There’s no question that multiplayer dominates the video game industry. In fact, when looking at the best-selling video games of all time, 46 out of the top 50 have some form of multiplayer or co-op play. Even some of the oldest games on the list, like Frogger, Tetris, and Duck Hunt, allow you to play with friends in some capacity.
While the thirst for multiplayer has continued to grow throughout the decades, it has experienced a huge spike in recent years. More than 50% of the top 50 best-selling games come from the past decade. The only title on the list that doesn’t embrace playing with others is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
This list of best-selling games of all time doesn’t even take into account the immense popularity of free MOBAs, Battle Royales, and MMOs. League of Legends and Fortnite both receive north of a hundred million players every month. Meanwhile, the “top games by current player count” list on Steam is littered with free titles: Dota 2, Warframe, Team Fortress 2, Paladins, Smite, etc.
The moral of the last three paragraphs is that multiplayer has and always will be a staple in gaming. However, the big question is whether or not a single-player experience is here to stay in the same way. While the market is dominated by an ever-growing desire to collaborate, story seems to take over arguably where it matters the most.
OpenCritic and Metacritic both seem to agree that the best games are single-player experiences that feature unique characters, moving events, and intriguing themes. From the rulers of the nineties, like Diablo, Super Mario 64, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Half-Life, to modern marvels, such as The Last of Us, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Grand Theft Auto V, God of War (2018), Uncharted 4, and Undertale, it seems difficult to captivate an audience with a multiplayer experience the same way solo play does.
Last year, head of Microsoft’s Xbox division Phil Spencer, stated that “We’ve got to understand that if we enjoy those [story-driven] games, the business opportunity has to be there for them,” in an interview with The Guardian. Because of Xbox’s lack of masterful single-player games, it seems pretty safe to say that they don’t believe this “business opportunity” is that visible from their perspective. Meanwhile, Sony and PlayStation seem to have not only found the opportunity, but they’ve embraced it with wide open arms. Many of their PlayStation exclusives come in the form of large-scale, narrative-driven games that explore new plots and characters that strike a chord with their audiences.
Ever since Spencer’s statements, a large portion of the gaming community has worried about the death of the single player. However, even Spencer has himself since then praised single-player games. In the same interview with The Guardian, he “applauded” Telltale Games and studios like them that have gone solely after thriving stories in video games and made them work so well. This year, he also invited the Twitter community to investigate his play history and see that “that’s mostly what I play.” This comes in response to a comment requesting that Spencer not “get rid of” single-player games.
Why would I do that. If you look at my play hours, that's mostly what I play.
— Phil Spencer (@XboxP3) April 12, 2018
So, why are people so scared of single-player going away? It simply comes down to two things: the knowledge that Phil Spencer was correct a year ago with his statements, and the increased popularity of games as a service, more specifically in the realm of multiplayer. It’s so much easier and financially sound for developers to offer competitive games with microtransactions than it is to take a chance on their writing and story-telling abilities. This is proven with Fortnite. I remember buying this game on launch because I was excited about the idea of constructing for the purpose of defending against hordes of zombies. There is a large percentage of people out there who probably don’t even know this was the original Fortnite. The word “Fortnite” these days has become synonymous with “Battle Royale”. Epic Games saw the success of games such as Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and decided to add Battle Royale as a second game mode. Since then, “Save the World” has become an unexplored wasteland that serves as a reminder of the game’s routes. As a genre, Battle Royale is just more stable in terms of economic security.
At the same time, League of Legends practically owns the MOBA genre, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Call of Duty battle it out with military shooters, Overwatch is the premiere hero shooter, Mario Kart is arguably the greatest racing game series of all time, and Grand Theft Auto V, Garry’s Mod, Rocket League, and Minecraft eat up more than their fair share of the gaming industry. Many of these games have microtransactions and/or are considered games as a service. They each are extremely successful in their own rights and impress on dozens of levels.
However, where single-player comes in is actually right in the middle. The games mentioned above are some of the most popular games of all time, and, for the most part, they share a lot of players. The issue with these games is that it’s easy to get fatigued thanks to monotony or frustration. This doesn’t just apply to each individual game, but to multiplayer as a whole. Almost everybody I know who plays video games often needs a break from these games, even if it’s just for an hour or two. Boom! Insert Hollow Knight. Open Cuphead. Check in with The Sims.
Single-player has become a buffer for a lot of the gaming community. I personally am the opposite; I play A LOT of single-player and find my buffer in some multiplayer fun. However, on days when I get lost in my latest Paladins climb, I find myself stopping after a while and turning towards my long list of story-driven games that can offer something different and thought provoking.
I think almost all true gamers need this in their lives. If every gamer were to count up all of their hours of gaming and split them into multiplayer and single-player, they’d probably be surprised at the fraction of their time that’s spent solo. Many gamers would also be equally surprised if they split their backlog into multiplayer and single-player. Most people would probably find few games that are multiplayer in there. This is because we want a library to turn to for the areas that multiplayer doesn’t usually satisfy.
Are story and solo games treasured relics of the past? By no means! Although deemphasized, single-player is actually stronger than ever in its new role. As they are, narrative-driven games rarely fall into clichés anymore, and they tend to be more effective getting less daily attention than multiplayer games. As a result, single-player is here to stay, especially as long as we have studios like Quantic Dream, Naughty Dog, Telltale, CD Projekt Red, Rockstar, the list goes on.
What do you think about single-player titles compared to multiplayer? Continue the discussion in the comments.
Brandon is a young writer who loves going deep into games to explore meaning, purpose, and life. He believes that there’s nothing better than getting lost in a world full of characters to love and lessons to learn. He has a special place in his heart for single player games such as Mass Effect and Life Is Strange, but he also blows off some steam playing some of his favorite multiplayer games, like Paladins.