It’s not about triple A single player titles dying but rather what we consider to be “triple A” in the first place.
With the closure of Visceral Games, the re-allotment of an untitled Star Wars title to EA Vancouver and the general buggery involving microtransactions and loot boxes, there’s this vibe going around that traditional single-player titles are pretty much gone. Granted, if you read Polygon’s article on the same – which spurred this whole debate in the first place – you’d see that the actual argument extends to big-budget, triple A titles with linear campaigns. Rise of the Tomb Raider, the Uncharted series, you get the drift. There are plenty of points there that I found agreeable and the crux of the argument seems more focused on how the traditional, “one and done” structure of single-player games is being changed to accommodate more ways to garner money from players.
"So it’s less about single-player games dying and more about huge publishers wanting to get as much as possible out of a game package."
To be honest, we’ve been seeing this for a while now. Look no further than downloadable content. Maybe you liked a particular game and wouldn’t mind coming back to it. Why not have some nice DLC for a few dollars to extend your playtime if not phenomenally change the way you played the base game? Expansions have followed this process for decades as Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction, Borderlands 2: Assault on Tiny Tina’s Keep, Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen and countless other titles have showcased. But that was the magical time of “back then”. Games are more expensive to produce and maintain, the flat price of video games hasn’t gone up for a while and if companies need to remove content to repackage them into DLC, who are we to complain? That last part is dripping in sarcasm, by the way.
So it’s less about single-player games dying and more about huge publishers wanting to get as much as possible out of a game package. How do you best monetize a single-player campaign that will take significantly more effort to create than multiplayer while still ensuring the best value (read: Not having a campaign at all and garnering universal hatred as a result)? Alternatively, if you’re going to pour so much money into a single-player campaign that’s one and done, how do you get players to grind for something in the long term, keeping them hooked but not immediately satisfying them while also earning a quick buck? How do you maintain that brand retention so that consumers don’t take the most valuable commodity, their time and attention, somewhere else along with their money?
Coming back to the Polygon article though, the main point is that big budget “pure” single player campaigns are becoming less common. More of them are becoming inundated with microtransactions. Even if it’s not in the single-player game itself, you can bet the multiplayer component will have some kind of microtransaction system. The addition of loot boxes to ensure players keep buying them, effectively gambling for the chance at an item rather than directly purchasing it, is also on the rise (whether it’s with in-game currency or real money). “Online” is becoming a bit of a bad word these days and when you look at comments from former Bioware designer Manveer Heir, who recently noted that Electronic Arts is focusing more on open experiences that can be monetized or multiplayer that uses microtransactions, it’s hard to not become jaded.
"This year alone has seen games like Cuphead, a beautifully animated game with a fun difficulty curve (well, fun for me at least) which was in development for several years."
Once again, the debate comes back to “big budget triple A releases”. What constitutes a big “triple A” game? Is it the absurd amount of marketing? The photo-realistic graphics? The blockbuster cast voicing the characters? It’s probably here where my opinions diverge the most because I don’t believe the domain of “triple A” belongs to big publishers like Electronic Arts, Activision and Ubisoft. Sure, you could apply that term to their budgets and the face-melting graphics but I don’t, regardless of the hype, buzzwords and numerous ways that a horse can be motion captured for Call of Duty.
Let’s leave aside games like Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and Horizon: Zero Dawn which deliver great single-player campaigns and have budgets that are fairly high (though not the highest). Heck, let’s take out The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as well, even if that’s a big budget title that wasn’t made by a triple A developer but is still considered by many to be a fine game overall.
This year alone has seen games like Cuphead, a beautifully animated game with a fun difficulty curve (well, fun for me at least) which was in development for several years. It was developed by two brothers who re-mortgaged their homes and quit their jobs in order to make it the best game possible. Studio MDHR had to expand significantly to achieve this – and it’s amazing how what’s effectively a “niche” game has crossed over 1 million units sold.
Then there’s Divinity: Original Sin 2, funded through Kickstarter and hailed as one of the best games of the year, if not the best in several years or the best RPG yada yada blah blah. At one point, Larian Studios only had a handful of employees and nearly went bankrupt. It took to Kickstarter with the first Original Sin, found massive success, gave away an Enhanced Edition of the game with enough content to make Gears of War: Ultimate Edition look like Gears of War: Cash-in Edition for free to existing owners, and then took to Kickstarter to fund Original Sin 2.
"Even games like Nier: Automata, Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild prove that open world or semi-open world games can still be great."
Divinity: Original Sin 2 offers co-op play, numerous classes and builds, several Origins stories for unique single-player campaigns, four difficulty modes that actually change the way the game plays, a Game Master mode for playing Dungeons and Dragons with your friends and full voice acting for the entire game. You’re probably sick of the metaphors but this is voice acting of the “great” variety, not the decidedly Mass Effect: Andromeda variety. Even one single, normal playthrough of the story will take you roughly 56 hours as per HowLongToBeat.com. I could care less if you think an isometric perspective and turn-based combat doesn’t a triple-A game make.
