My husband kindly sent me a link to a Slashdot thread about the article “The Growing Illusion of Single Player” on Giant Bomb, adding that it sounded like a rant of mine. Does this guy know me well, or what?
The article compares the author’s previous gaming experiences with playing Destiny, a shooter-MMO hybrid released this month that has a single-player mode, but is designed for 3-player squads. It all distills down to a fear that companies aren’t designing single-player experiences anymore and that this could be a trend. He mentions other examples and there are even more in the comments.
Hmm. Here’s what I think is happening.
Game companies want to earn money. Of course. Games that you can play through, and maybe replay once or twice, are like standalone novels. Sure, they have an audience, but publishers want a high-earning follow-up and fans want to spend more time in the world you’ve built. This has been the case for a long time in science fiction and fantasy, and since genre fiction is hot in moviemaking now, we see these long chains of interlocking franchises and sequels. Games aren’t much different. If you invest the time and money to create an immersive world with well-designed gameplay, you want players to buy the game and keep coming back to it, preferably putting more money into that franchise without as much development cost.
One way to keep gamers inside the world is to make it multiplayer. It instantly makes scenarios replay-able because different teams will handle things in different ways. It provides incentive for a player to hone her skills to show off to friends by being a “must have” member of the team. Now, instead of reinventing the world from scratch, the game company can sell gear and upgrades and supplementary modules. Plus, they’re seeing all this sparkle about social media and being constantly connected, and they feel that to stay on-trend, they have to incorporate social aspects. As Leigh Alexander wrote more eloquently than I in The Guardian:
On a practical level, though, “social” is a business model. It means content engineered to be “liked” or shared. It means fundamentally we spend anxious time doing free labour for social infrastructures, providing our personal lives, disseminating links, making those platform-holders wealthy with our exhibitionism and interaction. When it comes to games, it’s increasingly on the player to create the meaning in their experience.
Yet, there are some ways that multiplayer games are fantastic. Being able to play a game with a friend regardless of geographic constraints is a lot of fun. There can be real joy in conquering an obstacle together and making new friendships. The challenges designed for cooperative play can be much harder than what a single player could take on. I think the level of personal investment is higher in a multiplayer game, too; perhaps because of competition, maybe because other players create a game culture that is richer and more immersive than what one person might feel in solo play. Some games are exploring creative ways to make shared experiences, too. After reading the comments on a few articles and watching trailers, I’d really like to give Journey and Dark Souls a try.
Multiplayer games are slanted toward particular groups of players, however. Because of the time requirements of honing skills (collecting/crafting better gear, upgrading vehicles, unlocking options, etc), there is a skew toward those without full-time jobs or significant family responsibilities. The Slashdot comments are particularly scathing about the foul-mouthed younger players that can be found in droves. Many admitted that even when playing with their friends, they hated the competitive assholes that their friends — and they themselves — became.
As I read the comments on both websites, a lot of the writers appeared to be men (and a rare woman) with fond memories of gaming when they were a little younger. They still want to use games as an escape, but they’re finding barriers such as lack of time, difficulty synchronizing schedules with friends, or not having the bandwidth when other media are streaming in the house. Games that force an “always on” connection or are unplayable in single player mode are less attractive to many slightly more mature gamers. You know, the ones who might have the disposable income to afford games that met their needs better.
I’m a solo player because I’m a shy introvert — I treasure my alone time — and there is certainly a share of the gaming market that is the same. There’s also a large chunk like the comment authors mentioned above. If the gaming companies are responding to the marketplace, focus groups, or trend research, they should know this too. As one Slashdot comment said, “Dear Game Developers, If you start to see diminishing returns on your sales of Multiplayer-Only games, then that is the problem. It’s not that the market is collapsing. It’s not that you didn’t sign all those famous voice actors. It’s that you insisted on a multiplayer-only experience.”