The Decline: What Happened To Single Player?

In a world where social gaming is king, the big budget single player experiences are put aside.

Two weeks ago, the rumour broke that Treyarch’s upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 will not have a single player campaign. If true, this will be the first Call of Duty title in history (if we exclude the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions of Black Ops 3) to only offer multiplayer content.

Ahead of the first sneak peek of the game, Treyarch has been hinting at a multiplayer reveal instead of single player, which has not happened in that order before. While the developer has not confirmed nor denied the rumour of an absent single player campaign, this poses a question: If one of the world’s biggest franchises decides to ditch single player, will the rest follow?

We already have the answer. Steadily, the number of single player games from big publishers have declined the past few years. This is in stark contrast to the historic dominance of single player experiences since the inception of gaming with Pong in 1972. While multiplayer titles have been around for several decades, we now live in a time where single player no longer is the best focus for developers wanting to attract a crowd.

Hello, social gaming

In Newzoo’s Global Games Market Report 2017, it is stated that “competitive games [is] the norm; say goodbye to single player.” This implies that most people enjoy games as a way of spending time together, which is commonly done with casual, easy-going multiplayer-orientated titles. Social gaming is most likely more attractive due to the free-to-play trend that has emerged.

In the PC and mobile world of gaming especially, many titles can be downloaded and played free of charge, but with smart implementation of microtransactions, players are still investing in small purchases that add to the game in a variety of ways. This is how developers make money without actively forcing a price tag on the player. Last year, consumers spent 22 billion dollars on microtransactions globally, which speaks heaps about the success of the business model.

These trends have made it tougher for single player content. For example, in the action genre, how many big budget single player focused games can you name from last year? Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus? Good. One more? Horizon Zero Dawn? Excellent. If you count, you will have a hard time getting above ten. Even games that were once considered great single player adventures, such as Far Cry and Ghost Recon, are now primarily designed to be played cooperatively. Game companies are no charities and they gravitate towards the biggest trends, which is why we are seeing this change throughout the industry.

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Money talks

At the same time as social gaming, eSports has grown to be a giant. When Counter-Strike or Call of Duty tournaments can sell out arenas, you know it has come a long way. The eSports market is currently estimated at 906 million dollars by Statista and the forecast is that it will be worth almost twice as much in three years’ time. To create a culture around the game is easier when it is competitive and many games desperately try to tap into eSports (or appeal to the YouTube/Twitch generation of streamers).

Most recently, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has made a push with tournaments, despite its Battle Royale formula with 100 players, which (at least in theory) may not be the most eSports-friendly game.

While mentioning this, it may sound hard to believe that even in recent years, games that did not include a single player campaign were criticised. Both Titanfall and the 2015 version of Star Wars: Battlefront were talked about in disappointment by the gaming community for having lost potential in that regard. Both sequels addressed the issue to directly reach out to that audience. Now, three years later, we may see a new Call of Duty without any single player content whatsoever. Time flies.

Photo from Flickr

It all boils down to money. Making a big budget game today is more expensive than ever, not only due to advanced technology, but because consumers demand a higher standard. This is not the age of Tetris, but the age of Rise of the Tomb Raider, where just Lara Croft herself is made out of 200 000 polygons and where story, acting and gameplay mechanics all add up to a pile of components. It is not uncommon for a triple-A game today to cost 150 million dollars to produce and with those numbers, there is no margin for failure.

Since multiplayer games are more lucrative, big developers are hesitant to produce single player adventures. One famous example of that is from last October, when Electronic Arts shut down Visceral Games, the studio behind big single player titles such as Dead Space, Dante’s Inferno and the campaign portion of Battlefield: Hardline. During this time, the developers were working on a single player Star Wars title, which is now taken over by EA Vancouver and has shifted from a tight, linear experience to an open-world game with online matchmaking.

What about the future?

Does this mean that all big budget titles eventually will be multiplayer focused? Will we see a future where we can choose to buy single player campaigns as an add-on to the multiplayer experience? At this moment, nobody knows.

Needless to say, there is a core audience that prefers single player, because it offers what most multiplayer experiences cannot: a powerful story unfolding at your own desired pace, without screaming teammates wearing shiny headsets. All trends come and go in waves and single player will become hip again. For now, the indie developers will carry the torch until the inevitable single player trend makes a comeback again…

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