Because go look at Persona 5, its anime aesthetic and addictive turn-based combat becoming a massive success by its own merits while still being one of the best RPGs ever made. Look at Night in the Woods with its amazing writing and stellar aesthetic or Hollow Knight which delivers about 40 hours of gameplay for completionists and 20 hours of story-telling for your average Metroidvania fan. What Remains of Edith Finch, The End is Nigh, Cosmic Star Heroine, Nioh, Sniper Elite 4, Outlast 2, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Zero Escape: The Nonary Games, Shadow Warrior 2, Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2, Nex Machina, Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy…the list just goes on and on of excellent games geared towards players looking for a story.
Even games like Nier: Automata, Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild prove that open world or semi-open world games can still be great. Hilariously enough, there are also plenty of online games with excellent stories, as World of Warcraft’s Legion expansion and updates, Final Fantasy 14: Stormblood and Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire have proven. You may not want to pay the monthly subscription that those first two games offer and that’s fine. WoW and Final Fantasy 14 both have meaty free trials to help you decide whether they’re for you. Guild Wars 2 without its expansions is free and offers tons of compelling story content for solo players.
"I can honestly say that based on all the stories I’ve read and people I’ve spoken to over the years that the video game industry is home to some of the hardest working individuals you’ll ever meet."
The gist of this discussion isn’t that epic single-player games are dying or on their way out. It’s more about awareness and whether you know about them or not. It’s also about how much is done to make you care about them. Because marketing is one of the most effective tools out there for garnering your time, attention and cash. Once a game has your time and attention, it opens up other avenues to keep you invested and spending money. You wouldn’t think that publishers would go out of their way to literally drown out everything else to get your money and attention on their products but you’d be wrong. You’d also be wrong for thinking that they won’t try everything possible to use your attention and money to garner more attention and money. Look no further than limited time cosmetics for Overwatch or special rewards for those who also play Heroes of the Storm.
All of this may make it sound like the people at development studios and publishing houses are evil and out to get you. I can honestly say that based on all the stories I’ve read and people I’ve spoken to over the years that the video game industry is home to some of the hardest working individuals you’ll ever meet. They have to deal with shifting deadlines, technical troubles, being away from their families for weeks at a time, health issues, crunch times, delays, cancellations and what have you. Not that I’m in much mood to defend those at the very top of the food chain in large publishing companies but there are community managers, PR agents, event managers, project managers, producers and whatnot that sacrifice their very souls for their fans. If anything, it’s important to recognize that those making the biggest decisions and mandating all of these additional revenue sources are often those sitting at the top.
None of this is to also say that games-as-a-service is bad for those who want to enjoy a singular game for the rest of their lives. Lord knows that all those metaphorical decades of screaming how awful the Destiny franchise is hasn’t dissuaded people from spending money on it nor should it. At the end of the day companies will care more about what players are spending money on above all else because (a) they need money to keep the big machine spinning and paying their thousands upon thousands of employees, and (b) money talks. If there’s something you don’t like about a game and your money goes elsewhere, you can bet publishers will bend over backwards to accommodate you while still finding ways to make more money off of you.
"Even as our favourite studios come and go, with the circumstances behind their demises being incredibly aggravating, there will never stop being memorable single-player campaigns and stories."
It comes down to an Ouroboros of capitalism at the end of the day. Big publishers want to earn money through microtransactions, pre-order bonuses, Season Passes and whatnot to support themselves and their studios. That way they can continue making big triple-A titles and repeating the process. Is it a bubble? Probably but they said the same thing about Hollywood and the industry hasn’t stopped cranking out blockbusters, smaller films with more personal stories or a mix of the two in the past several decades.
For every Destiny 2 or Ghost Recon: Wildlands that garners millions upon millions of dollars, there will be a Horizon: Zero Dawn or Super Mario Odyssey that will give players exactly what they want. In the same vein, for every Visceral Studios that’s shut down, there will be a Larian Studios, Obsidian Entertainment or Studio MDHR that survives against all odds to deliver their dreams to fans. For every EA, Activision or Ubisoft that wants your money, for noble purposes or foul, there will always be a Devolver Digital or Chucklefish that will give you something different, if not altogether better.
Marketing is nearly always overblown and the final product will never satisfy everyone regardless of initial skepticism or how many impressions and reviews come out beforehand. If you really want to find a more meaningful single-player experience that doesn’t have microtransactions or loot boxes, then they’re most definitely out there even if they’re not a genre or graphical style you thought you’d love. Even as our favourite studios come and go, with the circumstances behind their demises being incredibly aggravating, there will never stop being memorable single-player campaigns and stories. Such are the people who demand it, the market they make up and the publishers attempting to cater to them.