It's in danger of becoming a lost art. Video game developers, increasingly focused on community building, cooperative play and massive online interactions, seem to have forgotten the satisfaction of the solo experience.
As once singular experiences give way to more multiplayer, more cooperative gaming, we can't help but wonder: Is the single-player-only game in danger of becoming extinct? And if it is, who's really to blame?
The annual pre-holiday game release flood, now spilling into early 2010 thanks to numerous delays, is filled with marquee multiplayer-driven blockbusters — Modern Warfare 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Halo 3: ODST. It's also filled with brand new names, games from developers who have seemingly capitulated to the rising clamour for more multiplayer.
"[Multiplayer is]the most requested feature we get," says Todd Howard, executive producer of The Elder Scrolls series and Fallout 3 at Bethesda Softworks, so far resistant to the trend this generation. "So we do consider it every time... and every time it loses, but I suppose you never know."
Entering the multiplayer fray soon are titles like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Naughty Dog's sequel to its purely single-player PlayStation 3 debut. The list also includes BioShock 2, due much later, but also based on a title lauded for its story-driven solo experience and Brutal Legend, famed designer Tim Schafer's first stab at a multiplayer game.
Also due this November is the game that could outsell all of those highly anticipated releases, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a four-player cooperative spin on the side-scrolling formula.
While the latest Nintendo platformer may not be the first game in the series to sport a multiplayer component—portable games Super Mario 64 DS and New Super Mario Bros. both featured wireless multiplayer modes in a much more limited capacity—rarely has a Mario Bros. game focused so heavily on cooperative play. Not since, well, the original Mario Bros.
There is some cause for concern for the solo-only player. Massively successful games like Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Valve's Left 4 Dead offered shorter campaign modes in favour of a more robust multiplayer feature set. And StarCraft fans may be more than perturbed about the late release of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, already sliced into three campaigns, largely due to delays with Battle.net, Blizzard's multiplayer service.
If more publishers and developers follow suit in shifting more focus to multiplayer, will the lone wolf suffer?
The addition of multiplayer to games that have relied on their single player strengths is done for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which is that the game buying public has simply come to expect it as a series sequelises and evolves. It's an oft-demanded feature from the community, even in series that tend to be strictly single-player.
While Bethesda's epic role-playing games tend to be limited to solo adventures these days, the developer has flirted with multiplayer in the past, with Howard pointing to games like The Terminator: SkyNET. But he sees the tacking on of multiplayer as a potential distraction.
"With the big RPG stuff, I think adding multiplayer distracts your efforts to put the best massive single player experience you can out there," Howard says. "I'd rather use that development time to make the core experience of being a lone hero better."
That distraction was a common concern among PlayStation 3 owners when Naughty Dog and Sony lifted the veil off Uncharted 2: Among Thieves' multiplayer features. Fans lamented that co-op and deathmatch would ill-fit the game and, worse, could detract from the solo adventures of star Nathan Drake.
"Right at the start of the development of Uncharted 2, we decided that we wanted to create a multiplayer game," explains Richard Lemarchand, co-lead designer at developer Naughty Dog. "During production, the single player and multiplayer designers sat together in the same room, and the majority of the artists, animators and other team members that worked on the multiplayer levels worked on parts of the single player game as well. This meant that the quality bar of each part of the game was constantly being inspired and raised by the other parts of the production, and that everything came together with a really cohesive feel."
Fortunately for fans of the single-player Uncharted: Drake's Fortune campaign, Naughty Dog didn't sacrifice that portion of the game at expense of adding a handful of multiplayer modes. In fact, they offered a longer single-player mode
"We had lots of reasons to [add multiplayer]— we love multiplayer games and really liked the idea of Nathan Drake's play mechanics in that context, we wanted to develop ourselves technologically in an area that we hadn't touched for a few years, and, if we're totally honest, we thought that we might see some bonus sales as a result."
That's one of the other key reasons developers add multiplayer components to their games, to ensure that a consumer looking for something to play beyond the eight to twelve hours needed to complete a solo campaign will still see value in their purchase. It's a feature that publishers hope will dissuade consumers from renting or reselling their games.
Games like Bethesda's Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion help retain their value with much longer campaigns and a regular flow of single-player downloadable content, an alternate solution to the multiplayer extension.
"It comes down to doing whatever you need to do to keep people playing your game for months on end," says Cliff Bleszinski, game designer at Epic Games. "The guys at Bethesda realised this with Fallout and are doing what is essentially episodic content with their expansions. Make them keep the disc and keep the game on their mind. That's the goal."
Even without that after-market, post-campaign content—like Gears of War's regular stream of multiplayer map packs, a tactic that has worked well for the Halo and Call of Duty series—Bleszinksi still believes the single-player game can survive.
"It's still possible for an entirely single player game to do well," he contends. "Look at how Assassin's Creed cleaned up at retail. BioShock did well also, although they're adding a multiplayer component in the sequel."
While successful, the addition of multiplayer to the multi-million unit selling BioShock may be illustrative of the changing expectations of consumers. If there's little to do but replay a narrative-driven campaign, many gamers appear quite happy to resell their discs and move onto the next game.
"The best way to combat people trading in your game is to simply make it better in whatever way works for you," argues Todd Howard. "People trade in cars with poor value. Our DLC is a good way to add to the value of the base game and give folks yet another reason to keep playing."
Or consider Nintendo's solution — add a multiplayer component to just about everything, even if the game has a lone wolf history like Punch-Out!! or Super Mario.
The Wii's online multiplayer capabilities may not be as robust as those offered by Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Steam or Battle.net, but multiplayer matches of two to four people on the same couch, each armed with a Wii Remote, may hold equal appeal to Nintendo's expanded audience. And if Nintendo is selling extra Wii Remotes, they're likely finding it appealing too.
The four-player New Super Mario Bros. Wii one-ups the traditional platformer experience, ensuring that players needn't wait their turn to play as Luigi or be relegated to the simplified co-op present in Super Mario Galaxy.
The success of Wii Sports, Wii Play and Nintendo's ensuing first party titles, with their local multiplayer appeal, may not be limited to just Wii games.
"It's interesting how many people have told us that they played Uncharted: Drake's Fortune with their spouse or another family member in the room, which perhaps marks the arrival of a new and different kind of multiplayer gaming!" notes Naughty Dog's Richard Lemarchand. "I'm partly joking, and partly serious — as games hit higher benchmarks of quality as entertainment, I think we're going to see people finding new ways to enjoy them together in groups, whether it's SingStar parties or an evening in on the couch with some popcorn and Uncharted 2."
That said, Lemarchand says that, at least at Naughty Dog, storytelling is still important. "Even though multiplayer gaming has exploded in popularity in the last few years, and attracted a lot of business interest as a result, I think that single player gaming has a really healthy future."