It seemed to start with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Sales figures for Eidos Montreal’s five-year investment were disappointing enough to put the series on ice indefinitely, while focus at the studio shifted to a multi-game Marvel deal. Next it was Watch Dogs 2 and Dishonored 2’s turn to post disappointing launch sales figures, both down considerably on their previous titles despite warm critical reception. By the time Mass Effect: Andromeda and Prey launched, both selling fewer launch copies than projected, the narrative had already started to form: single-player gaming’s number was up.
Here's our list of the best games on PC - which includes plenty of single-player efforts.
You can find evidence that seems to support that sentiment - provided you look with slightly squinted eyes. Browse through Steam’s most played games by current and peak daily concurrent users, and you’ll probably find only Football Manager 2017 to represent single-player gaming in the top ten. In fact, at the time of writing, the first truly single-player game with no online modes at all in that list is Fallout 4, down somewhere in the twenties. Meanwhile, the recent success of multiplayer battle royale game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds - inconceivably surpassing four million sales in three months - appears to show where the industry’s momentum is in 2017.
But do sales figures really give a reliable insight into the state of single-player PC gaming? Perhaps those big triple-A games undersold because of their big triple-A marketing strategies, for example. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that people might have been confused by Prey’s nomenclature, being a reboot of a rebooted sequel to what’s now a fairly obscure 11-year-old game, which was itself in development for 11 years. Maybe it was sequel fatigue that spelled their fate, or piracy, or used game sales - or something else entirely. The figures alone don’t tell us why Prey et al didn’t fly off the virtual shelves, only that they didn’t.
Steam’s concurrent user stats aren’t much of a barometer for single-player gaming’s fortunes, either. People generally play multiplayer games over a longer duration because their content can’t be exhausted (as quickly, anyway). Solo games are more of a smash-and-grab for content: you play them through to completion, and then they’re uninstalled until someone releases a mod that swaps out a deuteragonist for Macho Man Randy Savage. Concurrent user data for those six to 30 hour experiences simply won’t look the same as it does for multiplayer titles.
Where might we find better indicators of single-player gaming’s health, then? Certainly, the views of the developers making them might be a good place to start. Tom Francis released solo stealth game Gunpoint in 2013, and its sales allowed him to “quit jobs, as a concept.” His next game, Heat Signature, is solo too, but “very much designed around being endlessly playable if you like it enough,” he tells us.
“Games with a fixed, short-ish amount of content are sometimes hits, but it feels like they only get one chance to be successful, at launch, and if they fall short of some critical mass they're done for” Francis continues. “Replayable games, single or multiplayer, have the chance to build over time through word of mouth, and friends seeing friends playing them on Steam. I'd guess that's the more consistent trend we're seeing: replayable stuff has a better chance than finite stuff. That would explain why Skyrim and other big open-world games still do great.”
Paul Kilduff-Taylor is co-founder of Mode 7, developers of Frozen Synapse and its forthcoming sequel, and publishers more recently of the stylish Tokyo 42. All of Mode 7’s titles include solo and multiplayer content. “I think triple-A single-player action games went in some incredibly boring directions over the last ten years,” Kilduff-Taylor says. “Now, sadly, there's an element of reaping the whirlwind. It's hard to see how you can promise audiences a unique and remarkable experience when very few meaningful creative risks are being taken.”
While Kilduff-Taylor finds the very best of the triple-A solo crop, such as Doom or Dark Souls, can still distinguish themselves and find commercial success, he reckons much of single-player’s untapped potential lies with smaller indie titles.
“I'm thinking of games like Quadrilateral Cowboy, Edith Finch, Virginia, but also of stuff like Dead Cells. If you have absolutely killer original mechanics or narrative, then there is still a chance for success on a meaningful scale for a small team,” Kilduff-Taylor says.
The vast majority of developers I reached out to for comment believe single-player gaming is doing fine, and will continue to do so. However, many do identify challenges in that space. Trent Oster, co-founder of BioWare and of Beamdog, has a long list of celebrated solo games to his name. Single-player games, he says, are “not getting funded in 2017. There is no interest from publishers in funding a single-player-only concept.”
According to Oster, user acquisition costs have increased too. “The mobile space has gone insane with marketing their games with ads, videos, TV spots. People are getting saturated with advertising for videogames. Since the potential profit of a microtransaction mobile game can be huge, you have a steady crop of companies paying top dollar for user acquisition, driving up the market price for any kinds of advertising.”
