Have single-player games ever existed?

 Posted by (Visited 17602 times)  Game talk
Feb 152006

I promise this wil be the last post on this subject in a while…!

This made me wonder, Raph, how you define a single player game?

A game that is not played in opposition to, or in parallel with, or collaboratively with, someone else.

But I suspect that won’t be sufficient, because you will also need to understand my definitions of “game”, “played,” and “parallel.”

To me games nest. There are frequently games within games, and there are always games within spaces. Some spaces are real (a living room) and some are virtual (Liberty City, Norrath).

The boundary of a game is not the board, world, etc. The true boundary of a game is based on where actions that can legally affect gameplay stop. Hence training is part of sports. Practicing in an FPS is OK and generally agreed to be “part of the game,” using an aimbot is not.

Almost all games that maintain a history of player achievement are in some sense nested games. You play the game of Asteroids in the arcade. That’s a single-player game. You play the game of Asteroids competing against a high score, that’s Asteroids embedded within the game of beating the high score. The game of the high score has only one move with two outcomes: you play, and you beat it or you don’t. That’s just about exactly like any turn-based game, which is always a sequential action of seeing if you can do better (towards some final goal) than your opponent did when they last had a chance.

And indeed, many single-player games are played in exactly this way — we call it tournaments.

Parallel play occurs when you play a single-player game at the same time that others do, and you are each competing to beat the others. Footraces are an example; there used to be a genre of obstacle course racing videogames like this too. Each player cannot affect the other, so they are playing on two levels at once: themselves against the game obstacles, and also themselves against the progress of the other player.

Collaborative play comes into the picture when you have multiple people assisting in making the decisions in a game. Someone who is not assisting in decisions is not playing. Games are all about decisions.

Merely chatting about your gameplay choices is not playing a game collaboratively. Making decisions together, as happens in ARGs, in assisting other people by giving them hints, etc, can be. I do think dragons lurk in the waters on this one one, mind you.

A true single-player game is a game designed to have only one person making decisions, not in parallel to anyone else, and not competing against anyone else.

Once you start adding things like high scores, communications channels for receiving advice on choices, etc, you’re definitely, to my mind, blurring the definition to the point where you cannot necessarily call things single-player anymore.

The obvious objection is to say that the real definition is how many players touch the controls of the game. But we have all seen games played where the decision-making contribution of one partner influences the control decisions made by another. Parlor games where your partner plays blindfolded and you must direct them are an obvious example. Adventure games where one person drives, but the other players watching provide the actual solution.

Similarly, many will say that high scores alone not make a game multiplayer. But the Olympics are on, games where the victor in many sports is decided precisely by high scores, in what is decidedly multi-athlete competition.

I am not saying, I must emphasize, that we will cease having single-player footraces, one guy going down the half-pipe on a snowboard, or no more CRPGs with one presumed controller. I am saying that they will get wrapped with trappings of persistence (high scores, etc) that can be used to implicitly make them competitive; and that incresingly, you will play them in manners that involve multiple people assisting in the decision-making, largely just because technology finally permits this to happen even when nobody else is physically present.

Have we “ever” had the single-player game? Yes. But you’ve been playing a lot of them in this fashion, which is why many of you are saying we never really had single-player gaming. But we have. It was always, though, somewhat unusual, relative to the intrusions of these other elements. Even Solitaire, or crossword puzzles, mentioned by many as classic single-player games, are frequently played with someone watching over your shoulder, or giving you the answer when you get stumped.

  16 Responses to “Have single-player games ever existed?”

  1. that I only advocate multiplayer for the money in it, or something. For those just joining this particular multiplayer game, you may want to read these older posts of mine: Are Single-Player Games Doomed? Is the shift to online a fad?Have single player games ever existed?Single-player Singularity

  2. Great definition for single player games, under this philosophy the choices that make a game or break it seem to all fall into their ability to make the game “less single player-ey”

    Back in school Tetris was king, but would it have caught on as well without increasing levels of difficulty? I have fond memories of exchanging “I got up to..” stories. Quake was successful for its cooperative play before the internet made it convenient. Even non programming rubik’s cube has fed on this philosophy.

    The real trick is not to define it, but to exploit the multiplayer capacities (Like Sims and Sims 2, single player in the traditional sense, but it success depends a lot on the community, and playing with others/exchanging ideas.

  3. Well, hopefully, like books, there will remain, at the very least, an independent sector devoted to making single-player games without profits in mind. People who just have a story to tell and want to use game as medium. Yes, that’d be very nice, even if it becomes collaborative.

  4. […] Comments […]

  5. Although I believe you’re right, raph, that this is where games are going, on some levels it makes me sad. Although games like asteroids and Pac-Man have always had high score lists and a “connected” competative level, I (personally) have never been that interested in it. I’ve always been more a fan of “the game for game’s sake,” especially from a single player or story perspective. Unfortunately, I’m a dying breed being drowned in the new world of connected gameplay and competition: concepts that don’t excite me in any way, shape, or form.

