The (Single-Player) World is Not Gonna End

visceral

It’s the end of the world as we know it!

I remember being dropped off at school one day way back in the sixth grade. This was before the NES and stuff. There were a bunch of adults in front of the school that day. They were holding up signs and chanting something I didn’t care to catch. I didn’t care to catch what they were chanting because the signs they held said everything I needed to know.

To paraphrase: “The world is ending tomorrow!”

Being a sixth-grader, I wasn’t savvy enough to process that properly. I didn’t think it through. If the world was ending tomorrow, why are only a group of dingbats the only ones talking about it? More importantly, I didn’t remember that I saw something similar the year before. They were wrong; what made these dingbats right? Nope, I was only concerned about one thing: if the world is ending, does that mean there’s no homework?

Fast-forward to present time. EA’s closure of Visceral Games is in the news. Part and parcel with the closure of Visceral Games is the cancellation of the Star Wars single-player, story-driven game they were working on. Per the reports, EA was not too pleased with the game’s direction. EA’s executive vice president, Patrick Söderlund, confirmed as much in a blog post:

“Our Visceral studio has been developing an action-adventure title set in the Star Wars universe,” Söderlund wrote. “In its current form, it was shaping up to be a story-based, linear adventure game. 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. It has become clear that to deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come, we needed to pivot the design.”

That paragraph brought out the adults with the articles and the chants. I didn’t need to catch what they were chanting because the articles said everything I needed to know. EA has given up on single-player games. They want to fully embrace the “games as a service” model that all AAA publishers seem to have gone all-in on. Soon, everyone else will fall in line.

To paraphrase: “The (single-player, story-driven) world is ending tomorrow!”

Forbes contributor Dave Thier was one of those adults with an article, saying it’s fine AAA single-player games are dying. He touched on the usual point doomsayers echo: multiplayer games sell more. Too many single-player games have performed below expectations. AAA games are too expensive to make now, and it’s silly to not turn all games into services that can bilk gamers for more cheddar. Sooner or later, we’ll all get used to it. AAA single-player, story-driven games are dead!

If I follow the theme I laid out earlier, this would be the part where I call Dave Thier a dingbat. I’m not gonna do that. He’s a professional and he has way more insight than a rookie like me. He’s entitled to his conclusions. Even if he’s wrong.

Using my own adult, not-sixth-grade brain, I can deduce single-player, narrative-driven games are not dead. Here’s one reason why: we’ve heard this nonsense before.

Mark Cerny, of Marble Madness fame, said it during the European Game Developers Conference in 2011. EA Games’ Frank Gibeau did the same in 2010. That same year, video game bad-boy Cliff Bleszinski echoed the sentiments. They all said the same things we’re hearing today: too many single-player games have performed below expectations. AAA games are too expensive to make now, and it’s silly to not turn all games into services that can bilk gamers for more cheddar. Sooner or later, we’ll all get used to it. AAA single-player, story-driven games are dead!

Recently, former Visceral Games level designer Zach Wilson stoked the fires lit by those proclamations. He took to Twitter to talk about another Visceral Game, an AAA single-player, story-driven game that publically underperformed: Dead Space 2.

“Dead Space 2 cost 60 million dollars to make and they were merciless with their budget,” he wrote. “They only sold 4 mil and that wasn’t enough.”

Before I tackle the other points, I wanna dissect Wilson’s tweet. To me, it drives home the problem with single-player, story-driven games and why AAA publishers hate them.

I took a few business classes on my way to my MIS degree. I also helped my sister some on her way to her MBA. I’m by no means a Wharton Business School graduate, but I get the basics of good business sense. Foremost among the things I learned is that you don’t spend more money than you expect to make back. You do that too often, you end up like the Dukes in Coming to America.

Dead Space is considered a great game, yet it sold less than 4 million copies. That happens. Survival Horror games like Dead Space and Resident Evil are ultimately niche games that cater to a more focused demographic than typical FPSes. So 4 million sales is pretty good.

If we take Wilson’s tweet at face value, that means EA saw the performance of Dead Space and decided to greenlight a $60 million budget for its sequel. Even if that $60 million was not budgeted and was the cost after overruns and extra work, that means EA let the budget slip that far, all the while KNOWING that the game would not make that money back.

