Dan Marshall offers advice on developing multiplayer games following his experience with Gun Monkeys
Hello! So it’s been about a year since Gun Monkeys come out, and because I took some innovative steps to keep it alive, I still get a lot of people asking me for advice.
The TL;DR is really: if you’re an indie developer, don’t make multiplayer games. There are exceptions, naturally, but by-and-large the number of customers you’re ever likely to get simply isn’t there to support it.
Gun Monkeys was designed as a 1-on-1 game specifically to keep it easy to set up. There’s no waiting for 4 other players to turn up, you just need one opponent and you’re good to go. It was designed to be played among friends – you message someone and say “hey, quick game of GM?” and meet and play. That was the idea; that was my way of getting around the fact that it was never likely to sell enough copies to have full servers.
Sadly, that’s not what people expect from a multiplayer game. People expect to log in, and find someone of the exact same skill to play against. At 3am. I did everything I could to accommodate that, but it was never going to happen, was it? This is not just the case for me, indie multiplayer servers are dry all over.
Here’s what I’ve learned by doing this. If you’re adamant about making a multiplayer game, these suggestions are things you 100% should do.
Get hype. You can release a great game and it’ll build hype over time. That doesn’t work with multiplayer, because you need the support there from the very first second it launches. You need to have hundreds of thousands of people champing at the bit to play, if not millions, in order for the game to be successful. Be prepared to make your game, finish it, and then spenda year or so promoting it at shows and building interest before releasing it.
Release to the press WAY before launch. Pretty much every single review of GM says the servers are empty (because, like most people, the reviewers kind of didn’t expect to ever have to arrange their own matches), and it became a self-perpetuating myth. Less people bought it because the servers were empty, so the servers were more empty when people did reviews. And so on. Press need the game well in advance.
Add in bots. You’ll need to heavily invest in human-like AI to keep people happy. People will complain the AI is shit, and building AI is going to be massively expensive. As an indie, can you cover the cost of that? Simply adding multiplayer to a singleplayer game doesn’t solve the problem, either. People will still log in looking for a game, and log out to play singleplayer. They might as well be standalone games, right?
Buy advertising. You’re going to need to get your game EVERYWHERE. If you sell a million copies at launch, at any one time you’re likely to have a handful of people looking to play. People have jobs and school and are playing different games or watching Netflix. The Copies Sold : Players Online ratio is preposterous. Spending money will help that. Have you got an advertising budget? Because most don’t. Whatever it is, stick a 0 on the end.
Keep things simple. It’s hard enough getting a game of Gun Monkeys as 1-on-1, let alone if it needed 4-8 players to get a match going. Design your game around the entire concept of the severs being empty.
Keep supporting it, to a degree. This is harder than it seems. I kept fixing bugs and tweaking gameplay for a few months, because of course, but there comes a point where you’re aware you need to get on with a new game in order to keep your company afloat. Adding new maps and characters and stuff seems like a sensible thing to do, but if the game doesn’t have the numbers already, what is it really going to achieve? Another 6 months dev time on a game that doesn’t have the oomph? That kind of support is strictly for games with a thriving community and a big demand for new content, but you need to be prepared to do it.
Have money. I think that’s the long and short of it. Whether it’s for tradeshows, advertising, or a year of support after release, you need to have the finances in place to fund multiplayer games.
I don’t want to be completely negative, I just think as indies we need to be aware that the numbers TitanFall sells in order to be a constantly-playable online game eclipses anything we could possibly hope to achieve. It’s a case of being very very boringly realistic. And there are exceptions, of course there are! I’m just letting you know what my experience has been
In short? My advice remains: don’t. It’s an expensive gamble. Gun Monkeys sold well, covered its own costs, generally got 7-8 out of 10 reviews, and only took a few months to make, so from that point of view it was a success.
But Gun Monkeys immediately got forgotten about. And that’s the saddest bit for me, because it’s genuinely a brillo little game that deserved a lot more attention.