    I think, though, that we’re going to start seeing a lot of indie reaction to this movement. Although mainstream will jump on connectivity and comunication, I can see more independent works moving more towards Murray’s suggestions from Hamlet on the Holodeck: making games and other interactive works that use “single player” agency as an asthetic enjoyment by itself, and through there we’ll see advancement in interactive narrative works. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait *too* long for it. 😉

  6. I think I understand your distinction, but through a different approach.

    A “game” requires that a set of rules be agreed to by a group of people. A multiplayer game is one where that group is many people, a single player game is one where the only party to rule negotiation is yourself.

    Thus, a game of solitaire in a Casino is a multiplayer game – I can’t add a rule that you can peek at the next card without the consent of another party. A game of solitaire at home is a single player game – at any point, I can change the rules with the only one person being consulted – myself.

    Some think that computer games are like the casino example with the developer being party to the rule negotiation. The proliferation of “cheat” programs would suggest that a large number of players feel it is acceptable to renegotiate the rules without the developers intervention.

    Raph’s future of “all multiplayer” means that we’ll move more towards unified rule sets to play under. Connected single player games are games which I need to agree to the ruleset determined by the developer (and hence the game playing community) to play.

    Personally, I prefer to be able to renegotiate the rules of my single player games. If I decide infinite gold makes Warcraft III more fun to play in the story mode, I’d like to play it that way. But, opposing that desire, are developers who want their “vision” of gameplay preserved, and other players who want only “real” players to be able to “win” the single player component.

    I’m betting that the rule-renegotiators will win in the end. The presence of God Modes built in to most FPSes certainly suggests that there is a market there…

  7. what about a person being a ‘single player’ inside of a ‘single game’?

  8. You give some subjective rules and caveats about how games can be single-player or multiplayer, based on which nested scope you choose to recognize. All games, by definition, have scores and can always be trained for with a friend beforehand. So to continue the semantic jiggery-pokery, what is an example of a single-player game that has existed? And is that merely a subjective choice?

  9. Marc, I’m unsure what you mean by your question.

    Fran, I think there’s been plenty of cases — much of the genre of console RPGs is a great example. And I think that certainly intent plays into this; to a large degree, it’s about the developer and the player agreeing that a game is meant to be played single-player.

    But I think we often have seen the intent there subverted by the actual practices of players. Players can just about always subvert the intent of a designer, of course.

  10. To get delve even deeper into linguistic pedantries:

    If you talk about Asteroids with high scores as a game with another game nested inside of it (which is fine, if not common usage) then I think you end up with two games, one single-player and one multiplayer. The game of playing Asteroids itself is a singlep-layer game (and is the game most frequently referenced by common usage when someone says “Asteroids” — if mentioned, high-scores would probably best be considered a meta-game of “Asteroids”). The highscore supergame is a multiplayer game. To call Asteroids a multiplayer game, without qualification, is thus a sort of category error as Asteroids is actually two games, one single-player and one multiplayer.

    So I think what you mean to say then is that a lot of singleplayer games are nested inside of multiplayer games and that over time we may find new ways to nest these games. There does seem to be some contention here as to what constitutes a game though and what is merely a “service”.

  11. I don’t think these are linguistic pedantries. I think these are important things to think about, and that it’s important to have a more rigorous framework for discussing this stuff.

    I agree with your overall assessment of my thoughts on how the games nest and so on; essentially, my original contentious prediction is that the nesting is going to get way way more prevalent, and that it will increasingly be branded in such a way that the category error you describe happens less and less. The “service” will acquire more and more gamelike characteristics until there’s basically no question left anymore.

  12. If I wasn’t clear, I was trying to be a bit self-deprecating about my own pedantries, not criticizing yours. 🙂

  13. Replying to this post as well as your previous one on this subject in one comment.

    I think that, a large MMO-style game with many different types of games nested within it could work. I’m imagining something something with a modern setting, where you could, for example, go down to a field enter an instance of football. After playing a game, you could get in your car, drive down to the track and zone into a racing instance. Throw in some criminal NPCs with quests and you can get some GTA style missions going. Head down to a paintball or laser tag arena for some FPS action. Hell, if you wanted to get a little Sci Fi you could even put in some sort of hologram/virtual reality nested game to deliver the rest of the gamut of games: RPGs, adventure games, etc. Am I right in my assumption that this is the type of thing you see coming?