Like I said, I’m not a businessman. But even I know that’s dumb. In this story, the dingbats work at EA.

Then again, maybe the budget for Dead Space 2 wasn’t $60 million. Zach Wilson backtracked a bit on his Twitter feed, saying it’s possible the budget was more around $47 million. None of that matters, though. EA let the budget get to $47-60 million and still expected Dead Space 2 to make them money. If it were just EA that was guilty of this, there’d be no need for the adults to brandish the articles and the chants. No one would be complaining about how bad of a business model the single-player, story-driven game is. The truth, of course, is much different.

Here’s the truth about single-player, story-driven games: AAA publishers don’t want to make them anymore. They don’t want to make them because they’re inept at making them.

I’m sorry. Let me correct myself. It’s mostly third-party AAA publishers that don’t want to make them anymore.

You always hear big third-party AAA publishers bitching about the financials of single-player experiences. You never hear Sony bitch about it. Horizon: Zero Dawn, a single-player, narrative-driven game, has only sold 3.53 million units thus far. I’m sure EA would have conniptions about that number. Yet Guerrilla Games isn’t on the chopping block because of the game’s “underperforming sales.” In fact, Sony sees a long future for the franchise. Hopefully, it’ll be as long as Naughty Dog’s Uncharted and Insomniac’s Ratchet and Clank series, two other franchises that are primarily story-driven and single-player. Microsoft may or may not echo Sony’s sentiments, depending on whether or not they want to even make games other than Halo or Forza Motorsport anymore. But you’ll definitely never hear Nintendo complain, despite the majority of their games having single-player narratives. If EA had Nintendo’s IPs, Super Mario Odyssey would be filled with microtransactions and loot boxes.

It’s not just the first-party AAA publishers that are content with the successes of single-player, story-based games. CD Projekt Red probably hears EA’s bellyaching, smiles, and thinks about the 25 million units its The Witcher series has sold.  Ninja Theory, the pseudo-AA darlings of 2017, sure isn’t sweating the sales of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. I know, comparing Hellblade to Dead Space 2 is kinda unfair. Ninja Theory is a small studio with modest means and budgets; EA is a huge corporation beholden to its shareholders and filthy with capital. But Ninja Theory was able to craft a game with AAA production quality, sell it for $30, and do so without the huge budget bloat and unrealistic expectations. Had EA helmed the title, it would sell for $60, be watered down in tone and theme, and be filled with more loot boxes than you can shake a lightsaber at.

And that’s what the closure of Visceral Games and the death of Visceral’s single-player Star Wars game is all about. I did read some rumblings about the game being a developmental mess. But Patrick Söderlund himself said it in so many words. EA wants to make a “games as a service” title. They’re not interested in a single-player game with a compelling narrative set in the Star Wars universe. They want a game that can retain players for long lengths of time, all the while jamming microtransactions down their throat. You can’t stick tons of loot boxes or other predatory microtransactions in a single-player game that lasts only 6-20 hours.

I mean, you can, but you’ll end up with…Dead Space 3. That was another title Visceral Games made, but with an EA directive to add microtransactions that screwed with the game’s progression and balance. That game didn’t even sell 3 million units.

So when you see the adults with the articles or videos and the chants as you’re going about your day, ignore them. Single-player, story-driven games will just be fine. It’s just that EA and other third-party AAA publishers aren’t interested in them anymore. That’s ok. CD Projekt Red, Naughty Dog, and Nintendo Entertainment Planning & Development are more than happy to take their place.

Back in the sixth grade, it was OK to pay attention to the dingbats and wonder if it meant there will be no homework. We’re older now, and we can see the dingbats and ignore them. Unfortunately, it also means we still have to go to work the next day. Sorry, Dave Thiel. No homework, though. That’s good.

He has been playing video games for longer than he would like to admit, and is passionate about all retro games and systems. He also goes to bars with an NES controller hoping that entering the Konami code will give him thirty chances with the drunk chick at the bar. His interests include vodka, old-school games, women, vodka, and women gamers who drink vodka.

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