The release of Destiny last year was a landmark moment in the progression of gaming. A high-profile AAA release with a new mythology to introduce in an already crowded market of sci-fi action gaming, Destiny‘s main campaign was released in a shameful state. In a game that seemed to promise an expansive, wide-ranging story in its advertising, its campaign mode was barely there. It felt incomplete, rushed, and missing basically anything to make it compelling. Even the gameplay within it was repetitive, guarding your Peter Dinklage robot while he opened a door or hacked a console ad infinitum, while essentially no attempt to make you invest in anything as silly as a character or place was made. This should have meant death, particularly for a new game with no established name as such to lean on. And yet, Destiny did plenty fine, with many fans standing by it to the bitter end, making it its money. Hell, it even won an award or two.
Now, online multiplayer has to be where the money is. With the millions of micro-transactions and season passes, games like Destiny can do something that movies and music cannot. The game can become something that can generate high levels of income long into its release cycle. Long after the initial blast of purchase profit, a great multiplayer server can allow games to make insane amounts of money selling packs, collectables, and gear well into the game’s life cycle – one, two, maybe three years in. While arguably a great story mode might make someone buy a game, it won’t make someone buy a game again and again. From a financial perspective, story can start not to matter to the megacorps behind these games. Destiny‘s success can attest to that.
And as games like Star Wars: Battlefront come out without a story mode to speak of at all – oh, the irony of a narrative-free release within the property that ultimately kickstarted America’s love of genre narrative – you have to wonder if there will be a long term cost to this. The long life and large profit margin allowed by prioritizing online game modes could also lead to entropy, particularly if developers start giving you no other reason to buy the game. An exceptional game could lead to the death of the next two ‘good’ games if all there is to tell them apart is multiplayer. A campaign is still going to carry with it a prestige even a perfectly designed and executed online mode can not match. While it certainly had its loyalists, Destiny did also catch some flak, featuring on many ‘worst of’ lists, and creating a general sense that the game had been incomplete on release.
Brilliant storytelling can earn players’ trust, it can allow them to forgive problems, or even blatant profiteering in micro-transactions and the like. A minimization of this element in the name of profit will also hurt video games’ war to be taken serious artistically; a hard fought battle over the last decade or so that they have been winning, with the writing and voice-acting work that goes into video games earning more and more recognition. If story mode begins to vanish and/or become more consistently phoned in like it was in Destiny, well, gaming might find itself in another existential crisis: profit vs. credibility. And on a long enough time scale, the former will cost you the latter, which will, in turn, cost you the former.