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'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 is Windows Central's Senior Games 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.

  • I really hate this.. I love immersive single player stories, and play games because of this.. the only multiplayer game I play is rocket league, other than that I only buy/play the single player portion of games..
    I guess I'm not the target audience but if multiplayer is all there is at some point, you really just play the same game in different locations with different rules. It will all have the same goal, "win over the other team". In my opinion what a boring gaming universe if there will be nothing else???
  • I agree. I mean I love many multiplayer games, but without single player I don't get what I truly started gaming for. To immerse myself in the story and do what I think my character would do. Not just kill someone over and over.
  • +1 I've never liked action based games all that much. I find most lack interesitng or challenging mechanics and they rarely have anything notable to offer beyond shallow twitch experiences. The early Battlefield games, where the focus was on tactics and teemplay and you actually found similarly minded people online, were the exception. Overall, I prefer strategic games that also take you to another place and or time through the art of interactive storytelling. I view games as an artform. I want to experience games in that way. The AAA titles have long trended towards being dumbed down, lowest common denominator franchises that excel at nothing but making a good sales pitch (similar to much of what Hollywood produces). I view this as the continuation along that path.  
  • Agree. The only game I play online is FIFA. I have even tried GTA online, and find it hard to stay engaged, and it's been over 4 years. GTA online is the perfect example of what you said, samething over and over. I am starting to find it harder and harder to find engaging single player games with immersive storylines.
  • While I do play multiplayer games, I love single player campaigns!
  • This is a ridiculous process. Always Online games are fine. But when a title like Gran Turismo Sport pees all over its fanbase it deserves the negativity it gets. Especially when they haven't got a clue how to make a competitive racer. I don't touch Online only with a 10 Ft barge pole. For example loom at this article as to why online only can screw up a game totally.
  • Company "fans" like you fightling their little "console war" are ridiculous. This is something that goes beyond companies. Game as as a service, microtransactions for full price games, loot boxes, pay to win modes, "get the game late if you don't pay", ridiculous "pass",... is bad and should be boycotted whoever is doing this. None of this is bringing anything to gaming. We, as gamers should unite and fight it. You, company "fans" can keep fighting your little war. I believe there are more gamers in this community than company "fans" (whose priority is company over gaming)...
  • ??? GT was used as a reference because its the latest game that's in the bad media for shunning its single player model. EXACTLY what this article is about. I'm sorry if that hurts you, but its a fact. GT has turned into an online only game. Leaving Singleplayer gamers with absolutely nothing to sink their teeth into. 
  • The article is about how games as a service (MS & Spencer's strategy) is killing single player games. The example is showing how most of MS's major games are doing it. Your initial 2 sentences was damage controlling for MS and then you're trashing a Sony game. (MS's main rival in console). You know I don't give a **** about Sony or GT Sport. And based on what I've read it has a single player element. The main criticism is that it is always online ( and you seem fine about it). The funny part is I've NEVER seen you criticise MS for Games as a service and what they are doing with Forza. THAT is what the article is about. You're a known MS "fan" why am I even wasting my time with some company "fan" like you... 
  • I don't think single player games will ever completely go. With the likes of Nintendo making some truly beautiful single player games, I have confidence we will continue to get amazing stories in single player games.
  • Since I suck at most games I love single player games.
  • This!
  • will be the last generation I buy into if they can single player.
    I hate playing with 500 spotty teeny bopers all running around like mindless idiots
  • My son looked at me the other day, with a look of "why would I do that?", when I mentioned doing a single player campaign on COD. He has grown up in the land of online shooters. I tried to steer him towards Portal, and Dead Space, but nah. He is having none of it.
  • Just make him a wager, if you win a fps battle against him then he has to play a few hrs of dead space after finishing any set classwork or a substantial portion if it's a portfolio base or use your discretion lol :P..
  • There's the thing, my reaction times are somewhat slower than my 8yr old. He is faster than an agitated cat! Don't worry, he has to do homework prior to gaming. Thinking about it, Dead Space may be a little nasty for him. Scared me to death. Personally, I am a puzzler type of gamer. Portal is probably my fave.
  • +1
  • Hopefully this trend will die off eventually. These games are really getting stale.
  • Single player game? You mean the multiplayer training course?
  • Precisely why I like single player in COD.
  • ahhh, the hours i spent on that training course trying to one up my mates time.
  • It's pretty messed up, Gran Turismo is heavily reliant on online connectivity... what happens if you want to pick up a title that you brought at launch say $60 or a collectors edition at $100 only to find 2 years down the line the game is absolutely not playable because the servers have been shut down and there is no way to host a private server without getting entangled in a legal loop... That's one potential scenario for the current trend and I for one do not welcome it or will buy any title that forces online connectivity for single player progression, the most I would ever spend such a game is £10 nothing more and nothing less. Because I am weary of the big greedy corps buying up classic franchises just to destroy them for short term gain.
  • Ninety percent of what I play is single player.  I just don't have the time to devote to being good at multiplayer games.  With that said, the stories present with single player games is a true art form.  It brings players in like a book and lets us forget about reality for a while.  If single player games die I most likely will suspend my accounts and gaming all together.
