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Single-player games are fine, as long as they’re great

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Standards have never been higher

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Visceral Games/Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts recently shut down a subsidiary studio called Visceral Games and announced a “pivot” that effectively canceled the title that studio was working on.

The game was to be a single-player action-adventure game similar to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted games set in the Star Wars universe, and EA had hired Uncharted creative director Amy Hennig to lead development of is game. In the wake of the “pivot,” the Visceral team members have either been shuffled to other studios or have lost their jobs. Hennig’s future at EA is “in discussion.”

“Throughout the development process, we have been testing the game concept with players, listening to the feedback about what and how they want to play, and closely tracking fundamental shifts in the marketplace,” EA said in a statement announcing Visceral’s closure.

This is often interpreted to mean that EA is shuttering Visceral because it thinks AAA single-player titles are no longer profitable, and wants to shift to multiplayer titles, like Battlefront 2, that are stuffed full of loot boxes.

That analysis is flawed. Here’s why.

Visceral was not Naughty Dog

Pundits and fans concluding that EA’s closure of Visceral signals a vote of no confidence on the future of single-player games seem to assume that Visceral’s project was going to be a Naughty Dog game set in the Star Wars universe. While that’s what the developers of the game may have hoped for, it sounds like the demos EA was looking at when it shuttered the studio were falling far short of that standard.

Naughty Dog is the crown jewel of Sony’s first-party development lineup. Of the four titles it put out during the PlayStation 3 era, three are ranked in the Metacritic top 25 games ever released on the platform, and two of those made the top 10. It’s not a good studio; it’s one of the best in gaming history.

Amy Hennig deserves a lot of credit for the studio’s success as head writer and creative director on the Uncharted series. But Naughty Dog wasn’t just Amy Hennig. Its games are collaborations among some of the most distinguished creators in game development, and they had worked together on numerous projects. That’s not a situation you can replicate easily.

Visceral Games had its high-water mark in 2008, when it released the widely acclaimed sci-fi horror shooter Dead Space. But the studio’s next stab at an original franchise, an action game based on Dante’s Inferno, received much less praise, and the review scores for Dead Space’s sequels traced a downward trajectory. Much of the team responsible for the original Dead Space left Visceral in 2009 to form Sledgehammer Games, which now works on the Call of Duty franchise. If you want a spiritual successor to Dead Space, look at Call of Duty: WWII’s upcoming Zombie mode.

Visceral has not released any new titles based on its own creations since 2013. It has instead been making off-year sequels to other EA studios’ franchises. Visceral is responsible for Battlefield Hardline, which received a fairly negative reception and Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, which was widely panned.

If Hennig weren’t at Visceral, nobody would be claiming that EA’s decision to shut down the studio responsible for Battlefield Hardline signaled any change in the industry. Since Hennig was there, however, people are acting as if EA is shutting down its in-house version of Naughty Dog.

EA - Star Wars (Visceral) concept
We have no way of judging what the quality of the game was for ourselves.
Visceral Games/Electronic Arts

Kotaku news editor Jason Schreier’s well-sourced, in-depth postmortem of what happened with Visceral shows EA had a lot of reasons to be concerned about the game — reasons that were unrelated to the publishers’ perception of the market for single-player action-adventure titles.

It’s a mistake to look at Hennig’s list of credits and assume that the project EA killed was going to be on the same level of those titles. Hennig’s talent deserves the utmost respect, but so do the talents of the several hundred people at Naughty Dog who are also responsible for that studio’s record of consistent excellence. Visceral Games does not have the same history of turning out games of that quality, and hiring one star doesn’t turn an inconsistent team into the 1996 Chicago Bulls.

We may have wished for Uncharted 2 with blasters, but EA shut down what likely would have been Battlefield Hardline with blasters. The game would have had to sell in huge numbers to make its budget back, and a lot of those dollars would go to Disney due to the Star Wars license.

EA’s cancellation of this game doesn’t suggest a dim future for games like Uncharted but, rather, a dim future for studios that don’t make excellent games. Also, perhaps, an end to the myth that a visionary leader can create greatness without the personnel and resources available to studios like Naughty Dog.

But that’s not the only shift we’re seeing in this context.

The rise of the forever games

Big-budget games once represented a time commitment ranging from eight hours or so for a typical action campaign to around 40 hours for an RPG. Core gamers who wanted to spend 500 or more hours per year playing video games were likely to buy at least 15 or 20 titles. It was a great time to be an OK studio.

There are only a handful of game-of-the-year contenders in any given quarter, the kinds of games that earn universally high review scores and become instant classics. Historically, most core gamers have purchased those top-tier titles, and then needed more games to fill the time in between those major releases. Those days are over.

The top games want a lot more of your time and money these days. You might be grinding away on a loot treadmill in a game like World of Warcraft or Destiny 2, or you might be trying to improve your performance in a competitive game with an almost limitless skill cap, such as Overwatch or League of Legends. But you always have something to return to between purchases of the best games.

