There’s no denying that this generation has been impacted by the growth of multiplayer gaming like none before.  Some of the biggest titles of the past few years owe some portion of their success to the online elements they offer.  While we here at OnlySP don’t often touch on multiplayer gaming, we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the impact that its rise has had and will continue to have on the single-player experience.

Most titles that offer a multiplayer element also include a single-player portion.  While this does create a game that appeals to a larger customer-base, it also initiates a delicate balancing act between the two.  The reality is that the resources necessary to build a game (money, time, people, etc.) are finite and must be divided among the two sides.  For both to be successful, each must be provided a portion that allows for a thorough and complete development cycle.  It’s rare that this balance can be maintained throughout the years it takes to develop a game and, as a result, one or both experiences suffer.

Certain franchises have been built from the ground up with both a single and multiplayer experience in mind.  Titles such as Halo, Call of Duty, and Gears of War were designed to offer both from day one and resources were allocated accordingly.  The aforementioned RTS-style resource management becomes particularly problematic when a game that was intended to offer only a single-player experience has a multiplayer element forced upon it, usually in the name of greater appeal and higher sales.  Bioshock 2, Dead Space 2, and Ninja Gaiden 3 were all criticized for including multiplayer elements that, in the eyes of many gamers, had no place in those titles and resulted in a lesser quality single-player experience.

This dichotomy can exist with the inclusion of a cooperative gameplay mode as well.  While it can create less resource distribution issues, due to the fact that the game is relatively the same in both modes, another issue arises.  If a game’s campaign is built with a cooperative mode in mind, the result can be very different than if it is created purely for a single-player experience.  Resident Evil 5 was the target of numerous critics after the inclusion of a co-op mode that seemed to inherently shift the gameplay away from its survival horror roots.  More recently, Dead Space 3 has been under heavy fire after its E3 reveal in which co-op play was unveiled.

I cannot fault publishers and developers for attempting to appeal to a larger customer-base and build sales with the inclusion of multiplayer elements.  The gaming industry is just that – an industry.  It is a machine that is fueled by money.  As much as I do love gaming, I will not romanticize it so far as to ignore the reality of what allows multi-million dollar titles to exist in the first place.  What does concern me however, is the introduction of an ill-conceived, poorly-executed multiplayer mode that serves to only impair the game as a whole.  When these elements are forced into a game purely for the sake of increasing sales, what message does it send?  Perhaps, that the single-player experience alone is not worth your hard-earned money.  Ouch…

So, has the rise of multiplayer gaming signaled the inevitable death of the single-player experience?  Absolutely not.  In a recent interview with OnlySP, Undead Labs’ Director of Community Sanya Weathers commented on that very subject.

“Jeff Strain, our fearless leader, said: Gamers are omnivores. Consoles did not kill PC gaming. iPads and iPhones did not kill console gaming. Farmville did not kill non-social gaming. The Game Boy did not kill non-mobile gaming. Multiplayer has not killed single player gaming, and MMOs will not kill multiplayer gaming. Instead, each new platform, innovation, and mechanic fuels the growth of the industry, because core gamers are gamers — they love games, everywhere, every way. I love multiplayer games, but I also love to tuck in and lose myself in a well-crafted single-player RPG or strategy game. I’m an omnivore.”

Most gamers lean towards these omnivorous tendencies and, as a result, there is room for both single and multiplayer experiences in the gaming world.  That being said, there is still a sort of competitive balance that exists between the two.  Just like development resources, gamers do not have infinite amounts of money or time to spend on games.  From the perspective of a dollar per hour of gameplay ratio, a multiplayer game is usually the better investment.  So how do single-player games stay viable options without needing the inclusion of a half-hearted multiplayer effort?

The key is focusing on what makes the single-player experience a unique one.  The opportunity to present an engaging narrative ripe with drama and emotion is one not found in multiplayer gaming.  There is a reason that people typically read books by themselves and not aloud to a group of friends.  Solitude is a necessary factor when trying to get lost in a great story.  In much the same way, single-player gaming allows us to become absorbing in the interactive narrative as it plays out.  Whenever I talk about great stories in gaming, I always reference Lost Odyssey and its unique presentation of touching dream sequences through simple text on the screen.  I can remember reading these short stories and being absolutely floored by the emotional narrative unfolding before me.  Would that experience have been nearly as moving had I been sharing it with a fellow gamer?

