The death of single-player games has been greatly exaggerated

This week saw the sad news that EA is closing Visceral Games, the studio behind the excellent Dead Space games. Visceral had been working on a new single-player Star Wars game for around three years, but EA finally decided to pull the plug on it and shutter the studio, saying that they wanted to ‘pivot’ the game to what appears to be a more multiplayer-focused experience.

Some have taken this as evidence of the death of the AAA single-player game. ‘EA’s Star Wars ‘pivot’ is a vote of no confidence in single-player games‘ screamed Polygon. ‘AAA single-player games are dying,’ declared the advertising brochure/news website Forbes. It’s certainly not great news for people who were looking forward to a lengthy single-player Star Wars game. But the death of single player games? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

If we rewind to 2011, video game consultant and PS4 lead architect Mark Cerny predicted that single player games would be “gone in three years”. Clearly that wasn’t the case – just this week we have the AAA single-player title Wolfenstein 2 to look forward to, for example. But he did have a point in that he predicted the rise of what he called ‘connected single-player experiences’. I’ll look at what he meant in a sec, but first let’s go back to EA and the closure of Visceral Games.

EA, studio killer

EA is the studio everyone loves to hate. They’ve gained a reputation for being all about the bottom line, and they’ve certainly shut down a lot of once-great studios over the years – the closure of Bullfrog still rankles, personally, and Visceral Games is just the latest victim in a long line. Here’s what EA executive vice president Patrick Söderlund said on the cancellation of Visceral’s Star Wars game:

In its current form, it was shaping up to be a story-based, linear adventure game. Throughout the development process, we have been testing the game concept with players, listening to the feedback about what and how they want to play, and closely tracking fundamental shifts in the marketplace. It has become clear that to deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come, we needed to pivot the design.

Importantly, we are shifting the game to be a broader experience that allows for more variety and player agency, leaning into the capabilities of our Frostbite engine and reimagining central elements of the game to give players a Star Wars adventure of greater depth and breadth to explore.

The subtext certainly seems to be that ‘single-player doesn’t sell’ and that ‘the marketplace’ is crying out for multiplayer. The key phrase is: “an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come”. The problem with single-player games is that once a player has finished the story, there’s very little reason to play the game again. But with multiplayer games like Call of Duty and Overwatch, players will remain engaged for months if not years. And while people remain interested in your game, not only can you expect it to remain in the charts for a long time to come, you also have the chance to flog add-ons like weapon packs and maps on a rolling basis.

Games as a service

This idea of ‘games as a service’ is all the rage these days. Publishers are eyeing games like Destiny and Overwatch with envy, seeing millions of players purchasing characters, skins and add-on content over an extended period of time. An enormous barnyard of cash cows, all eager to fling their money at ways to improve their multiplayer experience. But how many games like this can the market actually sustain? Presumably, if people are spending hours and hours playing Destiny every week, they don’t have time to play many other games. And certainly you’d have to have an ocean of free time to play more than one of these gargantuan games-as-a-service. The ignominious failure of the recently released multiplayer shooter LawBreakers shows how hard it is to capture a loyal following – the online player count dropped to 10 at one point last week, just two months after its release, even though the game reviewed very well. And the rapid decline in player numbers for Battleborn, which came out almost simultaneously with the structurally very similar Overwatch, shows that there’s only so much room for mega-games that demand a huge amount of player’s time.

LawBreakers – reviewed well, but bombed in a tough-to-break multiplayer market.
Amazon was one of the first companies to get into online shopping, and it subsequently came to dominate the market. Many tried to subsequently emulate Amazon’s success: all have failed to reach its heights. The story of Facebook is similar – being first can offer a huge advantage. Other social media sites have emerged since, but Facebook still dominates the market, numbering its users in the billions.

This phenomenon is called the ‘first-mover advantage’, and you can see it happen often in multiplayer games. World of Warcraft swept to dominance in the newly emerging MMO market, and no one has since got close to its user numbers. Destiny was the first game of its kind in a genre that doesn’t even have a proper name yet – let’s call it a role-playing first-person shooter MMO, for the sake of argument – and I’d be very surprised if any subsequent game in the same genre could reach its heights of success. EA is betting on Anthem, its upcoming Destiny-alike, to do big numbers, but I’ll be very surprised if it reaches anything like the player numbers of Destiny.

The point is that people only have so much time and money to commit, and once they’ve chosen an allegiance, it’s hard to get them to switch away from something they’ve invested heavily in.

