2018: The Year Single-Player Replied Back ‘I’m Fine, Thanks’

There will always come a time when a multiplayer game gets it right. When the content it provides, the tone it presents and more importantly, the infrastructure holding it all together, thankfully performs under all the strain. Even if one still remains adamant that it just isn’t their cup of tea and/or their limited free-time could be better invested in other releases in the calendar year, it’s fortunate to know that these multiplayer games — predominantly online, competitive showings — aren’t inundated with increasingly monetary practices. Predatorily monetary in fact, systems that pray on our ever-indulgent, narcissistic tendencies to look/play/be the best, no matter what. The fact we had even the likes of EA marketing games like Battlefield V as having no loot boxes or similar pay-to-win systems, yet expecting us to offer them praise for it, goes to show not just how far the corporate meddling in video games has gone, but to what extent things have to turn sour in order for some manner of self-awareness and realization to materialize.

You might want to consider this as beating the figurative dead horse for the umpteenth time, but given their comments late last year on linear games seemingly falling out of fashion with most players, it needn’t take much deduction to see that for any sign of success and acclaim in 2018 revolving around a primarily single-player release, EA’s past comments — albeit the comments of one individual, EA’s CFO Blake Jorgensen — on linear games being something that “people don’t like as much today as they did five years ago or 10 years ago” would, as the past twelve months progressed, continue to get paraded about. And not in a pleasant or celebratory sense. Now, devil’s advocate: EA weren’t making a blanket statement about single-player games entirely, as many sites and individuals have mistakenly/insidiously tried to frame it. EA themselves (though I’m sure you’d want to take this, like any other, with a major pinch of salt) stating that last year’s closure of Visceral Games and readdressing the status of this new adventure-based Star Wars game, wasn’t a case of single-player vs multiplayer or single-player vs live service.

Even if that were true — even if we were to believe EA’s view here, hard as that may sound — the nature and very structure of online/competitive games has itself changed radically in just a similarly figurative range of five-to-ten years. To avoid opening that whole can of worms, for people like myself, this discussion is crucial. For those who grew up on single-player experiences and continue to advocate the importance and relevancy of games that aren’t rampant GaaS-styled, grindfests — filled to the brim with micro transactions and persistent advocations to spend even more than the £50/$60 entry fee — 2018 was a year that offered not just respite from all this, but a fitting counter to the growing concern that video games, to some, are all about profit and return and nothing else. That a direction of production and development catered to a single, stand-alone product, is wrong.

That’s not to say that some of the more notable single-player releases this year like God of War and Spider-Man didn’t showcase a bit of commercial success along the way — the distinction is not that games that make a lot of money = bad…and games that make sufficient money = good. But in the case of arguably two of the PS4’s biggest exclusives for some time, and highest-rated too, games needn’t veer into “service” territory to prove effective. Even if one still desires for the inclusion of post-launch DLC and optional cosmetic content, single-player games needn’t be treated, just like multiplayer games, as the means to which an entire community are shepherded into an additional fee for the pure sake of accessing the entire product.

Beyond this though and beyond the first-party territory of Sony’s platform, you’ll see single-player games striving for all manner of positive outcome. Not just in an attempt to tell an interesting story or offer some delightful technical accomplishments, but in its purest form, to offer so much without ever veering precariously into bloated territory. Whether that’s the tried-and-tested formula of Sega’s long-running and beloved Yakuza series; Matt Makes Games’ addictive yet heartfelt platformer Celeste; Dontnod’s mix of adventure and RPG antics with Vampyr. Or a brand new IP from Square Enix that (granted was the third crack of the whip after I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear) aimed to recapture the look [literally] and feel of golden-era 16-bit JRPG’s via Octopath Traveler. Arguments can be had on the merits of its chosen play-styles and art directions or the somewhat disappointing lack of accompanying key elements. Octopath’s excuse for narrative structure a blatant example, as is Vampyr’s divisive balancing of real-time combat and to-and-fro investigation work.

But then, play-time running in the tens of hours, a hundred-plus in the latter’s case, should offer enough proof that as old a form the single-player experience is, trust in your player’s willingness and investment in content beyond the meager digital avarice, can still end up transforming a once entertaining experience into something far more evocative. Surprising one’s self through elements you either couldn’t see coming or predict could grip you so. Look at games like Tetris Effect or The Messenger or Dead Cells and once more we have three entries prior to release garnering intrigue for what lay on the surface, namely their aesthetic. But eventually, whether it was getting lost in the audio-visual splendor near the start, witnessing how events twisted and turned by way of notable story cues, or simply having fun countless addictive hours later with the gameplay mechanics on offer, offer up games far from reliant on multiplayer interactions (be it friendly co-operation or not).

