We Don’t Not Want Single-Player Games

When it releases later this year, the improbably titled Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII will test a long-held hypothesis: single-player campaigns don’t matter, at least not in games like Call of Duty.  It will spawn yet another round of think pieces on the death of single-player games.  And, if history is any indication, it will lead a lot of people to draw a lot of wrong-headed conclusions.

For years, this conversation has chugged along, with fork after rhetorical fork being stuck in the single-player campaign.  The popularity of online multiplayer games, the growth of social platforms like Twitch that thrive off of these infinitely-replayable anecdote factories, and investors’ insatiable thirst for the games-as-service model’s revenue stream all seem to point to a simple conclusion: nobody plays single-player campaigns, nobody wants them, and developing them is a waste of money.

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There’s certainly some truth to this.  Obviously, some people are happy to spend all their time in multiplayer and have little-to-no interest in single-player.  And when viewed from a spreadsheet, these pay once, play once games aren’t as lucrative as their play forever, pay forever brethren, and are therefore sub-optimal investments of capital.  But this type of analysis seems to oversimplify and obfuscate the matter.

The single-player campaign’s obituary usually centers on two numbers, or at least the notion of these numbers, whose true values few people actually know: the relatively large number of hours people spend in multiplayer compared to single-player, and the (presumably small) percentage of players who finish this campaign or that.  To begin, let’s consider that first number: the ratio of hours spent in each mode.  We’re meant to conclude that if players spend ten or twenty hours on a campaign and hundreds of hours in multiplayer, then the multiplayer is that much more important, meaningful, and valuable to the player.  That, in other words, all hours of gameplay are created equal.  But this is a plainly absurd suggestion.

Campaigns like those found in (and excised from) Call of Duty games, are scripted, linear experiences.  They’re meticulously designed to funnel you from point A to point B to point C in a carefully controlled way, through a series of handcrafted puzzles, combat encounters, challenges, and story beats.  Every moment of gameplay has been designed for impact; every minute of your experience is an expression of the creators’ intent.

Contrast this with multiplayer, where instead of a controlled, linear experience you’re given the tools to play in a sandbox and make your own fun.  Over the course of your dozens or hundreds of hours in multiplayer, you will spend a fair chunk of time running around the map looking for other players, or frustratingly getting sniped from across the map by someone you didn’t see, or getting griefed by some trollish preteen, or suffering through a laggy connection.  And you will spend time waiting for matchmaking, waiting for the next round to start, waiting to respawn, waiting to reconnect to the server.  So much waiting.

This is not intended as a dig against multiplayer games or modes.  They can be rewarding, but they are fundamentally different experiences from linear single-player campaigns, which themselves are different experiences from open-world RPGs, which are different experiences from fighting games, and so on.  Comparing two games simply by adding up the hours you’ll spend playing them is reductive to the point of worthlessness.

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That anyone in games media would argue or imply that an hour of multiplayer is equivalent to an hour of campaign is mind-boggling, considering how many people argue the exact opposite whenever there’s a new round of “game length doesn’t matter” think pieces.  Whenever a glaringly short game comes out, and fans complain about paying $60 for such a brief experience, journalists fall all over each other to make the “quality over quantity” argument.  They’ll happily extol the virtues of a tight, three-hour indie over a twenty- or thirty-hour Ubisoft map game, only to seemingly forget this when comparing hours of multiplayer to single-player.

Really, both of these arguments make the same mistake, only from opposite directions: they presume that different types of game can be compared on such simple terms as “hours played.”  Leisurely paced exploration and vast landscapes are fundamental elements of many open-world games;  it can be done well or done poorly, but that The Witcher doesn’t play like Doom is hardly a mark against either of those games.  Nor is it a mark against the Titanfall 2 campaign that you can roll credits after six or eight hours while the multiplayer never ends.  For all the hours I’ve played of that game’s multiplayer, what I remember most are a handful of moments from its brief campaign.  But both elements are important pieces of the $60 package, at least to me, regardless of their relative lengths.

Which brings us to the second number: the percentage of people who finish a campaign.  Again, accurate data are probably only available to publishers and platform holders, but let’s assume that the numbers are low.  TrueAchievements.com looked at their own data, for example, and found that completion rates for Call of Duty games are pretty low: 22% of players finished WWII, while a paltry 9% finished Black Ops III.  Completion rates for other games they looked at are similarly low, if a bit better.

