The Death of Single-Player is the Death of EA
Covering current(-ish) news isn’t really the remit I had in mind for a history-focused blog, but EA’s latest stunning decision in a string of stupid decisions deserves special mention. It’s pretty straightforward, actually: as of September 5, EA is officially no longer focusing on the single-player experience. It’s a terrible idea that means I’m even less likely to purchase their products than I was before.
What does this mean? According to Frank Gibeau, EA’s “Labels President” (so he’s in charge of stickers, or …?), “I have not green lit one game to be developed as a single player experience. Today, all of our games include online applications and digital services that make them live 24/7/365.” This doesn’t mean there won’t be a single-player mode, but it will never not come packaged with some manner of shoehorned-in multiplayer or social component. This is why Dead Space 3 has completed the series’ transformation from “isolated schlocky sci-fi horror” to “action movie” with the addition of fully integrated co-op. It’s also why Mass Effect 3 had the superfluous co-op horde mode. I cannot stress how strongly I disagree with this decision.
Let’s look at ME3 for this. Mass Effect 1 and 2 had no multiplayer garbage gumming up the works, and the developers were free to focus solely on creating the single-player experience. I would argue that they are better games for it. ME1 was a massive space opera in game form, and sits firmly in my favourite games of all time. ME2 I was less enamoured with thanks to its smaller scope and cut-down RPG elements, but it still did an excellent job creating and intertwining many different storylines (one for each recruit) and making your relationships with your crew matter in the endgame. ME3, meanwhile, doesn’t have an ending, and I can’t help but wonder if the time and money they spent developing, coding and testing the “horde mode” and all its support systems couldn’t have been used to rectify that mistake. Bottom line is, forcing teams to include multiplayer or social functions in games that don’t need them is only going to divert resources away from the important parts, and reduce the quality of the product as a whole.
So why is EA doing this? I’m not a psychic, or a business analyst, but from my own thoroughly unprofessional position, EA is dying. Think of every move they’ve been making. Origin. Project Ten Dollar and all their DLC shenanigans. Buying Bioware. Jamming multiplayer, co-op, and social connectivity into every game. All of this is stuff they’re struggling to monetize, because just publishing games isn’t working out for them anymore. When you need the third part of a trilogy to sell more copies than the first two parts combined, there is something desperately wrong with your business model. So here they are, throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the wall and hoping it will stick. Valve is absolutely rolling in money from Steam, so EA launch a competitor, Origin, and try to kickstart it by making all their games exclusive to it (which in my case simply lost them all my potential sales. Sorry, guys, but I already have Steam squatting on my hard drive, jealously clinging to my game collection like a spoiled child with his favourite toy. I’m not letting another one move in). Instead of spending actual time and effort on proper expansion packs, they’re churning out little chunks of DLC, sometimes including stuff that arguably should have been in the game itself, because for the same amount of time investment they can make a lot more by charging a little bit at a time. On seeing Bioware be popular and profitable, they bought them out and slapped their brand name all over completely unrelated products. Now they’re shoehorning in co-op and social media and so on, because Call of Duty is popular, and Facebook is popular, so if we make our games more like those we’ll sell more, right?
Not because they genuinely believe it’s the future of gaming. Not because they think it’s fun, or because they think it will add to the game experience. Not because they’re an evil corporation run by a bunch of moustache-twirling villains, tying innocent gamers to the train tracks. It’s because they’re dying. At some basic, fundamental level, they are doing something drastically wrong. Nobody else is making these ludicrous announcements. Bethesda didn’t come out prior to the release of Skyrim and declare that unless they moved 5 million units, they would have to seriously reconsider whether it was worth it to “continue investing in the Elder Scrolls franchise.” Valve isn’t hosting pre-release press conferences for DOTA2 and saying that it needs to sell 5 million copies to warrant a sequel. I haven’t heard anything from Paradox saying that Europa Universalis 4 has to break the 5 million mark to ensure there’s a fifth. I could go on, but you get the point. EA is unique in this, because EA is dying. Somewhere in the bowels of that beast, they’re haemmorhaging money in some ludicrous, unsustainable operation that’s dragging the company down. Somehow, with so much cheap-to-license middleware (cheap relative to the cost of developing it yourself), such a glut of potential employees pouring out of game-design courses, with the availability of so much targeted advertising thanks to the internet gathering potential customers together, with the costs of publishing and distribution dwindling massively thanks to widespread adoption of digital distribution, somehow EA is finding it increasingly more expensive to make games. Expensive to the point that they’re desperately grabbing at straws to stay afloat. Expensive to the point where they need a game to sell five million copies to be considered a worthwhile return on investment.
EA is dying, and the only reason they’re killing the “single-player experience” is to cannibalize the body and stay alive just a little bit longer. I’m worried that Ubisoft and Activision are following the same path, and might drag our hobby down with them.