Indies, don't make multiplayer games - Dan Marshall

Gun Monkeys creator lays out litany of reasons for small developers to think twice about online games

Dan Marshall has a message for indie developers out there: Don't make online multiplayer games. The developer of the online multiplayer game Gun Monkeys posted a cautionary note to his peers today on his blog in an attempt to dissuade them from following in his footsteps.

"The TL;DR is really: if you're an indie developer, don't make multiplayer games," Marshall said. "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."

Marshall said the expectations people have for online multiplayer games are immensely difficult to meet. They want to log on at any time of the day and instantly find a match with opponents of a similar skill level. After Gun Monkeys launched and players reported long waits for matches, Marshall attempted to ameliorate that concern in an unusual way. If a player was left waiting for a Gun Monkeys opponent for a few minutes, the game would automatically generate a Steam key for them to give a friend. Despite the allure of free games and a raft of positive reviews, Marshall still had problems keeping Gun Monkeys' servers full.

"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," Marshall said. "It's a case of being very, very boringly realistic."

For those developers undeterred by his message, Marshall also offered some points of advice. He suggested online game developers make sure to build hype before launch. If the game comes out and people report any empty servers, that will only discourage others from jumping on, creating a self-perpetuating problem. Other points of advice for online game makers include adding bots to meet player expectations, buying advertising, and providing continued post-launch support for the game, if possible.

"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," Marshall said. "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?"

Ultimately, Gun Monkeys covered its own costs, so Marshall said it was successful from one perspective. However, he added it "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," Marshall said.

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Latest comments (8)

Iain McNulty Software / Game Developer, Yanxen5 years ago
To be fair it is a problem across the entire industry. In the vast majority of non-AAA console games the multiplayer population drops off within a week or two to the point where the game is not worth even searching for a match online, this being part of the reason I hated Xbox Live Arcade games having "on-line multiplayer only" achievements. Same goes for console AAA titles with tacked-on multiplayer modes. PC games tend to generally fare a little better when it comes to on-line multiplayer populations, so I am somewhat surprised by this article.
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Joshua Hagood Moderation Project Manager, Metaverse Mod Squad5 years ago
I can definitely personally attest to Gun Monkey's population problems. I tried to play that game 3 separate times a bit less than a year ago and it was 100% empty every time.

I don't think Indies should avoid all multiplayer games, but they surely cannot make it their only focus or only (Viable or fun) way to play.
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Nick Burcombe CEO & Co Founder, Playrise Digital Ltd.5 years ago
We found that with our iOS combat racer "Table Top Racing", less than 3% of the 2.2 million downloads on iOS actually played multiplayer at all. We have yet to include it in the Android version as we're not sure its economically viable. Maybe local multiplayer rather than live internet play. We now think a better solution for mobile is asynchronous multiplayer challenges. Makes more sense to us. On console of course it's a different matter.
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Show all comments (8)
Pin Wang CEO & Co-Founder, Substantial Games5 years ago
I think the more accurate message here is that Indies shouldn't make multiplayer-only games unless they have a good go-to-market strategy. The entire "make a fun game, hype it in the media as much as possible, release and pray" indie strategy just doesn't hold up with evolving business models and discovery mechanisms on most platforms.

There are plenty of well-made multiplayer games by indies on mobile, for instance, that print money (especially here in China). Most of them (maybe all) are free-to-play.
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Chris Nash QA Engineer 5 years ago
Following on from Iain's comment, it's often the case that indie or "arcade" developers don't tend to design their multiplayer modes to accommodate the worst case scenario of there being only a handful of players online; I've seen small arcade games that require a minimum of 4 or even 6 players in order for a match to begin, meaning that - outside of coordinated gaming or "boost" sessions - there aren't enough players online for *anyone* to play.

Obviously, developers hope for their title to do well. They don't want to think about the day where barely anyone is playing their game, and so don't design with that in mind. But going in with a view of "My game is fantastic and people will still be playing it online for years to come!" is rather obstinate and shortsighted considering the evidence to the contrary. Sure, your game *might* be the exception that proves the rule... but realistically, you should cater for all scenarios, no matter how unpalatable they might seem.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
As I keep saying, no offline or solo play modes in some of these games is a death sentence tor most of them these days. Sure, the MMO and FTP space have hits galore, but I always think of how many MORE people would play if they could dive into a game alone offline or couch co-op and just play without worrying about all sorts of issues. I know I'd buy more games myself if I didn't need to worry about empty rooms, having my every move tracked and running into jerks on occasion who ruin a game.

Too many otherwise fine games are dying on the vine after the honeymoon phase is over and done. MP should be an option for all, not a mandate and the idea of trying to get the numbers seen in Asia and other territories where lots of these games succeed needs to be looked at with the realization that people tend to have different gaming habits that can't me easily charted and used to grow better numbers.
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Greg Scheel Executive Game Designer and Producer 5 years ago
My first thought, is that to foster an online community, consider not leaving the game on 24/7, but rather only turn on the servers for a limited time, such as the weekend, Sunday in particular. Let people know that the servers will be on for a set time, and make sure the server is up for those times. This way, when folks log in, they find everyone else there, instead of logging at a random time, and finding the game empty. This should also help with server fees, depending on your vendor.

Make sure you have a forum, perhaps just reddit, and the email addy of your customers, so you can let them know when uptime is.

Then, for a pvp game, run and host a tournament. Also, if the game is complex to play, consider running a tutorial hour ( or two ) to let new people figure out how the game works, direct from the the developer.

Mr. Marshall should not give up, he put time into the game, and it sounds like it only needs more marketing. Sure, he should work on his next game, while continuing to market Gun Monkeys.

Building your audience takes time, and care. My role model is Mr. Steve Jackson, of Steve Jackson Games, and how he invented the Pocket Box, to help market his games. He practically invented mobile gaming, before mobile phones. The other company I model is Games Workshop, and how they built the Warhammer franchise. To support their miniatures business, they first made up rules for battles, then expanded with short stories, the Golden Demon painting contest, W40K, and retail stores.

Some AI enemies / solo play mode can only help, but that is only the start of a comprehensive effort.
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Roger Weber Founder & CEO, Ranked Gaming4 years ago
People should take a look at what Frozen Synapse did. It's an indie game, and even years after the launch it still has an online population. Sure it's not much, but for someone who just bought the game to be able to play online after all these years, that's quite something.

1) It's asynchronous. You can go online, make your turn moves, and log off again. You can play any time, your opponent does not necessarily have to be online at the same moment as you.
2) You get notifications. Heck even if you are online and the other players are, you can still tab out and be notified when you have to do something again in the game. Keeping you engaged without making you wait unnecessarily.

(1) only works for turn-based games, and (2) works for any game. It doesn't have to be a notification, it can be a sound. You get the message. Other than that having a 24/7 active community, that's a very hard thing to do. You need critical mass at the launch of the game, and you need to sustain that critical mass and grow the community over time. This doesn't work for most games.

What does help is a well planned out launch cycle. Early Access, and growing a community around your game during beta can give you a headstart.
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