Xbox boss Shannon Loftis, who heads up Xbox Publishing for first-party games, believes single-player-only games aren't dead but they do have questions to face around their economic viability. Speaking to GameSpot today, Loftis said the demand by gamers for higher quality experiences comes with a price tag. While storytelling is still of paramount importance, the economics of single-player-only titles is "complicated" in today's industry due to the dramatic and constant evolution of the game market.
"Game development in general is about a couple of things. It's about delivering and experience and it's about telling stories. Storytelling is as central to game development as it ever has been," Loftis said.
There are of course strong examples of compelling single-player-only games that have performed well in the market, such as Bethesda's Fallout 4, Sony's Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Microsoft's own Ori series, Loftis pointed out. But overall, Loftis said the call for higher-quality experiences can result in a big production budget. The suggestion is that some publishers might be understandably spooked putting so much money into a project when their return is not as much a sure-thing as it could be for a product with more potential revenue streams beyond the initial game sale.
"I don't think that it's dead per se," Loftis said about the market for exclusively single-player games. "I do think the economics of taking a single-player game and telling a very high fidelity multi-hour story get a little more complicated. Gamers want higher fidelity and they want higher resolution graphics."
Loftis said Microsoft's Netflix-style Xbox Game Pass service for Xbox One, which costs $10/month for access to a library of more than 100 games, is one method by which Microsoft can help fund single-player-only games. Game Pass "gives us the opportunity to potentially fund games like that," she said.
Retail game sales and subscription revenue--from Xbox Game Pass and other sources--"helps us put games like that in the market over time," Loftis explained.
"I do think the economics of taking a single-player game and telling a very high fidelity multi-hour story get a little more complicated" -- Loftis
These economic considerations may possibly explain or at least contribute to the discussion about microtransactions in AAA games. It is rare today for high-profile games to not have microtransaction systems in place.
One recent high-profile exclusively single-player game, Middle-earth: Shadow of War, has microtransactions in its single-player campaign. Everything can be earned through normal gameplay, but players can also choose to spend money to speed up their progress. Some called it out as odd that there would be speed-up microtransactions in a single-player game. Exactly why developer Monolith put this system into Shadow of War is not immediately clear, but it represents another revenue stream.
In Loftis' estimation, single-player-only games will exist forever, though it's possible they may become less prevalent. "I don't think that there is ever going to be a time when there aren't single-player, story-based games," she said. "I do love the idea of building a community around the experience of these games."
Loftis added that she wants to find a way to help find a way for the wider Xbox community to get together and enjoy the "shared experience of a single-player game" that affected them in some way. She pointed out the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones as a moment where fans were so affected by what happened that they came together to discuss and post videos of their reactions on YouTube.
We asked Loftis about the future of single-player games in the wake of EA's unexpected and dramatic announcement that it was closing Visceral Games and re-tooling the studio's much-anticipated Star Wars game. Announced as a story-based, linear adventure game, EA said it discovered in the production process that it wasn't going to be a game that fans could "come back to and enjoy for a long time to come." So the decision was made to "pivot" to something new. It remains to be seen what that will be, but the wording of EA's statement suggests the team is looking at a more online, multiplayer-focused experience. Some took this news as a signal that video games in general are trending away from single-player-only experiences. That's an understandably worrying thought. As Loftis said, it's highly unlikely that exclusively single-player games cease to exist, though we could see fewer of them due to the realities of doing business.
What do you think about single-player games? Let us know in the comments below! This is just one of the many topics that came up in our interview with Loftis today. Check back soon for more on topics like the future of the Fable franchise, the Xbox One X, how she feels about Microsoft's lineup of exclusives this year, and a lot more.