A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog lamenting the decline in first person shooter campaigns in favour of multiplayer components. Last month, in a blog addressing predictions of a games industry crash, I gave a little time to arguing that single player content may well be the way forward for the AAA industry. I’m writing today to give a bit more time to that idea and to act as a counterpoint to my blog of a year ago.
I won’t be giving much attention to the (awesome and always-inspiring) indie scene today, but everything that I argue for AAA here can apply down the foodchain as well.
As I wrote last month, 2016 left us with a lot of high quality AAA games that reviewed well and sold poorly. This could have been down to genre fatigue (‘sequelitis’), consumers being more wary of the hype machine, or just saturation of releases. Most likely it’s a combination of all of those things.
Even though Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (COD:IW) picked up its sales slack a few weeks after release, Activision were surely hearing alarm bells when they realised that the multiplayer servers were underpopulated because most COD fans were still playing last year’s Black Ops 3. This was further exacerbated on PC by the fact that Steam owners were unable to play with Microsoft’s paltry number of buyers on their Windows 10 games store.
So many games in recent years have reduced or foregone single player content in favour of focusing on multiplayer audiences. The problem there is that without hitting a critical mass of players, those who want to play your game will have nobody to play the game with. There are only so many players to go around, but they’re being offered more and more games to choose from, and then often being subdivided into those who have bought DLC maps and those who haven’t, and usually further divided by what platform they own the game on. Late 2016 may have been the early warning needed (whether it will be heeded or not remains to be seen) to alert these companies that current trajectories may not be sustainable.
Earlier Warnings and Reversals
We saw some foreshadowing before 2016, however. Titanfall (2014) was well received but criticised for its lack of any single player content, and that story came full circle when Titanfall 2 (TF2) released with a short (normal length for AAA nowadays, though) 5-6 hour campaign to great critical acclaim (but, sadly, poor sales) and was praised as one of the best AAA campaigns in recent years. Having played it, I wholeheartedly agree!
Star Wars: Battlefront in 2015, rushed out to coincide with The Force Awakens movie, was similarly criticised for being multiplayer-only, though later added a single player element. Its sequel is set to release at the end of 2017 and seeminglyis reintroducing single player content as a selling point.
While most of the Battlefield games in the last few years have featured single player campaigns, their delivery had been seriously under par until Battlefield 1 (BF1) last year, and again, critics and fans praised the focus on this.
While single player content is more expensive to produce, developers must realise that its absence from a €60 title is a deal breaker for a lot of customers (the price should at least be reduced to reflect this, many feel). More than that, though. Single player content leverages risk for the consumer. As we’ve seen recently, if multiplayer only games don’t have enough players, then there is no game! It used to be the case that players bought games primarily for their single player content and then spilled over into the multiplayer for a little more of the same, but with a twist. Now that trend has probably reversed for many, but not all. I, for example, have no interest in multiplayer only games, especially at the €60 price point, but I did want to play COD:IW, BF1, and TF2 for their single player, and in the case of BF1 and TF2 I spent a little time on multiplayer as well.
But even if I’d bought them primarily for multiplayer, and the servers then shut down from lack of players (whether in 2 months or 5 years), I’m glad to still have a game to play. Without single player, some gamers aren’t prepared to pay top dollar for that risk, and that’s worth developers considering.
We sadly saw Dead Star, which featured a great multiplayer twist, shut down in October 2016 – just 6 months after launch! Evolve has also shut down, and Battleborn looks to be treading water as well, despite being a perfectly solid and enjoyable game!
I’ll note that Overwatch is an exception to my argument, but Blizzard seem to be the exception to every rule anyway. Indeed, their success is part of why all these other games are failing – especially Battleborn.
So what about 2017?
It’s looking good for fans of single-player content. If you allow that coop modes are hybrids of single and multiplayer (usually single-player-style crafted content intended for 2-4 players), then Ubisoft are releasing Ghost Recon: Wildlands in March (and it’s listed is playable in single player), and For Honor in February, which has single and multiplayer.
A big one is Mass Effect: Andromeda from EA and Bioware in March. It has a multiplayer mode, but its main focus is a 20-30 hour single player campaign. The last Mass Effect game was 3 in 2012.