  • Truth be told, unless it's a fighting game like Virtua Fighter, killer instinct or the like, I don't play online. Halo is for the single player experience as is Tomb raider and others. The industry shifting to this play online ish for everything is going to alienate players like me who have little interest in the social aspects of games.
  • Was it just me or was there also an explosion of first person shooters in recent times. for every assassin's creed or final fantasy, there seemed to be 12 first person shooters. first person shooters easily translated to online play and i think that helped bring about this current trend. i also blame mobile games because that helped normalize the idea of paying to 'assist' in gameplay.
  • You are not alone, I also noticed an explosion of FPS since the launch of the xbox one, and yes they are heavily skewed towards online. It's unfortunate. I like the Tomb raider, L.A. Noire, Mafia series, for their fascinating storylines, and immersive gameplay
  • Here is hoping Cyberpunk 2077 pans out.
  • 99% of what I play are single player games. I love them. Story based. Puzzle platformer. Etc. Even games like Mass Effect and Battlefield. I'll play through the campaign and trade it in. Even Ubisoft games like Watch_Dogs and Ghost Recon. I'll NEVER join any kind of online whatever in the middle of my game. Zero interest to play with 12 year old strangers. But because I love single player so much, people often ask why I got an Xbox One instead of a ps4. Ps4 has a LOT more amazing single player experiences. Why is that? Those games seem to thrive on that system. Microsofts fault?
  • I'm am certainly not a multiplayer guy, specifically FPS games. I don't have the time to invest to 'get gud' or the reaction times for it. I also prefer a good story with my gameplay. If I can get at least an hours worth of entertainment out of every dollar I spend on a game, then I consider that a good investment. If I get frustrated with it after 30 minutes of getting my ass handed to me by some 13-year-old who has nothing better to do with their time, it's a waste of MY time. I only bother with multiplayer if I have other friends playing with me, at which point it's more like co-op than multiplayer with a bunch of randoms who are all muted anyway because they curse worse than a sailor and their pre-pubescent voices hurt my ears.
  • It's been this way for years! Remember when Halo went online for the first time? Lol
  • While my Xbox One is my "go to" console for gaming, it's hard to ignore that Sony does have some amazing single player games.  I was getting so agitated with playing everything online before spending more time with my PS4.  I am, by no means, a console elitist - I am just saying that it's not all doom and gloom.
  • It is difficult to get return on investment with single player game. Today the games are very expensive to produce ( Witcher 3 is great example ) and to get the money back from players is problem, because the competition is tough and there are just too many games and too few players. "Elex" came out last week. It was without doubt very expensive to make with long single player campaign and very elaborate open world. Will it pay back the developers? The developers working on games like Candy Crush have so much less to worry about! If you want great single player games to continue, just buy them. for example I'm looking forward for the "Kingdom Come: Deliverance". I do not blame the gaming industry for securing their revenue with microtransactions and loot boxes. The customers are waving their money on them, inciting game publishers to take every cent they can.
  • I think right now it's not just return on investment. It's pure greed. Or just putting investors above everything and everyone else. The real problem is that marketing has taken a MUCH bigger budget in the development process. Take a franchise like Forza for example. They will keep using the same engine, many times use the same assets and hardly actually change much from one version to another. 
    As it is, making the game shouldn't cost as much as making a game from nothing, having to come up with a real good story line, voice actors...
    It should be able to get the money back the money back as it is. But they'll sell this game $60-$100, release the game late unless you pay money, the game has plenty of DLC that are sponsored by companies, product placements, it is packed with microtransaction, silly loot boxes,... They tried also tried to screw people with their VIP passes...  The thing is that they are not obliged to do it since others can make financial successful games without the need of all this bs. ..
  • Well, I don't play Multiplayer. So the fewer single player games that come out, the less I'll play and the less money I'll spend on games. I have a ton of other interests anyway so, in the end, I'm not really the one losing anything. The publishers are. My money.   Their call. See if I care.
  • There are many indie titles out there that are actually better than some of the AAA single player games.
  • I don't care if the titles are indie titles or from big corporations. I only care if I like the game and if it's a single player game. If I don't get single player games I like, I sure as hell won't force myself to put up with multiplayer and someone else's kids just to play a game. I simply won't play at all.
  • There is a bonus in this whole shift. I used to rely on AAA games to provide me with an amazing single player experience, and in many cases they provide a great experience (ex: Shadow of War), now I have to look elsewhere for single player fun. Enter the Indie market!! Look at all the amazing single player games small studios have been creating! Stardew Valley, Songbringer, RimWorld, etc! I used to have my eyes peeled on the big publishers, screw them! Thanks to their stupid "pay for services", I discovered many incredible games that are slightly under the radar.
  • STOP winged monkeys and their fear driven responses, digital music is all the rage and rightly so yet they STILL have LPS available for sale THERE ARE STILL RECORDS!
  • Sorry but that's a silly comparison...
  • Not sure if anyone else has done this but I've just adapted how and why I play both single player / multiplayer.   I.E Single player: when i truly want to get involved with characters and the story mode blocking out everything around me. (pretty much like watching a movie). Multiplayer: when im keen on just a light session, jump on, chill out a bit an , you dont necessarily need to be good or need to chat /listen to other people. might just be me.