Part Six: Platform Jumping
For the last five parts of this series I talked around the issue of Single Player games and their place in the intramedia landscape I have been describing. I've looked at how social world building games like Farmville might seed content into SP game worlds. I've looked at how mobile apps might provide the backbone for a game economy whose principle consumers would be players in SP worlds. I've looked at how organization management games like Mafia Wars could provide a framework of story content to sustain the ongoing life of a SP game. But I've not really talked explicitly about the Single Player game itself and what it might be like in this new intramedia model.
While I personally feel that modern AAA single player games are too long, the reality is that is not the case for your typically 18-24 year old who does not have an enormous game buying budget and needs a lot of content if he has any hope of keeping himself distracted from studying. I would love to make the argument that the next-generation of Single Player game should be a four hour experience, but I know that's not realistic. That said, with the increasing economic pressure for even SP games to be online (to protect against piracy), I am beginning to suspect the oft-recurring memes of the Episodic SP game, and the game-world-as-platform are finally going to arrive.
In the case of the more systemic open world games such as Fallout, Borderlands, GTA and others, we already see a trend toward serving players a lot of downloadable content. The reasons for this are obvious; the profit margins on DLC are relatively high for developers and publishers. This means that even if demand is low - say only 5% to 10% of players purchase DLC after they finish the original game - the development costs to shipping what is effectively script into an open world is a tiny fraction of what it costs to build that same content in parallel with the game (especially given that shipped games are stable).
I think the real question facing Single Player games going forward - particularly in the difficult economic climate of today - is how to reduce the cost of getting the game world into the hands of players, and increase the amount of high-profit-margin content we release post-launch into these stable, proven platforms. This only makes economic sense when you consider that currently only a tiny handful of game releases are profitable and all other game development is funded by a few hits.
Why is Fallout 3 a one hundred hour experience? Admittedly, even I made time to finish it, and I even downloaded some of the DLC. But it came at a tremendous cost in terms of lost opportunity to play other games. With the world of Fallout 3 sitting on my hard drive, and the ability of the developers to push more content into that world at any time, the real question is, could they have reduced their development costs by shipping me the game in five ten dollar chunks over the course of the two months that it took me to play it?
When we start to imagine a game like Fallout as being more like a platform for serving content, the integration of some of the other concepts I previously discussed starts to make more sense. The small settlements that dot the landscape can easily be imagined as being served to the platform from a 'manage your wasteland settlement' social game. The shops in those settlements can easily be imagined as shops run by players from their mobile devices. And without the game needing to become a full-blown persistent world MMO, is it trivial to imagine supporting drop-in co-op. Once we have a game world rendered perpetually 'fresh' because of the input of other players, it is also much easier to imagine that I would pay a reasonable price for the game-world-as-platform, even if it only shipped with four hours of developer content. Done correctly, I even suspect the world could be given away for free, with features such as player-generated settlements and player run shops being unlocked by micro transaction. High quality, well polished story content could then be sold at a premium - five to ten dollars for an episode running anywhere between 3-6 hours.
I think the appeal from a publisher and developer standpoint is obvious. This is a powerful way to maximize the efficiency of your staff and to generate higher-margin, lower-risk profit, more steadily. The argument I hear against trying it this way is that it is unproven and conservative executives don't seem to want to be the first to risk their company on unproven business models.
Perhaps all the executives need is for players to demand it loudly enough - and to support it when it does finally arrive.