Anti-Multi: Online play isn’t necessary for the right game

Thursday, 24th November 2011 09:10 GMT By Johnny Cullen

Skyrim, Deus Ex and Batman have proven this year that the market still supports big budget solo games, but only if they tick certain boxes. Johnny Cullen reports.

People tend to think of this issue backwards. The question isn’t related to the relevance of the single-player game: it’s whether or not big budget, single-player experiences are still economically viable without an additional multiplayer component.

I’m looking at my shelf to see how many of its games are online-enabled. I count at least 50 that feature connectivity in some form. For every game without it, I can probably find ten with multiplayer.

A brief sample. Call of Duty, FIFA, Halo and Gears of War are the obvious ones, but there’s also Metal Gear Online, Crysis 2, Motorstorm Apocalypse – the list goes on.

In recent years, multiplayer has been introduced to traditionally single-player franchises, and, in some instances, has been criticised as forced or tacked on. BioShock 2 and Dead Space 2 are prime examples; they both came with multiplayer modes which didn’t go down particularly well with fans of the originals.

It’s a generalisation, obviously; some single-player games have introduced multiplayer and done it well. Uncharted 2, multiplayer and all, followed a single-play only original and made it work.

Assassin’s Creed, too, managed the transition. The third game, Brotherhood, introduced multiplayer but slotted it into the franchise’s overarching narrative. As I said previously, when I debated if AC should take a break after next year, if the story was all about Desmond, Ezio and the assassins, multi was all about Abstergo and the Templars. It was a decent trick by Ubisoft, and one that worked.

“Because we have something like the Animus as a narrative device, it does allows us, within those constraints, to be creative and not make something feel tacked on,” presentation director Brent Ashe told me at Eurogamer Expo while promoting Revelations.

Series art director Raphael Lacoste added that multiplayer was “an expansion of the universe, but you create the universe and you have all the storyline in the single-player, so that works too.”

But is a multiplayer component actually necessary for success in the action space? It’s a “reality of the workplace,” Epic design chief Cliff Bleszinski told us when plugging Gears of War 3 in September, while admitting he wished People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm had “a far larger and far deeper multiplayer suite”: the game failed to make a profit and the series is unlikely to continue.

And, according to some, it isn’t even a case of simply including online play if you want to succeed. If you don’t aim for top-of-class, you’re dead.

“You can have a 10, 12, 14-hour single-player game with some minimal online modes, and I don’t think that’s going to cut it,” THQ core boss Danny Bilson said as part of a gamescom interview in August.

“I think you have to go bigger and give the gamers really a lot of value for their money. That’s all part of the formula for creating an event, not just great IP and great production.”

People tend to think of this issue backwards. The question isn’t related to the relevance of single-player game: it’s whether or not big budget, single-player action experiences are still economically viable without an additional multiplayer component. Given the crop of exceptionally well-made single-player hits this Christmas, it seems the solo-player has every reason to be cheerful.

“I never asked for this.”

A multiplayer component is not necessary in the action category, but only if you have the right product: three of the biggest triple-A core games this holiday season haven’t featured mutiplay in any form.

Multi-play would makes no sense for Skyrim.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution was the first this year. Eidos Montreal’s premiere release was successfully birthed without any kind of online play.

Human Revolution was hailed by critics. With 2 million units shipped since launch in August (the numbers were announced in September) and a few weeks at the top of the UK charts, the game clearly succeeded.

Game director Jean-Francois Dugas thus explained why Eidos Montreal didn’t introduce multiplayer into Human Revolution: “Reviving Deus Ex is quite a huge challenge on its own already, and Deus Ex, in its heart, is more of a solo experience than anything else,” Dugas told VG247 in a February interview.

“Don’t get me wrong: we could do some great multiplayer, but we thought, as a first attempt, we should really, really focus into making the best Deus Ex game we could come up with, and not try to spread our efforts all over the place.”

What’s key to note here is that Dugas and his team knew they didn’t have to include multiplayer. Deus Ex is a much-loved legacy franchise, and millions were going to buy it regardless. But read the quote again: the chances of multiplay not being included in the sequel are very slim.

“There’s plenty wrong with me”

Whatever the future may hold for Deus Ex, though, there’s no denying it succeeded as a single-player game this time. Another example of a product that can work completely offline came this year as a sequel to Rocksteady’s multiplayer-free Batman: Arkham Asylum, which launched in 2009 to critical success, and even pipped favourite Uncharted 2 to the Best Game BAFTA the following March.

Arkham City came out last month. Make no mistake: it’s one of this year’s finest. And it did it all without multiplayer. It has scoreboards for the Challenge Rooms, but nothing more.

When asked why multiplay or co-op wasn’t included in AC, Rocksteady game director Sefton Hill told IGN: “Our thought process behind this was fairly simple: when we investigated adding multiplayer we asked: ‘If we use all of the energy that is required to create multiplayer and instead focus this on the single-player, would that deliver a better overall game?’”

