Is Single-Player Gaming Actually Dying?

The viability of a solid, single-player campaign in video games is a highly contentious subject. Gaming media have argued back and forth for years about whether, as we move ever deeper into a connected and online world, a well-written story should form the centrepiece of any newly released game. 

Using the 90s as an example, single player games were the only kind of games available. When you’re dealing with dial-up internet that takes 3 hours to download a jpeg, you can’t expect to be able to jump online and play with your friends. The winners of the gaming industry then were the greatest stories, the most interesting and unique game design and the sharing of memories sat on a sofa next to your best mate, beating that boss that had driven you mad for weeks. 

And that’s not to say that that’s lost in the world of multiplayer gaming. Jumping into a raid or tactically navigating your way to a win in a team deathmatch can be as communal as being there in person. But it raises the question of whether single player only games are truly dying or if they’re still an integral part of the gaming ecosystem.

Back in 2010, EA announced their intention to move away from single player stories, saying at the time ‘[We’re] very comfortable moving the discussion towards how we make connected gameplay – be it cooperative or multiplayer or online services – as opposed to fire-and-forget, packaged goods only, single-player, 25-hours-and you’re out.’ Frank Gibeau, Wired (2010). For a while they kept to this statement and produced more online focused games with built in monetisation routes that produced higher revenues than a single-player standalone experience. 

More recently however, they have retracted their stance and have admitted that single-player games are still important. 

Valve CEO Gabe Newell believes that the future of single-player games which develop over time, quoted in 2020 as saying ‘If you could build a single player game that just never ended, where I could play 20 hours a week and it just keeps growing and getting richer, and I’d be having as much fun 400 hours into this experience as I was in the first 20 hours… I think that is a way more likely scenario looking forward five years than it would have been looking forward five years ago.’ Gabe Newell, Gaming Bible (2020). 

This viewpoint appears to be growing across the industry with rumours that the in-development GTA VI will be set in Vice City, an homage to 1980s Miami, and will be expanded and altered on an ongoing basis after launch. Alongside the GTA rumour, Assassin’s Creed Infinity has been announced this week as a live-service game that again expands and evolves over time and takes in multiple time-periods. 

The idea of a game evolving over time isn’t new, and can be found in many online multiplayer only games like Fortnite, Call of Duty: Warzone and the Grand Theft Auto: Online. The core elements of the game including the map, themes and modes alter periodically to refresh the gameplay and keep users engaged. And there is some great logic behind this idea. Rather than developing one game over 5-10 years that is played for a couple of years and then dies off, this refresh model allows for games to continue engagement with current users, pull in new users and allows developers to take longer between development periods, potentially reduce crunch time and even increase monetisation routes and overall quality and innovation, versus releasing a set game experience that is played once and traded in or left on the shelf. 

Multiplayer games can be incredibly successful in the right circumstances (Clash of Clans on mobile platforms and Fortnite that has struck a chord with children across the world), but statistically, single player games are substantially favoured over multiplayer only titles with ‘two-thirds of gamers preferring to play alone.’ Forbes (2016). Gaming has to cater to all kinds of people, and those groups arguably haven’t changed much in the 21st Century. 

For every person that loves playing FIFA against strangers, dominating Battle Royales like Fortnite or ruling the high-seas in Sea of Thieves, there’s another person who loves nothing more than to turn their phone off, lock the door and get lost in a twisting, deep and complex narrative presented in a unique and interactive medium. And games are one of the best places to find a story that is truly interactive and uniquely engaging. 

As it turns out, the panicked media headlines about single-player games dying as online takes over may not be correct. Games are evolving and adapting just like the wider industry itself, and there are distinct spaces for both an engaging story and an interconnected online experience. It’s clear that while the days of being sat with friends on the sofa with two controllers could be becoming a thing of the past, that in its place is coming bespoke gaming experiences to fit every demand that adapt to stay fresh. 

Ultimately, we play games for an experience not found anywhere else. Whether dominating the battlefield with 127 strangers like you will in the upcoming, online only Battlefield 2042 to taking in narratives from some of the world’s best writers alone, both experiences have validity. It’s not really about what is or isn’t dying. Instead, we should be celebrating an industry that has a distinct ability to cater for its audience, regardless of how they want to play.