Think about the Future

Posted on 09/12/2010


So, Electronic Arts’ Label boss Frank Gibeau declares single player experience dead in an interview given to Develop. First of all, does he really?
Let’s look at that piece of quote that’s floating around the gaming news sites these hours:

“I volunteer you to speak to EA’s studio heads; they’ll tell you the same thing. They’re very comfortable moving the discussion towards how we make connected gameplay – be it co-operative or multiplayer or online services – as opposed to fire-and-forget, packaged goods only, single-player, 25-hours-and you’re out. I think that model is finished.”

It doesn’t appear to me like he’s saying that actually. Sure, he talks about connected gameplay and multiplayer. But also about how “packaged goods only” are finished, and about online services. Essentially giving a big game a longer life, and getting some extra bucks out of the consumers with some post-launch DLC.
There’s hardly any game out there these days that doesn’t make use of one of these things, and if that’s the way to correctly read this, then he’s right.

I said in my previous post, that the industry has to reconsider it’s business model if it wants to survive. The thing is, single player experience is essentially analog to reading a book. It’s something one person does alone at home. Usually. As with books, the experience can be shared of course, you can read a book to people, and you can have people watching you play a single player game. However, that has no impact on the business model of binding a customer’s spare time to one product for weeks.
So having the customer come back for some more, like DLC expansions, might be the right move to make, extending the life of a title for a small sum.
Multiplayer does add another vector of possible sales though, in addition to single player expansions. Map packs, weapon packs, and the likes. So for this business model having a strong multiplayer sure seems like a viable, profitable addition.

The recent focus on multiplayer experience beating out single player is a bit troublesome though. Not all games need a form of multiplayer to survive on the market. Take a look at how many people, me included, do not have an Xbox-Live!-Gold subscription. I don’t know about those others, but for me it sure as hell does not mean that I’m buying fewer games since I’m not able to play online. Bioshock sold quite well before it had multiplayer. The whole third person action catalouge does provide solid sales without it. God of War online multiplayer? Bayonetta? Unlikely.

The biggest problem in this debate is that where the single player experience is easily a new medium for telling stories akin to the ones told in books, movies and TV series, multiplayer is not. At least, most of the time it’s not. There’s a nice quote from Steve Jackson Games’ Illuminati card game, “Artificial Intelligence beats Real Stupidity”. Which is how I feel especially towards online RPGs. While it might be possible to go for some good storytelling with that kind of games, most of the time this doesn’t happen in the field. At least, it doesn’t happen as intended. There might be people who engage a lot in actual roleplaying playing MMOs, but when it comes down to it, the vast majority of people doesn’t.

Single player RPGs remain the best way to experience a story in a videogame. There may be bad AI. But bad AI can be ignored. Bad human players are a whole other level of immersion breakers. It will be interesting to see how EA / BioWare fare with Star Wars: The Old Republic in that field. It seems BioWare try their best to make this into an actually story driven MMO.
Personally, this is something I don’t see happening in this environment, despite the skills that BioWare brings to the table.
The game will of course have a strong narrative, but the game will also be gamed to death by some players. That’s of course still not saying anything about how successful this one will be. After all, the MMO market has one gargantuan problem for anyone that isn’t part of it, and that problem would be Blizzards and World of Warcraft.

Also, to this day there are rather few blockbuster titles that fare well without a single player part. Call of Duty might be driven by the multiplayer, but the single player experience also remains a strong part of thw whole package. It’s strongly debatable if the Halo franchise could survive on it’s multiplayer component alone. Of course there were some titles that tried. Section 9, which if I recall correctly failed miserably. Shadowrun, which did the same. There are of course Counterstrike and Team Fortress 2 as well as the Left 4 Dead series. But those are special, and also mostly PC titles.

Now things become complicated. First of all, comparing sales figures for the most successful game of all time, Call of Duty: Black Ops, it becomes clear that the console market is the dominant one for big franchises. At the same time, the PC market is the one where online mulitplayer games that do not feature a single player component are most likely to survive. The PC has World of Warcraft, and other successful MMO titles. The consoles do not, yet the biggest selling titles sell the most on the console platforms.

Now of course it would be interesting to see how many of those who bought CoD:BlOps have played or are playing it online, and how the ratios of single- to multiplayer are on what platform.
Ultimately calling the single player experience as such “finished” won’t hold, and I find it a bit strange to see so many of the big publishers trying to rabidly push their franchises into online multiplayer. The upside is that it’s no longer just the tacked on deathmatch. But it can’t be argued that single player and online multiplayer experiences in general always are very, very different things, appealing to very different people.