He added that while it may not have been “the fashionable choice,” he was clear that the studio had “made the right decision.”

Some games do need multiplayer, but developers should only do it if they have the right team, the right tools and the right product. Saints Row: The Third, for example, does need online modes. GTA V will have them. Can you see a modern military shooter ever releasing again without a comprehensive multiplayer component? Of course not: it’d be commercial suicide.

Arkham City currently holds a score of 96% on MetaCritic. It shipped 4.6 million units on PS3 and 360 in its launch week, and the PC demo on OnLive smashed records for the service, although numbers weren’t given.

The caveat in this case? The IP. It’s Batman. It has Bat-fans. Releasing a massive, hugely expensive open-world action game without online modes and no large IP? Not so bright.

Which brings us to 2011′s single-play daddy.

“He is Dovakhiin: Dragonborn!”

Skyrim looks set to win as many Game of the Year awards as it can eat. Bethesda’s latest RPG epic saw saw a large marketing campaign between E3 and launch, and it paid off. The game’s success is not in question: it shipped 7 million units and sold at least half of that figure in 48 hours, giving Bethesda its biggest ever UK launch week despite the release of Modern Warfare 3 in the same period.

The true beauty of Bethesda Game Studio’s achievement with Skyrim is crafting a game that absolutely doesn’t need multiplayer. An MMO could easily work in Tamriel – and is happening, last we heard – but online hooks are unnecessary for Skyrim. You don’t “bolt” modes onto adventures like this.

But, again, it’s the right product. It’s the fifth game in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls RPG series, and has a gigantic level of resonance with both its die-hard fans and the gaming world at large as a leading genre example. It’s a monstrously large, open-world adventure with hundreds of hours of play. “Online modes” don’t make sense in Skyrim. If you add a “mass” element you have an MMO. If you add co-op, you destroy the epic nature of the adventure. It’s a single-player game, but it’s of a very specific type. And do people want it? The answer, clearly, is yes.

While these examples show that core, single-player games can work, though, there are specific reasons why they achieved success. They work in an increasingly brutal market because of their legacy, or their wider IP, or their intrinsic structure. Some games do need multiplayer, but developers should only do it if they have the right team, the right tools and the right product. Saints Row: The Third, for example, does need online modes. GTA V will have them. Can you see a modern military shooter ever releasing again without a comprehensive multiplayer component? Of course not: it’d be commercial suicide.

But while we may be living in the era of Steam, PSN and Live, single-player-only games are certainly not dead. And I doubt they ever will be.



  1. The_Red

    Love these articles and this one is just pure pure WIN. Can’t wait for next years singleplayer only Prey 2 and many other games that haven’t forgotten the joy of exclusive solo experiences.

    #1 3 years ago

    SP only games need to change, because the AI in them is usually very one dimensional and predictable.

    Once you’ve figured out how to beat a game, there’s no challenge and it’s dust collecting time.

    For me, they will never come close to giving the feeling of reward you get from outsmarting other human beings.

    Just look at games with similar SP and MP components. From my experience, people spend years playing the MP components of games like CoD, Starcraft, Street Fighter, FIFA, etc, but not the SP. The SP might get 10 hours or so played, then it’s not touched again.

    #2 3 years ago

    In my country, most of people playing games which have “singleplayer”, they try to avoid “multiplayer” because the game that they play is … “pirate version”. All the games without “multi” were easily to download from torrent, so i think “multi” will keep people go to buy original game rather than download from torrent!

    #3 3 years ago
  4. Gurdil

    Great article. I disagree on one point though. I really don’t think Batman sold because it’s Batman. Well, ultimately it did but at first, I’m sure it was more of an obstacle. How many franchise games are actually good? Not many at all. So making a Batman game (AA cause AC benefitted from AA’s success obviously) was not a sure hit IMO. I, for one, waited a long time before getting AA for €20 because I was so afraid it would be a light MGS-like with a franchised hero. It kind of was, sure, but it was really well done. That’s why AC sold so well IMO.
    Oh, and also, I was very surprised to see many Skyrim buyers didn’t even know that The Elder Scrolls series existed beforehand.

    #4 3 years ago
  5. Talkar

    You should add The Witcher 2 on that list, no multiplayer and no DRM, so it is a paradise for pirates, yet it managed to succeed.

    #5 3 years ago
  6. Edo

    Very good good article indeed.#2 It’s not about beating a game,it’s about the story and the immersion.

    #6 3 years ago
  7. jacobvandy

    @5 Pfft, yeah, The Witcher 2 is a glaring omission in this article. Not surprising, considering it was a PC-only release…

    #7 3 years ago
  8. silkvg247

    I don’t see the point of “tacked on” multiplayer at all. I never play it. It’s a complete waste of dev time from my pov.

    COOP is a different matter, coop is always welcome in a game for me, but it should always be optional and never affect solo gameplay.

    Games that were more or less released purely for multiplayer are what I play MP. e.g. MMO’s or Battlefield and the like.

