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?

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.

"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.

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.

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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Latest comments (6)

Nick Ferguson Director, ID@Azure, Microsoft4 years ago
I would argue that significant innovation in "single player" AAA gameplay has been stagnant for many years now. Most advances have been cosmetic aspects like HD and 4K visuals, or narrative elements like the quality of the script writing, performance capture and embracing more adult themes (take a bow, Naughty Dog).

The core game experience of playing most AAA first or third-person shooters is getting pretty "familiar". I love those games, but I don't play them to experience new ideas. In contrast, we've seen a huge amount of innovation in the AAA multiplayer space over the past decade, in no small part due to the impact of PC and mobile F2P.

I believe that there is a vast reservoir of untapped potential in single player games, and one of the key technologies that will drive that is artificial intelligence and machine learning. To quote EDGE's oft-maligned Doom review: "If only you could talk to these creatures, then perhaps you could try and make friends with them, form alliances... Now that would be interesting." (6/10)

The missing piece here is a proven business case for building a drastically different, innovative single player experience that embraces the cutting edge of AI and ML technology (in the same way that shiny visuals and trailer-friendly cinematics have driven rendering technology).
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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes4 years ago
That you managed to write a whole article without mentioning the economics don't work because of resale is quite astounding. Simply put EA's Star Wars game might have succeeded if it launched as a digital only product, no resell, no churn, no problem - though I'm sure Gamestop would throw a hissy fit. Maybe that's the solution to this problem, rather than millions of dollars on multiplayer game development for single player games (Uncharted I'm looking at you) we can now launch digitally and hold off on retail for six months.

Trouble is nearly all the top development talent in the World is focused on MP gaming, loot boxes and cosmetic IAP ; the ship firmly sailed several years ago.
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Lewis Pulsipher Game Designer, Author, Teacher 4 years ago
In single player, the studio is on the hook for making all the "content." In multiplayer, much of the "content" comes from playing against humans, who are far more inventive (and unpredictable) than any computer can be. The studio making multiplayer games naturally has less content to make. I don't see any way around that fundamental difference.

This has always been the case in the tabletop world, where human opposition is the norm. Though the advent of "Eurostyle" games has led to a puzzle disposition, which in turn means games tend to be played one to three times and then abandoned because they've been solved, despite the presence of other human players.
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Henrik Strandberg Founder & CEO, Largify, LLC4 years ago
Thanks Rob for an excellent summary. As Richard mentions below there is further downward pressure on “retail” titles due to second hand eroding the long tail, but a much bigger issue is that dev budgets for AAA console have quadrupled in the past decade due to greater hardware capabilities, while SRP is still $60, and less than 20% buy DLC.

In a GaaS model, you can launch an experience with a small but solid feature set and limited amount of AAA content, and decide your future direction based on guidance from customers (aka telemetry, data).
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 4 years ago
Look no further than Destiny 2, dabbler in all, master of none. Good campaign, good open world, good multiplayer, but not the best in each genre. Horizon Zero Dawn certainly is the better campaign, Guild Wars 2 Path of Fire is by far the better open world Co-Op game, Battlegrounds wipes the floor with the multiplayer competition this year. But as a package no other game comes close to Destiny.

Going forward, that might become the defining trait of a AAA game. It is no longer about how much money one sinks into one aspect, but whether the developer covers all the bases. In the real tradition of Destiny, not because the game is the best in each category, but mainly to cover all the bases for monetization. The tolerance of microtransactions among players certainly goes up when the game can entertain them for months. 12h single player game with microtransactions and optional multiplayer? To that end, EA bolted the wrong thing to Battlefront2, knew it before release, acted for the upcoming Star Wars game accordingly and braced for impact.

Wolfenstein, Zelda and Horizon? The new tier of AA games? Vanity projects for platform holders and publishers with cash to burn?
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James Prendergast Process Specialist 4 years ago
Now, I'm not complaining about any of the below (because I'm enjoying gaming more than ever in 2017) but...

It's funny, I feel the opposite to Nick Ferguson regarding MP innovation. We had a renaissance of innovation in multiplayer from 1995 to 2003-2005 and then virtually a crawl since then. Refinements, sure. Innovation? I'm not seeing a lot. Even PUGB etc. are not innovative but iterative. It's still DM, or TDM - just a slight tweak. "Back in the day", the innovation all came from the users: TDM, Capture the flag, capturestrike, sporting events, etc. - they didn't come from restrictions. The last decade of development (or lack thereof) of multiplayer environments has come from a place of restrictions. PUGB? A mod. Still not innovative but hailed as such! In a field as diverse and vibrant as MP... an iterative, derivative mod is 'innovation' - then taken a couple of times through investment and polished into a commercial product.

In terms of single player, I'm seeing a similar lethargy in terms of iteration. In fact, I think we've gone around in a bit of a circle - re-treading old steps in new shoes. The graphics, modelling, polish, hit-detection and mechanics are all better but we're still releasing System Shock 2 in 2017 (from 2009). We're still releasing Uncharted in 2017 (from 2007). We're still releasing Assassin's Creed in 2017 (from 2007). We're still releasing Doom in 2016 (from 2004)...

Honestly, I find it a bit strange that developers don't get this tidbit of information regarding single player: It's not innovation in mechanics, visuals (unless they are tied to the next point) but story that is the innovation that puts SP forward and retains players. Instead I see voice actors refusing to work, writers being fired or leaving long-tenured positions and designers and engineers not understanding the experience of players in this environment. Conversely, VR developers are seemingly understanding a little bit more than traditional developers. It's about the experience!

People are critically exclaiming about the singleplayer experiences in both 2016 and 2017 but you're still complaining about second-hand sales? Either the economics of the development were completely off (which is a consistent problem with development since at least the year 2000) OR you didn't make a good enough game/story/experience. Is that harsh? Yes. Is it true? I think so. I know there are authors that complain about second hand sales, they are in the minority. In film and TV they complain too... in the minority. I find it hard to believe that developers never took advantage of all those second hand realities and yet - they complain about the second hand market that affects them.

In the same way that software patents are mostly "do something in the real world but on a computer". What are you thinking? Why do you think you are special?

This is not your problem. Your problem is two-fold. Your problem is maths (yes, it is a plural) and content. Mathematics, as in; management, business intelligence and budgetary constraints. And in single player, story content is sidelined for mechanics. It is the rare game that does the opposite or manages the equal.

Maybe this is the wrong forum for this discussion but I'm tired of seeing people saying SP is dead, saying that MP is innovative. In monetary concerns, you're 60% correct - in terms of what is allowed to be developed. The worst part is that it's not only the big publishers that have enabled this but the better-off independents like Valve...

It's so funny because the gaming industry self-flagellates over mimicry of the film industry, yet it doesn't mimic the economics or the experiential creativity. The worst part is that there have been many games that got the SP part of things right but failed to advertise and push - I know it's common and foregone knowledge, but if those games pushed as hard as COD or Battlefield or Battlefront then they would meet or surpass their expectations... and even better, COD and Battlefield and Battlefront would meet their expectations with a fraction of their marketing budget...

Lastly, and this is more back on topic, while the cost-per-minute of a player experience might be measured, the cost-per-quality of experience is not. How many players went through months of Destiny's routine, only to become burnt-out? How many players went through Overwatch's/LoL's toxic environment, only to swear off the genre altogether? How many players decided not to play any MP games because they could not dedicate the time to be able to compete?

Money is being left on the table (in all cases).

In terms of quality, SP outranks MP - every. single. time.
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