When I polled some of the staff here at OnlySP about the best narratives in gaming, I got a variety of responses from more recent titles like Uncharted and Bioshock, to older fare such as Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Final Fantasy VI.  While these are all very different games, they all present intriguing narratives with dynamic character development.  In a multiplayer game, characters exist purely as avatars to act under the direction of the players.   In contrast, those found in a single-player game are a sort of digital clay to be molded by developers throughout the course of the story.  Such potential for the growth of a character cannot be found in a multiplayer experience.

The competitive nature of the gaming industry could encourage publishers and developers to strive for more creative and engaging single-player experiences.  As attempts to arbitrarily include multiplayer elements prove to be relatively unsuccessful, if not detrimental, the focus must return to creating the best possible single-player campaigns.  Subsequently, the rise of multiplayer gaming could potentially have a positive impact on single-player games.

Aside from this progress-through-competition theory, there are already some examples of single-player games taking inspiration from multiplayer elements.  Dragon’s Dogma allows players to share Pawns (dynamic NPC companions) that level up and gain knowledge of specific quests and enemies, thus providing valuable insight for others.  Outside of its PvP and co-op conditions, Dark Souls uses a messaging system that allows players to provide advice or warnings scrawled on the ground to others who may follow in their footsteps.  These games, while remaining single-player affairs, are better for these unique aspects that they present.

Unquestionably, it is an interesting time to be a gamer.  With multiplayer games increasing in popularity, it will be intriguing to see how they will affect the single-player experiences we know and love.  We’ve already seen the initial repercussions of the industry’s reactions to the growing multiplayer market and there will undoubtedly be more to come.  So where is the single-player experience headed?  In a recent interview with OnlySP, 4A Games’ Huw Beynon answered that very question for us:

“The single player experience is far from dead. I think there will always be a demand for strong single player experiences, and with games like Dishonoured and Bioshock: Infinite on the horizon in the FPS genre, not to mention The Last of Us, Hitman and Tomb Raider, it looks like the single player fan will be well catered for with a huge variety of quality games, for the next year at least.”

For the next year and many more to come.

Will Blackwell
I'm a new dad, gaming machine, and beard aficionado. With a little one in the house, I've come to embrace the single-player experience, as it is much less likely to send me into a profanity-laced, controller-throwing tantrum. Writing and video games are two of my greatest passions, so this is a natural fit for me. As long as it doesn't require me to perform coordinated dance moves in front of my Kinect, i'm willing to pen my thoughts on it. Aside from gaming, I love music (Smashing Pumpkins), coffee (Red-Eye), and sushi (Yellowtail). All offerings of my aforementioned favorites will be accepted with open arms and, if you're lucky, i'll let you touch my beard. Just don't pull on it. That hurts.

Minecraft fans creating the world of Game of Thrones

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4 Comments

  1. I worry sometimes that multiplayer can cheapen the single player narrative. For instance, how can the Master Chief be, from a narrative perspective, the last of the Spartans, when in multiplayer there are Spartans all over the place? How is a game like Call Of Duty (which admittedly I&#039ve not played) supposed to deliver a complete war narrative experience when just a few button presses away is a virtual paintball mode?

    1. While I know the MP mode exists outside the bounds of the SP narrative, I have to agree with you. Simply playing a MP game mode that conflicts with the canon found in the SP campaign can definitely cheapen the whole affair. Most notably, I find it amusing when a character that was killed off in the SP story can be found as a playable MP character. Online resurrection!

  2. I worry sometimes that multiplayer can cheapen the single player narrative. For instance, how can the Master Chief be, from a narrative perspective, the last of the Spartans, when in multiplayer there are Spartans all over the place? How is a game like Call Of Duty (which admittedly I've not played) supposed to deliver a complete war narrative experience when just a few button presses away is a virtual paintball mode?

    1. While I know the MP mode exists outside the bounds of the SP narrative, I have to agree with you. Simply playing a MP game mode that conflicts with the canon found in the SP campaign can definitely cheapen the whole affair. Most notably, I find it amusing when a character that was killed off in the SP story can be found as a playable MP character. Online resurrection!

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