The troubled launch of Cyberpunk 2077 has reignited a debate that has intermittently flared up in the gaming community for the past few years: is there a future for triple-A single player gaming?
Before we continue, a few things need to be cleared up. Triple-A (AAA) is an informal designation for the video game equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster – they have budgets in the tens of millions of dollars and are developed over the course of years by thousands of people. They usually have a launch price of $60 for the base game, with options for more expensive packages ranging from $70 to $120. As can be taken from this description, these games are expensive to make, and the studios as well as the corporations behind them want to see a return on their investment. For a long time, video game sales were straightforward. A game was released and overall profits were tied to the number of individual copies that were sold. That changed with the introduction of live service and microtransactions.
A live service game is a game that is always online, almost exclusively multiplayer-focused and designed to keep people playing for as long as possible. Anyone who grew up in the early 2000s with an Internet connection will probably remember games like Club Penguin, Runescape, and World of Warcraft. Microtransactions are in-game purchases of virtual items for actual money and this is how many live service games generate profit. They are particularly common among free-to-play games, the most notable being Fortnite. Recently, however, many publishers have implemented microtransactions into AAA games while still charging the full $60. A notable example of this was Tom Clancy’s Rainbow 6 Siege.
The appeal of this to publishers is obvious. They can get their major cash infusion from the initial release and continue to monetize their product through microtransactions and low-cost updates. Compare this with story-focused single player games, which still follow the classic sales model and make the majority of their money from their initial release, with supplementation by expensive expansions. Video gaming is a business like any other, and businesses will always be drawn to the practices that produce the most profit for the least cost. So – why is this a problem? Supporters of live service multiplayer games would say that this is not a problem, arguing that they make gaming a more social experience, promote player-built communities and support an industry more responsive to players’ needs and desires.
Supporters of story-driven single player games and critics of live service multiplayer games (a group I must admit I fall into) counter that, while story-focused single player games are similar to novels or films, they are art. At their best, they can be thought-provoking and emotionally stimulating. They are stories with beginnings and endings. My own critique of live service multiplayer games is that the goal in their creation is no longer to create a story that needs to be told but rather to tap into the basest instincts of players and generate a stable addiction loop similar to that of gambling in order continually milk them for cash. Games like Fortnite, while impressive in their own ways, have no artistic value. This is fine, as the artless has a right to exist. The problems emerge when the artless crowds out actual art. And because of just how profitable live service multiplayer games are, this is exactly what is happening.
So, what future does this leave for single player gaming? Some have argued that devotees of single player games will simply need to resign themselves to the fact that their games might have to be smaller in scale and fall more into the realm of independent developers, while major studios will focus on live service multiplayer games. Others, such as co-founder of Valve Software Gabe Newell, have argued that artificial intelligence will provide single player games with the capacity to produce endless new experiences. While that sounds like a boon to players, it does not explain what will incentivize companies to finance studios to develop these endless games.
The remedy that I recommend is unlikely to be popular but I believe it is the only viable method of ensuring story-driven AAA single player games remain economically viable. Both creators and players of single player games should look to The Sims, the lifestyle simulation game that allows players to micromanage the lives of characters they create. The Sims 4 was released in 2014 and remains incredibly popular, with millions still playing monthly thanks in large part to the steady release of paid expansion packs. This kind of model could be adapted for games like Cyberpunk 2077, steadily releasing new downloadable expansions to provide fresh experiences for players and flesh out the world while increasing the potential profit streams for the developers to make them more economically justifiable. This, I contend, is the best practicable future for single player gaming.