Are Offline Single-player Games Becoming Extinct?

By Jimmy Thang

Speaking to Develop, Electronic Arts Games label president Frank Gibeau asserted that single-player only games are going the way of the Dodo. “I volunteer you to speak to EA’s studio heads; they’ll tell you the same thing. They’re very comfortable moving the discussion towards how we make connected gameplay – be it cooperative or multiplayer or online services – as opposed to fire-and-forget, packaged goods only, single-player, 25-hours-and you’re out. I think that model is finished,” Gibeau said, adding, “Online is where the innovation, and the action, is at.”

While videogames are a relatively new entertainment medium, the majority of the platform’s existence has, for the most part, attempted to feature an engrossing single-player narrative.

Fallout 3 Screenshot

One of the most talked about experiences players have had in recent memory pertains to a moment in Fallout 3. The single-player RPG allowed players to decide whether or not they wanted to blow up the fictitious city of Megaton. The option to do so was intimate in that it allowed players to decide who gets to live and die and what benefits they might reap depending on what moral path they chose. This powerful effect could very well be hindered in a chaotic MMO setting with thousands of other players running amuck.

While critically-praised single-player narratives are still being delivered (Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout: New Vegas), for every good solo campaign that’s out, there seems to be three or four other online multiplayer shooters eagerly waiting to take their shelf space.

Why is this? When it boils down to it, people like playing together. The bonding experience videogames offer is unique, compelling, and fun. Most gamers would rather compete against human players in a game like StarCraft II than CPU-controlled enemies, for instance. In conjunction with this concept, with broadband internet connections now being mainstream, it only makes sense that the technology powering games would take advantage of the opportunity to connect people together.

Now that many major titles have incorporated multiplayer into their arsenals, if an upcoming game does not feature multiplayer, it is often seen as lacking longevity, which is equivocal to worth for many gamers. Take EA Games’ Mirror’s Edge for example. While the unique first-person adventure game that promoted speed, finesse, and Parkour moves over straight up action had “some degree of success,” it “didn’t quite meet our [sales] expectations, for sure,” Gibeau told Develop in an earlier interview. Dead Space, another critically-praised single-player EA game, also did lower-than-expected numbers. “You need to have the depth and persistence of an online game,”Gibeau asserted. While a sequel to Dead Space is coming out in 2011, Dead Space 2 will feature an online multiplayer component in addition to a scary solo campaign.

Dead Space 2 Screenshot

Reinforcing the value of multiplayer in a game, many players did not purchase games like Call of Duty: Black Ops and StarCraft II for the single-player, even though both games have critically-praised campaigns.

While there have been several games that have been able to pull of the hybrid single-player/multiplayer experience well , adding a multiplayer mode just so you can slap on “has multiplayer” on the game’s box can be detrimental to the game as a whole; considering this could take time and resources away from building the best single-player narrative possible.

While Gibeau said he generally likes to “inspire” his development teams to adding multiplayer components to their games, he does mention there other outlets to the online world. “It’s not only about multiplayer, it’s about being connected. I firmly believe that the way the products we have are going they, need to be connected online. Multiplayer is [only] one form of that.” Some great single-player games have been enhanced by the inclusion of online components. Take for instance the brutally difficult “Trials” bike riding games. The experience is heightened because of the game’s competitive leaderboards. Plenty of people on facebook play Bejeweled Blitz because they want to compete with their friends’ high scores.

Bejeweled Blitz Screenshot

In addition to leader boards, single-player games can be enhanced through free downloadable content. EA’s Spore would not be nearly as strong if it didn’t allow players to download other fan-made creatures.

While some games are hindered by the inclusion of a forced-multiplayer mode, some games that are built up from the ground up to incorporate multiplayer in addition to solo play are often well received. Take for instance games like Left 4 Dead and Gears of War. Even though players can have fun playing by themselves, the experience of engagement is heightened going through the campaign cooperatively.

So are single-player games fading away? The answer is: not exactly. There will always be single-player RPGs and such, but they will most likely find a way to incorporate online components moving forward. While one can argue the cons of this forced evolution, with proper ground-up integration, the pros could perhaps more than make up for the possible shortcomings.

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