Reports of the death of single-player games have been greatly exaggerated. Just as with game consoles, for which bells have been tolled countless times in the past few decades, the notion that single-player videogames are a dying breed is a perennial argument that never actually seems to pan out.
Over the years, we’ve seen all manner of things posited as the executioner of the single-player experience: online games, massively multiplayer games, live service games, the metaverse. Each of those things proved successful in their own right (or may do, in the case of the metaverse, just as soon as anyone figures out what it is apart from a boondoggle for billionaires who read Snow Crash once to spaff away their ill-gotten gains on).
None of them killed off single-player games in the process.
Nonetheless, there’s a dance which we occasionally force the CEOs of major game companies to perform, wherein they try to pay lip service to the importance of single-player narrative experiences while straining not to give the impression that they’ve taken their eyes off the giant pot of gold at the end of the live services rainbow.
This week, it was Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson’s turn in the barrel, with the time-honoured signal to start the ritual dance being a question on the company’s earnings call asking about the importance of single-player games and where they fit into EA’s portfolio.
Wilson’s answer was a classic of the genre – responding to a question about single-player games by speaking at length about the importance of creating online communities before actually getting around to saying anything good about single-player games. Chef’s kiss; no notes.
If anything, I wish executives would be a bit more blunt – that a company like EA could grasp the nettle and really just focus on its comfort zone, which is live service games
All joking aside, though, this kind of corporate diplomacy is a very tricky balancing act. Wilson needs to reassure a certain group of the company’s consumers – a minority, but a significant minority – that EA still really cares a lot about single-player experiences, since the publisher’s release pipeline currently includes several major single-player games such as Jedi: Survivor, Dragon Age 4, and the upcoming remake of Dead Space.
Yet he also knows that the company’s investors want to hear that EA is laser-focused on executing in the live service games space, which they consider (not unfairly) to be a much more profitable, high-growth sector.
Consequently, Wilson did what most executives do when they’re put on the spot with this topic – he dissembled. He talked about the various motivations that the company is targeting in its audience (mentioning inspiration, escape, social connection, competition, self-improvement, and creation), and discussed the importance of building worlds and telling stories in that context.
But he went on to talk at length about the importance of developing global online communities, before circling back around to say that there are some circumstances where a single-player game, rather than an online game, might be the best approach to engaging players and fulfilling their motivations.
It's not the most full-throated endorsement of single-player games, but it’s not my intention to drag Andrew Wilson here – the balancing act he’s being asked to perform on this topic is tricky. He knows, just as we do, that around three quarters of EA’s revenue comes from live service games, and he knows that that’s where the company expects to see almost all of its future growth.
He also knows that EA has a lot of IP whose fans would go nuts at the notion of the company no longer caring about single-player games – Konami’s name is still dirt to a hell of a lot of consumers after they tried to pull completely out of single-player game development a few years back – and he knows some of the single-player titles in the pipeline have the potential to be pretty successful, even if they’ll be dwarfed by live services in terms of their actual contribution to the bottom line.
Ultimately, given his audience of investors and analysts, he gave as good and balanced an answer as anyone could expect.
If anything, I wish companies and executives would be a bit more blunt about this issue – that a company like EA could grasp the nettle and really just focus on its comfort zone, which is live service games, and sell off or license the IP that’s better suited to single-player games to other companies that want to focus on that side of the market.
There is still an enormous market for single-player titles – I saw this as a fairly typical 40-something with more disposable income for buying games than I ever had when I was younger, paired with such an extraordinary lack of interest in playing most online or live service games that the very notion gives me sudden onset narcolepsy.
On a personal level, I hate the notion that in future all games could be inherently live service, with single-player titles as a dying breed – but I also recognise that it’s inherently unrealistic. Just like game consoles, whose premature obituaries have been written for decades even as every successive hardware generation outperformed the last, single-player games remain in rude health commercially.
They may be overshadowed by the rise of new forms of play – live services, smart devices, and so on – but they’ve continued down a steady growth path of their own, and the economics of making a good quality single-player game remain very solid and well-founded.
The real problem facing single-player games – and the issue playing out when companies like EA make decisions over these games and their development priorities – is opportunity cost.
The real problem facing single-player games is opportunity cost
If a company is able to turn a dollar of development budget into ten dollars of revenue by spending it on a live service game, then the ability to turn it into five dollars by spending it on a single-player game is actually a bad deal – even though that remains a solid, profitable business when taken in isolation.
A company like EA that’s had some live service hits and fully swallowed the prevailing conventional wisdom that this is The Future Of Gaming is inevitably going to find it hard to prioritise any kind of single-player development effort – which increasingly just looks like an investment with lower returns.
I’m not entirely on board with that Future of Games mantra – not just because I’m a consumer who doesn’t like live service games, but also because I think there are some quite unrealistic expectations and unjustifiable optimism around the future performance of these titles.
There has, in my view, been a vast overestimation of how many of those games the market will sustain, and an underestimation of a risk of a crash in that business model in the coming years. Nonetheless, if you accept the profitability of live service titles and hand-wave away some of the risk, it’s very easy to see what choice a company executive in that position should be making.
Yet it’s also a reality that not every company can, or wants to, operate live service and online games – and there’s still plenty of money to be made in creating and selling good-quality single-player games, which means that there will still be companies who focus on this kind of game. In fact, a divide within the industry along these lines is probably inevitable, given time.
Inevitably, the companies which choose to focus on live services will be bigger and more profitable, but they will also be exposed to more risk
The demands of live services – not just in terms of ongoing development, but also in terms of infrastructure, financing, and the corporate structure needed to support the service – are radically different from the demands of developing and selling single-player games. This means that the rationale for actually splitting those competencies broadly into different companies with clear specialisations is going to become increasingly clear.
Inevitably, the companies which choose to focus on live services will be bigger and more profitable – but they will arguably also be exposed to a lot more risk. For companies specialising in single-player games, the risks will be lower, but so will the rewards; nonetheless, it will be a solid and effective business to be in.
If and when that kind of split does emerge, however, we’ll have to wave farewell to the ritualised verbal gymnastics of CEOs who are trying to build live service businesses being forced to figure out a way to pay lip service to single-player games on their earnings calls.