During gamescom, I had the privilege of sitting in on what was called the RPG influencer’s breakfast. It involved a few key heavy hitters from the RPG world: Dr Ray Muzyka (BioWare co-founder), Ken Rolston (of Morrowind and Oblivion fame), Dr Greg Zeschuck (BioWare co-founder) and Eugene Evans (BioWare Mythic general manager). Pete Stewart from Edge Magazine in the UK was in the MC seat. Readers of Atomic magazine would have seen choice quotes from this breakfast in a couple of Engine Room articles, but now you can read the full transcription.
In this sixth and final chapter of our series, the esteemed panel discusses the relevance of single-player in future games and the changes in game development since their respective humble beginnings.
Pete: Any other questions? Yes.
Random journo 5: There was an observation made last night at a Sony panel that the single-player-only game won’t be around in about three years’ time... what do you think something like that means for your experiences which you’re crafting and for these emerging business models, how could you adapt those to the Mass Effect franchise, for example?
Ray: Well, I think there’s levity to the point that people want social connections and they want to be able to engage with their friends online. And we’re exploring those thing in our franchises. But I also think there’s a place for players to enjoy a solo experience and even when they’re in multiplayer or community online, or however you approach that; there’s different ways to approach it. I think there’s still a place for that. And we’ve done research on our MMOs that, actually, the majority of players actually enjoy playing solo at some portion of time; maybe not all the time, but they certainly enjoy that option. And I think that-
Ken: -Can I just interrupt?
Ray: I think we’re trying to enable that, to have a solo experience within a multiplayer or an online environment. And I think you can do that. And Star Wars: The Old Republic is doing it as well. You can... definitely there’s a strong solo-able aspect to it: you have companion characters that allow you to experience that, and you can group up any time you want. And I think it’s a really beautiful fusion when you can achieve that. The players who want to be solo for some period of time can do that. There’s a great single-player campaign, but if you enable that in a multiplayer setting or in an online mode as well--either whether it’s all part of the same mode or whether it’s a separate mode that intersects back and forth—that’s really powerful. It allows players to interact with their friends and make new friends and that’s very powerful for humans to have that emotional connection.
Pete: The point that Mark Cerny [veteran game consultant for Sony] made last night, I think, was that, yes, there will be single-player games, but in three years’ time they will all have multiplayer components.
Greg: I think that’s crap, though. I think that’s totally incorrect.
Ken: That’s less stupid than the other.
Greg: I totally disagree because what he’s saying is there won’t be any $50-million single-player games that will be sold as a single-player experience because it’s a bad business decision for retail. There will be lots of iPhone games that are single-player-only. It’s when you see the world from one lens that you make those kinds of broad pronouncements. The reality is that there are lots of-
Ray: Well it depends on what you define as multiplayer. Like, I view multiplayer as anything online. I think Achievements are a form of multiplayer.
Greg: So the ideas are expanding. My point is that people... You can actually have it both ways, you can have it solo within the context of multiplayer or solo connected, or just solo.
Ray: I think people do want to play solo a significant portion of the time and that is probably gonna be true going forward. But expressing things in a multiplayer or online environment while you show your friends your hero’s journey or connect with your friends in a multiplayer game, those are powerful extensions to the experience.
Ken: Let me state it in a more injudicious way, Oblivion is what we call a massively multiplayer game without the annoying other players. And, also, I happen to believe that in a single-player game, there is no other way to address the player’s fantasy as directly and that narrative as directly. So I know that that’s always going to be not only a valid but a compelling and essential genre that it will have other things that are front-ended is not missing the point; but it is still a single-player game and designed as such.
Ray: Probably depends on how you define what the online or multiplayer modes are. I have a very broad view of what those could be and, again, it’s a player-centric view. When they’re sharing an achievement of their single-player session, how do they imagine that? Do they think of that? And if you ask them and really tease our way to what they mean by multiplayer-
Greg: What if they have no internet connection?
Ray: Well, most players-
Ken: -That’s a tiny subset.
Ray: I think that’s a small-
Eugene: The view from four guys who spend a lot of time on planes probably and desperately want a single-player experience.
Greg: The other problem that exists with some single-player games is people tack on multiplayer modes. Oh, we’ve gotta have multiplayer. It’s not integrated. I think the key thing if you are going to be making that part of the game is it’s gotta be integrated... there’s gotta be an interplay between the solo and multi. I agree with what Ray is saying. The proper experience, well part of the goal is if you really wanna have business success, you have to actually know where the opportunity is. And the opportunity is in expanding broader, expanding into the online markets. But at the end of the day, if you kind of create a half-assed single-player or multiplayer thing on top of a single-player thing, it just doesn’t work.
