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.
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.