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Dropping Single-Player Campaigns From Black Ops 4 Reflects How Most Gamers Play

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Last week, Treyarch, the developer of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, announced that the game wouldn’t have a conventional single-player campaign. Instead, a Battle Royale mode will debut with COD 4, dubbed Blackout. According to Treyarch chairman Mark Lamia, “It’s all about having fun with your friends. More fun than you’ve ever had. Black Ops 4 doesn’t have a traditional campaign; we’re weaving narrative into each of the modes.” Lamia has promised that the title will include the ability to play solo against zombies and multiplayer modes, stating “Those of you who just want to ramp up on your own, we’ve got you covered, too.”

Much has been made of this shift, including previous comments from companies like EA, which indicated it was generally pivoting away from single-player titles and towards multiplayer games. This shift has also been blamed, at least in part, for the death of Star Wars 1313. But data collected from the achievements of the various COD titles stretching back years suggests that the game developers are simply responding to what their player base actually wants.

True Achievements took a look at how many players actually finished the single-player campaign in any Call of Duty game, from COD 2 to COD: World War II. The percentages reported below reflect the average story achievement rate within the game, not the number of people who actually beat the title. TA reports, for example, that just 22 percent of Call of Duty: WWII players completed the single-player campaign, with an average story achievement rate of 29 percent.

Black Ops III doesn’t have many achievements on Normal difficulty, which is why its average story completion rate is so low. The game does give an achievement for completing it on any difficulty, but only 9 percent of players actually finished the title’s single-player campaign. And as TA notes, even when you look at single-player games, the story participation average is low (hit their article for more details on this).

There are several ways to interpret this data and at least one confounding variable to consider. The straightforward interpretation is that players aren’t engaging with single-player campaigns as often. The problem, however, is that we don’t know how much the achievement structure varies between these titles or where they’re clustered within the game. If a storyline packs in achievements towards the end of the title, for example, then players who quit before the end of the game will have a much lower achievement rate than they would if the achievements were evenly distributed. If the game has single-player achievements that require you to play at a higher difficulty level or that reward you for specific actions or play styles (saving certain targets, remaining hidden, or completing objectives within a certain time limit), for example, then players may miss these while still playing the game through to completion. The fact that Black Ops 3’s completion rate of 9 percent is more than twice as high as its average story participation is proof that these kinds of variables exist.

On the other hand, the completion figures that TA cites aren’t exactly great either. If just 9 percent of players finish Black Ops III, it certainly doesn’t imply that a lot of players are getting much use out of it. And this isn’t just an issue with Black Ops or COD games, which, let’s face it, aren’t exactly known for narrative brilliance.

DragonSlayer

The Dragonborn comes… but he only sticks around to help about 15 percent of the time. Image by Kotaku.

Barely 15 percent of players actually beat Skyrim. I’m not one of them, despite adoring Skyrim and playing it like crazy years ago. Ultimately, I got bored with the game before I beat it. But there’s another lesson here — one that speaks to the risk of judging the value of single-player games based solely on achievement metrics.

I loved Skyrim, especially modded Skyrim. But I remember several years ago (I cannot find the link) reading an interview in which one of the Skyrim developers said that the reason the endgame often isn’t well-balanced is because the devs know so few players make it to high levels. Only 44.6 percent of Skyrim players hit Lvl 25 and only 4.7 percent ever hit Lvl 50. This led the devs to focus on balancing combat on lower levels, since they knew relatively few players made it to the higher ones.

This is a very useful insight to have. But judging the value of a game’s single-player campaign based on the number of people who beat it is a mistake. It implies that the value of a game is only realized if it’s played through to completion. I remember my time in Skyrim fondly despite the fact that I never beat the title. That can be true for many games — I typically quit and restart new Civilization games before beating them because once I know I’m going to win and that there’s no way anyone can stop me, I’d sooner start a new game than continue to play an old one. If you judged my time solely by whether I had an in-game achievement related to game completion, you’d think I’d never played at all.

We don’t know exactly why Treyarch decided not to build a single-player campaign into Black Ops 4, and it’s interesting to see how many people complete or don’t complete the SP campaigns in these titles, but when it comes to how many people enjoy a game, single-player completion rates may be a poor proxy for that information. We’ll have to wait for sales figures to see what people want more — a single-player game, or a Battle Royale, COD-style?

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