Multiplayer is often considered to be a shtick. When BioShock Infinite had its multiplayer cut, fans rejoiced that the game wouldn’t be polluted with marketing contrivance. To the ire of fans, Mass Effect 3 hid parts of its ending if you did not play its multiplayer. There are, of course, games that are purely multiplayer experiences (World of Warcraft, Team Fortress), but single-player games seem to be the area of the industry that receive the most attention and focus. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they are the foundation of most gaming today.
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Gogogic CEO Jonas Antonsson believes that the advent of solo play was a result of technological limitations, responses to a new market, and that they are not the cornerstone of the industry, as we might believe.
I also think that it is worth to note that the single-player mechanic is a gimmick – games are meant to be played with others and it doesn’t matter if it’s in-person or online. The first games were designed as multiplayer experiences, but when computer and console games became a thing there was a need to construct an antagonist and/or a protagonist for commercial purposes. You couldn’t depend on people coming together to have a synchronous experience over a game. That would have simply stifled sales. And since there was no reasonable way to connect people in other ways – the arcade was the only serious attempt – it became an industry need to project the game as the other player. Playing a game is a multiplayer activity and can easily be seen as such when you watch young toddlers play by themselves. They invent someone to play with, someone that they talk to and interact with.
Is single player really a gimmick? What is the value of a game that has no inherent socialization? And is that even possible? Can there be a game that is an exclusively single-player experience?
The high score list is a simplest way to make a game social, to transform it to an asynchronous multiplayer experience. A simple list allows me to share an experience with others – comparing myself to you in the game. This also becomes a great reason to create games that are hard and difficult to master. Enter the classic hardcore game that allows dedicated players to compare not only scores but progress and in-game assets found or unlocked. But now we can connect people in and around a game through real time PvP and PvE mechanics and the need for pure single-player games had gone down. We have multiple plots and stories and build the meta-experience for the entire audience. The premise for making games has changed – reverted back to building multiplayer experiences that are true to the game form.
Games don’t get much more single player than Final Fantasy, but I can remember bringing my Playstation memory card over to a friend’s house to show off my Final Fantasy VII file. That was socializing with a game, and the whole narrative, cinematics, and music could have been a simple means for me to get that end of the game trophy: the data file on my memory card. In retrospect, this was a leaderboard of sorts, but as with games today, one could argue that the ability to compare yourselves to others isn’t what games are about, and that such a feature — is merely a gimmick.