Finding a Place for the Linear Single-Player Experience

Finding a Place for the Linear Single-Player Experience

STARTING SCREEN | The linear single-player game isn't dead, but it is on the struggle.

When it comes to single-player or multiplayer gaming, I wouldn't say I have a clear preference. I enjoy linear single-player games like the Uncharted series, but I also play massively-multiplayer games like World of Warcraft and competitive multiplayer titles like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. I find myself pulled in different directions depending on my mood; sometimes I want to experience a grand, finite tale, other times I just want to shoot another player.

Towards the end of last year, there were warning bells for the single-player side of things. "Gone are the days in which single-player games were of primary status and multiplayer games secondary," said Square Enix in an annual company report. Bethesda found that its very solid single-player offerings, including Wolfenstein 2, Prey, Evil Within 2, and Dishonored 2, weren't performing as strongly as expected. This led to an ad campaign where the publisher talked about saving single-player games. Electronic Arts also cancelled Visceral Games' planned linear, story-driven Star Wars game, to pivot towards a "broader experience". This killed the studio as well.

Visceral's Star Wars game is moving in another direction, at another studio.

The lead on that project was Amy Hennig, director and writer for Uncharted, Uncharted 2, Uncharted 3, and Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. It was the thing that she moved over to Electronic Arts to work on, and now it's gone. In an interview with Campo Santo founder Sean Vanaman over at Polygon, Hennig talked about the shift within the industry.

"Obviously what happened with our Star Wars project didn't come out of the blue. A lot of too-dramatic articles were written about it - the death of linear story games and all that kind of stuff - but look, there is a real problem: this line we've been running up to for a lot of years, which is the rising cost of development, and the desires, or the demands even, of players in terms of hours of gameplay, fidelity, production values, additional modes, all these things. Those pressures end up very real internally. If it costs you, say, $100 million or more to make a game, how are you making that money back, and making a profit?" said Hennig.

"And the $60 price point can't change, right? There's a lot of negative press around monetization, loot boxes, games as a service, etc., but these things are trending now in the industry, especially for larger publishers, as an answer to the problem of rising development costs. Budgets keep going up, the bar keeps getting raised, and it starts making less and less sense to make these games," she added. "There is also this trend now that, as much as people protest and say, 'Why are you canceling a linear, story-based game? This is the kind of game we want,' people aren't necessarily buying them. They're watching somebody else play them online."

Hennig and Vanaman go on to talk about the expectations within the AAA gaming space-the linear Firewatch sold a few million copies, but the same number of copies for Tomb Raider is a failure-but this idea of making single-player games work financially for major publishers is an ongoing discussion. It's the cause behind a number of shifts within the industry.

Square Enix keeps adding to Final Fantasy XV, to keep players playing.

There's a slow infection creeping up on single-player games, including the Season Pass, microtransactions, loot boxes, and more. You can look at the last year and it's everywhere. Persona 5 has a whole host of costume downloadable content (DLC). Since launch, Final Fantasy XV has seen a Season Pass and a number of purchasable outfits and weapons; Square Enix just announced the Royal Edition, which seems to mark a second season of DLC. Monolith grafted an entire loot box system onto Middle-Earth: Shadow of War that rears its ugly head most during the grindy post-game.

Even if the microtransactions and downloadable content haven't taken over a game, this shift is changing single-player games as a whole. The open-world concept in gaming offers a whole world of stuff for players to do for a very long time. It's repeatable quests or a host of items to collect, stretched out over what's likely a very high fidelity world. Last year saw Assassin's Creed Origins, Horizon Zero Dawn, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, Agents of Mayhem, Need for Speed: Payback and more. Even Nintendo got into the action: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was the first open-world Zelda, and Super Mario Odyssey isn't open-world, but it offered over 900 moons for players to collect.

I wrote about this shift way back in 2014 in an article entitled, "Rise of the Lifestyle Game: Gaming as Your Second Job". It was about games that keep you playing forever. Lifestyle games are about engagement, keeping the player tied to game over the course of months or even years. (Grand Theft Auto V is still on the NPD Group's monthly Top 10 chart years later.) If you're still playing, you're more likely to buy an additional costume, pick up a loot box, or purchase that Season Pass.

Breath of the Wild's Season Pass adds more story, more dungeons, more costumes, and even the Master Cycle.

Even if they don't explicitly ask you for you open up your wallet with DLC or microtransactions, keeping you engaged means you're not spending money on the competition and you're more likely to purchase the next game from the same publisher. You'll see this over in sports games, where NBA 2K not only offers microtransactions, but it also keeps EA Sports shut out because players are married to the series. (And EA keeps messing up on the NBA side of things.) Once you have the momentum, it's easier to keep a player along for the ride.

In the growth of these trends, the problem with linear, single-player games is eventually they're done. Prey can be finished in around 15 hours. I enjoyed my time with it, but there was no real reason to go back, except to maybe see some of the other story options. Whereas, I play Final Fantasy XIV and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds on a regular basis, and the more I play, the more chances they have to get money from me. I jump back to Assassin's Creed Origins and Breath of the Wild to continue chipping away at those huge worlds. As part of that process, I'm more likely to pick up the Season Passes for those games. Even if I don't, the fact that I'm playing those games means I'm not playing something else, and I'm more likely to get my friends playing.

