Remember Remedy Entertainment? The creators of Alan Wake, and more recently, Quantum Break? Thomas Puha, Remedy’s Head of Communications, made a statement in a GamesIndustry.biz interview regarding the company’s shift to incorporate cooperative elements and similar mechanics into their games as a way of increasing replayability. One of the key points was that, “the traditional AAA single player experience is just really expensive to make.” Factors like a game’s length, its features, and its production values were all brought up as things that gamers expect more from, each of which greatly increases a project’s cost.
The thing is, do we really expect that from our single player games? Sure, there will always be people who aren’t satisfied until artists are modeling every cell on a person’s body, and there are others who’ll be disappointed with any game that doesn’t have at least 50 hours of content. Despite that, I like to think that the vast majority of gamers care less about how beautiful or long a game is, and more about if it’s any fun to play.
Look at some of the most critically-acclaimed games from last year. Persona 5 is not what I’d call a pretty game from a purely technical standpoint. Its overall style? Bloody fantastic. However, its character models are by no means realistic, and most animations are far from lifelike. Night in the Woods uses a simplistic art style reminiscent of paper cutouts, and is a solely single player experience that lasts around 8 hours. These are just two examples of titles that have sacrificed length, polygon counts, or both, yet have still seen critical and financial success.
Now, let’s look at the other end of the spectrum. How many open-world games have boasted massive maps with dozens or hundreds of hours of content? How much of that is routinely taken up by boring fetch quests, pointless collectibles, and NPCs with less personality than a bowl of cold porridge? While this could be used to prove Puha’s point (replacing all that dull content with interesting attractions would be quite costly), I’d argue it’s just a sign that the game could stand to have some fat trimmed. There’s no point in adding dozens of hours of bonus content if your players are too bored to experience it.
Additionally, Remedy’s own Quantum Break is a prime example of how a game can drown in its own aesthetic innovation. Full disclosure: I haven’t played Quantum Break. However, based on trailers and screenshots, it looks fantastic. It also has a full live-action TV show within it, with episodes bookending levels and the like. I must ask: who wanted that? In their statement, Remedy bemoaned how often developers feel their effort has been wasted in creating a world and its characters when players generally only play through single player games once. Yet they were more than happy to design and model everything in Quantum Break in loving detail, only to throw that out the window and blow more money on real actors for their cutscenes.
Granted, I don’t know the cost tradeoff at play here, and I’m cognizant of the fact that Remedy would have had to hire voice actors if all the cutscenes were done in-engine. However, while a cool idea, creating a TV show to integrate into a game is anything but a small undertaking, and doing it well would essentially require a totally separate crew to commit time and money to its production. Plus, perhaps the most prominent result is that the in-game models just end up looking worse compared to their real-life counterparts.
I’m not saying that any of Remedy’s games have been wastes of time or money. They’ve been well-received by many fans and critics, and Quantum Break in particular is still sitting near the top of my backlog. I can appreciate the work that went into such an expansive project, and I think many players feel the game was elevated because of it. However, I think that Quantum Break is far beyond any sort of “standard” for single player AAA games; it’s the exception, not the rule.
Sure, Quantum Break was published by Microsoft, and that no doubt helped it expand into the massive multimedia experience it is. On the other hand, Journey was published by Sony, and while it technically has a multiplayer component to it, it’s far from the focus of the game. Its visuals are anything but realistic. Its music is fantastic, but it has minimal sound effects and non-existent voice acting. To top it off, it’s around two hours long. Yet I’d argue that Journey easily goes toe-to-toe with (and perhaps even surpasses) Quantum Break.
Single player AAA games don’t need massive budgets to be successful. They don’t need endless supplies of content, nor visuals that are nigh-indistinguishable from reality. What they need is heart, and the sooner that companies start realizing that, the sooner I think they’ll understand just why so many gamers still love single player games.