For the longest time, singleplayer titles ruled the video game market as some of the biggest sellers. Over the last decade, things have shifted and they are now a risky venture for anyone in the AAA space. While you can have a great singleplayer game, the load has transitioned to the indie space and we need to talk about why that is. Publishers are focusing on multiplayer games, and that’s a big deal for developers.
The Game Industry is a risky business no matter what segment you are in. When we’re talking about spending months (even years) working on a single project, you have no idea whether or not that game will be successful. In the AAA space, that’s become even harder to manage. Larger studios have dozens of employees with budgets in the millions; one failed game could very well sink a studio of that size.
Publishers realize this, and want titles that have the least risk and most bang for their buck. We all heard about EA not wanting Battlefield One to be based in World War 1, and the numerous stories of publishers not wanting female leads. They are doing the same thing that movie and TV does: Trying to adhere to a successful formula. Incidentally, breaking the formula is one of the reasons why the Indie space has grown so big over the last six years.
In game development, we see this every few years when a genre becomes the go-to for games.
There were platformers in the early 90’s, MMOs in the early 00’s and now multiplayer today (we’ll come back to that in a second.) Publishers and developers want to get as much out of one title as they can, and singleplayer doesn’t do that these days.
Singleplayer-focused titles have a limited lifespan when it comes to playing them. While yes, you can have 80 hour RPGs or 10 hour action games, they are still finite experiences. Multiplayer on the other hand gives a successful title a lot longer of a lifespan.
Games like Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends have proven the longevity of multiplayer-only games in the market. Multiplayer gives you replayability in the form of interacting with your friends and provides more value to consumers. As we’ve seen with MMOs and F2P games, it also makes it easier to support with new content.
This right here is reason #1 why the new Doom game has multiplayer content being developed and not single. Bethesda knows that there is more work that goes into making great singleplayer content than multiplayer. It’s far less time consuming creating a great multiplayer map compared to a new singleplayer campaign complete with secrets and diverse design.
I know that you are going to ask, “What about mods and modding support?” Mods are a gamble for a developer/publisher: You don’t know what content is going to be made or how popular it will be. The focus on multiplayer over singleplayer has also led to the shift in strategy game design philosophy: Focusing on micro intensive games that can be played competitively.
Again, most people are going to come back to multiplayer rather than singleplayer, no matter how much we like the campaign. You can only play a singleplayer experience once to get the feel; multiplayer keeps providing new challenges based on who’s playing.
The proof is easily seen: No one is complaining that they’re just playing the same maps on Overwatch repeatedly. That’s because the player base makes each play different, and greatly extends the value of the game.
Another example: Uncharted originally started as a singleplayer only experience, until multiplayer was added with three and four. You can say that people played Uncharted for the singleplayer story, but the option was there and provided more value.
Unless your game is going all in with a massive time sink like Fallout or the Elder Scrolls, it’s a hard sell to tell someone that your game is only 10 hours long. It’s time to talk about the big point, and one that publishers are interested in.
Every video game has a limit of how much money it can possibly earn over its lifespan. We either see games have a strong opening month, or those that earn steadily over a year of word of mouth and press. Publishers want the sure thing, and the sure thing is the one that can make the most money guaranteed.
If you look at the market today, a typical AAA singleplayer-only game can make around $50-$90 on one consumer. This is based on buying the game at launch plus any additional content or season pass developed. With a multiplayer game however, someone can easily spend $100+ on new skins, maps, content and so on.
Talking about the different kinds of microtransactions and DLC is too big of a topic for this post, but the impact isn’t. With continued content, a $50-60 game can keep earning money for months or years to come. As we talked about earlier, it’s easier to create multiplayer content compared to single.
Looking at games today, we have Payday 2 with over $100 of additional content developed, and of course the simulator market.
As long as the game has a community who is buying content, you could support a title for a very long time. Going back to point one, it’s safer to continue supporting a successful game than it is to start over again with something else.
Finally, let’s talk about a recent trend in terms of selling games.
The term, “Games as a Service” has gotten a lot of buzz in recent years. The concept is selling a game as not just a single play, but a continued experience. In turn, you’re providing value to every part of your player base and supporting the title.
This is why AAA games are loaded with singleplayer, multiplayer and DLC content. Not only that, but there are promotions, ways to stay connected and more. Games as a Service wants to keep someone invested; not just in one title, but the entire series and brand.
We can see this with how brand-driven Blizzard is with their IPs; providing connected value to every one of them. You simply cannot provide the same level of service in a four to eight hour long singleplayer game. The beauty of this from a publisher point of view is that it gives them a win-win regardless of the developer’s views.
Adding multiplayer to a title gives the publisher a chance at hitting a jackpot, regardless of the singleplayer sales. If the multiplayer doesn’t blow up, then they have the initial sales as profit. When the multiplayer does become popular, then they have a viable moneymaker that they can keep building up.
Call of Duty has been the tested model of this concept. A new Call of Duty will have a singleplayer campaign and the popular multiplayer mode. They know that people play the singleplayer campaign to go through it, and then focus on multiplayer. Over the course of a year, there will be new content and promotions to keep people invested up until the next game.
Today, the idea of an “AAA Game” means something to the consumer. When you’re spending $50+ on one game, consumers want the whole package of multiplayer and singleplayer. This is almost akin to having standard features in luxury cars: People expect a base level of content with the money they’re spending.
The idea of annual releases is a part of the Games as a Service model; keeping the audience constantly engaged by the brand and game. Even though AAA publishers and developers are working this way, the Indie market has grown counter to that point.
The AAA space is dominated by multiplayer games and content, but that’s not how it works for Indies. While publishers are mitigating risks, it has lead to forced-in multiplayer and series fatigue. AAA publishers and developers have been doing everything they can to make the most money, even at the expense of a title.
Not every game needs multiplayer or $50 of season pass content, but that’s not stopping time and money being put into those areas. The rewards outweigh the risks for publishers, and that is what’s influencing AAA decision-making. For consumers, they can ignore the parts they don’t want and still get a great game. However, that doesn’t stop the developers from having to develop it in the first place.
The Indie space is a different story, and one that we need to talk about in a follow up post.
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