Videogames have greatly evolved (to say the least) since their inception (BERRRRRRMMM), but some things have always stayed the same- they can be played alone, with people, against people, or kooky ways of interaction regarding a Ďyouí and one or more Ďpeopleí. This is great; itís wonderful to be have so many options to how you want to play, but Iím afraid to say that one particular method seems to be be losing the attention of a lot of developers, and itís really disheartening to me. Iím starting to feel that companies are convinced that single player games are taking a backseat to their better selling multiplayer counterparts, so follow me as I examine the relationships of single and multiplayer games in the past, present, and future.
Disclaimer- Iím not really all that old. Iím in my early 20s, so that means that (like Max Scoville so kindly pointed out) I grew up in the GeniSNES era. Videogames were around long before my day, so all I know about the old Arcade scene (or if you want to be really pretentious- Oscilloscope scene) I read in history books and learned from my professors.
The Past Multiplayer is INGRAINED in the veins of videogames. Starting with basic 1-on-1 Pong matches, leading into the constant yearning for the local high-score in the arcade days of Pacman, Defender, and Space Invaders. Cooperative followed with games like Mario Bros and the later beat-em-ups like Double Dragon, but (as far as I know) there was still no TRULY single player game, whose goal was to walk the player from a beginning to an end- and then there was The Legend of Zelda.
The first relevant single player game- the Columbus of sailing solo. Sure other games may have come before it, but (as far as I know) The Legend of Zelda brought all the goodies of diseased blanket adventure and gold inventory to get you hooked. A game where you played alone, in a world alone, not competing for a score against the kid down the street, but against a giant pig mage whose sole purpose is to troll you with 9 enemy and trap infested dungeons.
Skipping forward, the GeniSNES era had tons of single player games- from a huge range of RPGs and a plethora of platformers to tons of other tactics and a rare racing game whose sole purpose was to entertain one person at a time. At this point I think itís important to opinion that the Mario and Sonic series were just single player adventures with an cheap ability to have another person play. Sure it added a bit of depth to have a Tails partner, or some longevity if you and a partner were tackling the vast Super Mario World, but in reality the games were meant to be played alone, and the extra controller was to make the other person in the room feel less awkward.
The PS/N64 era (my favorite, but Iíll save that for another day) had some of the BEST single player experiences I can remember: Brilliant platformers like Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, Crash Bandicoot, and Spyro, PC masterpieces like Half-life and The Sims, and new experiences like Tomb Raider, and PaRappa the Rapper. This was a time where, much like the early Sonics and Marios, multiplayer gameplay was based on what the single player can do. Counter Strike came from Half-Life, Mario Kart came from Famicom Grand Prix II, and Street Fighter II from a game nobody cares to remember. Sure, tons of other games had multiplayer available (Starcraft, Goldeneye, Pokemon), but everyone I know remembered chasing the Zerg off of Char, sneaking around in bathrooms looking for ammo, and mindlessly slaughtering Zubat and Geodude trying to get out of dark caves. Single player in the past reigned supreme.
The Present Now the line starts to get a little blurred between the chicken and the egg. Some of the most popular games of this era include both solid single player and fun multiplayer experiences- games like the Halo/Call of Duty series, Guitar Hero/RockBand franchises, the Fifa/Madden run-ons. There are also games in this era that shine on their own with only 1 true way of play: Solo shots like the Metal Gear Solid series, the Final Fantasies, and the Mass Effects as well as all-or-nothing games like WoW, Team Fortress 2, and Farmville (I dislike it too, but itís a game, itís popular, and it helps my point).
I firmly believe that there are a lot of quality games that focus solely on single player- games like Okami, NoMoreHeroes, and the continuing Half-Life, Metal Gear, and Paper Mario series. This field has competitors from almost all genres, fantastic games that sadly aren't selling nearly as much as their combo competitors.
Multiplayer only games are a little harder to pinpoint since a lot of them have a facade of single playability- games like Left 4 Dead, Magicka, and Team Fortress 2. Sure, you can play those alone, but thatís not the point of them, the point is to play with other people for full effect. A lot of social games fall under this category since one of their main ďget more stuffĒ designs involve bugging your friends. These games are selling exceptionallywell.
The most popular of them all though are undoubtedly games that offer both exerpiences. The popular shooters with 6 hour campaigns and endless multiplayer matches, the rhythm games that you only play alone to practice so that you impress when youíre at a party, and youíre favorite sports title that you grind until you learn tactics to give you an edge online. These games are the ones that are selling the best, games that are fun to play alone and more fun to play with friends.
As a result, it seems like every major release offers some kind of multiplayer, even if itís just tacked on. Companies are putting their focus in how they develop games in a few ways including- making a really fun single player first then add ways to play with more people (Saints Row 2), making a fun and balanced multiplayer then tack on a campaign (Just about every RTS or Fighting Game), spending time caring for both single and multi together (Gears of War), and even using 2 separate teams to make each type and mashing them together (Quantum of Solace). Take a guess which sells more?
Iím not saying that any singleplayer only, multiplayer only, or combination games are inherently more or less fun than the others, Iím saying that all of three have wonderful games that are worth paying for and playing. However, it seems that games that the games that offer both single and multiplayer options are winning in sales, and that leads companies to try to release more of those titles- even if it means sacrificing the fun of the one mode to focus on developing the other, and that is why I think the future is dim.
The Future Almost everyone wants to make a best seller. Itís in our DNA to want to be the best (hell, when I write these pieces, I hope that a ton of people read them), and in doing so sometimes we sacrifice what is fun in favor of what is profitable (I really need to stop hinting at future pieces). But whatís going to happen in the future is a different affair, and in order to properly talk about it, I think itís important to look at situations of the past and (more importantly) the present.
