With monetization processes under scrutiny following the Battlefront II saga and its subsequent effect on EA’s share price, the gaming community has begun to lament the decision by many AAA developers to move away from linear gameplay with developed story lines. Consequently many are now calling for greater focus on single-player focused formats to renew what seems to be a lack of creativity and original content coming from larger publishers. From an artistic perspective, this is a positive step. As an art form, gaming is currently within what many consider to be a golden age, with titles such as Cuphead and Zelda: Breath of the Wild breaking new ground in gameplay and design while also (perhaps tellingly) being single player focused experiences. However, as game development costs at the top continue to rise while retail prices remain steady around the $60 mark, many are questioning not only the profitability of linear games but, more importantly, whether gamers still want to buy them in large numbers.
The issue of development costs and its consequences for linear game development recently came to a head during an interview with Amy Hennig, former creative director of Naughty Dog and one of the key architects of the Uncharted franchise. She referenced that despite the negative response from gamers to additional monetization systems such as loot boxes and games-as-a-service models, these strategies “are trending now in the industry, especially for larger publishers, as an answer to the problem of rising development costs”. She further stated that this issue was being compounded by “the desires, or the demands even, of players in terms of hours of gameplay, fidelity, production values, additional modes, all of these things”. In short, unless people are willing to accept retail price increases, multiplayer focused game models and additional monetization will continue to take priority over linear single-player experiences.
While this explains some of the economic impetus behind a reduction in AAA linear games, it doesn’t address a more hidden and perhaps critical issue facing story-based single-player; the fact that a lot of gamers just want to watch linear games, not play them.
To be clear, this isn’t to say gamers don’t want to experience a story-driven game at all, but that they’d be more comfortable taking a passive role in the gameplay rather than interacting directly. Perhaps the biggest cause of this trend is the rise of streaming and let’s-play channels. Unless you’re particularly anal about the way you want to conduct yourself in a single-player game (something I am occasionally guilty of), there is little difference between playing through a story yourself and watching someone else. Horror games suffer from this issue of ‘player passivity’ more acutely than other genres. Watching someone else navigate a scary environment will always be easier than forcing yourself to directly experience fear. This creates a disincentive for developers to create linear games if there is a high chance portions of the market won’t bother spending money on the game when they can achieve a fairly similar experience for free via YouTube or Twitch streams. The other pitfall is that while many single-player experiences are amazing and can leave deep emotional and artistic impressions on an audience, their replayability is fairly limited. This leads to a situation by which the kind of indirect marketing streamers can bring to less story focused, online multiplayer games is completely lost for single-player titles, instead serving as a reduction in sales potential. From this angle, the attitude of companies like Nintendo regarding online streaming of their games becomes more sympathetic as a tactic to preserve market demand for their content.
This issue as it stands seems difficult to resolve, with both sides of the developer/consumer divide caught between a demand for content and a desire to preserve marketability. With this in mind, it is perhaps necessary for either some form of paid stream licensing framework or far stricter controls from publishers for content showcasing to be put into effect. However, with suspicion of AAA developer practices reaching a high point among the community, more restriction would likely serve to alienate players even more.
We already know that story-driven single-player titles retain immense popularity among gamers, so perhaps it is time to put our money where our mouth is and financially support the development and release of linear story games beyond that of indie kickstarters. For AAA developers, as much as we may find it distasteful, the economic potential of a game format will continue to influence the amount of resources directed toward it. In short, if you want more games like Wolfenstein and Dark Souls, you will have to provide the economic incentive for developers to create that kind of content.