I already mentioned that the new Battlefront will have single player, and the end of the year will likely also see a new COD game with a 5 or 6 hour campaign. These aren’t terribly exciting for the purposes of this blog, but the fact that they’re holding course instead of veering towards multiplayer-only is noteworthy.
We’ve also just had Resident Evil 7, and this year will also see Kingdom Come: Deliverance and Prey for the PC, Horizon: Zero Dawn for PS4, and Red Dead Redemption 2 for consoles (and hopefully the PC later, as with GTA V). So there’s no shortage of single player games releasing this year, and they seem to be getting greater focus, but how they perform will be crucial.
The way forward for AAA publishers?
If these games perform well, and doubtless many of them will, one hopes that it will convince developers that single player is not only not a thing of the past, but that these titles can produce their own runaway successes and that they can help publishers leverage their risk with more predictable sales figures. Players won’t often buy a multiplayer game if their friends aren’t playing it, so sales are vulnerable to a cascade effect. With a single player game, people buy just for themselves, and sales should be more easy to predict. Multiplayer-only may often have a higher profit potential (by eliminating campaign creation costs) but one thing we know about AAA publishers is that they’re more concerned with reducing risk than innovating. That’s not a criticism. It’s a necessity for them.. mostly.
With single player games, in the same way as with cinema releases, people will often buy in immediately for fear of having the story spoiled from them. This can protect against launch slumps. With multiplayer, people are more likely to wait for a sale as they won’t miss much. We saw this at the end of 2016. I would think we’ll see at least a couple of developers attempt to put greater emphasis on a great story with an unbelievable twist, in order to increase day one sales. Pre-order bonuses aren’t cutting it in the same way as they once were, seemingly.
I pretty much already concluded in the last section, actually. All that’s left for me to say is ‘thanks for reading’. This is a very uncertain topic, of course, and these are only my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours in the comments. If you liked the article, do consider sharing.
Oh and if you haven’t seen it, we’ve just released a teaser trailer for our own game ‘Sons Of Sol’. I encourage you to check it out below and like/subscribe/share/all that good stuff.
Allow me to present my opening argument in the form of a screenplay.
[Setting the scene. Entertainment media news room. Young anchor seated at a desk covered in Nintendo Ameebo and (new) Star Wars stormtrooper toys, smiling and speaking animatedly into the camera]
Anchor: “..in other news, this week saw the release of Battlefield 1, the first game in the new Battlefield franchise. While it’s unusual to actually give the number ‘1’ to a new intellectual property, it shows a bold confidence on Dice and EA’s part in their new…”
[Anchor pauses, puts one finger to their ear]
Anchor: “..wait.. my producer is saying something.. sorry about this folks..”
[Mumbling ensues ]
Anchor: “.. THE FIFTEENTH Battlefield game?!?! NOT including expansions?!”
[Anchor glances nervously at the camera, then turns aside, pressing one hand to their ear and speaking more quietly to producer off-camera].
Anchor: “Is this a joke? Seriously, tell me now. Is this just a prank on the new recruit or…. you’ve got to be joking…. so Battlefield Hardline was the same ser… and Battlefield 4 was actually Battlefield 13?? Holy mother of… I suppose next you’ll be telling me that Assassin’s Creed 4 was…. it was the 6th?…”
“So, wait, what do I say about Battlefield 1?…..”
Anchor (now shout-whispering):“..JUST BECAUSE IT’S SET IN WORLD WAR 1?! THAT’S THE STUPIDEST THING I’VE EVER HEARD!!”
“Okay, okay. Yes, okay. I got it”.
[Anchor lowers their hand, turns slowly back to the camera and recomposes their “tv-smile”]
Anchor: “Ahem.. excuse me. Battlefield 1 released to great critical claim this week, with reviewers calling it ‘the best Battlefield game since..”
[Anchor looks confused for a split second, but ploughs ahead]
Anchor: “..Bad Company 2.“
“And lastly, new DLC has just released for Doom, the new shooter IP from id Software and Bethesda that took the world by storm earlier this year…
[Anchor pauses and their smile half drops as they appear to listen again to their producer. Turns aside again]
Anchor: “..not new?…. 1993?.. But surely nobody would remember one solitary game with crappy graphics from over 20… FOURTH DOOM?!… So why didn’t they just call it…? ..who the hell are the ‘two Johns’??… ‘Quake’? No, Quake is coming out next year, I’m sure of that!… no.. no.. look, forget it…
[Anchor stands up, head now out of the shot, and begins to remove their clip-on microphone. Banging noises can be heard as fabric rubs against the microphone]
Anchor (now less audible):“.. No, I quit! Forget it! This is ridiculous! Until you can grow up as an industry, how is anyone going to take you seriously?”
