Single Player is Dead: Fact or Fiction

Oh EA, you were the chosen ones. You were supposed to bring balance to the Star Wars games, not leave them in multiplayer darkness. That’s right everyone, it’s time to talk about the biggest story of the week. EA shocked the video game industry when they announced that they would be shutting down Visceral Games studio and, according to the gaming community, killing off single player gaming.

Visceral Games is most known for the critically acclaimed Dead Space series, but that isn’t the only reason this announcement was so shocking. A few years back, Visceral made headlines when it was announced that Amy Hennig, the creative director of Uncharted 1, 2, and 3 was joining Visceral to make a single player Star Wars game. Everyone was over-joyed with the news because it meant that gamers may finally get a game that comes close to looking like Star Wars 1313, that long lost baby that was thrown out with the bathwater when Lucas Arts was closed back in 2013.

EA released a statement saying,

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and it was with that statement that everyone went into a panic. Oh no, they killed a single player Star Wars game to turn it into Destiny! Single player games are dead! Everyone is moving to games as a service! Everything will have loot boxes! Micro-transactions in everything! Yes, with games like Destiny, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, and GTA Online, there is a lot of money to be made with this particular business model, but we’re already seeing games like Battlefront 2 and Shadow of War have blowback from the community for trying to force this business model into their games. When it doesn’t make sense and seems “dirty”, gamers vote with their wallet.

The single player game isn’t dead. What we’re seeing is yet another attempt from the video game industry to widen their margin of profits. Every couple of years a new trend pops up and they grab their pickaxes and they head for them mountains searching gold. While it would be easy to point out that in this year of the single player’s death, gamers are getting the chance to play Resident Evil 7, Yakuza Zero, Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Mario Odyssey, I think this topic deserves a deeper dive. Let’s look at a few of the recent trends from the past few years that were all going to change video games forever but didn’t.

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When World of Warcraft was released on November 24, 2004, the game began it’s steady climb to eventually reaching the MMO throne in 2010 where it sat with 12 million subscribers. That’s 12 million people that were giving Blizzard $15 a month. No big deal, that only equals to around 2 billion dollars a year! So with that much money being made off of one MMO, other game developers and publishers said, “there’s gold in them mountains,” and they started digging. Between 2004 and 2012 the PC market was flooded with MMOs from classics like Guild Wars and Dungeons and Dragons Online to here today gone tomorrow titles like the original Final Fantasy 14 and Hellgate: London.

During the height of the genre’s popularity, I so badly wished that games like WOW or City of Heroes would come to Xbox. I was incredibly jealous of my friends who were playing these games on their PCs. Eventually though, with the market being so crowded, gamers didn’t have enough money to go around. It didn’t matter how much money a company like EA put into a big title if it didn’t do something so spectacular that it caught the eye of millions of gamers, it wasn’t long for this world. For many MMO’s the way of survival required going free to play, which at the time was an incredibly dirty word because of Facebook games like Farmville, but the genre lives on. Sure, it isn’t at the top of the world like it once a few years ago, but it’s found its community of gamers that are willing to support it

And similar to the MMO genre are MOBAs. In early 2014 the team behind League of Legends announced that 67 million gamers were playing their game every month and even though League is free to play, it was estimated that in 2013 they brought in 624 million dollars. You can see why so many MMO games quickly tried to jump on that business model. As games like League, Dota 2, and Smite started raking in the money, you’ll never guess what happened. “There’s gold in those mountains,” was shouted from the rooftops and developers quickly tried to figure out how they could make money off of this popular genre. Much faster than the MMO market though, publishers quickly realized that while there were a lot of MOBA players, they only played their one game. So while the craze didn’t last long we did see titles like Infinite Crisis and Battleborn fail, while something like Overwatch, a game that isn’t necessarily a MOBA per-say, did take elements from the genre and turn it into a winning formula.

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Two particular genres that attempted to pop up in the last few years were “games come to life” and the Asymmetrical genre. In 2011 when Skylanders launched no one expected anything from it. After all, it was originally labeled a Spyro game and no one likes Spyro. To everyone’s shock though, Skylanders became a phenomenon with kids. Kids all over the country forced their parents to take them to Toys R’ Us and Walmart so that they could pick up the next toy that was released for Skylanders. Activision Publishing chief executive officer Eric Hirshberg said in a statement, “The Skylanders franchise became the first kids’ video game intellectual property to cross the $1 billion mark in just 15 months, and I think we are still just starting to realize its potential.” What’s that I smell?  Ah, it’s those mountains and the gold they must be filled with.