Oster says multiplayer games are retaining players who might otherwise be buying new single-player games, too, which contributes to a challenging market. “You take an oversupply of games, high cost, limited effectiveness advertising, and sticky multiplayer games, and the space is really tough for a single-player game right now.”
2017 isn’t the first time the industry’s taken an inward glance and fretted about single-player games. Ten years ago, you could access The Pirate Bay just by googling it, and it seemed as though videogame piracy might spell the end of all things. In those days, physical media was still prevalent, and the used-game market was cause for concern to single-player developers too. Single-player PC gaming seemed to be on the sharp end of both those factors since multiplayer games are harder to resell, and console games are harder to pirate. Such was the grim outlook, caused by those twin devils, that pioneering developer and Frontier CEO David Braben told Gamasutra in 2012, when saying that pre-owned sales had “killed core games.”
And in 2014, Epic Games co-founder Tim Sweeney told Polygon that, at some point between releasing Unreal in 1998 and Gears of War in 2006, “PC piracy impacted the market and made single-player campaign games impossible… We estimated at one point that, for every game we sold, four copies were pirated." He wasn’t alone in attributing such damage to piracy, nor was Braben alone when saying the same thing about the pre-owned market. And yet here we are, somehow, in 2017, having essentially the same debate about single-player gaming - only this time the surrounding market factors have changed.
Kitfox creative director Tanya X. Short attributes that change to the rise of digital distribution giants such as Steam and its competitors. And don’t forget good old-fashioned jerks, either. “The threat of piracy used to be stronger, at least in North America and western Europe. Piracy and used-game sales have both declined since the prominence of Steam and other digital distribution platforms have risen,” Short says.
“I'm more concerned about seemingly growing pockets of vindictive, entitled jerks who might be more likely to review-bomb or hate-pirate, not to save money but to spite the developer and ‘prove a point’... which, yes, is more possible for single-player games.” Her studio’s strategy for Moon Hunters was not to go after pirates: “We don't mind if someone can't afford it. We hope the game can offer value to those who can.”
Despite the obvious challenges developers who want to make solo experiences face in 2017, there are plenty of places where encouragement can be found. Not just from The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, the six-year-old Skyrim and its enduring community, and from indie successes like What Remains of Edith Finch. Looking at the big picture, in which concerns over single-player PC games have persisted for over a decade, it’s encouraging in and of itself that a game like Prey was released so recently. A staunchly solo immersive sim embodying the qualities of a bygone era, it’s the kind of game people might not have believed would still exist if you’d asked them a decade ago. And if you were to ask people if there’ll be similar titles, released on a similar budget, in 2027, some would find it inconceivable.
Sales figures fluctuate. Market factors fluctuate. Another indicator of single-player’s fortunes might be found in the quality of its output. Metacritic isn’t a perfect yardstick for measuring that, but it’s certainly a useful aggregator that the industry pays attention to. How are the solo games of 2017 represented on Metacritic, in contrast to 2016? How about five years ago, in 2012? Or even a decade ago?
Looking at the top 25 titles on PC by metascore, you see no such downturn in quality. In 2017 so far, exclusively single-player titles account for nearly half the list, or 12 of the top 25. In 2016, it was 11 out of 25. 11 games made the top 25 in 2012, too - whereas in 2007, only six of the top 25 were solo games. The takeaway seems fairly clear: there are more quality games being released than ever that you can play on your own. If you’re determined to find a harbinger of doom, you might find it in the average metascore of those titles: it’s currently at 82.4 in 2017, versus 88.5 last year, and 90.6 in 2007. Hang on, though: 2007 was the year of The Orange Box, and we haven’t harvested the fruits of Q3/4 this year yet.
There’s even evidence that there might be too many single-player games being released currently. According to Steam’s own figures, there are 11 new titles released every day on average, and Steamspy’s data has titles tagged ‘single-player’ among the most over-saturated on Valve’s platform. They’re abundant, basically.
It’s difficult to predict the future, of course, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a case to be made for planning single-player PC gaming’s funeral quite yet. It might be a while until we see another immersive sim like Prey produced on such a high budget, but projects like Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus demonstrate developers' continued commitment to the single-player form. And as we’ve seen over the last decade, solo games are resilient. They adapt to the times, and they find an audience.