I don't think linear, single-player experiences are dead, otherwise titles like Nier: Automata wouldn't exist. I do think that perhaps they don't always make a ton of sense at major publishers. The open-world game has sort of taken over that spot in AAA, offering a semi-linear story, but also reasons for the player to keep playing. Regardless, behind all of this is a bigger question about financial sustainability for AAA titles, one I'm certainly not equipped to solve over the course of a single editorial. Hopefully, like certain genres have found themselves new life in crowdfunding, linear single-player games can find their niche in the industry.

Looking Ahead to the Rest of the Week

It's the first really busy week of 2018, and some of the games being release have a shot of defining the year going forward. Here's what to expect.

  • The Red Strings [January 22]: It's flying under the radar a bit compared to a number of other indies coming out this week, but this cyberpunk adventure game by Devolver Digital is getting some love from reviewers. You can find it on PC via Steam, GOG, and Humble Bundle for a 15 percent off launch discount through January 30.
  • Iconoclasts [January 23]: Iconoclasts finally launches on PS4, PC, and Vita this week. Bifrost Entertainment's action platformer has been in development since 2010, and it's already garnering praise in some quarters. Hopefully the long wait was worth it.
  • Celeste [January 25]: The creators of Towerfall and Skytorn return with this intriguing platformer for Switch, PS4, and PC. Featuring simple but charming visuals, it leans heavily on its dash mechanic, with difficulty roughly on par of Super Meat Boy. Even if you find yourself shying away from its high difficulty level, its pedigree makes it worth a look.
  • Dragon Ball FighterZ [January 26]: Who knew that a Dragon Ball Z fighting game would garner so much attention? Arc System Works' stylish fighter exploded off the screen when it was announced last year, and the hype has only grown in the months since. Reviews have been strong and interest is high. Expect our thoughts once we get to see the online servers in the wild.
  • Monster Hunter World [January 26]: The first big release of 2018 is Capcom's Monster Hunter World: their bid to make the Japanese favorite a truly global series. The move to PS4 and Xbox One puts the series firmly in front of mainstream gamers, and initial impressions have been strong. Have we already found this year's co-op darling? It's not out of the realm of possibility.

Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: Driftveil City from Pokemon Black / White

Though I don't discriminate when it comes to Pokemon generations (i.e. you won't catch me screaming "GENWUN ONLY!" anytime soon), I'm damned if I can remember much about Pokemon Black and White. I didn't hate the games or anything like that; I can recall I liked them just fine. They just didn't imprint on my memory as indelibly as Pokemon Red and Blue, X and Y, or Sun and Moon. I'm not a big fan of Black and White's Legendaries, though, so that might be the problem.

I am, however, a fan of Black and White's soundtrack. I have few organic memories of the game's songs, but Internet radio stations have refreshed my memory. I particularly dig the theme for Driftveil City. It doesn't waste time. Just listen to that bass line and those … drum brushes? Are those drum brushes? I want to say "yes."

Driftveil City is a busy port town, and I suppose the urgent tempo of the music conveys that point. This is a song that says "Get the hell off the pier if you're not loading cargo, kid. And take your stupid-looking otter with you."

Caty’s AltGame Corner

Celeste, the new platformer from Towerfall creators Matt Makes Games, releases this Thursday, January 25. I finished it over the weekend, and you'll be able to read my review in all its glory later this week. In the meantime, for this week's AltGame Corner I'd like to recommend the humble origins of Celeste: as a browser-based 128x128 square, 16-color game for the Pico-8, a faux-virtual console that's meant to be a throwback to older arcade games.

The Celeste that will be releasing across PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One is a much meatier game, but if you want a small taste of what the game has to offer, this bite-sized original version of Celeste is a great place to start. You can play the Pico-8 version of Celeste on itch.io from your browser.

This Week's News and Notes

  • As we mentioned above, Dragon FighterZ reviews started dropping earlier today, and they've been very positive. Naturally, Arc System Works is happy.
    Is that an affectionate burn on Dragon Ball Z? It sure feels like a burn.
  • Dragon Ball FighterZ isn't even out yet and already the most pertinent question is being asked: how bad is the loot box system? According to Polygon, not too bad.
  • Yuji Naka's move to Square Enix has already prompted plenty of jokes about Sonic wearing an excessive number of belts, but it's still an intriguing move for a veteran developer.
  • The original SteamWorld Dig will soon be joining its sequel and SteamWorld Heist on the Nintendo Switch. We thought it was pretty great when it first came out on the Nintendo DS.
  • As revealed by Polygon, MLB Advanced Media is making RBI Baseball 18. The series has been pretty bad to this point, but it does include the intriguing ability to import fresh rosters on top of an established franchise. Are the rest of the big sports devs watching?
  • Nintendo Labo was announced last week, briefly setting the Internet aflutter with promises of video game boxcraft. It could be a gimmick, or it could be the next step for the nearly defunct toys-to-life genre. Regardless, it bears watching as one of 2018's potential "big things" for the casual audience.
  • In case you missed it: Nadia took a look back on Stardew Valley and talked about why it's so successful on the Nintendo Switch. Meanwhile, guest writer Doc Burford took a hard look at why Titanfall 2's best level isn't Effect and Cause.
  • Axe of the Blood God: The latest episode of our RPG podcast officially kicked off the Cosmic Star Heroine Report! Listen as Kat and Nadia talk about characters, music, and battle system in this charming little indie RPG. Subscription details are through the link (you can listen to the episode through there, too).
  • And finally, it's an extremely busy week for games. What are you planning on picking up? We'd love to know! As always, thanks for supporting USgamer, and we look forward to another excellent week with you all.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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