Single-player games no longer pay the bills, according to Starbreeze Studios' Almir Listo, who told the audience at Reboot Develop that the Swedish company is now more likely to publish than make games with no co-op or multiplayer elements.
Listo is global brand director at Starbreeze, a company that has changed dramatically since the days when games like Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness established it as an industry leader in single-player development. Over the last few years the vast majority of its revenue has come from Payday, a multiplayer franchise created by Overkill Software, an independent studio Starbreeze acquired in 2012.
At Overkill, Listo said, the focus is always on playability and, more pertinently, replayability. "The people that got the most respect and were the most important people on the development team, were the QA testers," he said. "They have the highest status in our company. Because we work in such a flat structure, they are the gatekeepers.
"One of the problems that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons had for sure was that it's not replayable. It's a beautiful story, but it ends"
"They are the people that make sure we don't release shit... A game developer with a focus on QA is a game developer that makes sure the game is fun."
According to Listo, the fact that Payday's community can be so critical of the game is a positive. Those players have often invested "6000 hours" of time into the experience, so that hate emanates from a deep-rooted sense of devotion and love. The capacity to build that kind of relationship with its audience is something that the widely acclaimed Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons lacked, Listo said.
Despite that acclaim, the Brothers IP was sold in 2015 shortly after one its principal creators, Josef Fares, left the company. In light of the growing importance of Overkill to Starbreeze in economic terms, and the recent success of Dead by Daylight, another multiplayer IP, the sale of Brothers now seems like a watershed moment. Listo's comments at Reboot only reinforced that notion.
"You need to find the thing that makes it replayable," Listo said. "One of the problems that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons had for sure was that it's not replayable. It's a beautiful story, but it ends. And as many lovely emails as we've received about that game, it doesn't pay salaries.
"Payday, however, because the game is replayable like few other games... it allowed us to continue pushing out content for the game, which allowed us to keep monetising the players who were interested in the game."
"We're great at doing co-op games and multiplayer games. That's why The Walking Dead game we're making is a co-op game, that's why the Crossfire game we're making is a co-op game. We want to focus on that, and leave the single-player games to people like you."
"We're great at doing co-op games and multiplayer games... We want to focus on that, and leave the single-player games to people like you"
When asked if there was still room for a game like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons as a first-party product, Listo wouldn't rule out the possibility. Overkill's game based on The Walking Dead IP will have a more developed narrative than Payday, he offered, though that is still a very different prospect to a game like Brothers, or even a game like The Darkness. "Talking about single player adventures in particular, there's opportunities. Absolutely," he added. "As long as we have the people to work on it, why not?
"The question of whether Starbreeze would ever do another single-player game? Yeah, but we'd rather have another studio approach us with a beautiful idea. We want to focus on what we're good at now, which is co-op games...but feel free to approach us. We're interested in all kinds of deals."
This position is backed up by Starbreeze's activities as a publisher over the last few months, a period in which it has signed and committed to significant investments in Double Fine's Psychonauts 2 and Otherside Entertainment's System Shock 3. At the outset of his talk, Listo emphasised that Starbreeze's history of single-player development, and the understanding it therefore has of what it takes to ship a great game, is a big part of why those studios trust it as a publisher.
"The most important thing you can learn in your industry career is that it's a people business. You are no better than the partner you work with," he said. "It's simply trust. If you and I do a publishing deal together, we believe in you.
"Because we understand what video game development is about"
GamesIndustry.biz was a media partner for Reboot Develop. Our travel and hotel costs were provided by the organiser.