[Now free of the microphone, the anchor walks out of the shot, becoming increasingly less audible as they leave the room]
Anchor: I’m going to try get that internship back with Fox. At least Fant4stic had the right number somewhere in the name.
[Someone can be heard replying]
Anchor: “Only the third?!”
[Shouted curses can be heard receding, ending with a door slamming]
Ain’t satire fun?
So there’s a humour to how ridiculous game names are becoming, as we live through it, but there’s also a real threat to game preservation, or historical research for those who come after us, or even just twenty years from now. Most people don’t care about the problems of tomorrow (that’s what made us the world we are today, after all) so I’ll focus on the humour, but please also open your mind to what this will all look like to someone in the future. Will they see this time as a golden era of game creation, or will it be marked as a time when ravenous consumers didn’t seem to know or even care what they were playing, but were in fact every bit as gormless and fickle as the big marketers presently seem to think that we are?
To be clear, I’m not saying anything against any of the games mentioned here. Most of them are brilliant! My only issue is with how games are getting named, and it’s the more successful series that create the problems, because they have so many entries.
Hopefully from my “screenplay” above you can see the problem I’m highlighting. I could say “naming conventions are out of control”, but in truth, there appears to be no naming convention in place at all in the games industry other than “marketing think that the target demographic likes this number this week”.
What are movies doing?
The movie and games industries get compared all the time, and I don’t relish doing it, but I will be doing so today because there are great parallels and lessons to be learned.
The movie industry most definitely seems to have a more mature approach to naming conventions where long-running franchises or reboots of old ones are concerned. Despite the fact that the problem (if you agree that it is one) of seemingly constant reboots in both of these entertainment industries originated (at least as a recognisable pattern) in the movie industry, to their credit, they did seem to handle the issue far more tidily. With the exception of RoboCop (2014), most reboots pick an altered title or subtitle to clarify (Batman Begins, The Amazing Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk – and yes, it is mostly superhero/action movies that seem to get the reboots).
Where numbering sequels are concerned movies now seem to dodge that bullet by rarely adding a number any more and instead favouring a subtitle. Marvel is a good example as their interwoven movie narratives can be quite complex and it can sometimes even be hard to figure out who the lead character is. Take Captain America: Civil War. Was that The Avengers 3 or Captain America 3? Or Civil War 1? Well, ignore the numbers and give it a name. That works.
To be clear, I’m not trying to claim that naming conventions used to make more sense or be more consistent either (Jaws used numbers, then number/names, then subtitles: Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D, Jaws: The Revenge) but what I am staying is, that with the notable exception of RoboCop (and probably a few others that aren’t coming to mind), franchises are rarely so muddy that I couldn’t tell which exact movie you were talking about if you use the correct name. And I can’t think of any examples where “Movie-name 3” is not actually the 3rd movie, or at least the 3rd in the current reboot.
There is no common convention, but there does seem to be a deliberate attempt to clarify when rebooting a series or making sequels. This is far from the case with games.
Clarification Note: ReMAKES in film often carry the exact same name as the original, but they’re usually a once-off remake of a classic 40-50 years old (3:10 to Yuma, 101 Dalmations, Alice in Wonderland). ReBOOTS usually follow several related sequels, by starting a new string of sequels related to each other but not the older works. Take ‘Star Trek’ (2009). The original 1979 movie was called ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’. They haven’t used an identical name. Although admittedly they could have used a subtitle in 2009 if they wanted to make my point better for me.
What are games doing?
Well, as I see it, there’s two approaches that both muddy the waters to varying degrees (and a third in movies where series-related movies don’t share a name, eg. Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal). These create problems when using search engines, or even just talking to someone and trying to communicate which game you actually mean.
