There are single player games and there are multiplayer games. Solitaire and Sudoku are single player games. Monopoly and Scrabble are multiplayer games. This clear separation exists in the video games as well. There are single player driven experiences, which tend to have a strong focus on rich story development and immersion – games like God of War and BioShock. Then there are multiplayer driven experiences which focus on head to head online competition and cooperation – games like Call of Duty and Fortnite.
The video game industry has seen a meaningful push by developers to focus work on multiplayer experiences over the past decade. You don’t have to look far online to see outcries against this change. A core frustration outlined by the outspoken members of the ‘story mode’ community is that diverse, transformative, story-driven single player experiences are being extinguished in service of multiplayer games – games which are over-shadowed by accusations of re-skinning (changing the textures and models of a game but not the actual gameplay mechanics) and the presence of micro-transactions (in game purchases of different character models and abilities).
It’s easy to view that opinion as the silent majority – multiplayer games continue to dominate the market. Call of Duty – perennially accused of reskinning – releases a new game and sells tens of millions of copies every single year – with 6 installments sitting on the 50 bestselling video games of all-time list. EA Sports franchises (FIFA, NHL, Madden, etc.) are publicly demonized each year as “glorified roster updates” – so much so that this year IGN copy and pasted their FiFA 20 review for FIFA 21, and simply lowered the review score. Yet those sports franchises have no competition and continue to have consistent sales numbers. And off the top of my head, I cannot think of a modern multiplayer game that does not have in-game purchases (and currency) and that hasn’t adopted the season/battle pass model (regular game updates that include new content to unlock and purchase).
It’s not confusing why studio executives keep focusing on these types of games. The way to consistently make the most amount of money is to make a good product that has lasting multi-user engagement which encourages paying for style, skill, or both. Even Rockstar Games – famed producer of the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead series – has dramatically slowed their release schedules and focus on single player experiences to ensure they provide and focus on the online experience, and recently disappointing Red Dead fans by saying there is no plan for any single player add-ons like there was in Red Dead Redemption 1.
Multiplayer games are fun. They bring together the largest amounts of people. They create competition and comradery. They allow you to see new moves from other players and have diverse gameplay experiences based on the random group of strangers the internet has paired you with.
Are multiplayer experiences a focus for most developer projects? Absolutely. But there are still incredible single player experiences released in the last few years with even more on the way. And the success of those games shows that focus will never go away. And it shouldn’t. Santa Monica Studios released God of War in 2018 – the 4th main installment of that series and one of the most beautiful experiences made to date. CD Projekt Red continues to work on Cyberpunk 2077 which will all but guaranteed to flood entertainment headlines and dominate sales charts for weeks after its release. Even the announcement of the PS5 console had a significant focus on demonstrating the exciting single player titles coming to the platform.
Multiplayer games are invaluable sources of entertainment and community – both online platforms and in person activities such as a grabbing a beer. But the unparalleled weight of the single player game cannot be ignored. The decisions and consequences that come from those games feel more intense because they are more intense. Whether its finishing RDR2 with a low or high honor rating, or the choices you make each day with your personal fitness and skill building, the actions you took over a long period only get their proper recognition when looking back from a milestone.
Studios that take the time to produce highly engaging and well written single player games with above average gameplay quality will take a greater risk by shunning multiplayer development, but provided they produce a genuinely great product, they will be greatly rewarded for that tradeoff. Both in sales and in notoriety. Who will be the next CD Projekt Red? What game will become the next God of War? BioShock fans scour the internet for any clues on BioShock 4, sitting at the ready to purchase once immediately available. These paths are typically more difficult but can result in greater future opportunities and a permanent legacy in the video game community. People openly crave the single player experience. And the journeys, creativity, and memories that come with it.
These video game perspectives have real-life corollaries. And the real-life single player games have the most lasting and compounding effects over time.
The single player side of life holds for us the most consistent challenges and important decisions. These choices are what materialize into our driving forces into how we interact with the world around us. The person we are when we’re alone, the efforts we make to improve, and the consistency we employ in creating change for ourselves become the foundation of how approach the game of life and our own multiplayer games.
It’s easy to focus on the multiplayer aspects of life and worry less about the single player choices. Grabbing a beer with friends and having a good discussion is invaluable and should be cherished. Spending time with loved ones makes everyone involved happier and better off. Ensuring you help people with their personal projects or to move apartments makes us better people and feel good. But I’ve found my life, and my relationships, have generally improved in greater magnitudes when I put more attention into the single player side. Of focusing on how to augment and improve who I am.
Taking time to ensure I’m eating and sleeping well gives me a clear head to approach all interactions. Daily workouts relieves stress and makes me feel better, keeping me more calm and kind in my daily life. Taking time to outline goals and new skills to develop drives more thoughtful consumption of information and creates personal projects which in turn make me happier. Honest self-reflection and journaling in moments of solitude creates realizations on good and bad qualities in myself and how to consciously address them. And all of these examples, and the infinite other permutations, create a better experience and better player for the multiplayer games.
“Your only competition is who you could be.”
Naval has a great twitter thread on meditation. He refers to it the natural state of being that is altered through experiences and stimuluses as we go through life. And that it is a purely single player game. You’re only “opponent” is your own mind. The experience is uniquely yours and to draw external comparisons would be both pointless and useless. Similarly, I’ve already written about how I feel Michael Jordan’s greatest asset was his superhuman internal motivation.
In both these examples, the solitary challenges and choices people face are the tiny fragments that form into greatness over time. Generally, most of our time is spent alone or in our head. We have time to ourselves before and after work, on the weekends, as we get ready for bed, in the car – whatever it is, a meaningful portion of our life is spent in some kind of solitude. These moments present single player game opportunities. To make the unsexy, difficult choices to do the work and be the person we want to be. Whatever that means to each of us, these solitary choices are what can one day result in looking back in review of how you achieved something you’re proud of. Of how you created a wonderful life. Of how you became the person you are now.
The game of life is abundant with both single player and multiplayer experiences. The single player choices that can wildly improve and change our journey are often hidden and boring. They’re hidden because we have to decide what we want and then act on those choices. And they’re boring because it’s often about just doing the work – taking that class, hitting that workout, etc. The multiplayer experiences are undeniably rich and invaluable, but also have lower barriers of approachability and provide almost immediate returns.
Like leveling up in a game, sometimes you have to grind to accrue the skills and points necessary to make that next level jump. And by the end you don’t even remember what you did to get there, you’re simply impressed with the opponents you’ve been able to beat, the stories along the journey, and who your character has become. Choosing to put the time in and embark on the journey is what led to those memorable moments. And we’re all in control of our own single player experiences. So hit start.
See you tomorrow.
Quote: Farnam Street
Inspirations: Video Games, Naval, Shane Parrish