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Single players are not an aberration

By on January 25, 2011
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Tadhg Kelly, author and game consultant, wrote this post on single-player games in response to What is a Social Game? It is reposted with kind permission.

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(Thanks for the image Martin)

Three separate commenters (James Wallis, Brenda Braithwaite and Michael Acton Smith) made the following observation in ‘What is a Social Game?’:

single player games are only a feature of the last few decades, an aberration.

Michael even went so far as to say that the era of single player games is coming to an end.

No. Single play is an essential part of what games are.

Why Single Play Works

The great innovation of videogames is that of compelling single play. Prior to videogames, single play was restricted to permutation games like Patience or Solitaire, games that were easily solved and little more than amusements for a rainy afternoon.

Nearly every game was a multi-player game. Card games, board games, sports and (more recently) table top roleplaying games all used rules and scenarios that required several players. Games had to be an organised activity and so the range of commonly-played games was very small. Rules and actions had to simple (so that everyone playing could understand them) and the formal structure of the game had to be apparent to every player, through dice, scoring goals, refereeing and so forth. It also meant that games would not be considered an artistic medium by many because they seemed trivial.

Videogames brought the world artificial intelligence and this made a huge difference compared to the permutation games of old. Games like Space Invaders and Pac-Man showed that it was possible to have complex, layered fun on your timetable rather than waiting for your friends to show up. Single player videogames didn’t need to teach the player the formal structure of the game because the game would handle necessary computations in the background, so players could just get on with having fun.

The reason why single player works so well is that it’s all about the player. Single play is the equivalent of reading a book compared to the social experience of going to the theatre. You play at your speed, in your way, get bored or engaged as much as you choose, and then move on. Single play is the reason why the videogames industry is so successful and considered an emerging part of the modern media landscape.

Single play also more easily taps into fantasy. In multiplayer games (with the exception of table top roleplaying) the focus of play tends to quickly descend into a very literal understanding of the game. Competing teams or players just want to win so they tend to see through the aesthetic layers of the game to the raw mechanics underneath. I call this seeing the frame (and I’ll post more about it soon), but the summary is that most of the artistic dimension of the game tends to take a back seat.

For example, single player Halo and multiplayer Halo feel completely different. One has the element of a journey and a player-focused set of encounters that challenge but also encourage the player. The other, however, has the overwhelming air of competition, 15-year old kids shouting racist abuse at each other, and the phenomenon of asshats (where players simulate sitting on the heads of dead players’ corpses as a boasting mechanism).

Neither is more or less fun than the other, but there is a definite difference in tone.

Online Games and Single Play

The great difference between most social games and MMOs versus traditional multiplayer games like sports or Counter-Strike, is that they are asynchronous rather than synchronous. Like single player games, they are all about the player rather than relying on groups of players, and so they are more personal rather than competitive experiences.

Asynchronous play allows playing in parallel rather than with another player. The vast majority of the player’s time is spent working away on their own game experience, and then only briefly supported or added to by interaction with another player. It is an experience which is only tangentially shared.

In my recent series of posts on CityVille, for example, I talked about mechanisms like gifting and reputation which help create a culture of reciprocal trade in the game. Those are the kinds of interaction that are typical of asynchronous play, whereas multiplayer gaming needs to be much more active.

The Single Player Stigma

Perhaps the reason why words like aberration are being used in connection with single play is to do with social stigma. The prevailing media image of the teenage gamer geek, alone in his bedroom playing games, is a negative one that seems to haunt gaming.

This is internalised by some members of the industry, who then conclude that the best way for games to be regarded as a legitimate cultural medium is to shake off the single-player image and embrace communities instead. I think that giving into that stigma is ridiculous. It would be the equivalent of the literary community forgoing the writing of books and writing for the theatre instead simply because book readers are sometimes labelled nerds.

There is nothing embarrassing about single play. It is a core part of what games are, and should be celebrated. Many of the fun game experiences that I or any of the readers of this blog have had, especially the thaumatic experiences, came from being lost in a single-play world. There is a unique magic that comes with single play that players love. Games are worlds, and worlds are meant to be played with.

We should not constrain ourselves to only play that which is deemed socially acceptable by the ignorant. That is not the road toward becoming the artists that we are meant to be.

About Tadhg Kelly

  • The thrust of the “single player is an aberration” remark is that online is the future of games not what is known as multiplayer. This means games like World of Warcraft and Dungeons & Dragons online, Runescape and Moshi Monsters, Dofus and Metin 2, Words with Friends and WeRule.

  • Thanks for your detailed response. Personally, I agree that single player games are not an aberration.

    However, I think you are mistaken your initial assumption. The thrust of the “single player is an aberration” remark is that online is the future of games not what is known as multiplayer. This means games like World of Warcraft and Dungeons & Dragons online, Runescape and Moshi Monsters, Dofus and Metin 2, Words with Friends and WeRule.

