256comments A New Single-Player Standard
Posted Wed 18th Apr 2012 9:21pm by Ruser Saldana
In his recent Gamesindustry.biz article, Richard Browne argues that used games are killing the single-player market. He calls it the “games churn:” people buy a new single-player game, play through it quickly, and then trade it in. Another person comes along and instead of buying a new copy of the game, buys the cheaper, used copy. The cycle continues, and sales of new copies suffer in the long run.
In response, he says developers and publishers are adding multiplayer to single-player games, hoping the addition will slow the trade-in process and extend the sales of new copies. However, he believes the time and money spent on developing multiplayer takes away from time and money that could have been spent working on the single-player experience. As a result, the quality of the game suffers and everyone loses.
It is a logical argument but if it is true, then developers and publishers (and perhaps Browne) are missing the point. The fast and frequent resale of used single-player games isn’t a cry for multiplayer: it is evidence that the standard for single-player games doesn’t hold enough value for the average gamer.
Tacking on multiplayer to a game like Ninja Gaiden is treating the symptom but not the disease (and an apparently poor treatment at that). It doesn’t change the fact that most single-player experiences lack long-term value. And while developers and publishers are upset that their games are traded a few weeks – if not days – after their release, I’m sure many gamers are upset that they spent $60 on a gaming experience that only lasted a few hours.
I agree with Browne in that multiplayer isn’t the answer here. Even if the development of multiplayer doesn’t detract from development of the core experience, the inclusion of multiplayer in many single-player games feels disingenuous. Besides, the heart of the issue is the current single-player model. Many of these games – even the great ones – have short, linear experiences with little reason to play through them again.
There are, of course, exceptions: Skyrim, like Oblivion before it, gives gamers hundreds of things to do and a vast country to explore. Mass Effect offers a focused narrative with branching story lines. Both series have character customization that can directly affect the way people approach and play the games. Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City include combat and stealth challenge maps, and leaderboards to encourage play after the campaigns are complete. Heavy Rain has various characters, storylines, and endings, allowing players to experience the same mystery in a number of different ways.
These things are of value to today’s gamers and yet they are missing in many of today’s single-player games. So perhaps Browne has it backwards. The used games market isn’t contributing to the decline of single-player games; the lack of value in single-player games is contributing to the growth of the used games market. In other words: if companies don’t want people trading in their single-player games, then they need to give people experiences they won't want to trade in.
By that, I'm not merely talking about a good game worth playing again - though that’s obviously part of it. Beyond quality and replay value, the average single-player experience needs engaging gameplay that is sustainable over a longer period of time. Skyrim, for example, does this by offering a wide variety of missions so that players aren’t doing the same exact thing throughout the entirety of the game. Its character creation also lets people play the game in different ways: a melee fighter amidst the thick of battle in one game, then a range-based Mage in the next.
I don’t assume that successfully implementing such elements is an easy thing to do, but I believe it’s a necessary thing to do if companies really want to improve the life cycle of single-player games (and really, it makes more sense to incorporate these things than it does to tack on multiplayer). Single-player games modeled after the short, straightforward experiences from previous generations are no longer viable in today's market. Gamers expect more - want more. And so, there is a new single-player standard, set by the games that offer not one experience, but several experiences; by the games that are designed with quality and longevity in mind; by the games that sell more and resell less.
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