A Tell Tale: A Warning for Single Player...
-This article is a commentary of the author, and does not represent any opinion of Game Infinite as a whole. No evidence of a link between the closure of Telltale and the drawn conclusions is official. This article is strictly an opinion.-
It was recently announced that studio Telltale Games is shutting down. They had a mass layoff of 90% of its employees, with only a skeleton crew remaining to finish up some work for the Netflix Minecraft series. It took me by surprise. For those of you who do not know, Telltale is most famous for its critically reviewed and much loved Walking Dead video game series. While they are most famous for this series, they have still seen mild success with their other titles with Guardians of the Galaxy and Batman. This is a beloved studio that caused cheers at E3 when it was revealed they were making a batman game. It isn’t the first studio I would expect to just be allowed to die. I say that because even if their recent games didn’t sell as well as expected, their brand name and talent on the team alone should stand out, to be bought up by someone. It came out of nowhere too, as the final season of their Walking Dead is still in progress. There are plenty of large publishers that should have swept them up instantly if there was financial trouble. The day after the announcement, I saw Ninja Theory publicly invite on Facebook, the talented team members to look at their openings, after all Telltale is composed of very a talented team of story tellers and animators that are suddenly out of job.
Usually in the business world, successful products rewards success of the business. It is something I have always found odd in gaming when a successful studio releases a successful game and they still go under.
(Telltale's The Walking Dead)
Have you ever heard someone say, “Single Player Games are dead”? Well, there is a lot of evidence to the contrary. These past two years gave us legendary works of art such as such as Zelda Breath of the Wild, God of War 2018, Super Mario Odyssey, Assassins Creed Origins, Horizon Zero Dawn, Spiderman PS4, and more. All of these groundbreaking and record breaking games stand as a testament that single player games are not “dead”. They tell us that gamers want deep emotional single player stories. The sheer excitement and hype awaiting the behemoth that will be Red Dead Redemption 2 is so high, it scared several publishers into moving their release dates away from that window. Gamers WANT single player games. I have always rolled my eyes at the claim warning us about the fall of single player. But I’ve been wondering something for a while now, and the demise of Telltale got me really thinking. Where does this idea of the death of single player games come from? While single players games aren’t dying due to lack of gamer interest, I believe there is something else is threatening them.
But first, let me take you back 5 years. The year is 2013. I am watching E3 and the reveal of both the Xbox One and the PS4 is happening today. Today is the day we are seeing the exciting new generation of gaming consoles. I tuned in a few minutes late to the Microsoft Press conference, and I was confused. What the heck is an “xbox one”? Days leading up to it, rumors were all over the internet. Xbox 720 was the leading rumor. Xbox Infinity was on the table. Xbox 460 was also tossed around. No one ever mentioned “xbox one”. It was a weird name that made no sense. While we have heard it so many times by now we are use to it, my initial reaction was negative. Then we actually got into the conference, and Microsoft bragged about all these next-gen features of the xbox one that no one wanted. This was a device bundled with Kinect (remember that?) and half the conference was spent on how good xbox one was at controlling and playing TV. It felt like a tv box that also happened to play games. If you wanted to play on xbox one, it had to be online. The xbox would actually check for an internet connection once a day for always online DRM restrictions. Top it all off, Xbox disc games were going to be simply one time install discs that downloaded a digital copy, which essentially eliminated the used game capabilities. (Goodbye GameStop)
(Xbox One's Reveal)
Let’s just say, the backlash was substantial. Microsoft completely failed at selling us on all these wonderful new “restrictions”. I wasn’t sold. I hated it. I already had my wallet ready for a PS4 and that was as a total xbox fan boy. I spent the next few days bashing their decisions on reddit. I came up with some pretty good meme’s if I may say so myself. Even Sony joined in on the shade throwing by jokingly explaining on how sharing games worked on PS4 by making a video of them simply handing the game to a friend. Cheers roared through the crowd as Sony announced that the PS4 would support used games and would not require an internet connection. It didn’t help that the PS4 would be 100$ cheaper and work virtually the same way we expected from the previous generation. People don’t like drastic change, and I’m one of those people. Due to all the backlash, Xbox back peddled on everything. They turned off the always online 24 hour check in. They enabled used games support. They kept the importance of the disc to playing a game. They even eventually back peddled hard on Kinect, removing it from the bundle, decreasing Kinect support for the dev’s, and today, Microsoft doesn’t even make the adapter needed to plug a Kinect into a modern Xbox One S or X. They went back on everything. Gamers rejoiced, myself included. I ended up buying the Xbox One first before PS4, for the same reason I first purchased my Xbox 360 before PS3: Halo. Thinking back on that year, I’ve been thinking about something for a while now. I now know something I didn’t fully realize until I heard the news that Telltale games was shutting down. Now, I’m not saying the collapse of Telltale is due to any one thing. I don’t have any inside information, and I realize business failures can have many causes. All I am saying is its closing got me thinking about this. I was wrong back then. I think we all were. We were so quick to judge Microsoft’s intentions, so quick to think of them as greedy; we failed to see the long term big picture. We were so afraid of having to change, we didn’t stop to ask if the changes had a reason behind them.
