down into multiplayer-only competitive offerings.
When Franchises Forget Their Roots
Take the Rainbow Six video game franchise for instance. Based on the Tom Clancy book, these games are a “thinking man’s shooter.” I poured countless hours of my childhood into the original Rainbow Six and its expansions, and then as a teenager did the same for Rainbow Six: Vegas 1 & 2.
In Rogue Spear, I loved carefully planning my operations, assigning teams, outfitting my operatives (Ding Chavez is the man), and then taking the helm in its distinctive first-person tactical shooting. Slogging through a 15+ mission narrative campaign without losing any of your team members (yes, the games had a perma-death system) was difficult but rewarding.
The gameplay was always first-class, and the latest addition to the franchise, Rainbow Six: Siege, is no exception. Yet this game possesses no single-player campaign for the first time in Rainbow Six history. A game that’s part of a franchise based on a book has NO story. What?!
The gameplay itself is fantastic, and while I wanted to buy it…there’s no possible way for me to justify it without any single-player offerings aside from a few playable solo skirmish modes against AI.
It’s trends like these that increasingly drive me away from AAA-releases and toward the embrace of indie developers who haven’t lost sight of gaming’s rich heritage. That’s exactly why Ubisoft didn’t get a sale from me for Rainbow Six: Siege - instead I played it at a friend’s house.
Door Kickers, developed by the fantastic team at KillHouse Games, got my money instead. It had everything I loved about Rainbow Six (albeit from an isometric perspective) and more. I don’t regret this decision, but I lament the fact that Siege forgot its roots as a campaign-based tactical shooter. Fortunately smaller developers are successfully filling these gaps in the industry.
There’s a balancing act to all of this. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted franchise has embraced both single-player and multiplayer, combining them into a single cohesive package. I remember picking up Uncharted 2: Among Thieves when it was first released in the fall of 2009, and being immediately impressed by the product they’d released. Here was a fully-fledged single-player narrative that took 10-12 hours to complete, had trophies and unlockables to encourage replay, and contained an entertaining multiplayer suite. This was a full course meal worth playing for. Had the multiplayer stood alone, however, it would have felt more like an appetizer.
What’s Next For Single-player?
There’s a market and a niche for multiplayer-only games, just as there’s a market for single-player experiences. Neither are going to go away, yet if the negative publicity EA received over the Battlefront 2 (2017) debacle indicates anything, it’s that publishers will be more conscious of how their game is perceived by consumers before making any major decisions. It is detrimental when developers “nail” neither single-player nor multiplayer, presenting consumers instead with unfinished or unsatisfying products. Unless you can do both well, you’re probably better off focusing on one aspect and making it the best it can be.
Ultimately, I don’t think single-player games and experiences are going anywhere. As long as there are fans out there still willing to shell out their price of admission to take a crack at a compelling solo (or co-op) campaign, passionate indie developers will continue to create them. Maybe for EA and DICE, the eventual Battlefront 3 will get the formula right.
Sound off in the comments below. Are single-player games endangered? Why or why not?