It's always been a wonder what goes on in the heads of FPS developers when they start to pull together a single player campaign. Are they doing it because they are genuinely interested in creating a unique world for players to immerse themselves in or because they started a story long ago and it's now officially time to finish for the sake of finishing it? For some franchises, like Killzone or Halo, I can see a point, there's some co-op involved and the respective IP certainly has a lot of history and lore for some fans to appreciate.
Yet, when a developer goes out of the way to create a franchise with the primary goal of taking down the current champion - Call of Duty, it strikes me as remarkable that anyone would even waste time on a single player mode. No one is singing any real praises over the offline campaign, which is really just useful for shock value during the initial launch period. In the long haul, the only feasible way to present a real threat to such an iconic franchise is by focusing on the only mode that keeps it afloat. For some developers, that means dropping the single player campaign, which may just be a step for the better.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think that single player is something devs should be looking at erasing entirely from the genre. Single player campaigns can be absolutely awesome, memorable experiences when handled correctly, but these days, correctly means spending a lot of time and energy on a lot more fronts than just fancy graphics and loud explosions. Writing has to be as crisp as the action, with characters that feel genuinely motivated by more than just a player's input on the controller.
There is almost an RPG element to a good single player mode, players have to really feel for what they're fighting, identify with the cause and genuinely want to know how it all ends. Modern FPS games make the mistake of assuming that just by fighting faceless, nameless hordes of Middle Eastern foes, or perhaps Korean, we'll all feel some sort of general emotional tie to the main character. However, it's really just the modern day equivalent of fighting Russians in a 90's action flick: players don't really connect with this kind of thing on any deeper level other than that they love blowing stuff up. They simply accept it and move on.
So if a developer isn't willing to take the time necessary to create a storyline that is as detailed as the graphical engine, why don't they just save us all the headache and drop the content altogether? I understand that not every single title out there has to be as huge as a Modern Warfare, a Battlefield, or even a Crysis, but that doesn't mean that the general consumer needs to settle for mediocrity in the interim. Look at Section 8: Prejudice it's multiplayer-only, costs only $15 and even supports dedicated servers on the Xbox 360 with support for up to 32 player games, something every shooter on consoles have lacked in this generation. It certainly looks more fun than any other $60 FPS game on the market outside the three aforementioned titles, not to mention the bang for buck. Team Fortress 2 is another prime example of an excellent multiplayer-only shooter.
There are also plenty of options for developers to explore instead of offering a terrible five-to-eight hour long, torturous offline mode, like exploring a Challenge Mode that can be overcome either solo or through co-operative means. How about a time trial, or single scenario objectives that tell a very small story instead of one gigantic cliche? Heck, even beating high scores on leaderboards in an Arcade Mode can be highly competitive. It's even possible to take the MAG route and just offer an offline tutorial, with a primary focus being on the online multiplayer. If a developer isn't creative enough to look at any of these options as real alternatives, then there is little reason for consumers to invest in their product in the first place.
One of the best reasons I can think of for a developer to cut out the bland content would be to give game reviewers something to actually work with. Homefront is a perfect example, a title that I was looking forward to trying simply because of its multiplayer features, was largely blasted due to having such an awful offline campaign. Which is ironic, considering the story was boasted as rather engaging. Would it have been judged differently had Kaos and THQ decided to completely remove the campaign? In fact, I imagine the game could be completely different if they had cut out the offline portion, perhaps enabling them to allocate all of the finances ultimately wasted there on the multiplayer portion instead. What if Kaos had instead created a persistent online world set in a North Korean occupied world? It certainly might have forced reviewers to approach the title differently, as without single player you're only looking at how fun the multiplayer is and what kind of longevity that sort of gameplay can offer a player.
It would also make it much easier for consumers to decide on what to purchase. Few will purchase a game priced like a AAA title, thinking that they will only be playing it for a few hours offline, or a few weeks online with friends - assuming they want to buy it in the first place. I imagine consumers want to get everything out of their $60 purchase, so why bother with a subpar single player campaign when developers can focus on a massive and addicting online multiplayer. That's where the time sinkl ies and, like it or not, Call of Duty gets it right, with millions of users playing the game as often as they can.
I should be able to do minimal research on a title and be able to determine approximately how much time I'd be getting out of it. If I can't see myself enjoying a particular style of gameplay, then there's no reason to assume that adding on a further questionable single-player mode will justify a purchase. I don't think there's any shame in admitting that Battlefield 3 will be drawing my attention - and subsequently the attention of my wallet, due to it's multiplayer capabilities. The single player is just a bonus, but not one I would personally rate the game by. That being said, once they ultimately decided to package the game with an online and offline mode, DICE set themselves to be judged on the entertainment value of both modes.
Now perhaps this is a little bit of a double standard, as I can think of a few titles that were judged on merits that, in retrospect, were a little weak down the line. Black Ops' story for example, was absolutely dry, boring, and forgettable in just about every way. With that said, no one really cared, and in some cases it was completely ignored altogether when it came to a final score. Is that fair? Perhaps not, but game ratings, be it from publications or users, will always be a little subjective. If anything, it's a good reason for developers to seriously consider sticking to either online or offline functionality.
So should current gen shooters completely abandon the idea of a solid single-player campaign? Absolutely not, but I reckon a lot of titles would be vastly improved by taking a little less time focusing on lackluster offline campaigns with boring stories and instead pour a little more detail into some competitive online features. At the very least, it will make developer aspirations a little more transparent and give gamers a chance to genuinely evaluate a game for what its intentions are. There's no reason I should be disappointed at an advertised multiplayer experience simply because the single player in a game ate up time and resources that could have been put toward a more complete final product.
It's for the very same reasons that anyone looking forward to an offline game would hate to see key features left out because time had to be spent cooking up some awful online game mode to somehow appease two completely different demographics. I hope the industry learns from the disaster that Homefront was and starts prioritizing things a little better from here onward. After all, there's enough choice out there that gamers don't need to feel like they have to buy a mediocre product. With that said, while single player campaigns shouldn't be totally ignored, I can't help but ask if a persistent online space really is the next frontier for the shooter genre? Splash Damage certainly think so.