As a new, more connected than ever console generation approaches the consumer market, it seems to us here at OnlySP that defining the single player experience is becoming an ever more relevant exercise. What is or is not part of single player discipline that we love so much? And how can or will it evolve in the coming years? I think that right now, on the cusp of a new video gaming generation, is the perfect time to reflect on the single player gaming trends we’re spotting just over the horizon.
Playing games has – it can be argued – traditionally been an anti-social experience. You’d lock yourself in your room with a shiny new tape, or cartridge, or CD, or DVD, and press buttons and keys and look at a screen and (hopefully) be absorbed in a game’s world, characters, story. Let’s face it – watching someone else play a game in a situation like that is not generally a great time. I’m not saying that playing games makes you an anti-social person, but the act of playing a good, single player game is inherently a non-social experience.
The core drive behind the single player sequester is usually due to narrative. Single player games can deliver a story to players that cannot yet be rivalled by multiplayer games. One character with player agency is a lot simpler to structure narrative around than multiple characters with equal agency. If only one person is manipulating the story, it allows for a more tightly structured narrative experience to be delivered by the talented writers of the industry. There’s always that element of the metagame, where people playing the same single player game can talk and interact with other people outside the game, and there will always be the spontaneous so-called “water-cooler moments” that can happen dynamically within gameplay – the emergent stories that made games like Skyrim, Minecraft, and DayZ lightning rods for discussion – and they are both legitimately wondrous. But those moments cannot be delivered on-cue like a well-written, narratively relevant experience can be. So far, only single player games can deliver a laser-guided tactical strike of plot that penetrates right to the soul.
There is a blurring of the line between single player and multiplayer. A wider audience is being reached. Gaming is no longer the realm of the solitary, stereotypical basement-dwelling teenage male nerd. 58% of Americans play video games, with a next-to-even distribution between both genders. The average age of the American gamer is 30. And 62% of gamers play with others in some way or another. The market is huge, and content creators are taking aim at capturing as many slices of the market as possible. Which is why we’re seeing multiplayer additions to our single player games.
Just as the single player experience is changing, so is what is considered multiplayer. I remember when I was a kid, I’d go over to my friend’s house, sit on an old dog’s leather couch, eat too-salty snack foods, drink lightly carbonated beverages, and play video games. The four of us would gather around the console, as if it were a powerful eldritch artefact in some arcane ritual, repeated in cold cement-floored rooms around the world. We’d play Mario Kart, or Gauntlet Legends, or Smash Bros, or Perfect Dark. Occasionally, we’d have the computer on at the same time, taking our turns at Worms in between rounds on the main TV screen. In those days, multiplayer meant you had to physically be in the same room as other people, sharing carpet space and complaining about the greasy controller.
But, over the years, that has changed. And the way we consume those multiplayer experiences has shifted with it. The internet is a pretty great thing. I could, for example, be sitting in my lounge room all the way over here in good ol’ Australia, while participating in the same instances in WoW as someone halfway around the globe, if I were the type of person who played WoW. I could, in summer, lol 360 headshot noscope some noob in the UK, in winter. Entertainment and interaction is global and, as internet connections and blistering speeds grow ever more ubiquitous in the household, we can’t expect game developers, publishers, and console creators to ignore that.
There are the questions of capability and timing though. For example, only 68.2% of American households had a broadband connection in 2010 (69.5% of UK households in 2009, and 62% of Australian households in 2008). That means that only 68.2% of people in American households are capable of effective, traditional multiplayer gaming over the internet. Whether the current internet infrastructure can handle a shift towards the omnipresent online environment that creators (particularly Microsoft with its very negatively received focus on online and the cloud) seem to be pushing for is a legitimate concern – one which I unreservedly share. I don’t think any country in the world is ready for always-online right now, and I will always be fundamentally against always-on single player games.
But multiplayer gameplay is introducing more varied approaches to interactivity, compared to standard competitive and cooperative real time models. We’re seeing a lot more drop-in drop-out multiplayer. We’re seeing plenty of leaderboards, stat-tracking and item-sharing that does not rely on a realtime connection. We’re also seeing some new approaches to cross-platform play, with mobile apps impacting in-game resources.
We’re seeing a new approach to making and playing games emerging. “Social gaming” is the current industry catch-cry, smattered generously throughout the press releases we receive on a daily basis. Oh look! There’s a website for X game where creating an account will net you fantastic and revolutionary new features! Tap on this mobile app and you can earn extra points! Register on the leader-boards and compare your performance to that of your friends!
Not to mention the countless tacked-on multiplayer modes, complete with achievements exclusive to multiplayer. It’s easy to be cynical – “What? Your friends don’t own the same game? Well, here’s a great incentive for you to talk them into it!” But for every transparent grab for cash, there are, in my eyes, just as many genuine – if mostly crudely realised – attempts at getting games into more players’ hands for enjoyment. Games that genuinely want to bring players together to have fun. We’re still in the early stages of this process, but the inevitable increase in these gameplay mechanisms with the new consoles will streamline and refine these mechanics.
But what does that mean for OnlySP?
As the Editor in Chief of OnlySP, I get to make significant decisions about what content we cover. Single player games that can be impacted by other players. Multiplayer games that can be played completely ignoring other players. So I think we need to avoid boxing whole games into either single player or multiplayer containers. Instead, it’s more valuable to talk about separate experiences within a game, and whether you’re experiencing them by yourself or not. Being able to have a solo gameplay experience within an MMO for example would be something we’d want to let you know about. Additionally, we’ve always placed an emphasis on narrative. If a multiplayer game can offer a strong narrative that can be experienced on an individual level, we’re going to tell you about it. And if a single player game has multiplayer features, well, we’ll let you know if they impact negatively on the solo game.
Essentially, what you’ll see from us is the same single player evangelising and love of narrative, plus a healthy dose of infatuation with emerging solo play experiences within multiplayer games.
The single player experience we currently know will – I sincerely hope – remain a key part of the games industry. We may see the addition of wholly ignorable features that allow others to interact with our characters or worlds – like in Dark Souls – but the core single player game will stay. I think we’ll also see a new wave of online multiplayer games with increasing amounts of solo player content. The future’s looking grand for us single player game lovers, and diversification can only enrich what already exists.