In the future, there may not be any more single-player games — but that doesn't mean what we seem to think it does every time some big publisher opens its big mouth and tells us that single-player games are dead. Epic, story-driven campaigns aren't going away; it's just that new forms of multiplayer are evolving in tandem with those experiences, rather than in opposition to them.
Developers are exploring this new frontier in gaming, and it's the most exciting thing in the gaming world right now.
At Bungie's Seattle press conference for Destiny, the Halo creators hinted that they've redefined the concept of the main menu. What I took from that was that in the future, we won't have to choose between "single player" and "multiplayer" when we're starting a game. It's all going to be the same thing, and nothing will be sacrificed to accomplish this. Games will only become more immersive as time goes on and this principle is widely adopted.
Dead Space 3 provides a great example of this. The series had already done a decent job of integrating most menus into the play experience; opening your inventory projects a hologram in front of the characters' faces and doesn't pause the game, and their health is illustrated by lights integrated into their armour. It's progressive.
But Dead Space 3 went much further by integrating multiplayer directly into the campaign experience. It did away with Dead Space 2's competitive deathmatches (by now it's clear to most involved that shoehorning competitive multiplayer into games that don't need it isn't pleasing anyone). Instead, a second player can jump into a friend's solo game at any checkpoint throughout the campaign. The story adapts, the game folds into itself, and suddenly you're not alone. It's really kind of amazing. And as was noted in Kotaku's Dead Space 3 review, it makes the game better.
Why go to the trouble of creating a totally separate campaign just for co-op, like what Ubisoft did for Far Cry 3? Would the main storyline really have suffered if Jason's friends had occasionally picked up a flamethrower and lent him a hand burning down pot fields? Instead, a whole lot of effort was put into a secondary story with little worth of its own, its only value in the very fact that it was a cooperative experience.
The Halo games played a large part in spearheading co-op in console shooters, and now Bungie is aiming to take things several steps further. You'll be able to play solo in Destiny if you want to; they've been clear on that fact. But I believe you'll be missing out, because playing with other humans sounds like it will be the real adventure. And according to the vision that Bungie has shared so far, it will happen effortlessly, with matchmaking taking place in the background and other players popping in and out of your world organically. Their goal is to make the seams all but invisible. It's the same thing thatgamecompany did with Journey, where other players would naturally appear in your game — and you in theirs — only on a much larger scale.
At the press conference, Bungie co-founder Jason Jones asked, "How do we take this genre that we love so much — the first-person shooter — and turn it on its head?" But they're not just innovating in the shooter space. I think they're contributing to a larger trend that will eventually overtake the entire medium.
It's all about the human element. That's a large part of what's so good about Dark Souls and Demon's Souls. I put 50 or so hours into Skyrim and got bored, but I've spent hundreds of hours in the Souls games, which are technically much smaller. I've been over the exact same environments countless times; I know by heart the location of every enemy and treasure. Yet I keep going back for more, because the human players that invade my world or summon me to theirs make it feel fresh every single time. That's what's going to make games exciting moving forward — not better graphics or gimmicky control schemes, but that irreplaceable human element. It's everything that's good about MMOs, but applied across the board in every genre.
And it's happening all over the place. The Arma 2 zombie survival mod Day Z took the industry by storm from the bottom up last year, inspiring compelling, unpredictable narratives about experiences between players that could never be replicated by AI, no matter how advanced it gets. And though I can't be sure, it sounds like Crytek is espousing some of the same principles with its upcoming free-to-play shooter Warface (it's big in Russia), which will be integrated with a new social platform called GFACE; in an interview with VentureBeat, CEO Cevat Yerli said that "the only place where you're alone [in GFACE] is on the login screen. Once you're logged in, you're in a realtime ecosystem."
Yerli called Warface "the world's first social FPS game," which to me sounds like an echo of Bungie's made-up genre label for Destiny: the "shared world shooter."
Some of what I'm saying here is hypothetical. Destiny could turn out awful, and Warface might be more freemium crap. But that doesn't temper my excitement at the idea of seamless, persistent multiplayer becoming the norm.
To be able to play together without having to shoot one another in the face or actively seek out co-op partners is going to be a game changer. It's a bold new frontier, and one that's dependent on technology keeping up with the industry's wistful ambitions. But the rewards when our play experiences burst through the barriers between our separate screens, houses, countries, and worlds, without us ever realising how gargantuan that accomplishment really is, will be well worth whatever growing pains are necessary to get there.