Throwing Numbers Around, ‘Whenever’
I’ve never seen a movie do this, but games series seem so ashamed of their age that they’ll constantly fiddle the numbers. While the reasons for doing this could be both to hide the quantity of games (to counter the perception of over-saturation), or to differentiate between split story lines (Command & Conquer: ‘Tiberium’ series and Command & Conquer: Red Alert 1-3), or even between releases on different devices, it’s still a messy practice.
Movies, once they abandon the numbers, tend to stay away from them. After 6 numbered Police Academy movies, the 7th was just subtitled Mission to Moscow. Superman hasn’t had a numbered movie since IV despite having a later sequel and an even later reboot.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was the 4th GTA, and before GTA IV (TWO games later) I used to refer to Vice City as “GTA 4” for short. 5 is really the 7th, and so on.
Assassin’s Creed III was the 5th game in that series.
The recent Gears of War 4 is the 5th GOW, also.
If you’ve read my last few articles, you’ll have seen me snipe at the name Battlefield 1. I’m getting it out of my system today, okay?
My satirical ‘screenplay’ already picked on Battlefield – probably the worst offender. 3 games deep is the earliest that you can really get inconsistent and they did so by going: Battlefield 1942, then Battlefield Vietnam, and then screwed the pooch with their 3rd game, Battlefield 2. The numbered games have been meaningless since then, only highlighted (for me anyway) by the fact the I’ve seen nobody else bat an eyelid that the new game is called Battlefield 1. It’s so ludicrous, and it’s actually a world first, as far as I’m aware, to name a newer title ‘1’. It’s all the worse considering that, given that with this game they were very much returning to their roots by moving away from modern or sci-fi settings, they had an opportunity to return to their original naming convention (Battlefield 1942) and call this one “Battlefield 1916″ (or anywhere from 1914-1918, I just say 1916 because a recent trailer made a point of being set then, and the year of release, 2016, is a nice, round century after that). I don’t care what anyone says, the marketers definitely missed a trick with that one. And I’ve a degree in marketing so I feel I get to say this with at least a little authority:
If they were so dead-set against a year in the title for whatever reason, Battlefield: The Great War would still have been less of a joke than Battlefield 1, as a name. Okay, I’ve had my say. Great game, horrific name, moving on..
The thing about this trend with all those aforementioned games is that the only way to fix it is to own up and call the next game the correct number. Like “Battlefield 16“, which they’ll never do, especially coming straight after 1, in their case.
Preferable to that would be to continue using subtitles forever once you’ve started, but the problem there is that sales will be lost because less die-hard fans might lose a named game through the year-sized cracks without realising it.
As ridiculous as that all is, it doesn’t exactly cause a major problem for searchability, and a Wikipedia search can quickly inform you if you forgot that Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood existed, if you really wanted to know. I mentioned the benefits of being dishonest-thus at the top of this section anyway.
On to the bigger problem.
Naming Reboots The Same As Originals
Doom, Star Wars: Battlefront, Battlezone, and the game that actually prompted this article, Prey are all guilty as hell here.
At E3 this year, we saw a teaser trailer for a new game called Prey. I thought to myself “people seem a bit overly excited at this. What do they know that I don’t? Hang on, the name sounds familiar. Wasn’t there a game named something like that just a few years ago?”
Ten years. It was only ten years ago, no sequels since, and they’re putting out a game with the exact same name. What are fans supposed to say after the second comes out? “Oh I hate Prey, I much prefer Prey.” Ridiculous! Even if there’s were a discerning in-fiction reason (parallel universes or something) that gave an actual good reason to call the games by the same name (let’s give a lot of benefit of the doubt here, for the sake of argument) then you still have to worry about marketing to the general public and internet searchability, and the uninitiated aren’t going to be as sympathetic to your confusing of the issue by ‘staying in character’ or whatever.
Maybe someone more in the know can tell me a good reason to confuse traffic in this way (like there’s already an established number of searches for that topic, thereby making it cheaper to piggy back on the old game’s presence), but if there is such a reason, it seems ludicrously short-sighted and cynical.
Which brings me to Star Wars: Battlefront, which is actually Battlefront3. The fact that it’s made by a different studio doesn’t change the fact that I bought, played and enjoyed two prior Battlefront games, one of which was called Star Wars: Battlefront. However, Disney does seem intent on overwriting absolutely everything bar the movies from pre-2012 Star Wars. When the reboot was announced I tried to Google the name of the original game to see what year it was released, as it seemed too recent to be smothering up the name in the same manner as you might get away with in a 50 year old movie.
