2023 showed us the cost of pushing singleplayer developers to make multiplayer games

Redfall vampire
(Image credit: Tyler C. / Arkane Austin)

On the second day of reviewing Redfall, Arkane's co-op vampire FPS, I logged in and lost all my progress. I made the critical mistake of playing with someone else in a multiplayer game that only remembers what one player does. I wasn't devastated about losing a few hours of my time,  but disappointed that the always-online multiplayer structure of the game, a feature centered in its design, had led me astray.

Redfall could've been a stellar co-op game where you stake vampires and stuff your pockets with loot. Instead it's a wide-open multiplayer world with scraps of Arkane's singleplayer games tossed in. The specificity of a discarded note from someone mourning the loss of a family member loses its impact when most of the game is a broad list of objectives to complete with your friends. Arkane's past games work because the narrow scope of a singleplayer experience affords it the space to find harmony with the design and storytelling. Redfall is this year's saddest example of a celebrated developer trying to synergize its singleplayer strengths with a multiplayer game.

According to a report by Bloomberg, the development of Redfall was fraught from the beginning. Pressure from publisher ZeniMax to slip microtransactions in, doubts about the entire concept of a "multiplayer Arkane game", and droves of staff departures hamstrung the game's progress. Five years of work ended in a confusing marketing campaign and a sour launch with poor critical reception and a number of bugs, like one where enemies looked like they were wearing Heelys.

Now the other half of Arkane, Arkane Lyon (Deathloop), is working on a Blade game with Marvel, which is, as Bethesda seems to be emphasizing, a strictly singleplayer game. It only took six months for the publisher in charge of Redfall to treat it like it never happened.

Even a developer as successful as Naughty Dog struggled with translating its post-apocalyptic narrative shooter The Last of Us into a live service multiplayer game. Another Bloomberg report in May said the Sony studio hadn't figured it out after "at least four years" of development. One of the few developers who managed to pull off the singleplayer to multiplayer shift with Destiny, Bungie, reportedly took a look at it and questioned its ability to "keep players engaged for a long period of time," which prompted Naughty Dog to spend even more time reworking it.

(Image credit: Sega)

Hyenas is an example of the risk you take on when making a shift to a new format, and the consequences of it not meeting a publisher's expectations.

This week, The Last of Us Online was canceled. In a statement, Naughty Dog said "the massive scope of our ambition became clear. To release and support The Last of Us Online we’d have to put all our studio resources behind supporting post launch content for years to come, severely impacting development on future single-player games."

In September, Total War developer Creative Assembly canned its online extraction shooter Hyenas weeks after it held a closed beta. Sega, the publisher, had called Hyenas a "challenging title" during an investor Q&A session a month prior and seemed to be reconsidering its business model late in development. While it's hard to draw direct parallels to Redfall's rocky development with Hyenas, it sounds like it also suffered from internal confusion about how to handle it.

Hyenas may not have had to risk a disappointing launch like Redfall, but the consequences of a failed project still had an effect on its developers. The same day it decided to axe the game, Sega began a "redundancy consultation process," that "may, unfortunately, result in job losses." Whether or not the decision to make a multiplayer game was fully supported by Creative Assembly, Hyenas is another example of the risk you take on when making a shift to a new format and the consequences of it not meeting a publisher's expectations of a modern live service game. Sega even admitted last month that the studio is "good at offline games in the RTS genre," and that it would now "focus again on the strength of each studio."

Recipe for disaster 

In a year of unprecedented layoffs in the videogame industry, it's impossible to be sympathetic with publishers who greenlight these kinds of projects and fail to properly support the developers putting in the work to pull games like these off. According to a report by the LA Times, an estimated 6,500 workers have been laid off globally this year. Massive development budgets and the need for games to retain regularly paying players through seasonal models and microtransactions damages the potential for any of these projects to find success should a developer actually want to make something new.

The result is lost jobs and disappointing games like Redfall. The problem isn't that singleplayer developers can't inherently make good singleplayer games. It's very possible. Diablo 4 has more multiplayer systems than any game in the series before it. It took several months, and likely hundreds of hours of work, to rework it into a game that still feels like a singleplayer Diablo experience but has hooks for MMO-like play in its open world events and new endgame bosses. Players regularly search on Discord for groups to help them earn rare loot so they can go back to carving through dungeons on their own and nobody seems to have a problem that it's much easier with other people. Blizzard is certainly not a star example of a developer/publisher that has always treated its employees right, but the Diablo 4 team seems to be getting the resources it needs for something it's never done before.

(Image credit: Tyler C. / Blizzard)

Redfall didn't get that for reasons we'll probably never fully know. Arkane continues to patch out issues with the game and promises to release new playable heroes next year. Maybe Redfall will have its Cyberpunk 2077 moment and coalesce into what I at least thought was a cool concept: vampire hunting with slick movement abilities like Dishonored's Blink. But with a dwindling player base and a patchwork structure, I doubt Redfall will ever get the support it deserves.

Associate Editor

Tyler has covered games, games culture, and hardware for over a decade before joining PC Gamer as Associate Editor. He's done in-depth reporting on communities and games as well as criticism for sites like Polygon, Wired, and Waypoint. He's interested in the weird and the fascinating when it comes to games, spending time probing for stories and talking to the people involved. Tyler loves sinking into games like Final Fantasy 14, Overwatch, and Dark Souls to see what makes them tick and pluck out the parts worth talking about. His goal is to talk about games the way they are: broken, beautiful, and bizarre.