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The True Achievements write-up is of a piece with many other stories on the subject.  In analyses such as these, we’re meant to conclude that people don’t really want to play campaigns.  It’s easy at first blush to look at the data and reach this conclusion, but there are a few things to keep in mind.  For one, the data are imperfect.  Most of us usually only see second- or third-hand data of the sort aggregated by TrueAchievements.com.  But even if we had accurate data, what would it tell us?  If 30% of people finish a campaign, what does that mean?  Thirty percent of whom?  Everyone who’s ever rented or borrowed a copy of the game, or bought it used just to return it two days later?  There are a lot of ways to try a game, and this will naturally deflate completion rates.  So these numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Second, it’s important to remember that often these numbers are being compared to nothing.  Article after article will tell you that thirty-some-odd percent of players finished such-and-such game, but those numbers are often presented devoid of any context.  What percentage of all games are completed?  How many people finish games that have no multiplayer component?  How many people play the campaign but not the multiplayer?  How deep into a game’s multiplayer offerings to gamers tend to delve?  We don’t really know any of these things.

Drawing conclusions from the fact that 22% of people completed Call of Duty: WWII isn’t just an apples-to-oranges comparison; it’s pointing at a half-eaten apple and saying, “People don’t like apples.”  Maybe a 30% completion rate is par for the course; maybe it’s actually really good.  Plenty of people are content to play a game for a while and enjoy their time with it, whether they finish it or not.  Maybe interest in single-player campaigns is waning and maybe it’s not, but we can hardly conclude that from such limited data.

Finally, it’s important to draw the right conclusions.  Most of the True Achievements data are hard to parse because the site lumps all story achievements together and averages them, but there is one telling stat: about 75% of Call of Duty III players completed the first story mission, but only 25% finished the campaign.  In other words, two thirds of players who started the campaign didn’t finish it.

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Here’s another statistic: 100% of players who start a campaign start a campaign, presumably because they want to play it.  But many of them don’t make it to the end.  Some of them may get their fill and move on, satisfied, to other games; some of them may just be trying a rented or borrowed copy of the game; and some of them, I’d imagine, end up not liking that particular campaign.  But they all, at one point, decided to play a single-player story.  It’s strange to conclude that the reason so many people start but don’t finish a campaign is that they didn’t want to play one in the first place.  So maybe the lesson here isn’t that people don’t want single-player campaigns, but that they want better ones.  Maybe the reason more people aren’t finishing campaigns is that they’re often not very good, which isn’t a reason to stop making them, but perhaps a reason to invest more in them.

I once heard someone (David Fincher, if memory serves) jokingly say about Hollywood executives that if a movie set during prohibition performs poorly at the box office, they’ll (stupidly) conclude that the lesson to be learned is that people don’t like movies where the men wear hats.  Leaked Sony emails a few years ago pretty much confirm this stereotype; executives concluded from three box office failures over three decades that people don’t want to see superhero movies with female leads.  You can lead a horse to a spreadsheet, in other words.  So when we start adding up the time people spend in single-player campaigns, maybe we shouldn’t jump straight to the conclusion that people don’t want to play them.

Of course, counting up the time people spend in various game modes does tell us one thing: it tells us how much time people spend in various game modes, and this matters to publishers.  Every hour you spend in a game is an hour that can be monetized.  Every time you’re at a menu screen, the publisher has an opportunity to sell you something.  You may value the ten hours you spent in a shooter campaign as much as or more than you value the hundred hours you spent in multiplayer, but the the publisher probably doesn’t.  And so we’re going to continue to see more games that stray from the traditional one-and-done story model, and lean into transaction-heavy online modes.

The games industry, as always, is changing.  Right now, everyone wants a big, lucrative, long-tailed game-as-service.  The success of these games will certainly drive publishers’ future decisions.  And every time a developer announces a new persistent online franchise, the chorus will sing, “Is this the end of single-player?”  They’ll wave these numbers around and declare authoritatively that no one wants to play campaigns anymore.  But the truth is that we know very little about what other people want today, let alone what they’ll want in the future; we usually know less than we think about what we want ourselves.  And until someone produces a new, rich trove of data, this will remain true.  In the meantime, let’s just enjoy the games we have, and try to remain hopeful for the future.

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