    I believe that over the next decade we will see a much higher proportion of online games than before. They are also likely to have more players and be more profitable

  • valleyshrew

    I play 1, maybe 2 multiplayer games a year. I play about 30 single player ones. The money is all in single player, it just appears that since the couple of most popular games each year are multiplayer that it is more popular. What are the top 10 games each year? Maybe 1 is a multiplayer game. The other 9 are mainly single player. Games like Red Dead Redemption or Uncharted 2 may have multiplayer but it is a far inferior experience to their single player campaigns.

    We need more deep singleplayer games, there’s far too much emphasis on multiplayer now when the community dies within a year. It’s an absolute disgrace that 5 years in grand theft auto 4 remains the only game this generation that is well written, culturally rich and with an open world. Fallout new vegas is close with great writing and a large world but it’s not got enough culture. And there’s maybe only 4 other games that are well written period. How many shallow, puerile, linear shooters have we had?

    Game critics are failing utterly to account for deep level design or writing quality (probably because they’re not qualified to critique on literary merits so just ignore them entirely – see how a game like bayonetta or gears of war can get perfect marks), instead focusing entirely on graphics, gameplay and sound. They basically review games from a multiplayer perspective, the notion that “games” should only be about fun makes as much sense as saying that tv shows should only be game shows. Games are objectively the most diverse medium, the “fun” label is holding them back. Heavy Rain has proven you don’t need to be a mass murdering simulator to be entertaining.

    For me, single player is all about giving me what only video games can, an adventurous immersive world to explore with an engaging story and lots of character interactions. No other medium has exploration. Too many developers seem to want to either create toys or movies rather than the game mediums unique strength in creating an alternative world.

    Radio stations are one of the most important and underappreciated features in a video game, they really bring the world to life. All the other open world games like prototype or infamous have sterile worlds compared to gtaiv. Fallout has far too little radio with the handful of songs repeating ad nauseum. People in the modern world are information addicts and crave diverse stimulation. It’s not enough to only offer fun gameplay, the 3 senses (sight, sound, touch) need to be kept active. Games like final fantasy have huge instrumental soundtracks that do little to distract from the monotony of the gameplay. Just to struggle through them without being bored to death you have to turn on your own radio or listen to podcasts.

    GTAIV is really something very special as an entertainment product it contains more culture than any other piece of media ever created. It has a full book worth of writing in the extremely detailed and creative internet parody, a few hours of great satire tv shows, a few stand up sets, 300 songs from every genre you could want, hours of talk radio, news bulletins and advertisement parodies. Along with that it has the most detailed city, varied minigames and locations from strip clubs to a theme park, pubs and restaurants, and then the core driving and shooting gameplay which no other game even attempts anymore is solid. If you could take any game from the modern world back to the 80’s to impress them with how far the medium has come, GTAIV would be the one.

    If only they could have abandoned the “kill 300 goons” standard and replaced it with better quality writing and social objectives. LA noire will perhaps be the answer to that particular qualm, though it’s going to be completely lacking the humour which makes gta so enjoyable.

    Sorry this is getting a bit off topic. I enjoy both but single player is memorable, constantly interesting and intellectually valued whilst multiplayer is ephemeral, extremely repetitive and in the end meaningless time wasting. It’s like the difference between time spent in class or on the playground. You enjoy having fun more at the time, but education is far more valuable.

  • Call me nostalgic but I agree. I love playing single player games as much as playing online with friends. Depending on my mood sometimes even more. I can set the pace, take a break whenever I want, continue the following day and ideally play through a wonderful story. Be a hero without having to be one of the top players.

    I recently played God of War 3 and Uncharted 2 again. I think I enjoyed playing through Uncharted 2 for the second time as much as for the first time a year ago. It’s a real gem but I only just remembered that it actually has a multiplayer part. It was overshadowed by my desire to follow the story. Every day I was already looking forward to seeing what comes next.

    Online gameplay per se does not turn me off. I do play online a lot, too. But often it’s different. I do love cooperative online game play though. Competitive is just not my style. It feels like repeating the same content over time. Me getting beaten 🙂 I could try harder but then I would take time away from playing those amazing games where I can be the hero even if I just play a little bit each day.

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  • There are even more games but you can’t put them all i one article 😉 that’s too much brother.

  • Anonymous

    Probably 🙂

  • Charles Cecil

    I don’t want to sound like a Cassandra, but I think back to Owain Bennalack’s feature in PC Review (I think) in 1994(ish) when he asked a number of developers whether we thought that our audience would stop playing single-player games in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, or never. While most people went for the answer ‘5’ or ’10’, I pointed out that it was a ludicrous suggestion that single-player game would fall from grace any time soon, for many of the reasons so lucidly cited by Tadhg above. And now we are having the same debate – and intelligent, rational people are making the same claims about the imminent death of single player games. In my crystal ball I see this same question being asked in another 15 years (doesn’t 2025 like a long way away – maybe we will be preparing to host the World Cup) and a different set of intelligent, rational people making exactly the same nonsensical claims.

  • Anonymous

    Yep, I mentioned it, and Patience too.

  • Erm… what about Solitaire. That’s existed longer than the computer games industry.

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