The Lost Art of Single-Player Gaming

The Lost Art of Single Player Gaming

When you think about classic games, what comes to mind? Chances are titles like Mario Bros., Zelda, Mega Man, Final Fantasy and Sonic the Hedgehog might come to mind.

What do all these games have in common? They are all primarily single-player games. If they had multiplayer, it was just two players, and they took turns. The main focus of the game was on the story.

Now compare them to the most popular games of today. Halo is synonymous with the Xbox. The top-selling title for the month of October was Battlefield 3. Gears of War 3, an Xbox 360 exclusive, was #9 on the list. The Call of Duty juggernaut continues to break records, year after year. Modern Warfare 3 sold 6.5 million copies and generated $400 million in sales in one day, making it the most successful entertainment launch in history. The previous title holder: Call of Duty: Black Ops which bested Modern Warfare 2’s record. Modern Warfare 3 has also set a new Xbox Live record with 3.3 million unique players on one day.

What do those games all have in common? They are all first- or third-person shooters with robust online multiplayer suites.

This begs the question: are single-player games becoming a dying breed in favor of online multiplayer-enabled games?

At first glance, the answer appears to be yes.

Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 were two of the most-anticipated titles of the season. Both earned 9.0 scores from Ign, yet both reviews were critical of each game’s single-player campaign. Here’s what Ign has to say about the story:

“Still, Modern Warfare 3’s campaign suffers from a run of the mill story and the patented Call of Duty monster closet syndrome, a common shooter ailment that occurs when infinitely spawning enemies pour from around corners, doors and stairs without end. At several points enemies even appear to completely disregard their own safety if it means they can run past your allies and just shoot you in the face. The story is difficult to follow as usual, and while it does wrap up the arc begun by the previous Modern Warfare games, it isn’t ultimately all that interesting or satisfying. Moments of emotional weight fell flat as I found it difficult to muster up feelings of sadness about the death of one named soldier after witnessing the countless deaths of hundreds of other Americans.”

The review is two pages long, yet only two paragraphs are devoted to the campaign. Most of the review touches upon the superb multiplayer component of the game.

Battlefield 3 is described much the same way. Ign’s review says that the game “stumbles over a generic single-player campaign that feels like a different game.” The reviewer goes on to add, “While DICE may not deliver a memorable story here, it doesn’t need to when Battlefield 3’s online warfare raises every bar imaginable… I doubt Battlefield purists will complain much about the campaign, honestly; I know you’re enlisting in this battle to bring down entire armies online.”

Even with such mediocre story modes, both games received ratings of “Amazing” from Ign, showing just how little single-player campaigns matter. Like the Battlefield reviewer wrote, people don’t buy these games because they care about the story. They buy them because they enjoy going online and waging virtual combat.

The Rise of Shooters

lost art of single player gaming

The rise of shooters has greatly contributed to the decline of single-player games. Shooters are cash cows. The Call of Duty franchise has done over $6 billion in sales over its lifetime.

The past three Call of Duty titles have each held the record for most successful launch ever. Halo and Gears of War are two of the Xbox’s top franchises. Killzone and Resistance are mainstays for PS3.

Video games are a business. The goal is to make money, and shooters are where the money is. Services like Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network have been wildly successful in large part because of shooters.

Halo 2 really cemented Xbox Live. Millions of people worldwide have invested countless hours leveling up in Call of Duty only to Prestige and do it all over again. Why change something that is working so well?

Even successful single-player games built around their story are adding multiplayer features. Franchises such as Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, and Splinter Cell now have online multiplayer. Mass Effect 3 is going to have some form of multiplayer.

Unfortunately, these efforts often take away from the game. The style of play in multiplayer is completely different than that of the single-player campaign.

Take Assassin’s Creed, for example. The single-player mode is all about stealth and blending into your surroundings. You’re an assassin, after all. You hide in plain sight and sneak in undetected. The online multiplayer is the exact opposite. Players just run around all over the place chasing after each other with no regard for stealth. The aspects that make the game so appealing don’t show up in multiplayer.

Ironically, the rise to prominence of shooters can be traced back to another classic game: Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64.

Goldeneye was really the first FPS to truly succeed on a console, and it boasted a fantastic multiplayer mode that was greatly helped by the N64’s four-player limit. It was easy for groups of friends to get together and play, and unlike previous games, they could all play at the same time.

One-on-one gets old after awhile, especially if one person just dominates everyone, but by opening up multiplayer to more players and offer a slew of customization options (Proximity Mines in the Library, anyone?) Goldeneye not only enhanced its appeal but also laid the foundation for future games and consoles.

All subsequent consoles have had four-player capability. The Xbox took things further with the ability to link several consoles together over a LAN and play with up to 16 players. Halo: Combat Evolved had a terrific single-player campaign, but the game’s multiplayer truly shined. Vehicular combat was a new innovation, but Halo also offered the same deep customization options as Goldeneye. Instead of playing with just three of your friends, you could now wage epic battles with 15 other people.

