Story Time

The real issue with lack of story in computer games

I have a habit of watching old reviews on YouTube. I either put them as background noise while playing strategy games, or watch them while eating. I enjoy listening over and over to the way different people analyze a game and present their opinions. The focus on certain aspects, the consistency or lack thereof in a series, the style of presentation, I find them all fascinating. I say this because I have recently watched several reviews of various Call of Duty and Battlefield titles.

In particular the Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 reviews had weighed down on my mind. The game, the latest installment in a… somewhat(?) venerated series had launched without a single player campaign, which rubbed certain reviewers the wrong way. Now, I myself had not played a Call of Duty game ever since the first Modern Warfare title whose story was good, not great. I also understand, by watching reviews and reading comments, that the series’ main campaigns had been getting sillier and sillier with each installment. With many people playing Call of Duty for its online portion only, axing the single player campaign seems quite fine. Like removing a vestigial tail. So why were people angry?

This question gnawed at me for a while and when I finally sat down to ponder it, it didn’t take long to reach a conclusion. There are several things wrong with removing a component of a long standing franchise. I may have found the Call of Duty series a pandering mess (just reading the synopsis of some of the titles is enough to induce a migraine) but many people do like these stories and buy the games for the single player aspect (those mad bastards!).

Another issue is the trend chasing. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 has sacrificed its single player campaign for a few cooperative missions and a battle royale mod. With so many battle royale games saturating the market already, its no wonder some long standing fans were turned off from the franchise as they felt abandoned by it. After all, if there is one thing Call of Duty was known for was its fast pace, twitch reflex combat. Sidelining it for some battle royale mod, no matter how well implemented, feels like a betrayal of the very core foundation of the series. I know that feeling well considering Battlefield V had a battle royale mod announced for it close to release and as a lifelong Battlefield fan I voted with my wallet and said “no”.

However it wasn’t until Apex Legends that the full answer came to me. See, all the things I detailed above are important. They are core component of what makes Call of Duty basically Call of Duty. It is the reason people pay 60$ at least for the basic game, not to mention season passes, expansions and cosmetics. Angry Joe said it best when he stated that they basically removed a third of the title’s value. That is what at the heart of the removal of a single player campaign; expectations.

It is always about expectations. The computer games industry had conditioned us that certain titles, priced at certain values, will contain a set amount of content. In first person shooters, that content may vary by franchise, but most often its a single player campaign and a multiplayer component. When you purchased Call of Duty you bought a story and an online component. That is why you paid 60$. For a while, that was seen as a reasonable price but with the rise of free to play games and independent titles gaining more mainstream appeal, that pricing point has become tenuous at best.

Thus, when Call of Duty basically threw away one of its key selling points and added a mod that, while I understand functions well, is still anathema to the core experience of the series. So much so that it lost much of its identity and advantage over its competition. This forced fans to ask themselves if they are still willing to support such a title when there are alternatives elsewhere, much cheaper yet just as good. After all, you don’t see anyone going after Apex Legends or Counter Strike: Global Offensive for having no single player story or experience. In fact, both titles are enjoying huge popularity, with the latter being a staple of online first person shooters for decades and the former threatening to unseat Fortnie as most popular battle royale game with its monstrous growth in popularity.

Of course, there are other factors in play here as well, such as Activision-Blizzard’s nickel and diming of its player base, but up until now, that base was fine with some of it so long as the core experience remained the same. Get a new title, play an over the top, cliche laden campaign, have some online matches then move to the next release. Rinse, repeat. Messing with this formula by removing a key component had thrown the whole equation off. How can you justify buying the same title for the same price when it has less to offer you than before? A new battle royale mod is nice and all, but it is still part of the online experience. Merely a new multiplayer mod to add to the rest. It is no substitute for the single player experience.

Activision-Blizzard is not alone in basically gouging out core features that had been the standard in computer games only to sell them back later on or just ignore them completely. We as consumers already lost cosmetics, full game on release, demos, betas and the list goes on. Now we are losing story as well. Just read Electronic Arts’ line on the single player campaign being a mistake or the fact that their first Star Wars: Battlefront game launched without a single player campaign either and the second one included one only due to fan backlash. The reason for the backlash? The pricing.

I pointed to expectations previously and I’d like to repeat it. When we purchase a 60$ game, we expect a certain experience. In major published first person shooters, it is the campaign feature. Regardless of the overall quality and length (a discussion for a separate article), we expect a single player story. It is how first person shooters had slowly evolved. Heck, Call of Duty’s entire success as a franchise to eclipse Battlefield was thanks to the first Modern Warfare’s title blowing everyone’s minds. Having such a poignant story showed everyone that gaming can tackle mature, adult themes while having fun gameplay.

Taking it away is removing a third of the experience. A battle royale game in the Call of Duty series is not a bad thing altogether, and as I mentioned before it seems Blacklight (Black Ops 4’s name for its battle royale mod) is quite a fun experience. However I don’t think, and as comments and reviewers have demonstrated, its worth 60$. There is a reason why Fortnite and Apex Legends are thriving, and that is due to be a free to play experience. I enjoy playing Apex Legends immensely. If it was sold at 30$ I may have bought it. As a full priced release though, I’d hesitate immensely because my expectations of a 60$ title differ greatly from a 30$ or a free to play game.

That is the heart of the matter. As time went by, we as consumers have been getting diminishing returns for the same dollar price. While people argue about inflation and how games should cost more, the consumers have been getting less and less at a time where development costs have remained more or less stable as profits soared. Now they’ve gouged out a major component and sold us the same title, banking on previous installments’ reputation to purchase an inferior version. Its not just insolent, its downright depressing.

It is depressing because people continue to purchase these titles. It is depressing because for all the cost saving, corner cutting measures major publishers deploy, there are still good stories waiting to be told that never get the option or platform to do so. If it weren’t for the stories of the Call of Duty and Battlefield series, we wouldn’t have gotten an amazing title such as Spec Ops: The Line. Now with the story component erased, what is the point of a new installment? To re-do progression? To have a slightly more polished version even though current online connectivity allows patching and overhauls? What differentiates previous Call of Duty titles outside of a reskin? Well, the fact that they offer us less for the same exact price.

This is the ultimate problem with removing story experiences from major titles. It is the exposure of the underlying greed which turns us into cynics and nihilists. What else would publishers strip from their flagship titles? I don’t wish to speculate for fear I’d be giving these people ideas. What is for sure, is that the games we once cherished as complete packages have become a threadbare affair, not worth their asking price. Pour one out for Soap Mactavish.

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