Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen two major developments regarding the fate of the AAA single player game. First, God of War launched to massive sales and near-universal praise from both critics and fans. Its combination of solid gameplay, semi-open structure, impressive acting, compelling story and drop-dead gorgeous presentation all came together to remind gamers of what a modern AAA game can be. Yet, God of War is an anomaly in the modern AAA space. Not just because it’s a single player experience, but also because it incorporated none of the practices that have come to define high-end gaming; no multiplayer, no DLC, no microtransactions, no rushed development and no major problems at launch. As modern and breathtaking as it is, God of War is a throwback to the previous generation of games, where such games were not so uncommon.
More recently, we had the full reveal of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, a game that is showing full and complete submission to the current trends and standard practices, even to the point of scrapping its single-player campaign due to time constraints and the desire to capitalize on the battle royale trend. While the likes of microtransactions have yet to be confirmed, the game has almost certainly been structured to take advantage of them. Upon its launch, players should not be surprised when they find a cash shop just like the one in Fortnite despite having had to already pay the $60 premium price tag plus that of the ever-present $30-$40 season pass. Unlike Sony or Microsoft, who have the clear benefit of increased console sales to justify making something like a God of War, major publishers Activision no longer have any interest in throwing a modern AAA budget behind anything they can’t easily and heavily monetize. While there are other factors, this is the chief reason behind the major publishers’ desire to move away from single-player experiences and why they want us to believe that we don’t want them. It just doesn’t pay to make them with a modern budget. The thing is, though, we do want them. Many gamers out there still want them and are willing to pay for them. The market is there and making them doesn’t need to be painful; all these major publishers need to do is develop a willingness to budget accordingly rather than treat them with the same all-or-nothing attitude they employ for the likes of Call of Duty.
God of War was a treat due in no small part to its incredible presentation and the production values poured into it, but most single-player games need to be made on that scale. As Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice proved, they can be made on a fraction of the budget behind most modern AAA games, even less if the publisher would be willing to sacrifice a bit on the visual front. Actually, publishers don’t even need to look at Hellblade for an example of how these games could be handled. Right up until the end of the previous console generation, there was a type of game that existed between the low-budget indie title and the blockbuster, AAA experience. These were the middle-shelf games and they are exactly where single-player experiences can thrive in the coming years.
The major video game publishers all love to cry and complain about how expensive it is to make a modern AAA game. Even developers like Remedy have gone on record complaining about how costly modern development has become and how difficult it is to meet the demands gamers are supposedly placing upon them.
“The reality is the traditional AAA single-player experience is just really expensive to make. The expectation level from gamers is really high in terms of how long the game is, what sort of features it has, how good the production values are. All those things are very expensive to do.” – Thomas Puha, Head of Communications for Remedy Entertainment via GamesIndustry.biz
Now, there’s no denying that making a modern AAA experience is extremely expensive. When development costs for games like Destiny or Call of Duty: WWII run into the hundreds of millions, it becomes difficult to refute such claims. It even becomes understandable that they’d want to do everything they can to get as much return as possible upon such investments. That said, one can’t help but wonder who it is that’s demanding such games. Gamers enjoy them and it may be true that the casual audience only wants the biggest and flashiest games available, but members of the core audience are often much more concerned with how well a game plays than they are with its overall presentation. Why not offer a line of products developed with that in mind?
Why not look at the laundry list of cult-classics that’s developed over the years? Games like Psychonauts, Singularity, Nier and the first Dead Space weren’t visual spectacles nor were they massive commercial successes, but they proved popular enough with the core audience to make their creators a bit of money. Not a massive amount of money, but enough money to turn a profit. With so much money coming in from games like Madden and Destiny, wouldn’t it make sense to also develop smaller games aimed at a smaller audience and budgeted accordingly? If nothing else, it would go a long way towards showing the most avid gaming hobbyists that they too are seen as valuable customers.
Even marketing these games could be done on the cheap. Many if not most core gamers don’t care about commercials and the like, so all it would take to get these games into their minds would be a handful of trailers and the usual run of interviews and preview pieces that most games media outlets are all too happy to publish.
If making a single-player game on a modern AAA budget truly is too expensive for most publishers to justify, then they simply need to adjust their approach to them rather than abandon such games outright. Leave the massive budgets to the Battlefields, Maddens, Destinys and Call of Dutys, the games that live and die based on casual sales. In turn, take the traditional single-player experiences so many of us love and yearn for, turn them into middle-shelf games and develop them on a budget that makes sense for the size of the target audience. Game development doesn’t just have to be all-or-nothing affair; it can be everything in between too. It might even work out better that way too, for both the gamer and the game developer.