AAA Gaming: Fallen Order
My thoughts on how to bring balance back to the gaming industry
By MARTIN REZNY
So, EA somehow jedi mind-tricked itself into publishing a story-driven single player game with no monetization gimmicks whatsoever, and everybody loved it. Turns out people still enjoy single player games in 2019, who knew.
In case you’re unfamiliar with what I’m being sarcastic about, in 2017, EA’s executive VP Patrick Soderlund basically said that players are no longer interested in linear story-based single player games, as EA was shutting down Visceral’s Star Wars project of that nature.
In a hilarious episode of instant karma, EA then proceeded to create a multiplayer-based Star Wars game monetized to the extreme, Battlefront 2, which resulted in so much backlash that they were essentially forced to pull a complete 180 on all of their BS practices and policies with Jedi: Fallen Order, which of course lead to it breaking multiple sales records.
And I don’t think EA executives are surprised. I don’t think they were dumb enough to honestly believe that fans of Star Wars, you know, a story universe, don’t want to play games that include Star Wars stories. I don’t have to possess Jedi powers to see that they were lying, trying to mind-trick their customers into participating in a more lucrative business model — games as a service.
The last thing they probably wanted to do was to release a good single player game because its success would be, and now is, a proof that this is what many players indeed want. At this point, EA may even be backed into the corner enough to have to create a sequel to Jedi: Fallen Order that’s also good and exactly as free of monetization, or they would risk an even greater backlash.
But while this is a noteworthy moment of the light side of the force winning for once, that’s not really what I want to talk about. The mechanics of corporate karma set aside, large corporations making games will always be pressured into disregarding story-driven single player games simply because games as a service must make more money, that’s just how math works.
What I will try to do now is argue why there always have to be story-driven single player games, despite the fact that they will make less money for their producers, and why there always should be big studios creating them using high production values. No, it’s not just so that I have something to play.
In the Land of the Blind
If you want to understand why single player experiences are so important, I think you should start by asking yourself why everyone is enjoying playing Jedi: Fallen Order so much, despite everyone agreeing that the game is technically speaking only good. At any given thing that it’s doing, it isn’t the best. It’s not particularly original in its mechanics or its story. To be fair, sound design and score are pretty great, but that doesn’t make or break a game.
My guess, and not only mine, is that a big part of that is the contrast, the nostalgia for what AAA games have not been for a while now, certainly not in the Star Wars universe. Here we have a new story from a familiar universe, at a new level of visual detail, with a new combination of familiar mechanics, with no frustrating distractions and interferences with the experience.
While there always are some good story-driven single player games, if I take my personal example, last five to ten years were mostly a series of not that. After constantly getting new satisfying games in all of my favorite genres until about 2012, Diablo 3 was a disappointment, Elder Scrolls Online was a disappointment, and Mass Effect: Andromeda was a disappointment.
Between then and now, the only games in the AAA sci-fi fantasy category that I had a good experience with were Dragon Age: Inquisition from 2014 and XCOM 2 from 2016. I guess Witcher 3 is equally good, but I could never get used to its combat controls, and if I were into post-apocalypse, Fallout 4 would also fit the bill. Both of these games are from 2015. I wonder why there was nothing at all I wanted to play between XCOM 2 and the end of this year.
This really seems to be the year of the science fiction/fantasy story-driven single player games striking back, if you look at titles like Control or Outer Worlds, the latter of which is specifically an elaborate fuck-you from Obsidian to Bethesda’s corporatization of Fallout. Heck, Half-Life seems to be awakening from stasis with the announcement of the new VR game. Diablo 4 is returning to all that was good about Diablo 2, including serious storytelling.
The new trend from the likes of EA, Blizzard, Bethesda, and Valve is clear — they realized that they have delved too greedily and too deep in search of treasure, and now have to again start making good games, or see the players turn away from them for good. Because that’s the consensus, what they’ve been doing lately wasn’t progress or improvement, not what they should have been doing, not what they’ve been doing previously that made them great.
And that’s despite the fact that most people were playing their multi-playerized, monetized games, despite the fact these companies were making more money than ever before. Yeah, players will play games that exist, what choice do they have, and games as a service will make money, but the absence of pure single player experience is an absence of something important.
Games as a Culture Versus Games as a Sport
What I believe is vastly underappreciated by most people who talk about games these days is that single player games are something fundamentally different than multiplayer games, to a point where calling both of these “games” is more of a technicality than anything else. You can’t just have one of these, they’re not substitutes or even variations of each other.
Put simply, single player experiences are closer to reading a book or watching a movie than they are to multiplayer games. Yes, I’m calling single player games “experiences” intentionally, to clarify the difference. Multiplayer games are to single player experiences what playing soccer is to reading books. Either is perfectly fine, if a person wants to do it, but forcing someone to do one of these things when they want to be doing the other is a bad idea.
And if you think about it, almost everyone sometimes wants to watch a movie, while wanting to engage in some sort of sport at other times. It can’t be a question of some people liking single player games and other people liking multiplayer games, that’s not how people work. If you are a game company that only ever makes one of these types of games, then you will never engage almost any individual player fully. You will never be considered great.
