The rumors about the death of story mode are greatly exaggerated
A few years ago, many were predicting that single-player campaigns in big budget games were on the way out. Developers were confronted with data showing that many players don’t reach the end of single-player games, and high profile titles like Titanfall and Evolve were announced that didn't have any kind of single-player story mode.
And yet...The Witcher 3 was one of last year’s best-selling titles. Games like Doom, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, and more seem to show a continued support for single-player experiences. And as Andrew Reiner noted in a provocative Game Informer op-ed on this topic, at E3 this year, EA will showcase a sequel to Titanfall that’s confirmed to have a single-player mode.
So were these predictions wrong? Not necessarily.
We talked to developers and looked over some data to get some insight about this trend. We discovered that the factors that led some to predict the downfall of single-player experiences in triple-A games had a definite impact on game development...just not the impact that was predicted.
Multiplayer gradually became a more important feature
While predictions about single-player were everywhere in the press, developers tell us that they noticed smaller, simpler signs of multiplayer development creeping up on single-player.
Developer Matthew Burns has worked on the Call of Duty and Halo franchises, both of which are deeply invested in developing robust single-player and multiplayer modes. He describes attitudes in development as not necessarily favoring one mode over another, but trying to reconcile the resources needed to create some of the industry’s biggest mass-market titles. “Most people I worked with understood the value of supporting both single and multiplayer modes,” Burns says.
“There were some individual team members who were highly invested in multiplayer and who wondered why so many resources were spent on campaign," he says. "But historically, multiplayer was sometimes an afterthought in these larger games because multiplayer was understood to be for only very hardcore players.”
Burns' experience was between 2004 and 2012, and he witnessed multiplayer modes becoming larger and larger in hopes of gaining a bigger mass audience. Tom Abernathy worked at Microsft during the same time period. He says his narrative department saw game after game getting cut around the time of the release of Halo: Reach in 2010.
“It seemed a little odd,” Abernathy remarks, “since there was a new console that we were moving towards launching, and presumably it needed content. Only after a while did I sort of begin to pick up on the fact that the economics of the genre was starting to evolve in ways that meant that the industry was changing.”
To Abernathy, this was Microsoft making a statement that it didn’t see a big enough return on investment in big story-centric single-player games. And when it became clear that a major release like Titanfall would hit stores with no a single-player mode and only supporting multiplayer, he worried that this was going to be the future of his work.
But story-driven single-player campaigns did not die out
When asked if there were any trends about large games releasing without a story modes from 2011 to present, EEDAR’s Sartori Bernbeck could only name a handful, including Evolve, Titanfall, and Rocket League. (That's barring the MMORPGs, mobile MMOs, and MOBA expansion of this time period.)
This isn’t to say there wasn’t a growth in multiplayer-centric titles during this time. After all, this was when blockbusters like Hearthstone and League of Legends and the entire mobile online RPG genre took off. But despite that explosion, major publishers never could seem to abandon single-player games.
As Bernbeck points out, there was a slightly more nuanced trend unfolding. Single-player games thrived, but multiplayer modes tied to large single-player franchises? They dropped like a rock.
EEDAR's data reflects an industry's trend of supporting standalone, mid-sized single-player games such as Wolfenstein: The New Order, the Batman Arkham series, and more. Even a blockbuster franchise like Assassin's Creed did away with competitive multiplayer during this period.
This trend hasn’t been without consequences. The cutting of multiplayer modes was accompanied by multiple studio closures. Bioshock Infinite had its mutliplayer mode excised before release, and Irrational Games underwent a major restructuring and downsizing following its release. There were also several games that launched with underdeveloped multiplayer from studios that weren’t entirely prepared for the task. (You may recall that Spec Ops: The Line developer Cory Davis referred to his game's multiplayer development as a "cancerous growth.")
Spec Ops: The Line
In short, when the industry thought its future lay in developing broader multiplayer at the expense of single-player, reality led it to slice away the less-favored multiplayer modes. But that still doesn't leave developers with clear answers about what to do about players not finishing game scenarios that they invest so much time and money into designing.
Ultimately, stories have seeped into many aspects of multiplayer-centric games
Here though, Abernathy sees a possible supporting reason for why the rise of multiplayer-centric genres like MOBAs and hero shooters have been so character-driven.
When Abernathy was still at Microsoft, he says that he saw a lot of survey data from the internal research team suggesting that despite the fact that many did not play games to completion, players still ranked “story” as the #1 most important consideration for buying a game. (It’s a data point that’s cropped up a few times over the years.) Abernathy never took this to mean that players valued gameplay less than story, but that storytelling wasn’t as vestigial as some seemed to think.
It’s part of a theory he’s presented about at GDC, and a problem he’s tried to solve at Riot Games and at his current startup Jumo. Though MOBAs and hero shooters have gained popularity on the strength of competitive gameplay, Abernathy says that developers always saw huge attachment to the characters they choose to take into combat. Their backstories, their personalities, their conflicts with other champions...Abernathy believes that these were valued sometimes as much as the damage and utility of their abilities.
“We needed to stop worrying so much about things like the Institute of War and the Fields of Justice,” says Abernathy, referring to a set of narrative conceits Riot junked before Abernathy’s departure. “We needed to focus more on these champions and who they are, and explore that.”
If developers are concerned about players not reaching the end of single-player games, and consider multiplayer the central starting point for creating a profitable game, Abernathy says that there’s room in multiplayer design to solve those narrative needs. At this point, it may even be essential to success.
To put it simply, if players are invested in characters and what happens to them, but don't necessarily want to finish eight-hour games, multiplayer games that still deliver concise character stories may be a market-proven solution.
Titanfall 2’s return to the narrative fold may be more a return to the model of Halo, Call of Duty, and Uncharted, aiming to create the largest mass market game possible. But the departure of story mode never was part of a bigger trend. It’s another example of how genres that are declared dead in the game industry tends to just keep coming back.