Halo 2 upped the ante by having Xbox Live support. Instead of having to string wires all over your house to hook up four Xboxes and four TVs, players could simply hop online and play with people around the world. Halo 2 was a huge hit, and it really established Xbox Live. Sony eventually followed suit with the PlayStation Network, and online multiplayer capability soon became a must-have for any shooter.

The Downside of Success

All is not lost, however, for single-player games and their fans. While the success of shooters has been to the detriment of story-driven single-player games, it has also been a big advantage. There are many problems with shooters that single-player games can use to their benefit.

The success of shooters has led to the market being flooded with them as developers each try and cash in on the popularity of the genre. Everyone wants the next Call of Duty, but they end up creating games that are practically clones of each other.

In fact, some analysts claim that most people can’t tell the difference between Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3. Every shooter now seems to have classes and a leveling system featuring unlockable content. Even Bungie, long an innovator in gaming, copied Call of Duty when it added armor abilities, essentially the Halo equivalent of Perks, to Halo: Reach.

In essence, these shooters are basically the same game, and gamers are tiring of seeing the same thing over-and-over again.

A game like Assassin’s Creed, with its historic settings and free-running gameplay, stands out even more against the glut of shooters.

All of this success has also led to a decline in innovation. Call of Duty has been so successful that it’s hard for its developers do much other than tinker with the formula. As I mentioned earlier, why change something that’s been so successful? Fans expect certain things from Call of Duty and will be upset if those things aren’t present in the game.

Playing it safe and not straying far from the tried-and-true makes sense from a business standpoint, as well.

If Infinity Ward takes a risk with Call of Duty that bombs, the backlash would be tremendous. Management could lose their jobs, and the company’s stock price would do down. That’s not something that gamers really think about, but it’s definitely on the mind of those running companies like EA and Activision.

There isn’t much room to innovate, either. Call of Duty’s big innovation was to change its setting. It was a big deal when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out because it was the first Call of Duty game not set during World War II. Medal of Honor and Battlefield were originally set in World War II, but the latest editions of each franchise take place in the modern era.

Now, though, developers are stuck because they can’t use the same trick. Going back in time doesn’t work; try and imagine playing Call of Duty armed with a single-shot Springfield musket that has a rate of fire of 6 shots a minute during the Civil War. The trench warfare used in World War I isn’t conducive to a game, and a game set during the Korean War would be no different than any WWII-themed game since the equipment and weaponry was basically the same. Vietnam isn’t an option.

Call of Duty: Black Ops already covered that era, and it’s also quite similar to the modern era. The M16 was the standard US infantry weapon back then, just as it is now. Trying to make a futuristic game won’t work.

For one, such a game has already been made. It’s called Halo. Plus, Battlefield: 2142 and Frontlines: Fuel of War were both set in the future, and neither game fared well.

It’s hard for unique plot to emerge in shooters, too. Sure, almost every game with a story features good guys versus bad guys, but there is hardly any divergence in shooters. In all of those World War II shooters, it was always the Allies against the Axis. You were either shooting Nazis or Japanese. Modern games have the ubiquitous terrorist or those old stalwart villains, the Russians.

The plot’s always the same: you’re either a soldier participating in historical battles like D-Day or Guadalcanal, or you’re an operator leading a small team trying to stop some sort of vicious attack. The supporting characters don’t really have a lasting impact.

The most memorable supporting character from Modern Warfare was arguably Ghost, due to his mask, and he was killed off.

The Advantages of Single-Player

What single-player games lack in quantity, they make up for in quality. As a result, single-player story games are better than ever. Single-player games don’t face the challenges inherent with shooters and other multiplayer-driven games.

While classics such as Mario and Zelda are still going strong after all these years, advances in consoles have allowed single-player games to reach new heights and achievements. Games can now tell richer, deeper, more fully-developed stories than ever before.

They can create a more vivid experience and connect emotionally with the player. Players have the ability to make choices and play the game the way they want.

Just look at games like Mass Effect or Heavy Rain. Both feature highly-detailed, rich storylines and force the player to make choices. In Mass Effect, you can tailor your character to fit your play style. Not only can you choose from a variety of character classes that can be furthered customized to fit your style, you can choose whether you want to be a paragon of virtue or the intergalactic equivalent of a dirty cop who isn’t above bending the rules.

These new single-player games really make the game your story. With so much choice and customization, no two people are going to have the exact same experience. Fallout 3 might tell the tale of “The Lone Wanderer” as he travels across as a ravaged, post-apocalyptic world, but it’s your personal story.

The player really feels like he or she is a part of the story. It’s unique to them, and they get emotionally involved and attached to the world and its characters. On several occasions in Mass Effect, you have to choose who lives or dies. In Heavy Rain, your actions and choices have far-reaching consequences.

