We play alone together: Why conventional wisdom about single-player games is wrong
Things sound dire for single-player games, with almost everything going online, social, and in some cases mobile. It’s the wave of the future! GamesIndustry recently ran a story with a few choice quotes from Blizzard’s Rob Pardo under the scary headline “Single player games are dying.” Pardo was asked if big budget, single-player games are an endangered species. “I don't see there being a great business model for it these days. It's really sad, there's just a lot of elements out there that conspire to make those games difficult to make now,” he said. “Between pirating or the ability for people to rent games, it's hard for publishers to pour millions and millions of dollars into a game and not necessarily see the return they need to make those budgets realistic.” What’s interesting is that, once you start digging into the data, it turns out that single-player campaigns do just as much to sell many series that are known primarily as multiplayer games. The power of single-player can’t be overestimated.
How many people never go online
It’s hard to review a game like StarCraft 2 before the community really digs into the multiplayer aspect of the game; it takes awhile for people to find the strategies, weaknesses, and balancing quirks of online games of that scope. When the game was released many people broke their reviews up, and talked only about the single-player aspect of the game. The comments were interesting, with some people claiming “no one” would play StarCraft 2 for the story. I caught up with Blizzard to ask. It turns out around half of the people who buy the game only play the campaign. “It could be that half the people are only really interested in the campaign and continuing the story. It may mean that we could do a better job at encouraging people to play multiplayer, that it’s not just for pro-players who have 300 apm,” Blizzard’s Bob Colayco told the Penny Arcade Report. “Our matchmaking system has been hailed as one of the biggest strengths of StarCraft II by the community so you’re always going to get a fair match. But maybe it’s hard to put that on a bullet list because it doesn’t sound all that sexy or marketing friendly; just ends up being something that’s great for the game.” The first information shared about the next StarCraft 2 game, Heart of the Swarm, featured single-player content for this reason. It’s important to get that 50% of players excited about the game and ready to play. Blizzard is very much aware of how many players purchase StarCraft titles for the story. Blizzard is in good company. I was chatting with a representative from Epic Games who told me that over 50% of the people who buy Gears of War titles never go online. For the majority of Gears of War players, the series is made up of strictly single-player games. These are just two companies that were willing to go on the record with solid numbers; many other developers have games that are known for online gaming but feature a massive, if not majority, player base that never go online. There are exceptions to this, of course. A representative from Deep Silver told me around 25 percent of Dead Island never went online, although that changes depending on the system: on the PC 40% of players never went online. There are also games where multiplayer hurt performance instead of helping. “The multiplayer mode of Spec Ops: The Line was never a focus of the development,” lead designer Cory Davis said in an in-depth look at the game at Polygon, “But the publisher was determined to have it anyway. It was literally a check box that the financial predictions said we needed, and 2K was relentless in making sure that it happened — even at the detriment of the overall project and the perception of the game.” While the multiplayer game mode may have allowed 2K Games to check off that the game had the possibility for an online community, it didn’t fit with the rest of the game. Multiplayer also added significant cost to the budget of the project. While Spec-Ops The Line had sales that were sometimes described as disappointing, the game had to sell more copies to make up the added cost of multiplayer mode that didn’t help sales. “No one is playing it, and I don't even feel like it's part of the overall package — it's another game rammed onto the disk like a cancerous growth, threatening to destroy the best things about the experience that the team at Yager put their heart and souls into creating,” Davis said. Publishers need to stop assuming that multiplayer is going to add sales, and start thinking of the time and money they can save by not including a multiplayer mode. XCOM: Enemy Unknown features a limited, but fun, multiplayer mode that didn’t likely cost much to implement; it uses existing characters and settings but allows players to pit their forces against each other. Dishonored shipped as a single-player game, and thus has to sell fewer copies to make its budget back. Skyrim shipped without online play and did incredibly well. The perception that multiplayer is mandatory is a large reason behind budgets that seem to be creeping up, and there is enough anecdotal evidence to say that it’s not necessary for many games. It's time to stop thinking about phantom profits that may come in with tacked-on multiplayer modes, and start banking on the guaranteed savings that comes from releasing single-player only games. Indies have been proving this for years; Torchlight shipped without multiplayer and went on to be a hit, allowing Runic Games to create a more ambitious sequel that did include co-op and online play. FTL is another hit that rejected feature creep and sold itself on the merits of the single-player game. These success stories prove the power of single-player games. By avoiding feature creep, delivering on a solid, core experience, and keeping gamers happy with what is offered instead of trying to cram more into the game, many indie developers have found success. At a time when a game can sell a million copies or more and still be in the red, that approach has to be attractive to the larger group of players.
Single-player isn’t going away
While publishers may be entranced by the idea of selling games as services instead of products, the truth is that many of your favorite online franchises cater to a mostly offline audience, even if online players make up a vocal minority of players. Big budget single-player campaigns aren’t going anywhere, and evidence of successful single-player games will only become more compelling as publishers search for ways to slash budgets and plump margins. It’s not that multiplayer is bad, it’s that it should be placed in games where it fits. The idea that single-player games are endangered is just silly, based on existing data. When it comes to games that offer both extensive campaigns and multiplayer options, more of us like to play alone than is usually reported. And we vote with our wallets.