It’s especially relevant with releases this year that are perhaps more commonly associated as having a more co-operative/competitive backdrop like Monster Hunter: World and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. The latter especially, with its adventure-esque, story-sparse World of Light mode (personally clocking around 25 hours to fully complete), offering as much novelty, intrigue and genuine enjoyment as any fully-fledged single-player/multiplayer outing in the past few years overall. To possibly never touch the online component and still find as much enjoyment, granted with such a persistently-entertaining series that Smash Bros. has remained; Ultimate’s efforts on the single-player side served as proof that single-player/story-like modes needn’t be treated as tacked on, by-the-numbers obligations. Or worse, scrapped entirely — adamant that a full price admission was still to be expected…and required.

At the very least, single-player games in 2018 continued to champion varying art-styles and visual aesthetics, no matter the intended delivery or resulting run-time would offer up. Though this year may well have been a continuation of last year’s declaration that AA/independent games showcased the real bastion of diverse and curious creativity, that’s no detriment to how great games like Octahedron, Astro Bot, GRIS, Dusk, Forgotton Anne, Yoku’s Island Express and such could be spoken of for what they offered beyond their impressive visual fronts. But to risk pushing this narrative into that of proclaiming that any and all single-player releases from the “smaller” developers mean guaranteed success would be foolish as 2018 has not been without its minor tales of disappointment and retrospective reflection. Beyond the abject failure of more “notable” examples. As positive a reception games like Where The Water Tastes Like Wine received in parts, it didn’t stop its developer from reminding us of the risks involved with experimentation and more importantly, its financial implications. Though stopping short of agreeing with the idea that it was a “flop” or “failure” as a whole.

Last year we saw Housemarque speak on how their signature, arcade-like antics — beloved they often are with consumers — seldom equate to a suitable financial outcome. As a result, we remain watchful as to where their new direction will take them and how the studio themselves approach things with the build-up and resulting release of (based on what little we’ve seen of it) what appears to be their take on a Battle Royale entrant of sorts, in Stormdivers. Of course, as games like SCUM have proven, it is possible to succeed in a genre both saturated and persistently popular. Entering a crowded market isn’t the problem, it’s how you approach the development of said iteration that could very well be the make-or-break moment.

To claim wholesale that single-player games are immune from the financial risks and pitfalls of inexperience, however, in an industry so adamantly focused on continued player investment — long before we even get into the increasingly-crowded market of smaller games, be it catering to a particular niche or not — would be to fool one’s self into thinking the rule of market, applies only to a select few companies. Taking any mention of shareholders and quarterly earnings out of the way for a second, as we will any counter-argument such as THQNordic’s growing status as a publisher of AA-tier games given their many acquiring of studios and IPs alike this year.

But Motion Twin for one used the potential for Early Access models to improve their efforts and with the aid of pre-release buzz from fans and outlets alike, saw their roguelike action RPG blossom into one of 2018’s great success stories. Would the tale have been different had Dead Cells released in the conventional sense? Would intrigue have carried through into the new year if left in its original Early Access build — again, taking into consideration the hyper-competitive nature of not just the video game marketplace, but the very discussion of what lay on the horizon of said marketplace? One thing is for certain, single-player games aren’t just continuing on as we head into 2019, but they’re increasingly and indirectly thriving off the AAA publisher mind-set that limiting significant titles to but a handful of possible months is the way to go.

This is not the case; January alone has the likes of Resident Evil 2, Kingdom Hearts 3 and the remaster of Tales of Vesperia as its more notable inclusions. Perhaps not the most pinnacle examples given two of the three are revisits of previous ventures and the other has been out in the cold for over five years, but in much a similar vain to how games like Celeste kicked off this year in superb fashion, 2019 looks to once more show little restraint in providing us single-player games tainted not by the pressures of corporate timing and omnipresent, service-like persistence…but instead triumphing in far more elements than any competitive multiplayer could perhaps succeed on: a willing confidence to stand out and succeed on its own merits. Can Nintendo, Sony (Microsoft too, maybe?) and whoever else do it all again? If 2018 has been anything to go by, the very existence, let alone state, of single-player games has been far from questioning. Delivering but another year of some of the best, most entertaining and at times surprise encounters the medium has delighted us with. If you were in any doubt: why yes, single-player games are doing just fine, thanks.