Single-player games also offer a much greater range of stories, environments, and characters. Mass Effect is a gigantic space opera featuring numerous alien races, a variety of cities and worlds, galactic politics, and a multitude of engaging characters ranging from ruthless crime bosses to quirky scientists. Your character sets out to prevent the extermination of all life in the galaxy and is up against seemingly insurmountable odds. On the other end of the spectrum is Assassin’s Creed.

Instead of traveling across the universe in a highly-advanced space vessel, you’re riding across the Holy Land or Renaissance Italy on horseback. You play as an Assassin battling against the Knights Templar, hiding in plain sight and using stealth to carry out your missions as your roam across the rooftops of Rome, Venice, Acre, Jerusalem, and other cities. The wildly-popular Uncharted series follows the adventures of treasure hunter Nathan Drake as he journeys across the globe in pursuit of long-lost treasures and encounters a number of questionable and enigmatic people.

Just look at a game like Grand Theft Auto IV. The Grand Theft Auto series takes a lot of heat for its content (violence, crime, prostitutes, etc.), but it is a storytelling marvel. Unlike other games, you’re actually a bad guy. Your character is a criminal. Your missions involve gang wars, robberies, and drug deals. In GTA IV, you’re an immigrant from Eastern Europe who runs into a whole cast of memorable characters. You can go on dates with women or go out on a night on the town with your buddies.

Liberty City itself is almost a character in the game with all the attention to detail developer Rockstar put into it. The player can pretty much go wherever they want and do whatever they desire. You have choice in how you go about completing your objectives, much more so than you do in Call of Duty or Halo.

The characters are much more memorable in single-player games, too. Quick, name a character from Battlefield 3. What about from Modern Warfare 3? In Call of Duty, you jump around between characters so much that it’s impossible to really get invested in any of them.

Sometimes, a character just shows up for one or two missions and then is gone, like the SAS guy in the UK Modern Warfare 3 levels. Players who Prestige multiple times in Modern Warfare would likely be hard-pressed to name many of the characters from the game.

Meanwhile, anyone who has played Mass Effect remembers Garrus, Wrex, and Tali. Everyone remembers taking Little Jacob to the chicken shack or hanging out with Brucie in Grand Theft Auto IV. Nathan Drake has a strong personality and gets entangled in a love triangle with Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazier, two memorable women in their own right. Ezio Auditore and Leonardo da Vinci made an impression in Assassin’s Creed.

Creativity and innovation are much more prevalent in single-player games.

Take LA Noire, for example. The game, set in 1950s LA, featured ground-breaking advances in motion-capture technology and facial animations. The player had to interrogate suspects and witnesses and determine whether or not they were being truthful.

The game combined innovative new features with an interesting story and unique environment, and while it may not have achieved all of its lofty goals, it was certainly a bold step and something new, not a sequel to a monetarily-successful game released the previous year or two before.

Closing Comments

Upon taking a second, deeper glance, it is evident that single-player aficionados needn’t worry. Single-player games are stronger than ever. Just look towards Skyrim, one of the season’s most-anticipated games, for reassurance. Skyrim sold over 3.5 million copies in its first two days on sale and is expected to earn over $450 million worldwide.

Online multiplayer and its shooter behemoths aren’t going anywhere, but those in search of something different and with substance, or those who just can’t stand hearing a litany of profanity from pre-pubescent youngsters, can take solace in the fact that shooters seem to have hit a wall while single-player games keep pushing the envelope.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, and Skyrim have all been released in the past couple of weeks. Mass Effect 3 is due out March 6, and Grand Theft Auto V was recently revealed. The future looks bright.


This post was originally written in April of 2012 and since it’s December, we are sharing your favorite articles all month long



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Adam Stevinson

Adam Stevinson is a Colorado native and proud graduate of Colorado State University. Baseball was always his first love growing up, and Adam is a die-hard Rockies fan. The Rockies’ run to the pennant in 2007 was the greatest sporting experience of his life, and yes, Holliday touched the plate. Adam’s love of sports extends beyond baseball to include football (both college and the NFL), tennis, and curling. An avid gamer, Adam practically grew up with games. Some of his earliest memories involve watching his brother play Zelda and Metal Gear on the NES. The first game Adam was ever able to defeat his brother was Goldeneye on the N64, and it’s been downhill for The Bro ever since. The Xbox 360 is his preferred console with FPS his genre of choice. Halo is his favorite game. When he’s not engaged in virtual combat or bemoaning the current lack of competence amongst Colorado sports teams, Adam can most likely be found reading, either military history or thrillers. He has a passion for history and loves learning about how the past has shaped the present. Other hobbies include movies, softball, trivia, skiing, and exploring this breathtaking state. He will never turn down a game of ping pong.