Are singleplayer games dying out?

Dead Space is dead—and some are worried singleplayer games in general could soon be following in its wake.

A recent announcement from Electronic Arts has thrown the gaming world into a tailspin: Visceral Games, the team behind the critically-acclaimed Dead Space series and Battlefield: Hardline, has been disbanded; its projects distributed to other development teams.

The gnashing and grinding of teeth at this announcement has only increased in volume after it was also explained that the unnamed Star Wars title that Visceral Games was working on is going to be “pivoted”—whatever that means—away from its current form: that of a singleplayer, story-based, linear adventure game.

Many have taken this “pivoting” to translate to “we’re not going to do the whole single-player action-adventure thing any more”. In fact, EA itself said the following in its press release:

“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. We will maintain the stunning visuals, authenticity in the Star Wars universe, and focus on bringing a Star Wars story to life.

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.”

Could this mean that the new singleplayer Star Wars title is going to be, for lack of a better term, “Destiny-fied”? Could the Star Wars gaming universe, so well-known for its singleplayer series like Jedi Academy, Knights of the Old Republic and so many more, now be heading in a multiplayer-heavy direction?

Could this be just one example of a new paradigm shift in gaming?


What is happening to singleplayer games?

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Let’s not pretend for a moment that there aren’t a slew of great singleplayer games out there right now. Horizon: Zero DawnBreath of the WildThe Witcher 3, just to name a few. These have been enormous commercial and critical successes, and to say that singleplayer is dying with games like these currently active in people’s libraries would be a big mistake.

However, it would also be a mistake to pretend that there hasn’t been a dynamic change in the world of singleplayer. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Shadow of Mordor, titles that were originally single-player-centric series, have slowly started to dip deeper and deeper into multiplayer. GTA Online alone is one of the primary revenue streams for Rockstar, and the new lootbox mechanics from Shadow of War could have been ripped directly out of a free-to-play game; not to mention the new multiplayer mode itself.

It would also be a mistake to pretend that there hasn’t been a dynamic change in the world of singleplayer.

Even bastions of the singleplayer experience like Deus Ex have drifted into multiplayer.

We are seeing games like these, which have always been primarily solo-focused, change into something new. It’s not all games, certainly, but more and more titles are making the switch, their singleplayer components either being relegated to the sidelines or even eliminated entirely, such as in Star Wars Battlefront.


Why is this happening?

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Publishers and developers are there to do one thing: make money. Singleplayer simply isn’t as profitable as multiplayer games—and they’re a lot riskier too. Singleplayer titles, if they don’t do extremely well extremely quickly, are nothing but a headache for publishers, developers and the shareholders.

Take the cost of singleplayer, for example. If you decide to make a cinematic, story-driven, singleplayer title, you have to spend more and more on unique animation, plotlines, voice acting—the list is long and racks up a significant sum.

Meanwhile, in multiplayer titles, you have human interaction as a driving force in entertainment; something the developers don’t need to pay for directly. Instead of needing to come up with a brand new questline, characters, animations and voices, you can pop your players in with a bunch of other players and let them figure out their own fun. It takes the pressure, and the cost, off the developers.

In multiplayer titles, you have human interaction as a driving force in entertainment; something the developers don’t need to pay for directly.

There are also fewer opportunities in traditional singleplayer experiences for the additional revenue-gathering methods that have proven so effective in mobile and free-to-play online games: lootboxes and microtransactions. You might be surprised by how much of a difference that makes. Activision, for example, made $3.6 billion in 2016 just from in-game purchases.

Finally, there’s the fact that singleplayer games are more “long-tail” in their sales figures. The experience of a game like Bioshock or Pillars of Eternity is fundamentally the same whether you buy it on release, or several years down the line. That allows players to wait for sales and additional content, even just simple reviews, before they make a purchase.

Multiplayer games, on the other hand, push people towards purchasing sooner rather than later. You want to play with your friends, and you don’t want to fall behind everybody else in progression, and you can even miss out on the entire community altogether if you wait too long. This is then doubled down when you start drip-feeding content over a longer period of time, with DLCs and new expansions and so on. This way, you get that initial short-tail sales volumes and the long-term staying power too. Singleplayer games simply can’t compete.

Games as a service

All of this amounts to one thing: a drive from some publishers towards what is called “games as a service”. Essentially, this is a change from games being a product—you buy it, you own it, the content is yours—and more towards games being a platform for additional content. You buy a game like Grand Theft Auto, for example, and you get access to GTA Online. But you don’t get access to all the content on GTA Online. You have to pay extra for a fair amount of it now, and for future content too.

You buy a game like Grand Theft Auto, for example, and you get access to GTA Online. But you don’t get access to all the content on GTA Online.

The GTA game series has changed from a one-and-done thing that you buy, and changed into a long-term content platform that the publishers are able to keep squeezing money out of over a long period—and that system is powered by multiplayer. Games like Shadow of War are now trying this system within singleplayer, but we’ve yet to see how effective that is.

In multiplayer, it’s a proven, powerful method to keep making money without having to take the risk of developing a brand new singleplayer title. The real question is why aren’t more publishers and developers pushing for multiplayer content.


What are the results?

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You’ll already have seen most of the results of this new direction. Singleplayer games with lootboxes, a heavier emphasis on multiplayer in nearly all games, and a general lack of new titles in established singleplayer franchises.

We may soon see more and more singleplayer titles going through “Destiny-fication”: games that are pseudo-singleplayer, but ultimately need you to play the multiplayer to really get the most out of the title. They will have the base game as a platform, rather than a product, and you may find that you’ll have to shell out a little more than you initially thought to stay up to date with all the new DLCs. You’ll be playing the same game for a longer time, after all, so expect season passes galore.

We may soon see more and more singleplayer titles going through “Destiny-fication”: games that are pseudo-singleplayer, but ultimately need you to play the multiplayer to really get the most out of the title.

However, solo players shouldn’t be freaking out just yet. There are plenty of singleplayer games out there that are as-yet untouched by multiplayer features. We’ve already mentioned some of them, and as long as games like Breath of the Wild are still being made, we’ll never completely lose the singleplayer experience. We may simply see them change, and start incorporating new features that would be more at home in mobile games than a AAA singleplayer title.

Ultimately, the same thing will happen to the industry that has happened every other time. People will vote with their wallets. Companies like EA will continue to produce games that will make them money. But indie developers have more than enough room to step in and make money at the edges; singleplayer, as long as people want it, won’t die. But it may change, and your favourite franchises may change alongside it.

Take that as you will.

What do you think about singleplayer games in the modern age? Let me know in the comments below!

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