To be fair, Microsoft could have done a WAY better job at selling it to us. Selling us on reasons why. Perhaps they could have sold us on how xbox one’s DRM was going to protect game devs and foster a better environment for building games. Microsoft saw the ever climbing cost of game development and tried to plan for the future. We didn’t let them.
Everything we hate about modern gaming? It is kind of our fault. We didn’t let Xbox protect us from the future. Aggressive, non-gamer-friendly “Games as a services”, Lootboxes, Season Passes, Micro-transactions, Ridiculous Preorder Bonuses, Preorder Early Access, Digital Early Access, Freemium games? While these things aren’t inherently bad and can be sometimes done well, they and their worst examples, all exist because of us.
Used Games are the reason we have these things.
Developers and Publishers spend millions on a game, and at the end of it, all that matters is new sales for the most part during a very short release window. (GTA V cost $265 Million to make and market) For most, those first few weeks are absolutely crucial. That’s why we get all these crazy things. Day One DLC? Insanely huge marketing pushes? Preorder exclusive bonuses? “Definitive Editions”? They are all meant to encourage us to buy NEW. That’s because developers make 0$ on used games, and to make it worse, used copies are usually available with in weeks of launch.
When you think about it, it’s kind of CRAZY.
What other industry has it where within weeks of a new product being available, mass quantities of it are available to buy used for much cheaper? Cars take at least a few years. Smartphones usually take at least a few months if not a year to have viable used market. Movies are either rented, streamed, or purchased; when do you ever hear of “used movies”? There are dozens of GameStops everywhere, but there barely are ever mass used movie sales. The movie industry has it even better going for them because they get to sell you a movie “new” twice, once in theaters and then again in your home. Imagine what the movie industry would look like if they only had a few weeks to sell you a movie before losing almost all their source of revenue. What if within a week of a movie coming out in theaters, instead of paying 12$ for a ticket, you could pay 6$ for someones old ticket and still go. We wouldn’t have big Avengers block busters for sure. At home purchases would be much higher if iTunes or BestBuy had to compete with massive used movie sales that were 15-30% cheaper within days or weeks. Remember when PopcornTime reached its peak in popularity, the movie industry was in an uproar. Rightly so as that was straight piracy, but strictly mathematically speaking, a pirated copy makes the movie industry the same money as a used movie disc, 0$. There just isn’t rampant used movies.
(Recent 2018 AAA Games)
You see, when I think about the things Microsoft wanted to introduce, they seemed greedy at the time, but are brilliant and forward thinking when viewed today. I hate buying digital because I want a physical game collection, but every single time I have to actually get up and walk over to pop Overwatch in again for the 800th time, I think about how I’m one of the people who asked for them to remove the ability to play it without the disc. In the past 5 years, I have never once been without internet. Not once. So, why did that bother me again? I want to build a gaming collection so that means I very rarely trade games back in, so why did that matter? Now this is just me, but internet is pretty prevalent in 2018, and if you want to save money instead of building a library and cycle out games regularly renting is still easier/cheaper than trading. We even have Netflix like options like GamePass and Playstion Now. I try to buy a game new because I want to support the developer. If I think a game is worth less than its initial price, I try to wait for a new copy to go on sale over getting used. Everything I hated about the original idea of Xbox One either didn’t matter or turned out to be a great idea after all.