Blur is a game that I really wanted to love, and not just because it matches my handle. They came out and basically pitched ďMario Kart with real carsĒ and I was sold. When they released the Multiplayer Beta, we hooked up7 temporary gold accounts for a huge overnight event so that people who had never even heard of the game could give it a whirl. We even made a damn playlist of music that we thought was appropriate to listen to while we tore each other up. I paid $60 the day it came out instead of waiting a week for the price to drop to ~$30 because I wanted that game to succeed. What happened was a different story. The single player was weak to say the least, and the multiplayer was so unbalanced that about 2 months after launch the only servers I could find to play on were half empty and European. It was so utterly depressing that the studio eventually shut down and any dreams of a sequel were shattered.
Itís easy for us as fans to just point fingers and blame ďTeh HacktivisionzĒ for having unrealistic expectations, but I honestly think that the main problem was that Blur tried to be took the wrong approach in regards to itís single and multiplayer. Some of the best racing games Iíve played were strong because they had such surprisingly awesome single player modes- games like Diddy Kong Racing and Need for Speed Underground 2. These games focused on what one person could do, and in the many ways they could do it. The game space was already fun for 1 person before they moved on to more. The multiplayer came out of the single player, not just in the ďitís the same racetracksĒ sense, but in the ďitís the same fun gameĒ sense. Blurís single player is shoddy at best. A series of half decent ideas given near impossible win conditions that in turn prevent you from unlocking anything to show off your work. I will give them that their base driving was fun, and some of the power ups were really fucking cool (reverse Nitro for airbrake is the most brilliant power up design Iíve seen since the blue shell), but the single player missions just werenít fun. I honestly believe that if they had spent time making the single player something more interactive and immersive (even if it involves a half-assed story like the Need for Speed series) that they would have found more people playing their game longer for the single player, and then hopping online keeping the multiplayer community alive.
While Blur is an example of how ignoring your single player before making multiplayer can blow up in your face, Assassinís Creed is a great example of how nursing your single player can help you start with a very solid multiplayer. The first Assassinís Creed to me was great, the 2nd phenomenal, and Brotherhood was off-the-wall fan-fucking-tastic. I wasnít only in it for the story, but for the gently crafted worlds, the crazy stealth feeling of doing something sneaky and not getting caught, and the hectic ďcheese itĒ feeling when you do. Iíve played 2 rounds of the multiplayer total. It was fun, but to me I found more fun in exploring the massive world where i could run around climbing walls freely without fear of someone seeing me and instantly knowing ďThatís definitely a player right there because AI doesnít know how to climb around rooftopsĒ. Iím not saying itís not fun, but itís not my cup of tea. Other people however, are saying itís brilliant. My friends are loving the multiplayer a lot, and it seems to me that one of the reasons their multiplayer is so fun is because they spent time making their single player work. Can you imagine multiplayer using the engine from 1? No bench or haystack stealth kills, pickpocket mode where everything is super weird and awkward to control- it would be a nightmare.
Speaking of awkward controls, how about the shooting sections of Mirrorís Edge? I really did enjoy that game, but I absolutely loathed anytime you picked up a gun. A lot of people seem to agree with me that it was the only major problem with the game, except I guess EA. Frank Gibeau of EA games said this past November to Develop Magazine that ďWhat I learned from Mirrorís Edge is that you have to execute, you have to spend more time on a game to ensure itís polished, and you need to have the depth and persistence of an online game,Ē later adding, ďThere were issues with the learning curve, the difficulty, the narrative, and then there was no multiplayer either. The key learning from us was that if you're going to be bold with that kind of concept, you need to take it as far as it can go in development." Itís a wonderful lesson to learn that youíre difficulty and narrative need some polish, but to go out and say to the face of all the people that liked your game for what it was that the issue was a lack of multiplayer is just ignoring your true problems.
The game was fun. Could it have used new cut-scenes, some polish, and either tweaked or removed gun-play? Absolutely. Did it need a tacked on multiplayer just so that you can tick off a check mark on the back of the box? NO. This is the point that Iím trying to get across- some games are just meant to be single player, and they will forever be fun and be remembered as great if you work on making the single player experience the best you can. If that buys you a few sequels and you treat it right, you can release a multiplayer that people adore, but DO NOT tack on multiplayer to a game because you think thatís going to make it auto-sell. It didnít work for Mario Kart with real cars, and it wonít work for you. Take your time making games- the fans will appreciate it because we love single player games and the multi player games that come from them. Just look at Minecraft- get the single player working right, then let everyone do that at once. It works.
As I look to the future, I hope more companies realize that fans like me, although a minority, do care about a carefully crafted single player experience. If anyone who makes games has managed to read this far, donít do it. Donít add multiplayer to your game because you think itíll make you the next Halo or CoD. Donít make a multiplayer only game thinking youíre gonna dethrone WoW or Farmville. I donít want my only options for single player escapism to be RPGs or pretentious indie games. Make the most fun game you can for the 1 person playing your game, and we will appreciate it for all itís worth (and then maybe you can add multiplayer when you think it fits). It may not sell as much if you start crunching numbers, but it will guarantee similar numbers of your next game, and the one after that, until eventually youíve made the same amount of money over 15 years that Guitar Hero made over5, only your studio is still as together as it was when you shipped your first title.
P.S Before I could finish editing my post, Satoru Iwata held a keynote where he spent some time talking about evolution and importance of multiplayer and (eventually) passionate game development. You should watch it
P.P. S Sorry it's late, turns out writing and editing this much takes a while. Expect the next one in 3 days- Game Theorists are Jerks!