Does Games-As-A-Service Have To Be Multiplayer?

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It looks like Tom Clancy’s The Division is going to be Ubisoft’s next Assassin’s Creed II — that is, the next template for its games going forward. If it wasn’t already obvious enough, this seems to seal the deal that blockbuster video games are headed towards a service model primarily made of online games customers keep paying into. It’s probably smart business but it’s also to the dismay of people who don’t care about online or multiplayer games. I’m starting to wonder if there’s a service-based path for those consumers too.

Games-as-a-service has been the emerging trend since at least the middle of the last console generation. I remember hearing EA’s boss saying several E3’s ago that its games were going to become “not a thing you own, but a place you go.” Ubisoft declared long ago it was no longer in the business of non-connected games. Looking at the PS2 and GBA games stacked on my shelf like books makes the idea of games you simply put in the console and played without any other component feel like a bygone era. Console games today are more like clients launched from your hard drive.

At least a few years ago big publishers tried to satisfy as many people as possible by making sure every game had both an elaborate story mode and a multiplayer mode (along with all the other boxes to check). Recently though they’ve started dispensing with the offline modes in TitanfallRainbow Six SiegeStar Wars BattlefrontThe Division, and for the time being Street Fighter V. Even Dragon Age Inquisition was originally just going to be a multiplayer game. Rockstar, instead of doing story DLC for Grand Theft Auto V, has instead chose to keep updating Grand Theft Auto Online which has probably seen a lot of growth for it. Maybe Cliff Bleszinski’s claim of campaigns being “like 70% of the budget” wasn’t off the mark. Maybe the numbers have shown publishers the people who primarily care about story modes are in the minority.

What it’s really about though is a term mobile game companies have been using for a little while: player retention. Ever since DLC started appearing in console games publishers have been figuring out how to keep players from trading in the discs mere weeks after launch. Games-as-a-service is the answer.

Of the top of my head the only big third party publishers that still mainly make games you can thoroughly enjoy without an internet connection are Square Enix and Bethesda Softworks. I’m gonna focus on the latter right now. I actually noticed this trend a few years ago, Bethesda has been just about the only big third party game publisher not jamming multiplayer or even social networks into everything. You can just install Fallout or Dishonored or Skyrim and play them without any outside entity logging you in or connecting you to a server. That said, Bethesda has kind of already found its own path to player retention: user-generated content.

Skyrim’s massive mod community has kept it high on Steam’s most played games list for years. With the same kind of tools coming to Fallout 4, Bethesda is now trying to get that mod selection onto the console versions. The next step is SnapMap for the upcoming DOOM. A dedicated community has consistently made maps and mods for DOOM for over 20 years, and SnapMap is an attempt to finally bring that spirit to the broader console audience. Much of that content will be multiplayer, but much of it will certainly also be singleplayer. I don’t know how Bethesda plans to monetize that though. It’s definitely thinking about how to bring back paid mods though.

I actually see Dark Souls as a sort of service-based game. Obviously there’s the persistent online component permeating into the solo game, but the solo game itself is built for high replay value. Hardcore players are known to do many runs through it with different character builds and different strategies. From what I understand The Division’s online component is not too dissimilar from that of Dark Souls.

I hope all these service-oriented online shooters figure out how to accommodate offline/singleplayer customers, even if it doesn’t involve elaborate story modes. Battlefront already has some kind of mission mode. I still think one of the best answers is horde/survival mode if properly balanced for both co-op and solo players. It and multiplayer with bots serve pretty much the same purpose.

Sometime around the early 2000’s or something I remember somebody making a statement at some gaming or tech summit that singleplayer games were going to go extinct. People thought the assertion was ridiculous then and I still don’t think it’s true now, but it its looking like story-based games are becoming the domain of smaller, art-over-business developers.

BULLETS:

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