I think it would have actually been a good thing in the long run because it would have encouraged this “new first mentality” for games. This is more like it is on PC, and if it had made it to console it would have worked well. Developers would have way more breathing room on their games sales. Developers wouldn’t be forced to come up with these crazy ways of extorting money out of users post launch. Can you REALLY be angry at a developer for trying to include other ways for you to give them money when in fact you have paid them 0$ initially because the game was used? I enjoy watching Angry Joe. He is one of my favorite gaming youtubers. He recently put out a video slamming Devil May Cry 5 for including a micro transaction system in the upcoming single player game; and he did so also for Shadow of War. I understand. I hate a freemium feel in games, with store fronts everywhere wanting you to buy some kind of digital coins. But can we REALLY be mad at them? These are people who are making a product that within two weeks lose much of their product sales. How can any product be expected to perform against a 20% cheaper identical version of itself? If the system protected the hard work of developers, beyond a tiny launch window, we may not have such a drastic 2018 where developers need to get creative, getting you to pay beyond the sticker price. I also believe, developers could afford to discount new copies soon in this system.
(Shadow of War having micro transactions in single player)
WE helped create the 2018 we live in, at least in part, by demanding Microsoft remove the protections that in the end would have made gaming development much better. We have seen the rise of “Games as a Service” because it is the natural evolution to what we demanded. The fact is games are getting more and more complex, more and more photorealistic, more graphically demanding, more and more EXPENSIVE, and we still want to be able to pay the developer zero dollars for it. One of the biggest games in the world, Fortnite, is FREE to play as exists entirely as a service. The largest gaming franchise in the world, Call of Duty, has shifted even more to a service/online experience by removing its single player element. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my Overwatch, my Destiny 2, my PUBG, my Call of Duty. I’m super excited for Anthem and Red Dead Online. But we created an environment where it is very difficult for developers to build games that have an upfront price and no recurring cost, and we are shocked when developers that follow that model fail. Last year we saw Visceral Games shut down by EA. Another example of a successful developer that brought us awesome gems such as the Dead Space series, Dantes Inferno, and more. This brought us the cancellation of their hotly anticipated Star Wars single player game. EA specifically referenced their fear that this model would not sell well as a reason for its cancellation/restructuring. Now we all like to think of EA as an “Evil” greedy company, but maybe they were right? Maybe that star wars game wasn’t going to sell enough to pay for its development. We demanded EA to remove things like Online Passes, and even Season Passes, and got mad at them when they tried loot boxes? These aren’t even single player games coming from EA. These are online service based games, and we still expect the on going costs to be free when the initial cost of the game is able to be ignored by being used. I’ve watched THQ go under soon after a successful release of Darksiders 2. Before that, I saw Irrational games go under after a successful release of Bioshock Infinite. When successful developers go under despite great successful games, maybe it should give us gamers a red flag that maybe the model is broken. Again, I understand many factors contribute to a studio's closing, but I think the state of gaming today really shows something.
Are the God of War’s, Horizon Zero Dawn’s, and Breath of the Wild’s slowly becoming the exception rather than the rule? In the future, will only the biggest single player games survive while most others fail? Will single player only survive when paired with online or in game purchases? There will always be indie devs who make simpler games. There may always be heavy hitters who can make system sellers for single player. We will see Elders Scrolls 6 and GTA VI and other mega games stomp previous records. But what about the games in between? The medium sized games that we all love, but are niche. I ask, did we as gamers make a mistake 5 years ago when we forced Microsoft to go back on everything?
I think we did. If they had brought the PC like restrictions maybe Playstation would have soon followed? I think if the industry had shifted heavily away from used games, we would have seen a major shift in what types of games can be financially made. I don’t mean to critique the service based games, but if we want them to coexist rather than kill single player games, I think we need to start asking WHY successful game studios still fail. The next time a single player game you want to play comes out, either buy it new, buy it digital, or wait for a sale. The next time you are about to pick up a used game, ask yourself if you want to contribute to the future of that series or developer or not. Does the developer deserve some money from you? I really believe we as gamers need to do what we can to find ways to support developers making single player games. The more who commit to buying digital or waiting for sales on new physical copies, the more single player games are protected.