Back in 2011, veteran game designer Mark Cerny made the bold prediction that “the traditional single player experience will be gone in three years”. At the time I scoffed. And justifiably. Although multiplayer was booming and social features were beginning to ingratiate themselves into campaigns, we were only months away from some of the best purely single player oriented games ever released – Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Skrim, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Batman: Arkham City to name just a few. At the time, there seemed to be a bright and healthy future for games of that ilk, but we are now a year and a half on from these comments and it has become increasingly clear in that time that Cerny was right. The future is social, and that’s not a bad thing.
Before beginning, it is perhaps important to make the distinction that socification is not the same as multiplayer and nor is it solely the annoying trend of having your trophies/achievements posted automatically to Facebook and other social networks. The former of these has done immense damage to the single player experience while the latter is an entirely banal form of forced interaction. What it actually is, is the creation and maintenance of an involved community of gamers that can augment the core ideas of a title and increase the relevancy or longevity of it. Think of the PC modding communities that have been an integral part of the platform since the early days and the incredible work that they’ve done over the years. The closed nature of the console scene means that it hasn’t been able to embrace that level of community creation, but user-generated content isn’t entirely alien. From the Play, Create, Share basis of LittleBigPlanet and Modnation Racers to Halo‘s Forge mode and Hitman: Absolution‘s Contracts, the idea has proven functional if not unrestricted.
Leaderboards have been a part of the industry since the arcade era and have always induced a desire to beat the top score, but never were they quite as immediate as the form in which they were introduced into the internet age with Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit‘s Autolog. Combined with the ability to download and compete against the ghosts of other players, these forms of asynchronous competition are especially well tailored to racing and fighting games, but similar ranking systems are occasionally seen in action games, a la DmC. In other fields, From Software’s Souls series has its almost unique messaging and invasion mechanics, Dragon’s Dogma introduced a Pawn trading system and both Brink and Mindjack trialled online campaigns (with limited success).
The brilliance in all of these is that they are additives and one does not need to utilise them in order to enjoy the fundamental aspects of the game. As already mentioned, they are designed to augment and lengthen the experience without hindering it in any way. Arguably the best part is that we are still in the early days. The PS4 is set to usher in a new generation in which the console is socially aware, implying that games will follow in its footsteps and it has been historically proven that ideas beget ideas. There is the promise of considerable inventiveness to be plumbed in incorporating socialisation into single player. But the potential benefits run even deeper than innovation through interaction.
Although the most recent Tomb Raider and God of War games both introduce the bog-standard competitive multiplayer suite into their respective franchises, we’ve generally seen a move away from this practice. The developers of Sleeping Dogs, Mass Effect 3, Dead Space 3, Journey, Rayman Origins and SimCity, among others, realised that such forced multiplayer would not fit in with their projects and took alternative paths in allowing gamers to interact, with varying degrees of success. What can’t be denied is that the single player core of all of these games was exemplary, if not always exactly what the fans wanted. It’s clear that the social elements have been tailored to fit the game in question rather than the inverse being true, and this has resulted in a more unique experience than is typically found in games that treat multiplayer as a bullet point.
Title homogeneity has easily been one of the greatest sins that has resulted from the inclusion of multiplayer in most every game. It has bred a need to mimic what has been successful in the past, so is there any wonder that Battlefield 3 was less team-oriented, Medal of Honor: Warfighter less grounded and tactical, Killzone 3 less weighty or Crysis 3 less singular than their respective predecessors when Call of Duty has achieved obscene success on a base of weightless and ultimately hollow bombast? Similar examples can be found in other genres, as well as a general move towards a style-over-substance sentiment, and the proliferation of socification can go a ways toward reversing even this. By eschewing the typical suite of competitive modes, a game is allowed to largely ignore the promptings of its contemporaries and seize an individual identity.
So, in conclusion, there is strong evidence to suggest that Cerny was right and the traditional single player experience will have been irrevocably stamped out by the end of next year, or not long after, but there is little reason to grieve, as its inevitable reinvention will not mean that our ilk are forced to go without. Indeed, we may just be better off than ever before.
Of course, there’s every chance that I’m wrong…