Is Open World the New Multiplayer?

Earlier today, 2K released an incredible trailer for its upcoming Fall 2016 game, Mafia 3. In just two minutes the trailer manages to set a strong tone with it’s incredible camera work and voice acting. Through gameplay previews, we learn that the game will follow Lincoln Clay through a tale of personal revenge set in an open world 1960’s New Orleans…and therein lies the rub. Another open world game.

Don’t get me wrong, open world games are often fantastic, and Mafia 3 is shaping up to be just that. The level of immersion you can get from a dense open world, like the hugely successful Grand Theft Auto 5, can easily take a game from good to great. However, as gaming hardware gets more powerful and open worlds get larger, the resources required to populate an open world game seem to increase exponentially. Despite these increased cost and time requirements, this console generation has seen a huge push from publishers towards open world games and, with Grand Theft Auto 5‘s lifetime sales recently passing 60 million units, who could blame them? But is it always the right creative choice for developers?

Call of Duty 4 marks a huge turning point in the FPS genre.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the gaming industry fall in line behind a hugely successful concept. Early in the 360 / PS3 generation, Call of Duty took the industry by storm with it’s heavy epmhasis on competitive multiplayer. With over 250 million units sold, the frahcnise became a aspirational model to the games business long ago. Longing for Call of Duty-like sales figures, publishers would often push for developers to adapt their games to fit the increasingly popular online multiplayer trend.

After development of Spec Ops: The Line, a narrative heavy linear shooter, the game’s lead designer, Cory Davis, famously came out against the team’s inclusion of publisher-forced multiplayer. In an interview with Polygon, Davis stated that “The multiplayer mode of Spec Ops: The Line was never a focus of the development…but the publisher was determined to have it anyway. It was literally a check box that the financial predictions said we needed, and 2K was relentless in making sure that it happened – even at the detriment of the overall project and the perception of the game.”

That wasn’t just an interpretation from the developer’s perspective either. Speaking with CVG in 2012 about the newly announced Dead Space 3‘s inclusion of co-op, even after a failed attempt at multiplayer in Dead Space 2, EA Labels President Frank Gibeau explains that “In general we’re thinking about how we make this a more broadly appealing franchise, because ultimately you need to get to audience sizes of around five million to really continue to invest in an IP like Dead Space…Anything less than that and it becomes quite difficult financially given how expensive it is to make games and market them.”

Grand Theft Auto V’s commercial success has become an industry model.

In other words, publishers were pushing for more sales…and, in their eyes, multiplayer was the ticket. Especially multiplayer shooters. Even now, the Call of Duty series stays at the top of the charts. In each of the last three years, NPD has shown the current and prior years’ Call of Duty games in their Top-10 charts. While a game staying on the charts for two years is impressive, seemingly more impressive is Grand Theft Auto Vs performance on the charts. It has placed in the top 5 with NPD each of the three years since it’s launch and shows no signs of slowing down three months into 2016.

How, then, will publishers attempt to mimic this success? If history is any indication, by greenlighting more open world projects.

Metal Gear Solid V is the first game in the series to offer true open world gameplay.

Much like Mafia 3, many big-budget games being announced these days are open world. At E3 2015, it seemed like every publisher was getting in on the action. Between Horizon Zero Dawn and No Man’s Sky (Sony), Crackdown 3 (Microsoft), The Division and Ghost Recon Wildlands (Ubisoft), Fallout 4 (Bethesda), and Metal Gear Solid V (Konami), nearly every major publisher had at least one big-budget open world game to show off. While many of these games are new IP, Metal Gear Solid V and Ghost Recon Wildlands are both examples of historically linear franchises moving into open world territory. This seems to be the hot new trend in the industry. Much like they did with multiplayer in the last console generation, publishers are considering existing IP for a reboot into the open world format.

Homefront and Mirror’s Edge are good examples of such franchises. Products of the last console generation, both games were short, linear, story-driven experiences that found moderate success…each with about 2.5 million copies sold. This May, each franchise will be releasing an open world sequel with high expectations. Homefront: The Revolution and Mirror’s Edge Catalyst are both looking to double down on the lore and narrative flair that made their respective predecessors successful while hopefully adding more value to the experience through the open world.

Ultimately, that’s what publishers are forced to look towards now….adding more value. In an increasingly costly development environment where a successful launch week isn’t always enough anymore, publishers need to stay on top of the current climate and push for what their analysts think can maximize revenue potential. Earlier in the decade that meant multiplayer focused military shooters. Today, it means vast open worlds. Who knows what the market will bear over the next decade? Mascot platformers are certainly making a comeback

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