I follow gaming trends fairly closely so it’s a rare occurrence when something gaming related slips by me unnoticed. One thing that I just recently noticed is an inadvertent result of a current trend. The trend is that more video games that would have been entirely single-player ten years ago are now adding on multiplayer modes. What’s the inadvertent result?
The purpose of adding on multiplayer modes to games is pretty simple. Game developers are trying to increase the “tail” of a game. When big-budget AAA game titles come out (like Call of Duty), there are a ton of sales within the first week which generates a lot of revenue. This is followed by a drop in sales that slowly dies out over a period of months. On a graph this looks like a rat tail, hence the term “tail”. Developers have been trying to increase the length of the tail by including multiplayer modes and DLC that keep interest up for a game. If a game sells a million copies in its first week but zero copies afterward, developers are losing out on what could potentially be a significant amount of revenue. Tail-elongating tactics are designed to keep revenues up while other games are in development.
And this works for certain games. The Call of Duty franchise sells a ton of games in the first week (mostly through preorders) but continues to sell games up to and beyond the one year mark (when the next game in the franchise is released). World of Warcraft, which utilizes a subscription-based model, is even more profitable than any other game ever released.
But there are even more games that most people know nothing about that have not been as successful or outright failed because they tried the tail-elongating methods employed by games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft. If you’ve heard of a game called “All Points Bulletin”, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. APB was a subscription-based MMO that failed so suddenly the developers actually gave a full refund to those unfortunate souls that purchased it. Yes, it had lots of bugs which didn’t help its release, but the reality was that not enough people signed up to make the game worth playing. It’s difficult to call a game a “Massively-Multiplayer Online” game if there’s no one else online.
And there are a number of other great examples that have followed a similar model. Star Trek Online (another MMO) followed a very similar pattern. And though both games have since turned to a “Free-to-Play” model (another effort to increase tail-length and recoup some of the heavy losses suffered by the developers and publishers), the clear message is that these games were not worth the subscription price.
But MMOs aren’t the only games that are affected. There are a number of new games that have clearly sacrificed a meaningful single-player campaign for a multiplayer game mode. The original Bioshock game featured an immersive story that is well worth a number of playthroughs. Yes, you’ll end up hearing the same dialog and killing the same enemies over and over, but the story is so immersive that it’s like an awesome movie or book. You know what’s going to happen, but you keep re-reading it anyway. Bioshock 2 lacked that same feeling. Instead it included a multiplayer game mode that fit in with the rest of the game but didn’t give me a compelling reason to keep playing.
You want more examples? How about the Dead Space series? The first Dead Space was an unbelievably well-written, suspenseful game that left me eager for a second playthrough. It wasn’t the kind of thing that had me jumping out of my seat, but I was always wondering what new, horrific scenarios I would encounter around the next corner. Dead Space 2 had none of that same charm. It also featured a multiplayer mode.
Still, this could be some other factor. Maybe it’s a nostalgia factor (we tend to view older games with rose-tinted glasses anyway), or maybe it’s just a general trend across all modern games, or maybe it’s some other factor that has nothing to do with the multiplayer. If it is the multiplayer, there should be examples of games that prove that focusing on single-player can increase tail-length as well.
Fortunately, there are such examples. The first Mass Effect game was an awesome story that customizes around the player’s choices. The replay value for this game is extensive, easily leading to hundreds of hours of gameplay. Mass Effect 2 continued this trend. Neither game included a multiplayer mode. Say what you want about the differences between Mass Effect 1 and 2, but both games were unbelievably awesome and worth making your friends try. Mass Effect 3? Nearly universally loathed for its horrible ending and included a multiplayer mode.
There are other great examples too. The most recent Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion and Skyrim, are both awesome single-player experiences. The developers clearly poured all of their time and effort into making an unbelievably expansive experience. My Skyrim gameplay lasted 101 hours without mods and was well worth the experience. Neither game included a multiplayer mode.
I will admit that there are definitely exceptions on both ends of the spectrum. There are unpopular (if not abysmal) single-player sequels (Dragon Age 2) just as there are awesome sequels that have included multiplayer (Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood). But think about the games that have included both multiplayer and single player game modes that didn’t do either very well. Far Cry 2 instantly comes to mind for me. The multiplayer was bland and while the single player was a lot of fun, the story was one of the most poorly written concepts I have ever played. If the developers had taken the resources spent creating and maintaining the multiplayer mode and instead poured them into the single player, would the overall package have been better?
On top of this, I believe that the tail length of the games that include multiplayer isn’t increasing. Have you ever bought a game six months after its release and go on the multiplayer only to find that no one is playing anymore? It happens all the time. There are usually a few hardcore fans of a game who will always be online, but it’s extremely difficult for games to draw away players from more developed and popular multiplayer games like those in Call of Duty or Gears of War. Putting your prejudices aside, would you rather play the multiplayer mode for Bioshock 2 or Modern Warfare? Would you rather play the multiplayer for Army of Two or Gears of War 2? If no one is playing these games online, the longevity of the game is significantly decreased.
I don’t expect games to ditch multiplayer any time soon. If I were managing a game like Dead Space 2 or Mass Effect 3, I’d have some serious discussions with anyone suggesting that multiplayer should be included. But then again, I may be biased.