Soon enough we started seeing games like Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions chasing after the attention of all the kids that were interested in Skylanders. And to be fair to these companies, I can’t blame them. Toys to life is a really cool concept for a game but I personally thought the writing was already on the wall when Lego Dimensions released in 2015. This was actually a game I considered picking up but the thought of buying Lego toys and needing them to play a game just didn’t make sense for someone in their 20’s. I thought that was the perfect time to leave the model behind and go digital. Sadly, that move never happened and as of right now the entire genre is “on hold.” Sales just simply disappeared. Will we see the genre make an attempted comeback like the music genre did? Only time will tell.

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As for Asymmetrical, you might be wondering what that even is. While there are few games of it’s kind still around, Friday the 13th and Dead by Daylight, the “heavy hitters” of the genre are either dead or were actually never allowed to see the light of day. With the success of games like Call of Duty having convinced many that their multiplayer was the reason the games in that franchise were selling so well, we started seeing studios focus more and more on multiplayer type console games, which is how we ended with the Asymmetrical genre.

This entire situation was a very strange moment in gaming that had a really interesting looking leader called Evolve. Evolve was a game that had four player controlled hunters facing off against a giant player-controlled monster. The lead up to this game’s release was big. There was so much publicity for this title. I remember IGN running a really funny and entertaining let’s play series for the game that made the game look great. So what happened? Well, when we saw IGN and other streamers playing the game, we typically saw friends all in different roles on chat having a good time, but when the game came out it was met with the unfortunate truth that it can be hard to group up a squad of four friends to constantly play the same game over and over. Especially when that game doesn’t have any kind of story mode to speak of. Something competitive shooter Titan Fall fell victim too a year earlier. And with most players online not interested in getting on a microphone and talking to a group of strangers, Evolve stopped being fun and the player base quickly disappeared, not even an attempt at free to play could save the game.

Other titles from the genre were Bioware’s Shadow Realm, something that never even made it out of closed beta, and Lionhead/Microsoft’s Fable Legends, a game that was shown off at Microsoft’s E3 conference on two different occasions, but from reports made by Polygon, “no one at Lionhead Studio wanted to work on this game.” There wasn’t even gold in this mountain, yet executives were still ready to start digging.  Why?

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I honestly think so much of what’s happening in the industry, especially over the last few years, all stems back to the success of mobile games. As mobile gaming became more and more popular, the goal wasn’t to make better games, the goal was to make the cheapest game possible, put it on the market for free, and then watch the money pile up. No longer did game makers have to stress over how to get a kid interested in their game, now they could focus on the moms and dads of the world that hadn’t played a game since maybe the original Nintendo or even earlier than that.  Suddenly, games like Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and the earlier mentioned Farmville were the types of games guaranteed to make money.

And you better believe that in 2009, as the mobile game craze began to kick off, that everyone and I do mean everyone, could smell the gold coming off of this mountain. There’s so much gold in that mountain that we are still seeing people strike big with games like Pokemon Go, which brought in an estimated 950 million dollars in 2016. But how does this all connect back to Visceral Games being closed down? How does this all tie back into the death of the single player?

Well, this business model of free to play mobile games has been slowly making its way into console and PC video games for years now, and companies finally think they’ve figured out the winning formula. They’ll sell the gamer a 60 dollar product and then proceed to charge them extra if they want to get a better item from the game at random. That’s right, the player won’t know what item they’re getting but when the box opens it makes a really cool noise… At least when the phone games were doing it, the game was free.

Unfortunately for the gamer though, Activision Blizzard did confirm during their Q4 2016 Earnings Call that the company made over $3.6 billion just from in-game content sales…

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So with that news, it can only mean one thing. A lot of companies are going to start putting loot crates in their games, but as I said at the beginning of the article, there’s already blowback to this. If and when this isn’t done correctly, those games will fail. Gamers will always buy the games they want and if they want single player titles then they will go out and find titles that meet their needs. In a couple of years, if I’m correct, we’ll see big studios like EA rethink how they’re approaching their games and they’ll eventually come back to more standard single-player storytelling.

So is the success of loot boxes and in-game purchases the end of single player gaming? For now, I feel confident enough to say no. I think, at the very worst, we’ll see more titles like Hellblade, a single player game that’s shorter in length, cheaper in price, and made with a more modest budget. And my particular “doomsday” scenario results in gamers getting a style of game that a lot of people have claimed they love. The video game industry is always changing and learning from its own history and I think that as the people who play these games get older, it’s time we start learning about what games have gone through to get to where they are now. If we start doing that, then maybe we’ll stop seeing so many people claiming…

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