Hardcore gamers who used to buy 20 or more titles per year are now playing one or more of these high-commitment games for several hundred hours, and buying fewer other games as a result. Most of these players will still buy the best five or 10 games of the year and then return to their favorite forever game.

There is still a market for single-player games, in other words, but not for mediocrity. If your project isn’t looking like it will be close to perfection at a certain point in development, you have to deal with the fact that you might be throwing good money after bad.

GOTY or GTFO

What does this shift means for studios like Naughty Dog? Nothing at all. Uncharted 4 sold 8.7 million copies in 2016. Putting out a contender for the best game of the year is a great business strategy, if you can pull it off. Not many studios can.

Nintendo, similarly, has been moving not just software but its $300 Switch hardware on the strength of its single-player Zelda and Mario titles. At launch, the Switch was derided in some quarters as just a “machine to play Zelda,” but that was enough to keep the hardware sold out for six months. People are willing to pay for single-player games.

EA likely hired Amy Hennig and put her in charge of Visceral in 2014 because it wanted its own Uncharted. According to a source quoted in Schreier’s article, EA wanted a game that would earn a 90 Metascore, and Visceral didn’t have the technology, the resources or the manpower to build a game to that standard.

Schreier’s source seemed to think EA’s ask was unreasonable, but Killzone developer Guerrilla Games did exactly what EA seemed to be hoping Visceral was going to do when it developed proprietary tech to drive the highly rated Horizon Zero Dawn. Nintendo, which had never done an open-world title before, blew the doors off the genre with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - Link gliding over a forest
Breath of the Wild was OK, we guess.
Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

Rocksteady Studios, a relatively small company with no previous AAA credits, broke out with Batman: Arkham Asylum, which earned a 91 Metascore in 2009. Visceral’s own Dead Space earned an 88 Metascore and was the seventh highest-rated PS3 game of 2008.

Gamers are still buying single-player titles, but you have to be able to compete with the best the industry has to offer. Anything less is going to lead to a bloodbath.

EA learned this lesson very painfully earlier in 2017 with BioWare’s Mass Effect: Andromeda. This game was a follow-up to a very highly regarded trilogy of last-generation RPGs, but key creative talent had departed the studio in the five years since the release of the previous game in the series, and the game’s lengthy development process was notoriously troubled.

The games in the original Mass Effect trilogy were all game-of-the-year contenders, with average Metascores of 91 for the first game, 94 for the second and 93 for the third. But Andromeda scored only a 71, and a lot of gamers who had bought the original trilogy skipped it.

Within days of Andromeda’s release, retailers were slashing prices in hopes of tempting people into picking it up, and by summer, the game was available for 50 percent off. EA canceled planned DLC packs and shuttered the studio responsible for the game.

The Mass Effect franchise may have been destroyed, or at least put in mothballs until a reboot is likely.

Multiplayer games also struggle

This isn’t just true for single-player titles; multiplayer features aren’t a sales panacea. In fact, multiplayer games might even be a more challenging space, because players never finish them, so a new game has to lure players away from existing multiplayer juggernauts.

High-profile multiplayer titles like Battleborn and LawBreakers have failed spectacularly, because they tried to compete with Overwatch, and they weren’t as good as Overwatch. Gamers just kept playing Overwatch, while Battleborn went free-to-play and Lawbreakers — a game whose design team was headed by Cliff Bleszinski, the celebrity developer who made Unreal Tournament and Gears of War — stumbled so badly it had too few concurrent PC users globally on Oct. 12 to fill a single six-on-six Overwatch match.

In today’s gaming marketplace — whether a game is multiplayer or single-player — the spoils only go to the victors. Publishers are likely going to start cutting their losses earlier, instead of tossing good money after bad to market and release mediocre games that may not sell. The Star Wars name, and the licensing fees associated with it, might have hurt Visceral’s game more than helped it.

Single player games are fine, as long as they’re really good

2017 has been a great year for single-player games. Two of the best games of 2017’s first three quarters have been Nintendo’s Breath of the Wild and Sony and Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn — both expansive, deep single-player titles and both game-of-the-year contenders. They’re joined for the holidays by Bethesda’s Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus and Nintendo’s amazing single-player Super Mario Odyssey.

We’ve had some anxiety about the sales prospects for Wolfenstein, and what it could mean if a 9-out-of-10 title like this were to slip through the cracks. But it doesn’t look like we’re going to find out. The game is neck-and-neck with the new Assassin’s Creed at the top of the Steam charts for PC, and Amazon rankings suggest it’s also doing well on consoles, selling just behind Assassin’s Creed Origins (also a single-player title) and Call of Duty: WWII.

The games you love are going to be fine. But the kinds of games you might have filled some time with five years ago but haven’t been bothering with lately — most games that get lower than an 80 Metascore — are facing a much darker future.