EA announced that they’re tabling Visceral Games’ Star Wars title — opting to rework it with a different team — and shuttering the studio. This, of course, set the internet on fire. Daily gaming discourse asked (for what feels like the millionth time), “Are single player games dead?” The question sure sells headlines, but it isn’t the right one to ask.
The more important question is, “How will single player games survive in a games as a service (GaaS) world?”
We’ve bumped up against the base price of games many times over the years. Development costs have skyrocketed, but game pricing has remained consistent. Triple-A publishers have hesitated in raising prices more than a few dollars. But they’ve gotten around the base price increase by segmenting their market with different editions of a game ($100 gold editions, notably) and microtransactions (MTX) in the form of loot boxes, micro-DLC, and season passes. There’s also price-gated content, like Uncharted‘s multiplayer mode.
GaaS has supplanted a notorious single player game experience: Grand Theft Auto. It’s been almost 5 years since GTA 5 was released and Rockstar has yet to release a new single player game. Rockstar appears to have abandoned single player story-driven DLC in favor of GaaS, even though story DLC was promised for GTA 5. They’re going where the money is and the money is in GTA Online. But hey, at least Red Dead Redemption 2 is on its way.
I’ll put it this way:
Rockstar by year
2011 LA Noire
2012 Max Payne 3
2013 GTA V with GaaS GTA Online
— Death Grubb (@JeffGrubb) October 18, 2017
Single player games have lagged in past years, especially if we look at sales. But triple-A single player games have enjoyed an uptick in both sales and adoptability in 2017. Nintendo’s Breath of the Wild has enjoyed almost universal acclaim and, as of June, has sold a little under 500,000 copies. (The attachment rate with the Nintendo Switch is the important part, though.) Horizon Zero Dawn foiled its terrible name and sold 3.4 million copies in four months. And then there’s the horrors of Resident Evil 7 — it finally hit its goal of 4 million copies, even though it took a while.
But here’s the thing: there aren’t many single player games that stay on the top of video game sales charts. 2017 has been a wildcard and is an atypical example of single player sales. These kinds of game may top critic lists, but they don’t typically sell well over the long term.
Visceral’s closure has highlighted a sore spot in the industry: even if you make fantastic games (like Dead Space), you’re still a servant to the market. The market has indicated that gamers will spend money on MTX, which will boost sales over the long term. Long term sales make execs salivate because there’s less risk involved in how they’ll recoup the game’s development costs.
Truly exceptional single player games take serious money, time, and creative freedom to get from concept to ship date. Survival in a market that values garbage open world games like Wildlands or sports sims is a clumsy dance between satisfying the corporate bottom line and building a game that will withstand the test of time in terms of replayability (for single player games) and engagement (for multiplayer games, especially).
There’s no easy answer to the question of single player game survivability in a GaaS world. There are a myriad business factors to consider, after all. Sales drive business decisions. So if we want games like Horizon Zero Dawn (and Dead Space) to continue to exist, we need to buy the games we want to see more of.