AAA SP Games Are Dying

Hard news from the video game world today for fans of Dead Space, Star Wars and single-player games. EA is shutting down Visceral Games, casting the future of its Uncharted-style Star Wars title into serious doubt. It’s a blow to all of those that had been eager to sink their teeth into a meaty single-player narrative game set in the Star Wars universe.

There are likely many reasons for this, some of which can be guessed at, some of which are public, and some of which will likely never really be understood by people who weren’t directly involved. But it’s part of a longer story that’s been gripping the industry for years now, whether we’re talking about loot boxes or MMOs. That single-player games of the sort we all know and love, with their characters, narratives and limited run-times, are on their way out. Games-as-service, which can be monetized at rates significantly higher than $60 a customer for years, are what big publishers are after these days. One of the big reasons that EA didn’t want to pursue this game was because an Uncharted-style game just didn’t fit this focus.

This particular angle triggers the usual laments. That the industry is changing, that we’re losing a core part of the things we love, that “insert legendary game here” would never been made in today’s publishing landscape. There seems to be an undercurrent to all of this that single-player, narrative games are somehow morally superior to games-as-service, and that the thing that is replacing them is a hollow stand-in for something better. It’s a point of view I can sympathize with, if not get on board with. All games are different, and we see greatness in all different sorts of models. Yes, the era in which a particular style of big-budget AAA game reigned supreme is coming to a close, and may already be behind us. Games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Prey and Dishonored 2 all under-performed in a market where PlayerUnknown’s Battleground’s and Overwatch have flourished. Change is hard, and we’re staring at change right now.

I should be clear: it’s always sad to see a big project go down, no matter why it happened. It’s sad both because fans were excited about a game that will never see the light of day, and, more to the point, because it means people lost their jobs and their work. Video games can be a brutal business for developers and moments like this put industry-wide fragility and instability under a spotlight. But those are different problems, and ones that we should be working on regardless of the sorts of games those developers are making: exploitative labor practices are not endemic to any one genre.

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