    My issue with this whole “death of single player gaming” is not that the above is BAD. I just think that certain types of games wouldn’t be as immersive or appealling in a multiplayer context. CRPGs are the first genre to come to mind, but I think survival horror games get hit pretty hard too. The idea that there are other heroes stranded in identical zombie-infested cities, and that I could zone out of my zombie-infested city to go back to whatever virtual world you’ve imbedded it into just ruins it for me. But honestly, any game where you play as a specific character, and where the story revolves around that character, stands to lose more than gain IMO by becoming embedded in a multiplayer experience. It’s not that I can’t see how to properly nest them; (anything that you couldnt do easily you could just turn it into a book, where your “real” character [that is, the you who exists in the meta-game virtual world which is the context for all these nested single player games] is reading about the exploits of another person, who you become in the single player game. Saving your progress would be marking the page with a bookmark, etc.) the issue is that there’s something about the experience that’s lost by nesting it within a MMO context.

    The other issue I have with your comparison between single player games nested within an MMO framework and passing the controller to a friend sitting next to you is one of choice. If I want to play a single player game by myself now (as I often do), I don’t play when friends are around. But if this single player game only exists online within the context of a virtual world, I’m thrust into a horde of other players and metagame activities. Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic in my fear that the chat will be filled with WoW-Barrens type spam from 400 copies of XxpwnzurfacexX. I’m of the same dying breed as Jeff Ward above, who prefer interactive storytelling to competition, and it’s my hope that, despite the rise of games within games, single player immersive games will continute to exist.

    I know I’m running well into TLDR territory here, but another issue that, I think, will keep single player games alive at least for a while is the fact that not everyone who plays games has access to the internet. So if single player games eventually are only available within an online context, you alienate the segment of the market which lacks online access. Seems kind of counterproductive to restrict your market while trying to expand it.

    One last thing. If this all ever happens, will we as gamers be expected to deal with all the hassles inherent to the MMORPG genre (server downtime, lag, “release it first, then patch it until it’s fixed”, etc.) while playing every kind of game? I sure hope not.

  14. Rendakor, I think you have made some seriously great points about MMO and singleplayer games.

    In this blog I’ve got to agree with the state of the single player games, to me the deffinition has always been “play at home without the internet” and it single player, “play with internet required” and it is multiplayer. But from a marketing standpoint and development standpoint I think this definition of mine is out of date.

    You state:

    I think that, a large MMO-style game with many different types of games nested within it could work. I’m imagining something something with a modern setting, where you could, for example, go down to a field enter an instance of football.

    This is how I think ALL MMO’s should be developed, as a world someone can play in with infinite possibilities (okay maybe not infinate, but at least a lot) One example of how I think of this is City of Heroes, it’s a great game but it is a game about being a hero. I’d much rather see a game where you have the option to be a hero while dealing with regular life.

    Auto Assualt is another example, it is a game about driving cars around blowing stuff up, I’d much prefer to see a game about living in a future apocalypse, where you can if you want pick up a car and blow stuff up, but if you want to rebuild the civilazation… do that, if you want to go play football in the stadium, that would be cool too. I’m probably in the minority but it is dispointing seeing so many completely limited/mediocre worlds created. (I think options are a VERY good thing; I don’t think people want to be forced into the “path of a hero” I think there is a lot of interest just to make their own way in a world of their choosing. (Sims is a good example of an open world where people get to choose a path, and most of them don’t become heroes, just people.)

    (Prime point about the problem with development philosophy “build it, release it, fix it.”)


  15. I think right now, it seems nitpicky because it’s easy to see it all as a revolution in degree, not kind. Like you keep pointing out, we’ve always had some of this stuff to a certain extent. It reminds me of how I shared music by coping cassette tapes, and mp3 sharing seemed like a revolution in degree, because it just made that sharing easier and ubiquitous.

    Yeah, I agree about the concept of intent. I guess the revolution is really about companies finally catching up to the customer’s intent.

  16. I think right now, it seems nitpicky because it’s easy to see it all as a revolution in degree, not kind.

    That’s a good distinction and I think that’s where I’m coming from. I do think that “online” is going to continue to grow and we’ll see more and more online distribution. Furthermore I really do think this is a great way for the market to go and I’m really optimistic about its possibilities. But despite this optimism, at the end of the day I think that the qualitative differences won’t be as great as I’d like them to be. I think that the online markets will tend to shift to be more and more like the offline markets were. By the time everyone is getting their music online, online distribution will have streamlined to where it isn’t that different than retail distribution. While niches in music, movies, and gaming will see some growth through this when all is said and done the market will be conquered by a few major brands/labels/companies who tend to control mainstream market with blockbuster movies, AAA games and boy bands.

    So when I see all this optimism about the coming “revolution” I can’t help but nitpick and naysay. Yes, the market will change, but a lot of things will probably stay the same or only change in degree. I’d love for the market to get better but I think that we’ll see patterns similar to past changes of this nature: the changes will shake things up and create an initial freedom of expression and burst of creativity, but that will peak (and we may be peaking now) at which point a few of the more successful businesses from this period will assume control of the market and begin to create large barriers to entry to all other participants and lead us back to old habits as they consume more and more of the mainstream consumer audience.

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