Let's get the basics out of the way here. Single-player games are not dying.
People have been eulogizing single-player games for over a decade now, but 2017 was a pretty good rebuke to the notion. The Switch phenomenon was driven by single-player games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey as much as multiplayer options like Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. AAA publishers turned out amazing single-player hits like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Resident Evil 7. Bethesda pumped out so many single-player games it even made the supposed death of the form into a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign.
So why are we talking about 2017 again in a 2018 wrap-up column? Well, it's been another good year for single-player games, and it's one with fewer caveats like "Nintendo is a unique company we can't extrapolate from because its successes and failures often occur outside normal industry trends" and "A lot of those Bethesda games reviewed a lot better than they sold." It's also not just because smaller independent games continue to explore new ground in gaming narrative, proving out the techniques and mechanics that AAA studios will adapt once they're comfortable with the risk involved.
Let's start with the highlights. The April launch of God of War was the fastest-selling first-party title on the PS4 yet. It held that distinction until September, when another single-player title, Marvel's Spider-Man, topped it with 3.3 million sold in three days. But even with those titles' critical and commercial success, they aren't the source of my optimism about the future of single-player titles. A platform holder like Sony can more easily justify a big budget single-player AAA game for the systems it sells and the good it does the brand. So while I certainly welcome all the success Sony is having with its single-player games, my optimism actually comes more from what I'm seeing elsewhere in the AAA world.
For example, look at Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed games. When last year's Origins launched without a multiplayer component, I assumed it was simply a matter of the company wanting to perfect the foundations of its franchise reboot before throwing resources at building a viable multiplayer on top of it as well. But then this year's Odyssey followed suit with a single-player focus and sold exceedingly well. Perhaps surprisingly, I was also heartened by Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 completely foregoing a single-player mode, to no apparent ill effect on sales.
So why was I happy to see an annualized franchise abandon single-player as an unnecessary luxury and lean into its various multiplayer modes? It's actually the same reason I was happy to see Electronic Arts back off single-player campaigns for Battlefield in favor of smaller-scale War Stories that serve as tutorials prepping people for multiplayer, and the same reason I was happy to see Assassin's Creed drop its multiplayer modes. All of these point towards a shift in the way the big publishers think about AAA games.
Second-hand game sales used to be a much stronger motivation to add multiplayer modes to single-player games
As the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation wore on, AAA publishers embraced a certain approach for their games in the face of rapidly escalating budgets. They released fewer games, put more money into each of them, and tried to make them appeal to as many different corners of the market as possible. The generation saw a host of successful single-player franchises bring multiplayer modes into the fold: Assassin's Creed, Batman: Arkham Asylum, BioShock, Dead Rising, Dead Space, Dragon Age, God of War, Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid, and Ninja Gaiden among them. Some of these new modes were better than others, of course, but I think it's fair to say none grew to become essential components of the franchises in question. And that's not even counting the number of new franchises that sported vestigial multiplayer modes as a matter of course.
The push for multiplayer wasn't solely a way to keep up with the escalating expenses of game development. After all, you could lower your budget significantly by not creating an entirely new multiplayer mode that you know nobody will be playing in a few months anyway. And it wasn't just about maintaining back-of-the-box bullet point parity with the feature sets of successful games (although that was certainly relevant).
It may seem almost quaint in a world where digital distribution is quickly becoming the standard, but used game sales were an oft-bemoaned aspect of the industry for the longest time, and a not insignificant motivation to add multiplayer to a game. If someone could blow through the single-player campaign in a weekend and there's nothing more to do, why not trade it in to get as much of their money back as possible? And if you're GameStop, why sell a new copy of the latest AAA game instead of a used one that nets you a much higher profit margin? So publishers reasonably saw every copy of a new game traded in as one less sale in the long run. Even a tacked-on multiplayer mode could keep some players hanging on to their purchases at least through the crucial first month or so of new sales.
Publishers and platform holders were so concerned with second-hand sales that Microsoft even designed the Xbox One to let publishers prohibit them, a decision that cost it immeasurable good will with consumers and had it chasing Sony before the current console generation even started, even after it reversed its stance. (On a side note, it's amazing to think that was barely five years ago, and now we've got Microsoft willing to not only return to the conversation, but be one of the companies leading it with the ultimate in always-online technology, game streaming.)
In the current industry, a growing variety of projects are commercially viable propositions for AAA developers
So what's really changed now? For one thing, consumer adoption of digital distribution has been swift, and continues to grow. Physical game sales make up a smaller portion of the industry, which means fewer copies to be traded in, and fewer second-hand sales from which the publishers don't see a dime. On top of that, digital storefronts frequently offer deeper discounts on games than their brick-and-mortar counterparts, so purchasing second-hand physical goods can still be more expensive than buying a new game digitally.
And of course, the industry has become much savvier, both about how to monetize games beyond the initial point of purchase, and how to discourage customers trading them back in. Whether through downloadable content, season passes, microtransactions, loot boxes, or some combination of the above, single-player games can bring in additional money and keep discs in the tray for months, even if they lack a standard multiplayer mode.
The bad news is that the digital shift is putting the future of physical games (and retailers thereof) in serious doubt, and undermining any semblance of actual ownership players have over the games they pay for and play. The good news is that in the current industry, single-player games can still be commercially viable propositions for AAA developers. The better news is that more broadly speaking, in the current industry, a growing variety of projects are commercially viable propositions for AAA developers.
Activision certainly has the money to make Call of Duty an "all things to all people" franchise, but it doesn't need to. Ubisoft could staple a multiplayer mode onto the latest Assassin's Creed, but it doesn't absolutely have to do that if the developers don't think it's a good fit. Commercial concerns will always limit the type of experiences companies at the top of the industry's food chain can put big money behind, but 2018 has offered some encouragement on that front. For perhaps the first time in a dozen years or more, those limits may be getting looser.