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Demise of single-player games overstated, says Dishonored dev

Harvey Smith thinks concerns are a side effect of market expansion, hopes studios specialize more due to higher dev costs

There's been a lot of doom and gloom surrounding single-player games this generation. They're dying. They're a gimmick. They're harder to make money with. Consumers simply don't want them. At the same time, the single-player The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim dominated the awards season last year, and the similarly solo title Dishonored just won the Game of the Year award at last week's BAFTAs. (Interestingly, both games were published by Bethesda.)

Speaking with GamesIndustry International after the BAFTA win, Arkane Studios' Harvey Smith said he's heard the critiques about single-player games, but hasn't put too much stock in them.

"What people say each cycle is, 'Fill-in-the-blank is the new thing.' And if you're old enough, you remember when it was live-action video games," Smith said. "At another point it was MMOs. At another it was social games. At another it was multiplayer shooters. And none of those things are bad; they're all great. But what the reality seems to be is we keep adding types of games and finding new player groups for those. The market seems to be expanding."

"What the reality seems to be is we keep adding types of games and finding new player groups for those. The market seems to be expanding."

Harvey Smith

He pointed to the real-time strategy genre, which is generally considered moribund, but spawned the thriving DOTA phenomenon.

"It seems like our attention focuses on the new thing, but in reality, there are still plenty of people that like a particular kind of game," Smith said. "Every time someone announces the death of the single-player game, something like The Sims or BioShock Infinite comes along and does different things well. So far we haven't capped out. It's not like DOTA fans are buying DOTA and not playing Skyrim, or buying Dishonored and therefore not buying Madden. I think there's a bunch of different audience types and we haven't even hit the limit yet."

That doesn't mean every genre will stay the same. Smith noted that games used to be played a quarter at a time, and business models aren't about to stop evolving. Right now, he said every friend he has in the industry is grappling with how to make free-to-play games that aren't exploitative, even the ones that aren't actually working on free-to-play games.

"People will find designs that players love in that area," Smith said. "And I have faith players will let people know where they're willing to go and where they're not willing to go."

Smith also talked about player feedback on Dishonored, and whether he's heard calls for a multiplayer version of the title.

Smith has heard some clamoring for Dishonored multiplayer, but much more gratitude for the single-player focus.

"I hear everything," Smith said. I get tweets back to back that are, 'Oh my God I never saw that twist coming,' and 'Oh my God I saw that twist a mile away.' They're, 'Oh my God I love how blink worked' and 'Oh my God I hate how blink worked.' You just have to look at the bulk."

While Smith acknowledged hearing people ask for multiplayer, he said he'd heard people thank the team for making the single-player game the way they made it much more frequently.

"I hope there's some specialization happening and people are going to have to do one thing well or three things well instead of trying to do the same 12 things everyone else is doing."

Harvey Smith

Beyond having the successful models of games like Skyrim and Dishonored to follow, other developers could be also be encouraged to make single-player only games by the realities of business.

"God, I kinda hope so," Smith said when asked if the rising cost of development might force studios to specialize instead of attempting to be all things to all gamers. "I do know the days when some other publisher I won't name but was less happy with would be pushing a Flags mode on us or something like that. And we were like, we're doing two original things over here and we'd really like to double down on those because then players could tell us whether they thought that was cool or not. But we don't think they're going to be jazzed about, 'Oh and by the way we also added Flags.'

"So I hope people are specializing and going deeper on given mechanics. And I actually hope it gets to the point where there are so many people competing--indie developers or commercial developers--and they're so good at this one thing they do that in order to win, you have to differentiate. You have to do something well that the other guy's not doing. That'd be nice, right? Instead of a handful of games that all try to do the same thing, I hope there's some specialization happening and people are going to have to do one thing well or three things well instead of trying to do the same 12 things everyone else is doing."

Despite the BAFTA win, Smith and Arkane are not resting on their laurels. The next Dishonored add-on, The Knife of Dunwall, releases April 16. A third and final add-on, The Brigmore Witches, has not yet been dated.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.

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