Friday, December 10, 2010

Solo No More – EA’s Frank Gibeau and the End of Single-Player Games

lost-in-the-crowdThrow all of your single-player games in the trash.

Take any game that you’ve played on your own – on your console, on your handheld, on your computer – and just get rid of it.  Sell it to your unsuspecting neighbor at a garage sale.  Foist it upon your younger sibling and lie to them: “Yeah, it used to be my favorite, but I just don’t have the time for it anymore.”

Go through your back catalog.  Your PSX discs.  Your SNES cartridges.  Your Nintendo tapes.  Set ‘em on fire.  You don’t need them any more.

Why?  Because single-player games are “finished,” claims EA’s Frank Gibeau.

Let’s unpack this, shall we?

What He Means

Speaking with Develop, Gibeau outlined his firm belief in connectivity. Games, he feels, should include online features – be it cooperative or competitive multiplayer, leaderboards, etc. “Connected gameplay” he calls it. On the opposite end of the spectrum are “fire-and-forget, packaged goods only, single-player, 25-hours-and you’re out” titles.  “I think that model is finished,” he says.

That singular quote has gotten this brief interview a lot of attention.  Each member of the gaming blogroll trifecta ran a story, as did various other outlets (including the one you’re reading).  What sparks the most ire is the callous correlation between “single-player” and “finished.”  “What about the Fallout games?” folks cry. “Does this mean we’re never getting another Mirror’s Edge?”  I don’t know that he’s putting the kibosh on single-player campaign experiences, but you needn’t look further than the derision-laced phrase “packaged goods only” to know what his plans for any story-driven title are: piles upon piles of downloadable content.

Gibeau’s convinced that the average gamer isn’t satisfied just popping a disc into his console and hopping onboard the escapism train.  He assumes we’re too well social-networked for that, and I suppose we are.  Hell, every time someone messages me on Twitter, it appears simultaneously on the Twitter website, my TweetDeck application, and a text message is sent to my phone.  I love the new Pac-Man game, but a major part of its allure are the online leaderboards – global and friend-specific.  I can’t unplug myself at this point, so I guess it’s within Gibeau’s right to attempt to sell me stuff via those tubes.

Connectivity plans aside, I just can’t believe that Gibeau’s across-the-board pooh-poohing the idea of single-player games.  His company publishes BioWare games, for example – big, epic, single-player RPGs.  Those games make money.  He just wants them making as much money as possible.

What He Does

In the Develop piece, Gibeau talks a lot of game about enhancing his studios’ projects with online features.  His role as EA Games label president, apparently, is to wander through the halls of each EA studio and tell them how to help it perform better in the marketplace.  A noble goal, really.  He just sounds a little pushy:

[Develop] My point was that you want to keep these studios creatively independent, but at the same time you have to insist on certain features, such as online. It’s the friction between those two that I was enquiring about.

[Gibeau] Well you say ‘insist’, I say inspire. What I learned early on in my career was that, if you’re going to lead a creative team, you have to inspire people. They’re the ones living in the game.

I think his definition of the word “inspire” is a little unsettling.  I wouldn’t want my boss to come around and “inspire” me to do my job differently, not if I was supposedly hired for my creativity.  But if he’s my publisher (or a representative thereof), I may need to check a few boxes on his list before he’ll agree to ship my product.  And that’s what it is after all: a product.

It’s clear from the leading tone of the question that Develop’s Rob Crossley fears for EA’s studios.  He wants to know the degree to which EA is willing to stifle (or squeeze out every last drop of) creativity so that every game it ships can participate in Project Ten Dollar.  Sports gamers out there may already know that buying the new Madden game used means buying an EA Online Pass if you want to take your beloved Bengals online.  In EA’s eyes, this reduces potential revenue lost. 

Gibeau won’t be content until he’s applied this model to every genre he publishes.

What He’ll Get

Let’s be honest: the Internet revolution has benefited gaming.  Some DLC is cool.  Digital retailers have created a whole new market for affordable downloadable games.  Achievements and other metrics allowed developers to track what gamers are and aren’t doing, informing upcoming patches that (hopefully) improve the product post-release.  And, as I’ve said before, we’re just scratching the surface of what multiplayer can do.

But let’s not forget this industry’s roots.  Today, Microsoft and Sony live in houses built on foundations laid by Sega and Nintendo.  On games like Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, Sonic the Hedgehog.  On boys in basements spending Friday nights drawing maps on grid paper so they could beat The Legend of Zelda.  There’s a dialogue to be had between the lone player and the game.  A potential for storytelling that’s greater than “How does my playtime compare with my friend’s?” or “Yo, I got five more kills than you!”  Games like Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption are laying claim to this fertile narrative ground and tilling it for all its worth.

If Gibeau’s comments are coming out of a fear of bad or underselling single-player games, I get it.  EA doesn’t want to ship a lame product.  But plenty of products come with not-fully-featured multiplayer modes, sometimes at the expense of the solo campaign.  Then these extra helpings of game get wrapped up and put in the back of the fridge – “I’ll try that Transformers multiplayer someday” – and forgotten until the smell of mold wafts from behind fresher cuts of Call of Duty

There’s the potential for a monkey paw wish here.  Too many online features could negatively impact a player’s experience.  Remember when “Massively Multiplayer” actually meant Massive?  Teams of fifty dudes running through virtual dungeons and whatnot.  Well, the standard bearer of the genre’s gone to great lengths to make the game accessible to small groups, even solo players.  People didn’t want the hassle of the game’s size.  People just want to log in, collect a pet, and go to sleep.  Turns out just feeling like you’re part of something massive is sometimes enough. 

Maybe that’ll be enough for Gibeau.  Let EA’s customers feel like each game connects them to a larger community, whether or not it forces them to interact in an online space.  Just don’t force the developers to construct that online space.  Sometimes a solo adventure will do just fine.