Remedy Entertainment CEO Tero Virtala has said he believes we’re entering a fantastic era for AAA single-player gaming, driven by the emergence and growth of new digital platforms that need to build up a library of exclusive content for their services.
Virtala raises a handful of really interesting points about the future of the games industry. One, in particular, caught my interest, as he talks about the potential positives of the growth of Netflix-style game subscription services and streaming packages. It’s all too easy to get hung up on the negatives, but Virtala believes that the competition for platforms like Xbox Game Pass and Google Stadia to succeed will allow single-player games to flourish. He believes more risks can be taken as it’s about building up a breadth of content on these platforms rather than hinging a game’s success on shifting 10 million copies.
"The race is on for the Netflix of games," said Virtala during an interview with GI.biz. "We don't know how it's going to happen, when it's going to happen, if it's going to be subscription services... But the fact is that for the next two to three years, the big boys are going to invest heavily in this.
"And every single person knows that, in the games industry, to sell a new platform you're going to need unique and exclusive content. With these new platforms and new distribution opportunities, there is a wider reach for our games, and also wider partnership opportunities."
You need only take a look at Netflix to see this approach in action. Netflix has an absolute ton of unique content these days (plenty of which is terrible), bolstered by some risky, inventive programming which would struggle to get greenlit through traditional methods.
Exclusives get a bad reputation, but ‘not multi-platform = anti-consumer’ is a little too simplistic of a take. First of all, yes, there are stacks of utterly fantastic multi-platform games, particularly outside of the realm of AAA. However, once we get to the big-budget blockbusters, the majority of multiplatform titles are fairly rote and risk-free by design. They’re pitched to boardrooms and focus tested to death, which is why practically every AAA game these days is an open-world adventure with light RPG elements, a bit of crafting, a smidge of survival, and masses of side-content. That or they go after that filthy Battle Royale lucre. Exclusives are slightly less hemmed in by mass market appeal and can provide a more distinctive vision.
Some of the most acclaimed games of all time are exclusives, in large part because a few more risks can be taken in terms of themes and ideas. Platform holders want a breadth of exclusives to shift their consoles, rather than endless regurgitation of the same ideas. Even a game like Half-Life 2, for example, was basically conceived as an exclusive to popularise Steam. Valve had to ensure it was an absolute belter in order to convince gamers to install this alien client.
If you want AAA quality with greater risks in terms of design, platform exclusives are a great place to find this mix. They’ll never be as unique as smaller projects or indie titles, of course, but there’s a medium between high production values and a clear, distinctive theme and identity that, if struck, will appeal to the platform holders. The approach that Sony has taken with the likes of God of War, The Last of Us, and Horizon: Zero Dawn, demonstrated to Remedy that more focused AAA games with slightly lower budgets (and therefore lower sales targets) make the ideal template for studios of Remedy’s size and calibre.
"When we were discussing with publishers three years ago, many of them were quite doubtful about what would be the [AAA blockbuster] single-player game's future," Virtala said. "Now, with the success of many of Sony's games, the success that Ubisoft has shown, we are seeing that single-player games are stronger now than they have ever been."
It's this thinking and analysis of the market which led Remedy to create Control, a supernatural third-person shooter with otherworldly powers and bizarre shape-shifting environments. Control isn't going to shift 35 million copies, and Remedy knows this.
"We defined three key pillars: We continue making games that stand out in the market, that are built on the world's characters and stories, and that are action games.
"But that narrower feature set is done in a really high-quality way, and still provides enough gameplay time for the users," with final game able to be sold for full price "and need to sell between two and four million units."
Remedy certainly sounds confident in its approach. There's definitely room to maneuvre in that category right beneath the biggest AAA blockbusters, and this could well lead to an unexpected boom in single-player experiences. The absolute biggest titles need to shift eight digits or more to break even, supplemented by multiplayer and ongoing purchases. Spend a fraction of the money on a single-player, story-driven game and it stands to reason it becomes a lot easier to break even.
Anyway, we'd love to hear your thoughts on this rather broad topic. Do you think the rise of Netflix-type game subscription services could lead to a boom in top quality single-player experiences? Or do you think the exact opposite could potentially happen?