Yesterday’s news that EA is shutting down Visceral Games is bad news for fans of franchises like Dead Space and for the studio’s unnamed Star Wars project. But the abrupt shutdown has also caused a bit of an existential crisis to creep into the game industry chatter regarding the future of big-budget, single-player, story-driven gaming in general.
The core of all that worry comes from a section of the blog post EA’s Patrick Söderlund wrote to announce Visceral’s shutdown (emphasis added):
Our Visceral studio has been developing an action-adventure title set in the Star Wars universe. In its current form, it was shaping up to be a story-based, linear adventure game. Throughout the development process, we have been testing the game concept with players, listening to the feedback about what and how they want to play, and closely tracking fundamental shifts in the marketplace. It has become clear that to deliver an experience that players will want to come back to and enjoy for a long time to come, we needed to pivot the design.
That’s all a bit vague, but the wording suggests that the “story-based, linear adventure game” being planned didn’t look like it was going to turn a profit given “fundamental shifts in the marketplace.” In other words, they started making Uncharted and now they want Destiny.
Looking around at the most popular games these days, it’s not hard to see the market shift Söderlund is talking about. From Hearthstone and Overwatch, to Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds and Rocket League, to Dota 2 and League of Legends, to Clash of Clans and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege, and on and on, the games getting the most player attention (and money) today tend to be never-ending online competitions.
These are the e-sports and “games-as-a-service” titles that can continue to bring in money long after a single-player title has been returned to the shelf and forgotten about. Even single-player mega-franchise Grand Theft Auto has gotten in on the act with the huge success of GTA Online.
Within EA, multiplayer-focused games like FIFA are generating $800 million a year through the sale of digital card packs, while critically acclaimed single-player games like Dead Space 2 have reportedly struggled to make back their $60 million development budget. As the Visceral shuttering shows, even a mega-franchise like Star Wars isn’t always enough to justify that kind of budget for a single-player adventure. And if that’s the case, what kind of chance do lesser-known franchises have?
…have been greatly exaggerated
So is Visceral’s fate the death knell for big-budget, linear, story-driven games? In the near term, at the very least, major publishers don’t seem to be giving up on the format. Later this month we’ll see Super Mario Odyssey, Wolfenstein II, and Assassin’s Creed Origins all released on the very same day, rounding out a year that has seen plenty of similar single-player titles.
Next year’s release calendar already includes Red Dead Redemption 2, The Last of Us, Part 2, Kingdom Hearts III, God of War, Monster Hunter World, and plenty of other titles that show the industry isn’t ready to give up on sprawling single-player stories. The release schedule proves that worries about an immediate death for the big-budget single-player narrative are being overplayed.
Maybe Visceral is more of a canary in the coal mine, though: a big, public warning that the format can’t sustain itself anymore. Niko Partners analyst Daniel Ahmad writes on Twitter that “Prey, RE7, Dishonored 2, [and] Deus Ex” all underperformed sales expectations this year. “AAA non service / single player games can succeed,” he wrote in a follow-up tweet, “but they really need to be the best in the genre and executed perfectly.”
This is where it’s reasonable to question whether the big-budget, single-player story is peaking or is already on a downswing as a market force. Look at that list of huge, years-long multiplayer successes I listed above. The billions of worker-hours and dollars players put into those games have to come from somewhere, and many players could be seeing shorter, more linear games as worse values for the time and money in comparison.
After all, why should someone pay $60 for a self-contained story when they can often pay much less (or nothing) to play a game whose engaging online component ensures it will functionally never end? Then there’s the explosion of indie games that can often provide similar (if often less technically impressive) experiences for a fraction of the budget or cost to the consumer. The big-budget, single-player adventure is getting squeezed from both ends.
Something’s got to give
On the other side of the profitability question, the budget needed to make a truly blockbuster impression with a game has ballooned enormously in recent years. While $10 million was considered a “big” game budget even a decade ago, the largest titles today demand hundreds of millions of dollars to make and market, thanks in large part to the increased art costs required to take full advantage of all that improved hardware power.
Making that kind of money back $60 at a time can start to look pretty difficult, even for games expected to sell in the millions (and especially after retailers and platform-holders take their cut). Thus, we get ornate collector’s editions, season passes of downloadable content, and the dreaded loot box as attempts to squeeze a bit more money out of the average customer and put a project back in the black. (This is also why single-player-focused franchises like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed throw in multiplayer modes that can keep players playing and paying long after release.)
All these market and budget pressures are definitely having an effect on major publishers and are likely reducing the willingness to take a risk on a big-budget, single-player title. We could see the budgets for single-player titles get squeezed as publishers become less willing to take big risks.
At the same time, I don’t think publishers are ready to stop swinging for the fences with huge, sprawling single-player content. As long as franchises like The Witcher, and The Legend of Zelda, and Horizon: Zero Dawn can make a huge impression on the market, publishers will keep hunting for the big, prestigious return on investment that a single-player story can bring. And while online “service” games are ascendant right now, the gold rush for the space is leading to its fair share of big-budget flops as well (RIP Battleborn).
Even if single-player gaming’s best days are behind it (from a business standpoint), it’s premature to project the utter death of what is still a vibrant part of the market. But don’t be surprised if publishers keep getting more creative to generate more money from these self-contained titles.