The economics of single-player games

As many top studios focus on multiplayer, service-based games, does the business case for narrative-driven single-player titles still add up?

By Rob Fahey.Published Friday 27th October 2017, 7:00am GMT

Rumours of the death of single-player games have been greatly exaggerated; but nonetheless, there's something a little concerning about the way creators and studios presently feel compelled to make statements about just how healthy single-player is right now.

From Rockstar's insistence that it's still committed to single-player DLC in its games to the robust defences of single-player from ex-Visceral developer Zach Wilson and MachineGames developer Tommy Tordsson Björk, the message that comes across most strongly is that single-player as a concept and a category is something that needs defending. There's nothing wrong with the things being said; it's the need to say them at all that's of some concern.

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"The economics of making and selling single-player games has been getting tougher as the costs of creating content have increased"

The reasons why people might feel the need to come to the defence of single-player are fairly clear, after all. Visceral's closure has been interpreted in some quarters as a vote of no confidence in what was thought to be a single-player focused Star Wars title it was working on; EA fellow traveller Bioware, once a bastion of single-player, has focused its efforts on a Destiny-style multiplayer game. Destiny itself is another example of the same trend; Bungie's roots are in single-player, but after transitioning more and more towards multiplayer experiences over the course of its work on the Halo franchise, Destiny and its anaemic afterthought of a narrative sealed the transition.

That a handful of studios are moving away from self-contained single-player experiences is not, in and of itself, cause for major concern for this whole area of the industry's output. In fact, that concern is unquestionably overblown; the reality is that there is an enormous market for single-player experiences, and as long as that market exists there will be companies and creators who seek to provide for it.

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That's the caveat that hangs over everything else written in this article; nothing I'm saying implies for a single second that there won't be single-player games released next year, or the next, or the next. What is more questionable, however, is the kind of budgets those games can command, and whether publishers will be able to justify putting the same sort of development and marketing push behind them that multiplayer - or "service-based" - games now routinely receive.

"The post-launch model for multiplayer games owes its fundamental logic to exactly the same notion that underpins free-to-play mobile gaming"

After all, it's not like single-player games don't sell; major single-player titles still routinely sell several million copies. However, the economics of making and selling single-player games has been getting tougher and tougher as the costs of creating content have increased. Making content, after all, is expensive; building and animating models for players, enemies and other characters, constructing levels and environments, recording dialogue, scripting and lighting and rigging events in the game. Considered in terms of cost per minute of player experience, or cost per dollar paid by a player, single-player content is unquestionably expensive, and that cost has grown hugely in the past couple of decades.

DLC can help to alleviate that cost; when players pay a chunk of cash for something that's relatively inexpensive to create, like a re-skin of a character or a bunch of new weapon models, it can help to push the game's ratio of development cost to revenue back towards a healthy figure. In general, though, single-player DLC is often subject to the same problem that the original game had - it's expensive to build and most players will run through it relatively quickly, which puts strict limits on what can reasonably be charged for it.

As players' expectations of more flexibility in their single-player experiences have grown - a game that doesn't have branching narratives with choices to be made will now be roundly bashed for being too linear - this problem has only become more severe; now developers are spending time, effort and money creating content that many players won't see at all. Moreover, while single-player DLC can bring players back for a short while and provide a fresh injection of revenue, diminishing returns often kick in after a game launches. Only a certain slice of the player base will buy the first DLC pack, and only a certain slice of those players will buy the second, and so on.

"The audience for narrative-driven games may need to accept that all but the cream of the crop will be developed a bit more cheaply"

Service-based games, on the other hand, operate on a rather different set of economic equations. The post-launch transaction model for modern multiplayer games owes its fundamental logic to exactly the same notion that underpins free-to-play gaming on mobile. The developers often don't sell content, they sell consumables; items such as in-game currency that can be created cheaply and which players can keep coming back to buy over and over again. Even when developers do sell content, fully-featured and no doubt expensively developed multiplayer content like Destiny's expansions are the exception rather than the rule; new weapons, vehicles or models are much more common, and the economics of building and selling something like that stacks up far more positively than the economics of a single-player DLC expansion.

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This problem has caused a certain tension in how publishers and developers approach single-player content. On one hand, building multiplayer and service-based games is much more profitable; the return on investment on your content creation budget is simply better. On the other hand, much of the market still craves good single-player experiences. It's noteworthy that even as some major developers switch gears towards more multiplayer-type games, others are reversing course a little; Star Wars Battlefront 2, for example, is going to ship with a single-player campaign, presumably based on a calculation that the original Star Wars Battlefront missed out on a chunk of its potential market due to the lack of such.

Striking a balance between those two sides - the cold logic of return on investment on one hand, and the demand of players (and indeed of many creators) for compelling narratives and engrossing single-player experiences on the other hand - is a tougher task than it's ever been. There was a period in the late nineties and early 2000s where almost every game felt like it was getting a bolted-on multiplayer deathmatch mode for little reason other than ticking off a feature on the back of the box; as studios struggle to make the economics of AAA development add up in the current era, there's a fear that many of them will end up tacking on single-player or narrative components for broadly the same reason.

Yet even if many companies can't make the numbers add up on purely single-player experiences, there will be some who will; companies that have spent years building up fan bases and strong reputations for great narrative-driven games, which will have the sense not to slay that goose even if the eggs it lays have changed from gold to silver. The audience for narrative-driven games may need to accept that all but the cream of the crop will, perhaps, be developed a bit more cheaply, will look a little less graphically lush and repeat a few more canned animations, than the dazzling, no-expense-spared service games that justify their budgets on a long tail of microtransactions.

But even if this part of the market needs to adapt to survive, concerns over its passing are misplaced. The economics of single-player looks a little tarnished right now, but the kind of experiences it provides are here to stay, as long as there's an audience that demands them.

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