Building a game while it’s live: The story behind Super Monday Night Combat
The first version of Super Monday Night Combat was launched in September 2011 as a closed alpha to a group of about 50 players from our PC community. That version was what we considered a minimal viable product with tons of temp assets and unfinished levels. We wanted to get it into the hands of our players as soon as it was functional as an experiment, and our plan was to update it every week with feedback from our playerbase until we felt it was good enough to open it up to the public.
We were also making great changes to gameplay and figuring out how to take what we learned from Monday Night Combat and turn the game into a service that would last for years. At the same time, we were building a suite of server side infrastructure and monitoring tools to help with free-to-play games called Ubernet.
As soon as that first version was out to our alpha players, we felt the pressure to keep updating it and balancing features with fixing bugs. Even though the initial playerbase was small, we treated it as a service that needed to be constantly updated and improved. We’re coming up on week 38 of our updates and the game is very different from where it started. I’ve included a video from the beta to show how the game looked before release.
A game like ours that mixes 3rd person shooter elements with Action RTS elements is a difficult game to grok for some new players. We’ve seen players that come from a DOTA/MOBA background quickly get a grasp of the game compared to players that come from a strictly shooter background. The learning curve can be steep, and due to the nature of team focused gameplay can also be unforgiving for some. The game can be amazing when there are two evenly matched teams and somewhat frustrating when its not.
Every one of us has a sweet spot between challenge and frustration that we were not hitting on a consistent basis. Why was that? For us, it had to do with matchmaking, new player experience, and player education. Early in the beta, getting the core of the game balanced was most of our focus, and as we invited more players, we started to focus on more accessibility features.
Experimentation is necessary but communicate changes
Even though we’ve done 37 weeks of updates and patches, players don’t generally like change unless they’re aware of whats coming and have a chance to give their feedback. Usually on patch note release day, there’s a whole lot of opinions before they’ve actually played it and we need to wait several days to see how the changes shake out. There are certain balance ideas players will stick to even though the balance for a particular Pro has changed, and sometimes it’s weeks out before the collective opinion and perception changes.
We’ve tried to be more detailed in our updates with exact balance numbers that change and try to be more active on the forums around patch days. Anticipating reaction and putting up a forum post where players can get their answers directly from us helps out tremendously. We’ve started to live stream us playing the latest weekly build with the community answering questions on Twitch.TV which seem to go a long way to communicating the latest changes.
Switching from Uber Points to Real Money
When we started on the free-to-play route we modeled our approach to monetization based on some other free-to-play games that were out there. Some features map well while others didn’t at all because of our hybrid nature of Super MNC. We started with two virtual currencies, Uber Points, which were bought with real money, and Combat Credits, which are earned from playing the game. Our players complained about having left over Uber Points and felt like they had to buy more Points then they really wanted for certain items.
We talked about the pros and cons of having a virtual currency that masks real money values, and we couldn’t think of a reason to keep it. Switching to real money is much more transparent to the players, and they can decide to pay for exactly what they want. We converted any left over Uber Points into store credit for players that can be applied to their next purchases.
Embracing an early launch
A week after PAX East 2012, we wanted to test out our server infrastructure by sending out a massive invite wave to players of Monday Night Combat on PC. Players received notices that informed them of their acceptance into our closed beta but there wasn’t an actual invitation; something had gone wrong. We were getting flooded with forum, Twitter, and email complaints. So instead of making players of our first game excited to be invited into the beta, we managed to deliver something that wasn’t there and made them feel like they were led on.
We tried fixing it, but it just led to more confusion, so working with Steam we decided to set the game open. It wasn’t a leak but it was a result of us trying to make things right with our playerbase. It was just cleaner to open up the game to everyone knowing that we’d be updating and patching for issues that came up. The idea of an open beta and a released game becomes less clear for a service-based game that continues to update on a weekly basis.
Continue to improve the game
Since our launch, we’ve introduced a Training Camp mode for players to learn the various mechanics of the game, try out different Pros, and fight AI controlled dummy Pros. We’re still making constant tweaks to the matchmaker, polishing up the UI and most recently introduced Steam Trading. There are several ways to acquire items in Super MNC. Players can purchase cosmetic items like new uniforms for their Pros, weapon skins, and taunts by spending real money in the store, or players can unlock game balance changing items such as Endorsements that let you customize perks or Products that give players different abilities. The items in the cash store as well as the gameplay changing items are also available as drops in our End Game Prize System.
Steam Trading allows Super MNC players to trade items (including TF2 items or other games) they own with other Super MNC players and other Steam users in general. There’s ongoing balance changes and UI polish that is happening with each patch as well as adding more content like new maps and new Pros which are both in development. Overall we’re in a much better state compared to where we were at launch.
One of the ideas we’ve been toying with is adding a game mode that is more approachable to shooter players, similar to what we had in the first Monday Night Combat, but retaining the core elements of what makes Super Monday Night Combat unique. There is a definite risk involved in splitting up the playerbase or players not liking it. It’s easy enough for us to experiment with it live and see what happens. Like with most things we add, we’ll get a version into the hands of our players as soon as possible and tweak from there. We also have three other maps in development that will be rolled out in various stages with our weekly updates.
The real exciting thing for us as developers is to try out updates and changes on a weekly basis to see what sticks and what doesn’t. It’s both exciting and scary at the same time but I can’t see us going back to a more traditional way of developing games any time soon. The immediate feedback loop is intoxicating.