Hot Topic - Are Single-Player Experiences a Dying Breed?
Written Monday, November 29, 2010 By Dan WebbView author's profile
The release of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood this month marked the wave of a new era where predominantly single-player experiences started to introduce an online component. BioShock 2 led the charge earlier this year, receiving mixed results in the process, while Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood followed much later, but to a much warmer response. Next year Dead Space 2 is set to continue that trend in January 2011 and even Mass Effect is rumoured to be having a dabble. So what we have here is four huge single-player franchises, all of which are/may be setting their sights on the multiplayer arena. So that begs the inevitable question: are single player games dead? The short answer is no, that's just stupid talk, but purely single-player experiences for the most part might be heading the way of the dinosaur, but as a gamer, that’s nothing to worry about.
"No puppies were hurt in the making of this sandwich..."
When we spoke to Cliff Bleszinski, Epic’s Game Director back in September, he pretty much hit the nail on the head as to why developers are introducing multiplayer into single-player franchises. “The biggest mistake that you can make as a developer right now would be to make a game that is like a 6 hour experience that has no multiplayer, because what happens is gamers will be like 'I’ll rent it' or 'I’ll just buy it used.'”
“You don’t want gamers to date your game, you want them to marry your game,” as he quite nonchalantly put it.
In short though, your favourite single-player games are getting multiplayer slapped on because in a time when it’s just as easy to rent a game for a month than it is to buy it, developers and publishers need to rethink their strategy. It’s about making your purchase feel like a long term investment and it’s like Cliff says, a by-product of game rentals and used game sales, which in part, is probably down to the still relatively high price of games – especially so far into the console cycle – which furthermore, is more than likely down to the excessively high development costs of triple-A games. It’s all rather complex if you want to look at the underlying reasons behind it all, but just take a look at how Vanquish and Alan Wake sold to prove the point though. Both great games, both with underwhelming retail performances.
That said, it’s got nothing to do with single-player experiences really, because as we know, the original Dead Space, Alan Wake and even Assassin’s Creed II provided experiences that were second to none. It’s more to do with that perception of “value for money” and if you were strapped for cash – we are in an economic downturn after all – you’re going to choose the game that offers more life than one you can blitz in a weekend... especially when there are so many different options out there for consumers. Whether that’s taking Call of Duty over Vanquish, or Mass Effect over Alan Wake, people want to feel like they have got their money's worth. That’s not to say that there aren’t exceptions to the rule, take myself for example, if a game is worthy enough, no matter how short, I would splash my cash on it without a hesitation.
"Alan Wake didn't exactly "splash" Remedy in the cash."
Alan Wake is a terrific example of that. One of the year’s finest games, but because there is no incentive to keep hold of the disc after the 8 hour campaign, you’re likely to rent it and rinse through it. Two DLC episodes that were rather short and sporadically released weren’t enough really to persuade the consumer that a purchase was essential. It may be a reason why Namco didn’t get the sales that Enslaved deserved, that SEGA didn’t get the sales that Bayonetta deserved or that Konami – despite what they say – didn’t get the sales that Castlevania deserved. Why would an everyday consumer want to pay £40 for a single player title that offers 6-8 hours (Castlevania not included here, which is why it maybe fared better than the rest) when they can get Call of Duty or FIFA that will last them countless hours. Assassin’s Creed now fits that bill.
And before you mention 30+ hour RPGs like Final Fantasy, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and so on, I think you’ve answered your own concerns... they’re 30 frickin’ hours long! I don’t know about you, but I think £40 on a 30-hour experience qualifies for value for money – that’s £1.33 per hour.
That doesn’t mean tacking on multiplayer to a chiefly single-player experience is the way forward, oh no, we all know how that ends, but Bleszinski had an opinion on that. “I don’t think it would make sense to tack multiplayer onto a game like Alan Wake, but that said, there’s all sorts of creative things you can do to that type of genre to keep players coming back to your game or to keep it going with episodic content or asynchronous co-op like Demon’s Souls and all sorts of stuff.”
Episodic content is a fantastic way to extend the life of your favourite game, but the key to success here is regularity. Although Mass Effect 2 didn’t have problems at retail, it’s a prime example of how not to launch DLC as its release schedule has been somewhat sporadic, with some dropping in March, April, June and September thus far. Now if I didn’t completely adore the series or collect my games, the truth is Mass Effect 2 would have been sold back to the retailer a long time ago... especially, considering the first few packs hardly set the world alight – thank goodness for Lair of the Shadow Broker though!
"Not all Bethesda's Fallout DLC was this... broken."
Dragon Age and Fallout 3 on the other hand showed how episodic add-ons should be treated, with the latter especially having constantly expansive and interesting add-ons that gave you a reason to hold onto your game. Everyone wanted to wait for the next episode. If after a year the DLC stops, then the used game sales aren’t really going to affect the publisher’s remit as they’ll have already made a vast proportion of their money through DLC sales and people buying the game new. It’s essentially why publishers are experimenting with the online pass – which we touched upon a few months back.
“But wait Dan, if there’s too much DLC, I’ll sack off the retail version and wait for the Game of the Year/Ultimate Edition!” So... what’s your point? You can do that if you want, the publishers will still welcome your money with open arms in a year’s time as well, but if you can wait a year to play your favourite game, then you’re a much stronger person than I.
Back to the whole tacking on a multiplayer issue. Yes, that is a fatal mistake, but I’m a firm believer in the notion that if you’re going to throw a multiplayer experience into a predominantly single-player franchise, it needs to be in the spirit of the single-player experience it’s trying to emulate... a la Assassin’s Creed... a la Dead Space... not a la The Darkness, which makes me shudder to this day. And yes, I’m putting faith in Visceral that their Dead Space 2 multiplayer will be a fine addition to the franchise. Why? Because it’s in the spirit of the game and the notion of humans vs Necromorphs not only works, it’s feasible.
"ACB's MP done right, except maybe the matchmaking."
There is also a common misconception that adding multiplayer can be to the detriment of the single-player experience, but that is complete hogwash. You could sit there and throw BioShock and BioShock 2 my way as proof of your assertion, but the truth is that those are two games made by two entirely different teams. The games were bound to be different. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood though – from a single-player perspective – is pretty much head and shoulders above Assassin’s Creed II’s, both in terms of story and gameplay features. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
So do I think that single-player experiences are dead? No, of course not. Myself, and many folks like me, much prefer single-player games as a form of escapism and there will always be a place for them in the industry.
Do I think that exclusively single-player experiences are dead? For the most part, maybe, although there’s always going to be your sprawling 60-hour epic RPGs that don’t care about people buddying up together to play games.
Will the inclusion of multiplayer in predominantly single-player franchises work? Well, that’s a question to be taken on a case by case basis there. Each developer differs. Each franchise differs. As far as Assassin’s Creed goes though? It works. It works fantastically, and we have every faith that developers of similar class and talent can do as Ubisoft Montreal has done.
However, it will always be there as an afterthought for most people, although if the day comes that Assassin’s Creed forgets its strong single-player roots and it potentially becomes a predominantly multiplayer franchise, we might not be so optimistic. The scary thing is, there isn’t much you can do if that happens but to place your faith in the developers to know what they’re doing, and know what the original fans who made the franchise popular in the first place would want. Remember though folks, money talks, and having a multi-faceted game with both single-player and multiplayer is much more marketable than a game with a limited shelf life.
[Editor’s Note: Hot Topic is a monthly feature here on X360A, where we take one of the month’s talking points and discuss it until your eye-balls bleed through sheer delight. Now that's intense!]