Single player gaming is dead. Right?
Well, perhaps not. In a world where developers are seemingly endlessly talking about always connected experiences and dynamic multiplayer modes it may look like solo experiences are going the way of THQ (too soon?).
And yet, for all that box ticking, it seems this is simply not the case, if anything, the opposite is happening.
Research by the EEDAR has shown the number of game including multiplayer has in fact fallen quite dramatically since 2007. In that year a mere 24% of Xbox 360 and PS3 games shipped with a multiplayer component. In 2012, almost double that number, 41%, were developed solely as single player experiences.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of this shifting change is that until this research was made public no one was even aware that this trend was occurring.
“You can see that in 2006, one year into the release of the Xbox 360 and the launch year of the PlayStation 3, 67% of the games had online multiplayer, 58% had offline multiplayer and 28% had no multiplayer,” Geoffrey Zatkin, the Chief Operating Officer of EEDAR informed the Penny Arcade Report.
“By 2012, you can see that only 42% have online multiplayer, a drop of 25%, 44% have offline multiplayer, a drop of 14%, and 41% have no multiplayer, a rise of 16%. So, over time, fewer and fewer high definition console games are including multiplayer as part of their core offering,” Zatkin added.
“Multiplayer, when executed well, can be the heart of the game and is often what keeps people playing for extended periods of time. Best-in-class multiplayer, such Call of Duty, Halo, Madden, FIFA, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, etc. is awesome,” Zatkin explained. “A lot of the success of these games, both individual titles and franchises, is a result of their superior multiplayer execution.”
The difficultly with including multiplayer in games is that it’s often an expensive feature to implement and there are many cases where its inclusion is not a guarantee of success.
“Multiplayer is a game feature, and not every feature belongs in every game. Including multiplayer for the sake of having multiplayer doesn’t make sense. Multiplayer should be included because it makes the game better,” Zatkin commented.
“I don’t know that BioShock 1 or the upcoming BioShock: Infinite (this research was conducted before the game’s release) would be a better game for the inclusion of multiplayer. Or Batman Arkham Asylum & City, Dragon Age I & II, God of War 3, Skyrim, Heavy Rain or Fallout 3. Or Braid. Or Limbo. There are a lot of great games whose core experience didn’t include multiplayer.”
This means developers are more hesitant to add multipayer segments to games where it does not belong or where its inclusion might divert resources from other elements leading to a generally inferior product.
It’s notable of course that God of War: Ascension, the first game in the series to include multiplayer, is widely believed to have been created solely to add that mode. Furthermore, Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, which launched on the same day as BioShock Infinite in North America will likely perform significantly worse because it is going up directly against that behemoth of a single player gamer than it might have otherwise.
(Of course, it should be pointed out that at one point the plan was to include multiplayer in Infinite and Ken Levine was very passionate about the idea.)
Regardless it’s undeniable that some of the greatest successes of this generation have been single player games and the demise of this genre has been dismissed as exaggerated by Arkane’s Harvey Smith.
The Dishonored developer, speaking to GamesIndustry, Smith said “What people say each cycle is, ‘Fill-in-the-blank is the new thing.’ And if you’re old enough, you remember when it was live-action video games.
“At another point it was MMOs. At another it was social games. At another it was multiplayer shooters. And none of those things are bad; they’re all great. But what the reality seems to be is we keep adding types of games and finding new player groups for those. The market seems to be expanding” Smith added.
The developer went on to add that he hopes games specialise and do some things really well rather than a lot of things adequately.
“You have to do something well that the other guy’s not doing. That’d be nice, right? Instead of a handful of games that all try to do the same thing, I hope there’s some specialization happening and people are going to have to do one thing well or three things well instead of trying to do the same 12 things everyone else is doing.”
If games like Dishonored, which Bethesda have confirmed will become a franchise, and Skyrim can be entirely single player experiences and perform well regardless will inspire others to take a risk and leave their game as a solo experience.
Perhaps the most surprising admission of this new reality comes from EA labels president Frank Gibeau who has called DRM, or digital rights management, “a failed, dead-end strategy” in the wake of SimCity’s chaotic launch. Of course, you have to expect EA to mount such a defence in light of what’s happened and whether this becomes a practical reality within the publisher remains to be seen.
Gibeau has after all said:
“I have not green lit one game to be developed as a single player experience. Today, all of our games include online applications and digital services that make them live 24/7/365.
“For all the investments we’ve made in mobile and social, we never abandoned consoles. We are working closely with the console manufacturers and we are very excited about the Gen4 consoles that will be launched in the months and years ahead.”
The EA executive later went on to clarify saying:
“You can have a very deep single-player game but it has to have an ongoing content plan for keeping customers engaged beyond what’s on the initial disc. I’m not saying deathmatch must come to Mirror’s Edge.
“I still passionately believe in single-player games and think we should build them. What I was trying to suggest with my comments was that as we move our company from being a packaged goods, fire-and-forget business to a digital business that has a service component to it. That’s business-speak for ‘I want to have a business that’s alive and evolves and changes over time’.”
It will be interesting to see how Gibeau and EA carry this philosophy forward. Especially if Gibeau succeeds outgoing EA CEO John Riccitiello.
Ubisoft meanwhile has dropped DRM for all PC games as a result of player feedback.
Some of the biggest games of recent years which have multiplayer components are not bought for that purpose. Who bought Tomb Raider for its multiplayer? Or Uncharted? Would BioShock Infinite’s sales really be much better if there were multiplayer modes?
Multiplayer is a great feature when it fits into the game its made for, Mass Effect 3 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood spring to mind, but unless developers take the time and are given the proper resources they’re wasting their time.
The reality is sometimes multiplayer is more trouble than its worth and sometimes, from both narrative and gameplay perspectives, it simply makes sense for a game to be a solo experience.
Single player games may fade over the years to come but it seems, for now at least, that they’re not going anywhere.