It’s all about the money

But let’s go back and look at why EA – and other publishers – are so desperate to get a slice of the multiplayer pie. Cynics might argue that it’s just a question of greed. But if you take a glance at modern development costs, it’s obvious that the sums no longer add up – games cost enormous amounts to develop, but the prices don’t reflect how much they actually cost.

A recent Kotaku article suggested that a modern video game costs about $10,000 per person per month. For a big AAA game by a major studio, that means development costs alone could be anything from $50 million up to about $150 million or even more for a mega blockbuster like Destiny 2 – and that doesn’t even include the marketing budget, which can be enormous. If you divide $150 million by sales of the game at full price ($60), you come out with a figure of 2.5 million sales needed to just break even on development. But a 2015 Kotaku UK article estimated that the publisher only gets about £29.99 of a game retailing at £49.99, or 60% of the retail price. Sixty per cent of $60 is $36, so you’d actually have to sell 4.16 million copies at full price to break even on development – and of course that doesn’t include marketing costs, so the true figure is much higher.

The cost of video games has barely risen at all over the past few decades. Yet the cost of development for increasingly more powerful and complicated consoles has spiralled out of control, and sales haven’t risen in step. This means that publishers are increasingly relying on DLC and add-on content to turn a profit. No wonder we’re seeing more and more microtransactions in full-price games. Expect to see plenty more of them in the future.

There are only so many golden geese

Considering the above, it’s unsurprising that EA want to maximise their returns by aiming at as broad a market as possible with their Star Wars title – and that means multiplayer and microtransactions. But equally, there are only so many players, and they only have time to commit to a relatively small number of multiplayer games. Mega-hits like Call of Duty, Destiny and Overwatch are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Overwatch was a mega-hit, but think of poor old Battleborn. As the Highlander said, “There can only be one.”
This why single-player games will remain important. Or rather ‘connected single-player games’. Going all in on a multiplayer title, like LawBreakers, is a big bet that might well not pay off. It’s hard to tear players away from established multiplayer titles, and even harder to keep them engaged for long periods of time. The rewards can be massive (look at the millions of players that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has, for example), but the risk is equally high. From a business perspective, it makes sense to attract both the single-player and the multiplayer crowd.

That’s why this year’s Star Wars Battlefront 2 has a single-player campaign, whereas it’s predecessor didn’t. The first game missed out on sales from people like me, who want to play a Star Wars game but just aren’t interested in multiplayer. A single-player only game is a risk – but equally, so is a multiplayer-only title.

This means we’re likely to see more games that are essentially single player but that have a multiplayer element. Publishers have been cutting and pasting multiplayer onto single-player games for years – the multiplayer deathmatches of Spec Ops: The Line were hastily bolted on at the publisher’s request, for instance, and the ostensibly single-player Uncharted series has had multiplayer elements for years now. But what we’re likely to see more of is seamless integration of multiplayer elements into single-player games: like Xenoblade Chronicles X did, with its regular online titan battles for high-level players, and like Dark Souls did with its message system for other gamers. In both of these games, you can totally ignore the multiplayer aspect if you so wish. But having it there means that some players will end up investing more time in the game as a result – and maybe buying the odd add-on trinket or two.

Indie schmindie

And of course, single player will continue to dominate in the indie sector. For a start, most indie devs don’t have the budget to implement online multiplayer, with its concomitant server costs and ongoing support needs. You’ll get the odd local multiplayer game, like Nidhogg, but indie games will remain dominated by outings for solo players.

And even if we look at current AAA games, it’s clear that the death of single player games is greatly exaggerated. There’s the aforementioned Wolfenstein 2, an expensive, much-hyped single-player experience. And one of 2017’s biggest hits, Horizon: Zero Dawn, was strictly single player. Likewise, a huge chunk of the Japanese games that made it to the west this year are one-player only: Resident Evil VII, Nier: Automata and Persona 5 to name a few. And Nintendo seems to care little about online multiplayer, it being conspicuously absent in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey.

Horizon: Zero Dawn – a conspicuously single-player game that sold massively in 2017.
Clearly multiplayer is something that EA wants to double down on – understandably so, given the success of its online multiplayer games like Battlefield and FIFA. And I’m certain that it looks enviously at the success of Activision’s Destiny, hence why Anthem is in development. But the multiplayer ambitions of one company shouldn’t be extrapolated to the industry as a whole.

AAA single-player games may evolve to have more online multiplayer options, even if they’re optional and unobtrusive. But single-player games will live on – if only for the reason that it makes financial sense to target the large percentage of gamers who rarely, if ever, play online.

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