'Games-as-a-service' titles are killing single-player games – and that's a real shame

As with many industries today, games fully embrace the wonders of online connectivity. With a shift to online services, multiplayer-driven titles and post-launch content, today's releases are always changing – for better or worse. But what does this mean for single-player titles going forward?

Abandoning products, shifting to a service

Concerns surrounding the sustainability of single-player games are nothing new. However, debates were lately rekindled following moves recently made by Electronic Arts. In an unexpected move, the publisher announced it was closing the doors of Visceral Games, the developer best known for its work on the Dead Space series.

While the shutdown of Visceral was unfortunate, the circumstances surrounding the company's closure raise several questions encompassing the industry as a whole. Ahead of its closure, the studio was working on a large-scale project set within the Star Wars universe, shaping up to release as a linear story-based action-adventure game. However, with development now shifting over to EA Vancouver, the project is shifting to embrace further depth and scale in its world. Citing "fundamental shifts in the marketplace," Electronic Arts specifically detailed plans to incorporate elements that incentivize players to return over time.

So, what does this mean for Visceral's previous work on its Star Wars project? In an email sent to employees, Executive Vice President Patrick Söderlund, detailed the future for the project codenamed "Ragtag," affirming that the assets created so far would be reused in the new project. However, with a clear shift away from its linear single-player roots, Ragtag appears to be yet another game shifting to pursue a games-as-a-service model. Signalling a lack of faith in single-player experiences, or rather extreme growth in titles with dedicated online ecosystems, Electronic Arts' decisions resemble moves by other publishers to ramp up investment in games-as-a-service titles.

The declining appeal of single-player games among major publishers has been widespread and not offering games-as-a-service features is becoming a rarity for established franchises. That's not to say single-player AAA games can't succeed in the marketplace today, though success stories in the genre are far less common than a few years ago.

Bethesda, a publisher known almost exclusively for its expansive single-player titles has seen the effects of this movement over the past year. After releasing several titles that were well reviewed, many still seemingly struggled to meet sales expectations. The most notable of these is Prey, an exclusively single-player experience that sits among the highest rated games of 2017 but still failed to grasp the attention of the wider public.

Buy once, play forever

Since online connectivity in games became commonplace, publishers have continually attempted to diversify their portfolios of online services through titles. While only a decade ago, online integration was mostly reserved for hosting online multiplayer modes and delivering post-launch content, the scale of online integration and its effect on gameplay has grown. When purchasing a linear single-player game, what you're investing in at launch will mostly remain unchanged, while in contrast, the biggest online games continually evolve and incentivize players to stay.

With the rise of multiplayer-focused experiences, controversies continue to sprout from the effects that new online-oriented mechanics have on gameplay. Amidst a shift to games as a service, many titles are now built with standard components of that model in mind. The game that ships at launch only lays the foundations for more content to come, core mechanics are designed with replayability in mind, and routes are carved to find new methods of monetization.

Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer.

Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer. (Image credit: 343 Industries)

The costs for triple-A game development continue to grow and with base game pricing not increasing, publishers are finding new ways to offset costs. Games-as-a-service titles present a perfect model for adopting this strategy, keeping players invested over time and sourcing a consistent flow of income. Microtransactions, randomized loot boxes and paid expansions are all common sights in AAA games today, and when paired with an engaged returning userbase, they can offer an unrivaled flow of additional income simply not seen in the linear single-player genre.

Even Microsoft itself has seen this shift, embracing similar features across its catalog of games. Halo 5: Guardians, Gears of War 4 and Forza Motorsport 7 all provide regular content drops and randomized loot boxes, alongside mechanics clearly built with monetization in mind. Whether this implementation is ethical is a different topic entirely, but regardless, they secure stable cash flow outside of base-game sales.

What the future holds for single-player

Now, more than ever, games as a service is more enticing than ever for publishers. Between declining interests in single-player releases and the massive growth of multiplayer titles, investing resources into linear games simply doesn't have the payoff it once had. A much higher markup can be seen in games with thriving online economies, as shown by most major franchises adopting elements of the model.

Single-player games will never go away entirely, but as the incentives to develop such titles fade, their presence in the market will decline. These games may continue to release, even if to diversify a publisher's portfolio but they'll likely bear less weight than before.

Matt Brown

Matt Brown was formerly a Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.