2004. *weeping* “It was only twelve years old! It had its whole life ahead of it”. Comical as that sounds, there’s a point to note there. Any distinctly named game will presumably be searchable for decades to come. At a time where the preservation of digital art is becoming an increasingly hot topic, knowingly smothering the presence of any game that came before is irresponsible, and seems almost even callous.
By the way, to find the answer ‘2004’, I had to search for Battlefront 2 and work my way back from there. If I hadn’t known of the sequel, let’s say I’m a 10 year old, not 29, those two older games may as well never have existed, unless someone tells me about them.
Now try this on for size: The Playstation VR title Battlezone is a reboot of the original Atari Battlezone from 1980, and not of the 1998 Battlezone or its 2016 re-release “Battlezone 1998 Redux”, nor of 1999’s Battlezone II: Combat Commander. Do you see how complicated this starts to get? And historically, these are very interesting games! Often underappreciated, yet doing all sorts of new things each time the name appeared. This is a prime example of games we should want to preserve and research in the future. Why the newest version couldn’t just have been called Battlezone VR is beyond me.
You’ve gotten my point by now. Doom (2016) should be called Doom 4 or even “Doom 2016″, but it wasn’t. Sorry, Doom is a game that already existed and that still has thousands of concurrent players daily. In five years time, I’ll be you anything that more people will be playing classic Doom than current Doom, as great as the new one is. You don’t get to steamroll the older title and pretend it didn’t exist. Which is ironic to say because 2016’s version is clearly such a love letter to the original. It seems a shame to me that it copy/pasted the name. Imitation is the best form of flattery, but not when it extends to cutting off and then wearing your idol’s skin.
In Conclusion – What have I missed?
It’s clearly a growing trend to name newer games the same as the originals, even after as little as 10 years, and I can only think of negative consequences for doing so. Is it just more ‘hip’ to drop the number?
It actually disgusts me. The notion that we’re so fickle that we’ll forget about the originals, or somehow appreciate the newer versions more because they didn’t have the number 4 or 5 in the name. You might argue that new players are more likely to pick up a game if they don’t feel like they’ve already missed 5 instalments, but to hide your game’s ancestry for that reason alone is so sardonic! That theory also sounds like something that overpaid marketers may have merely convinced themselves is true rather than something sales data has actually backed up. After all, I bought Assassin’s Creed IV, Civilization V, Skyrim, The Witcher 3, and Fallout 4 all without having played prior games. And I know many who have done the same.
Fudging the numbers in this way is being done by the biggest companies with the biggest marketing departments. There must be some logic to it. It doesn’t seem like something that someone convinced themselves was now trendy while sipping on a 50% hops IPA that is actually brewed in old French wheelbarrows (I’m trying to say “the latest thing that someone suddenly decides is hip”). I’m convinced that there must be real concerted logic at work, here, but I can’t figure it out.
Whatever the logic, or lack thereof, it’s damaging to the preservation and searchability of games. I can hear the response “don’t care, old games don’t sell well. I’ve a monthly bonus to stretch for. I’m not concerned with history”, but can I counter with this example?
A new player comes to Gears of War 4. Loves it. Decides they want to play all the other Gears games. You know; 1, 2, and 3. You’ve made 3 extra (albeit lower-priced) sales on the back of 1. Well done. What about Judgment? You lost that sale didn’t you? Why, because it wasn’t very clear that it existed, and that’s the most recent and thus highest-priced of the previous games that you failed to sell.
So, what of it all? I’m afraid my advice is simply “just be honest with the damned numbers or don’t use them! And never use a name that’s already been used”. Hell, if you use a name even similar to somebody else’s you get sued. Bethesda initiated legal proceedings against Mojang when they announced Scrolls a few years ago because it sounded too similar to their series The Elder Scrolls. But you’re allowed do it to yourself because it’s your property? Legally, okay, sure, but what about the consumers?
I’ll leave you with a section from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)’s website about trademarks.
What is trademark infringement? Trademark infringement is the unauthorized use of a trademark or service mark on or in connection with goods and/or services in a manner that is likely to cause confusion, deception, or mistake about the source of the goods and/or services.
“Unauthorized” doesn’t apply, but the rest is worth thinking about.