Console Single-Player and Being Forced to Find a Dance Partner


By Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)

“We are very proud of the way EA evolved with consumers.  I have not green lit one game to be developed as a single player experience.  Today, all of our games include online applications and digital services that make them live 24/7/365.”

The above quote comes from Frank Gibeau, President of EA labels. It was included in a pamphlet (PDF link) called “Cloud Gaming Prospects for 2012” for distribution at the Cloud Gaming Conference in September. The sentiment was echoed by World of Warcraft Lead Designer Rob Pardo in a recent interview with, in response to the question “Do you think that the big-budget single-player game is an endangered species at this point?”

“I do,” said Pardo. “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. 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.”

That’s two industry heavyweights espousing the same belief, that single-player games are no more. With the annual success of the Call of Duty, Madden and Gears of War franchises (just to name a few), why would a publisher spend time and money on a game dedicated solely to single-player? Don’t people want drop in/drop out co-op and multiplayer matchmaking? Is there a market anymore for sprawling single-player epics like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Mass Effect?

If those two are to be believed then, sadly, the answer would appear to be no.

Back in the days before Xbox Live and PSN (you know, the early 2000s), the concept of playing a game online was relegated to the screeching sound of your AOL trying to connect and having people to play with. Sure, if you went to college you had the privilege of a T1 line (and roommates) most likely, but the concept of online play was still so young and needed to be explored.

Playing games online on a console was completely foreign when compared to the history of playing games online on PC. While you could go to town in Counterstrike or Age of Empires on the PC for seemingly ages, playing Goldeneye without everyone crowded around a TV screen was impossible. That factor alone is probably the biggest reason why console games were primarily single-player affairs.

Sega tried the concept of a console network first in 1999 with the Dreamcast, but broadband penetration was almost non-existent at that point, making it DOA. But then, something magical happened. Xbox Live launched in 2002 and was refined in 2005 for the launch of the Xbox 360. It sort of captured lightning in a bottle, as the network was buoyed in 2004 by the launch of Halo 2, which supported full, online play.

Halo 2 was the most played game on Xbox Live the week of its release and stayed that popular for two years straight. The next two games on the list? Call of Duty 2 and Perfect Dark Zero. The common thread shared by all three games is that they were focused on the single-player campaign first; the multiplayer aspects were just gravy.

As Xbox Live got better though, Microsoft et al started to realize that people liked going online and playing against or with each other. What’s more, internet speeds were starting finally becoming capable of carrying the traffic. Which brings us to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Arguably one of the best and most impactful games of this generation, Infinity Ward really outdid themselves. The single-player campaign was satisfying yet challenging, the modern setting was fresh and people loved their killstreaks. Something interesting happened, though; at least as many people who were playing the single-player campaign were also going to town on multiplayer.

That’s probably the watershed moment for multiplayer. That was the moment when studios like Activision, EA and Capcom realized people liked playing games with other people. Arcades were popular for a long time because of the quarter effect, where lines of gamers would place their quarter on a machine as a symbol of “I got next.” Why wouldn’t they want that feeling from their own homes?

Adding multiplayer to games doesn’t always work. Games such as Metroid, Resident Evil and Dead Space thrive on the sense of loneliness and despair. Players are thrust into an unknown situation with little in the way of supplies and no help at all. Yet, Dead Space 3 will feature co-op. That completely destroys one of the pillars of the franchise: fighting a horde of vicious aliens with only you and your senses to save you.

Regardless, since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, publishers have been working overtime to make games more focused on playing with others and less on playing alone. It’s an easy, fund-replenishing model that ensures you (the gamer) get endless amounts of entertainment for the money spent on the game, while also making sure the publisher keeps you engaged and coming back for more.

Multiplayer is also an endless revenue tap for publishers, dispensing profits much longer than a single-player campaign. In a single-player game, you’re likely to finish and either shelve the game or sell it. With a multiplayer component, the game will stay viable as long as the community that plays it does. If during that time you just so happen to purchase a few new map packs or missions, then all the better for the publisher.

Everything is social these days, so why are games any exception? Another great quote from Pardo emphasizes that fact and its effect on game development.

“Another big trend is connecting everyone in their games, be it a full online experience like World of Warcraft, or just being able to have a social experience with other people playing single-player games. You’re seeing all these sorts of elements being explored. I think it’s really interesting because it’s not just about connecting someone so I can play with them. It’s about how I can have a social experience around the games that I play even if it’s inherently a single-player game.”

Single-player games aren’t dead or dying. They’re just being redefined as single-player with community involvement. Whether or not that’s a good thing? Only time will tell. One thing’s for certain though. Bounty hunters like Samus Aran lose some luster when she’s got six Facebook friends running around the galaxy with her.


  1. Kevin RigdonOctober 8th, 2012 at 7:11 am

    Great article. Although I do like many aspects of multiplayer games, I hate the notion of being forced into it. Mass Effect is pretty much my favorite series, and the introduction of multiplayer was done well, I think, even though I don’t play it very often. Do you think that if everything moves to multiplayer only, we may witness the death of good storytelling in video games in favor of a “party” atmosphere?

  2. Jonathan PilleyOctober 9th, 2012 at 8:26 am

    Totally. I think you’re already starting to see it with games like Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed and Dead Space putting multiplayer in. Debates about how well done the multiplayer implementation aside (and I agree the Mass Effect multiplayer was implemented well), developers are killing the atmosphere in some games. Dead Space is not meant to be a buddy cop space survival horror game. Publishers are going to do whatever makes them money though, even if it means we get less instances of great storytelling. As long as they can show that Game X was played Y hours online in a month, they can justify charging more for Content Z.

  3. Kevin RigdonOctober 10th, 2012 at 9:31 am

    I can only hope that small, indie, publishers will fill the void for an audience that really wants that single player experience with an incredible story.

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