Eugene: It’s funny how things have come around, because when we were first pitching and showing Dark Age of Camelot, the question we got asked was, “Well can you build a single-player mode? ‘Cause, y’know, not everyone wants to play online.”
Ray: User-generated content is another form of multiplayer, too. How you approach it, players are making content for their friends. I mean, is that multiplayer? But again, that fits in my definition--a very broad definition--of multiplayer is just interaction. It’s just social interaction, it’s enabling to post to your Facebook or Google+ feed. It’s all those things.
Ken: Daggerfall is multiplayer in that people were posting their characters in their all-black uniforms.
Greg: That’s not really multiplayer.
Ray: But it’s happening whether we want it to or not.
Pete: This is where EA seems to be going now with its live services, with EA Sports and its Autolog and Battlelog. It’s towards this idea that games are always connected whether it’s single-player or whatever. In that sense, the game will always be live.
Eugene: Look at the great multiplayer that isn’t that they’ve added to SSX, where it’s the old Mario Kart-style ghost rider that you’re keeping up with. Where every time you go down that mountain, the question that that recording of that avatar, is that you get to play against your friend when they’re not even online.
Ray: In Oblivion, you’re fighting a big boss that is obviously pretty tough.
Ken: But that’s kind of delicious.
Ray: And you can watch that online to compare your tactics.
Greg: But is that multiplayer? And that was the Demon’s Soul’s piece which was so interesting because, of course, all you ever did was die instantly.
Eugene: Don’t do that.
Ray: You can look at narrative in a very narrow way, as words on a page. Or you can look at narrative the way that players really express; they don’t call it narrative but, again, it’s just a way to envision it and for ways as us as creators to figure out what they’re doing. Like the hero’s journey, the progression elements, what equipment they buy or what they’re wearing at any given point of time, that’s a narrative.
Greg: We use the word narrative more than most players ever will. More than in their entire lives!
Ray: I think it’s just that we haven’t found a good word that captures it in that way that’s kind of all-encompassing.
Pete: I think we’ve got time for one very quick last question. From anyone? Yup.
Random journo 6: What has changed most in your business since your beginning? Excluding technology, of course.
Greg: I mean, the platform. It’s hard to separate technology from the change, but when we started, we started in the early mid-90s, and it was a small business. It wasn’t nearly as big as today. I mean, we were excited about 5-million sales worldwide, or 6 million and now we’re up to 30 in a global sense. It’s just a way bigger, bigger... everything’s bigger. Our first team was 13 people and now it’s like a sub-team working on a sub-system. The scale has been enhanced.
Eugene: I think for me, how much it’s gone global. It used to be a very European or a very North American-centric view that a publisher or a developer might have. Now, I think, the biggest change and challenge for all of us is having to take our products globally.
Greg: There’s the funky markets, too, like South America.
Eugene: You're calling the South American market funky?
Eugene: I’m here not to offend anybody.
Greg: Suddenly Turkey is a really important market.
Eugene: Turkey’s funky.
Ken: The biggest change for me and the one I hate the most is recorded dialogue. That has made production so brittle; so many chums, so many problems. I can make deathless art if you just get rid of that goddamn recording.
Greg: We could just record the voices ourselves.
Ken: Then you have this nail-down thing whereas text is so malleable and so flexible and, admittedly, not attractive to the user. But nonetheless! That’s what I hate the most.
Greg: I think that’s why we used alien language in Star Wars.
Ken: That was brilliant! That was the smartest move.
Ray: It actually works pretty well. If you go back to Wizardry, which was the game I referenced at the beginning, that was something where the graphics were just markings. Y’know, see a wall, and imagining all the possible spaces in your head. But now that’s turned full circle. We can actually create worlds that look real. We’re breaking that barrier now more and more and it’s interesting because all we’ve really done is brought what the players had in their head at the beginning to life. And now the systems can handle that and you can create engaging dynamics of AI and the world interaction and multiplayer interaction and social interactions that everything the player dreamed, I think, 30 years ago we’re not at the real starting point for computer games. We’re at the new beginning where all that… where everything imagined is possible.
Greg: It’s kind of almost sad that that’s true. I guess it was amazing when it was just lines and you were a mat pic. It’s become so concrete to the user that the magic has kinda gone.
Ray: I downloaded Wizardry on my iPad and iPhone and it’s really hard to go back to those. But, y’know, it’s not what you remember it was.
Greg: But it’s so magical that you can still access those.
Eugene: But that’s the definition of nostalgia, right? Just leave it at the memory.
Ray: I think it’s pretty cool.
Pete: I think Wizardry is a good place to end the debate on the future of RPGs. Thank you all so much for coming and thanks very much indeed to our panellists.