Single player games aren’t dead.
Take that affirmation from a publisher that thrives on the sort of evocative, narratively-driven games that fans of solo experiences love. It’s just as easy to get lost in a playthrough of Wolfenstein II, Prey or The Evil Within 2 as it is a good book. It’s just as meaningful an experience to make your way through those Bethesda Softworks published games, become emotionally involved in their characters, as it is a solid piece of literature.
The question that occasionally pops up in video game circles, though, isn’t really about how enjoyable a single-player game is, or even whether developers can nail the singular form of gameplay, but rather the financial state of that facet of the game industry.
Earlier this week, Bethesda gently poked fun at that fear in a Game Awards-aired commercial to save the single-player game. As mawkish as the ad was - it starred an emotional Lynda Carter pleading the case as if these particular players were abandoned kittens - I wondered if there was any truth buried under the satire.
Bethesda vice president Pete Hines told me not to worry; single-player games are doing just fine, even those that the company released over the past year or so.
“We don’t really talk about numbers, but in general I think this year we have done a number of single-player things - Wolfenstein, The Evil Within 2, Prey, Dishonored 2 - some of those have done pretty well, at or above as we expected them to, and some have done not quite as well as we expected or hope,” he says. “I’ve seen the thoughts and comments around single-player. We’re aware of the concern.
“Here’s my thing, single-player is an incredibly broad thing to reference. This whole discussion lumps in a lot of things into one basket. When we’re talking very generally about single-player games, it includes everything from Sonic the Hedgehog to Skyrim to Gone Home.”
He adds that single-player will remain a part of what Bethesda will be doing going forward.
The commercial, he says, was a chance to do something on a timely topic during the VGAs.
“This year we could do that thing again where we run a Wolfenstein or Evil Within or Prey commercial,” he says. “But given what’s going on out there, it seemed like a cool opportunity to do something different that people weren’t expecting.”
The commercial also highlighted the fact that Bethesda was kicking off a sale on its single-player games. More importantly, it also tied into a $100,000 donation the company made to the ESA Foundation, to help fund scholarships for future game developers.
“It was a chance to point to our sale but also the ESA Foundation donation was a chance to do some good,” he says. “I like stuff where everyone on all sides wins, like a blood drive around a game or raising money for charity.”
While Bethesda will continue to work on the sorts of single-player driven games that tell expansive, evocative stories, they company’s different studios are also trying their hand at bringing their games to virtual reality and Nintendo’s Switch.
Virtual reality, Hines says, is something the company has been looking at for awhile, something he calls a good fit for many of their games.
“The decision needs to come from our studios, though,” he says. “It’s more about what do they want to do? What’s a good fit?”
That has, so far, resulted in virtual reality versions of Doom, Skyrim and Fallout 4. The same sort of approach also fuels the studios’ decisions on what to do for the Nintendo Switch, and the results have been very similar. The company already released Doom and Skyrim to the Switch, and Wolfenstein II is coming next year.
“We like Nintendo, we’re all big fans, and a vast majority of all are owners of the Switch and play games on it,” Hines says.
Part of that port decision is also driven by the publisher’s desire to get their games in front of as many people as possible.
“We spend a lot of time and effort as do the developers, making great games and we want as many people to play them as possible,” he says. “So far, we’re most pleased about how some people seemed stunned and amazed that Doom works and looks amazing on your Switch. We’re proud of that.”
In bringing those games to VR and the Switch, the studios often lean heavily on outside developers to do the bulk of that work, Hines says. Studios like Panic Button, Escalation and Iron Galaxy are a big part of why those experiences look so great. Doing ports that way allows the studio to continue their chief focus on the next big game, Hines says.
The studio-centric approach explains the unpredictable nature of games coming to Switch and virtual reality right now, but not why Bethesda has seemingly become home to so many talented creators of narratively-driven, single-player games.
Hines believes that’s in part due to the sorts of developers attracted to Bethesda. Bethesda makes great story games, which attract people good at that who then make more great games of that sort.
“Some of the studios we’ve worked with have had more experience in single-player,” he says. “Look at Arkane and what they made before joining us. Shinji [Mikami] before Tango. What the guys at MachineGames made before making Wolfenstein. They tended to make those kinds of games.”