    Starcraft I’m not sure. I was a fan of SP in the original but did get into MP massively, it was one of the few games where both SP and MP played a solid part. SC2 I never got into at all, maybe because all the hype makes me shy away or maybe cos I’m a zergie at heart and the terran can gtfo!

    Sometimes though you get SP games that would have worked out better as MP. e.g. RAGE. Whilst it’s SP was good, there’s a gaping hole where MP should be. I mean racing, really? This could have been the next big DM game, and there’s a gap in the market for DM right now given that well.. the last big DM/CTF game was probably Quake 3. Us twitchy ex-quake players are dying for a pure skill based shooter, there’s only so many semi realistic cover-taking ghey campy sniping battleduty games we can take! :p

    #8 3 years ago
  9. Johnny Cullen

    @5, 7 – I only decided to cover the stuff out for the holiday period rather than the entire year. If i did the entire year, LA Noire would have been in the piece as well. Besides, I’ve not played The Witcher II: don’t have a PC (or even a desktop at all) that would run it.

    #9 3 years ago
  10. silkvg247

    @9 – Gasp! You need to sort that out. Get a PC.. BE A MAN! :p

    #10 3 years ago
  11. Johnny Cullen

    Gonna sort it out for Christmas, hopefully. Gonna get The Witcher II and The Old Republic to start me off anyways for when I do.

    #11 3 years ago
  12. silkvg247

    What about Saint’s Row the Third? I played it from start to end 2 days straight at the i44. A very good PC version considering how lazy some devs are lately with sloppy ports.

    Also, I’d grab battlefield 3, if you like your MP that is. :)

    #12 3 years ago
  13. freedoms_stain

    The thing about multiplayer games is it’s hard to fit more than a select few into your schedule. As such what we tend to see is of the top x number if multiplayer titles there are only a handful that attract a player base in the millions, with a very sharp drop towards thousands and then hundreds to dozens to a handful not terribly far down that list.

    Publishers need to take a look at the real numbers the multiplayer they’ve mandated into games actually draw and realise that unless someone brings you a good multiplayer idea there’s no point in forcing it.

    #13 3 years ago
  14. Mike

    I still maintain the multiplayer should come as a seperate packaged product.

    Game only £25
    Game + Multiplayer £40

    I play Halo, but never online. I play Uncharted, but never online. I play AC, but I’ll never go online. So why should I pay for it?

    #14 3 years ago
  15. Mike

    …and Yeah, Johhny; get onto your boss about sorting you out a proper gamig rig innit! ;P

    #15 3 years ago
  16. YoungZer0

    “Multi-play would makes no sense for Skyrim.”

    What? =D

    #16 3 years ago
  17. GrimRita

    Some games just dont do well online. But with games so short, something extra is needed.

    I always used to be against Co-op modes because they are just crap, until I played L4D2 and it was alot of fun.

    But online is excellent, when done correctly of course.

    #17 3 years ago
  18. DarkElfa

    I think that Co-op is a really fantastic place to go with future games as a more pirate proof ways to do more traditionally single player games. I would have loved if Skyrim had a Co-op component. Same with Batman.

    I love single player but it does get stale after awhile and makes it easy to pirate. Multiplayer is more stale proof, but there is rampant cheating and sometimes competing against other people is just exhausting.

    Co-op has appeared in a few games so far but it’s really untapped by developers.

    #18 3 years ago
  19. ginger_monkey

    I’m just not into multi-player. When AAA games like Uncharted 3 come along and the single-player is so foreshortened I feel pretty cheated. Thank heaven for Bethesda with Skyrim who still consider us ‘loners’ to be paramount in their design principles.

    #19 3 years ago
  20. Maximum Payne

    @18 Agree.Game like La Noire or Mass Effect just be great with coop IMO and every game where always have partner with you.

    #20 3 years ago
  21. IL DUCE

    @3 have fun continuing the ruin the games industry

    #21 3 years ago
  22. The_Red

    @21 Actually I understand what he means. While piracy does hurt a lot of developers, there are countries that pirate version is the only version. Heck, in a country like Iran, a legit copy is considered illegal and only pirated versions distributed by the government are allowed to be sold. I’m not joking.

    #22 3 years ago
  23. _LarZen_

    I would love the possibility to play with friends in Skyrim, its the only thing myself and friends say we would like.

    It is not a must but exploring worlds and fighting evil is always more fun with good friends guarding your back.

    #23 3 years ago
  24. HighWindXIX

    Its sad that so many developers feel the need to tack on multi-player these days. Sure some people might like them, but you could argue that the single player portion could have gotten all that attention and been all the better for it. Dead Space and BioShock are the obvious examples but even in Uncharted the multiplayer feels tacked on and unnecessary.

    In conclusion, developers, don’t let the suits tell you that your game needs multiplayer. Just rip a page out of the Rocksteady book and make the best single player game possible. Please.

    #24 3 years ago
  25. Kabby

    In Skyrim it would be very nice if you could summon people into dungeons.
    Thinking of something akin to Dark Souls phantom helpers.

    #25 3 years ago

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