Here’s the tradeoff. If you only ever make single player games, you may become culturally significant, but you will remain a relatively small studio. If you only ever make multiplayer games, you can become very big financially, but you will have no cultural significance. There are of course some lateral moves for game producers like owning distribution channels of games (Valve) or selling gaming hardware (Nintendo and Sony), which can make you the money instead of going multiplayer, but they’re still not culturally significant.
To be clear, what I mean by cultural significance is the ability to capture the hearts and minds of players or the society at large, to shape their ideas and values, to give their lives meaning. While sport provokes intense feelings and technically is a part of culture, it is not culture like art or philosophy are culture. Single player experiences are how games can be art and philosophy. Multiplayer games don’t really communicate anything, they’re only about the experience in the moment. Which is, again, fine, but different.
In other words, multiplayer games may be how people socialize, but single player experiences help create the sense of what the society should be. A game company that makes high-profile story-driven single player games is a cultural institution in a sense in which Disney is one and FIFA isn’t. Both are in it for the money, don’t get me wrong, but the power of Disney comes from more than how much money it has or that it can limit access to properties.
From this perspective, games like, say, Mass Effect and, while we’re at it, games like FIFA, are not equivalent. More people will perhaps buy the FIFA games, but they’re not going to develop a personal relationship with the creators of those games in the same way in which they absolutely will with a company that allows them to explore an entirely new universe. Why do you think that multiple billionaires are launching their own space programs now?
Both Musk and Bezos for example made their fortunes by providing boring, mundane services, but that’s neither their ultimate goal, nor the kind of legacy they want to leave. Only aiming to maximize profits is a dumb goal.
The extent to which EA, Bethesda, and Blizzard now look like profit maximization is all they’re aiming for is the extent to which their reputations have been damaged. Reputations they have built as visionary companies that pushed boundaries in games and forged communities. Reputations they have built through franchises based on story-driven single player games.
Being a Hero Versus Being a Boss
It’s not complicated, not at all. Games are multiple things. You can put emphasis on any one of them, or dial it back. If you want to describe games, applaud them, or criticize them, you can only do it meaningfully for each of their elements by itself. Are games art? Yes, single player games with a story definitely are, in fact more so than plain texts that aren’t interactive. Are games addictive and exploitative? Yes, but only the games with gambling and social pressure-based mechanics. Hashtag not all games and all that.
The only way in which storytelling games are addictive is by being good stories that promise sequels, and I don’t think that most critics of “games” have problem with experiences like suspense, mystery, or challenge driving people to click one more turn. Some may criticize games for how they enable escapism, but then games are no different than any other type of fiction, except unless you consider them to be a better, more powerful form of art.
This just means that the most influential people in the gaming industry have a decision to make about the extent to which they want to go light side or dark side, choosing between their comparative advantages and disadvantages. They can quite literally decide to be the Rebels or the Empire. In the life cycle of being a game developer, it is quite normal to start out and make your name as a rebel and then become the empire as you grow too large, thus becoming a foil for a new generation of upstart developers. Insert the mandatory quote about living long enough to see yourself become the villain here.
I guess the reason why the industry as a whole felt like the rebels initially for a very long time was that the empire they faced and aimed to disrupt was the old cultural landscape, a conglomerate of media and political organizations existing outside of and opposed to gaming, governed by and designed for a whole generation of people who didn’t even understand what a computer was, let alone what promise it held. But then, the gaming culture won. It became a profitable industry, a recognized cultural force. A source of power.
Unfortunately for all the Sith who then rushed in to exploit the shit out of the newborn industry, their whole customer base has just spent a better part of several decades learning that the ultimate enemy is a boss. I don’t think it’s an accident that the ultimate archetype of a bad guy to fight chosen by the players has ended up being a person who has authority over you, telling you what you can or cannot do. Players play games to have fun. You know what spoils fun? Making it mandatory or forbidden, making play unfree, a chore.
Gamers are as a group especially unruly, and I think that’s a great thing for the moral health of the industry. In soccer for example, FIFA has been acting like a bunch of assholes forever, but until Jon Oliver put a spotlight on it, there hasn’t really been any meaningful backlash to it by the fans of the sport. Perhaps that is because soccer by itself isn’t teaching people to fight oppression. Games have been doing that. Apply gaming to a story universe which is all about resisting evil, and you’ll get a fandom that would have to actively maintain cognitive dissonance to be okay with your greedy policies.
Gamers are never going to accept some types of games, and by extension experiences, not existing anymore. Gamers are never going to accept stagnation of the quality of gaming experience. Gamers are never going to accept the strong preying on the weak. Gamers are trained by playing games to search for meaning and to fight for what’s right, and I don’t think it can be made any other way. The more the big game companies will try to ignore this and crush dissent, the more they set themselves up to be defeated by a new challenger who will simply provide the missing experience that players want.
Maybe I’m just being optimistic here, riding on the current wave of successful player pushback, but after thinking about it for a long while, I honestly believe that the quintessential philosophy of gaming, which it does have, is, like Tron said it, fighting for the user. Any gamer or group of gamers can of course disagree on what exactly that means, but there will always be real fighting involved against perceived oppressors, of that much I’m certain. I’m sure that China and big money will try to avoid that or squash it, but at the end of the day, the games with this philosophy at their core are inevitably going to be the most fun, and that’s why in the long run, the user can only win.
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