One versus Many: Why single-player titles are gamers' new "favourite flavour"
A tale of two game modes
With many next-gen games doubling down on their multiplayer experiences and cross-play capabilities, you might be inclined to think that single-player-centric titles would probably start taking a back seat. After all, there isn't much fun to be had "going at it alone"...or is there?
According to a leaked report from Sony obtained by Vice (thank you!), which showcases player preferences and data for the purpose of PS5 development, it seems that single-player titles aren't just increasing in popularity - they're actually the preferred format for the average console gamer! Specifically, the report mentions that gamers are spending more time dabbling in offline modes rather than online ones.
Needless to say, that comes as a rather interesting surprise, and it's worth digging a little deeper to find out what exactly the rationale is behind this curious development and what effects it might have on the booming gaming industry as a whole.
But before we can get that whole train chugging along, we'll need to lay out the tracks. Specifically, why might people decide to play single-player games over multiplayer ones?
Another day, another toxic multiplayer lobby
You, me, your cat, and the neighbour's goldfish from two blocks down are probably aware of this fact: you can do whatever you want in single-player without fear of judgment.
Don't be fooled. At first glance, this statement might seem quite commonsensical or even facepalm-worthy, but it actually encompasses a much wider scope of issues than it appears to, especially when you bring in the biggest, most unrelenting problem in multiplayer games: toxicity.
Indeed, it's no secret that multiplayer games and lobbies aren't always about valor, teamwork and the whole "friendship is magic" gig. Of course, we're not saying it's all bad - some games do have fantastic and helpful communities (bless you guys!), and we hope these continue to thrive and grow in the years to come. Unfortunately, they're quite few and far between. People tend to see the other side of the spectrum more often, and some titles have communities so notorious for being toxic and offensive that they're basically the metaphorical cesspools of gaming society.
Anyway, the long and short of it is that it's not fun to deal with these kinds of people, especially not when you're forced to play against them, or worse still, with them. After all, the last thing I'd want to worry about when I boot up a game after work is having to deal with people flaming their own teammates or being generally uncooperative for no apparent reason, and those are the "nicer" folk - don't even get me started on "swatting" and hacking.
You can be your own boss
The other half of the statement is with regard to its literal meaning: players have the freedom to just explore the game world and do things at their own pace. Whether it's completing quests in an RPG like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, swinging through city streets in Spider-Man: Miles Morales, or building a fancy dream mansion in Minecraft, it can be immensely therapeutic to sink into these "other worlds" for a period of time without having to worry about other commitments. Heck, some players have even found solace doing loony crap in single-player, and titles like Goat Simulator and Grand Theft Auto V are perfectly suited for such fuss-free endeavours.
So, apart from the "noise" of multiplayer games, in that sense, there's also another possible reason, which is much less subtle: people simply don't have the time to fit in multiplayer matches into their daily schedule, especially since such games tend to penalise players who leave matches early, regardless of the reason. In fact, the report from Sony does mention that people are finding it much more difficult to cram multiplayer games into their schedule as compared to single-player ones, and as working adults ourselves, we kind of understand why.
Simply put, when we do actually get pockets of time to play games, they're usually in between our other commitments, such as work and family, among various other things. As such, we don't have the luxury of full-on gaming binges like we might have had in our younger years, which is why we try to fit the best possible gaming options within these precious windows of time. Building on that logic, not only do many single-player games offer equally gorgeous and dazzling gameplay experiences as their multi-player counterparts, but the fact that we can leave or pause whenever we want without incurring penalties makes it the perfect solution, right?
Well, not exactly.
The eternal dilemma
Once again, "time" is the one resource we simply can't acquire more of and no amount of personal freedom or anti-toxicity measures are going to change that. Single-player games are subject to the same problem as multiplayer games are - people don't have enough time to fully appreciate them. After all, you might be able to squeeze in a few minutes of exploring Horizon Zero Dawn's gorgeous open world within your short gaming window, but so what? It doesn't really seem worth it, because the moment you get into the groove after looking through the Internet for a stage guide or finding an NPC, it's time to do other stuff.
Plus, you might not even have another gaming window for a while, which might result in you forgetting what you wanted to explore entirely.
Put together, these problems can cause players to encounter a sort of dilemma about whether or not they should even play a game. Sony has dubbed this reaction as "friction", and their proposed solution actually forms the basis of the PS5's "Activities" feature, which lets players jump directly to a specific point in a game and provides an estimate for how long that segment should take to complete.
It's a really smart play from an objective point of view since it deals with or at least mitigates the issue of players not having enough time to immerse themselves in a title. By doing away with the unnecessary bits - logging in, booting up, searching for NPCs and so on, players can spend a larger portion of time actually playing the game and enjoying the experience.
The sum total
Sure, that's definitely nice to hear, especially if you're keen on snagging a PS5 when the next batch comes in. However, what hasn't been addressed yet is how this newfound preference for single-player games might impact the growth and development of the gaming ecosystem in the future.
Amusingly, the community seems to be somewhat divided on the issue. One faction claims that the Activities feature is an outrage of sorts, as it takes away some aspects of the gaming experience that developers might want to portray to their players. The other half is in full support of it, saying that they appreciate the measures Sony is taking to address these fundamental problems, especially in terms of consoles given you can't bring them out as easily as you would a mobile phone or laptop.
Our take on it is much simpler: it means we'll get more "versatile" and dynamic games down the line, ones where their single-player and multiplayer experiences are equally amazing and impactful. Why? Look at it this way; since developers are already being informed of one of the more subtle problems their audience faces when playing games in a modern context, wouldn't they do their best to fix said issue and appeal to more gamers? To provide an analogy, a smart chef would add less sugar to his dishes in the future if his customers were to say that they were too sweet, and I highly doubt game developers are any different, in that sense.
Accordingly, this means that more games down the line, both single and multi-player-centric will probably be better tailored to accommodate our "compressed" schedules. Not only that, but developers might also be more devoted to crafting immersive single-player narratives or experiences where applicable. After all, it wouldn't make sense to let a game's single-player mode go to waste if that's what gamers prefer, and yet, in spite of all the toxicity and other potential issues, they can't afford to neglect multiplayer either. Not with concepts like cross-platform play and game streaming floating about.