Size Five Games
Just give it away: an indie developer’s ingenious solution to boosting online popularity
Gun Monkeys is a well-reviewed, PC multiplayer game from the developer of Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentleman, Please! The problem is that it takes players, a whole lot of players, to make sure anyone who bought the game can find people playing online when they want to get a game going. Even with decent sales, that has proven to be a problem.
The solution? You give the little bastard away. It’s a bold move, but I spoke with Dan Marshall of Size Five Games to figure out the reasoning behind it. As sneaky ways to keep players happy, this is pretty much the tops.
The game is selling well, but that’s not enough
Empty servers make it sound like the game is failure, but Marshall claims that isn’t the case.
“It’s actually been selling pretty nicely, and paid its development costs off fairly quickly,” he told the Report. “It’s not going to fund massive amounts of future development at the moment, but at least it paid for itself, which is all I can reasonably ask.”
The problem is that it takes a critical mass of sales to make sure people can find a game whenever they want to play, which is key for keeping the community happy and alive. This is a common problem with indie multiplayer games, and no one has found a happy solution. Marshall said that some developers go as far as paying players to hang out on the servers, just to give people a game whenever they feel like playing.
“I have no idea how many players are needed to keep servers full, but it’s a preposterous amount, I can tell you that. There have been times when the Gun Monkeys servers are pleasingly filled, and I’m doing everything I can to help encourage that, with upcoming scheduled tournaments and a few more clever promos,” he explained. “But it’s the Curse of the Indie Multiplayer game, you need to shift massive numbers for the people who fancy playing at any one time to be online at the same time.”
This is an important lesson for anyone working on a game: It doesn’t matter how you want people to play the game, the important thing is how the community actually decides to play.
“My intention was for it to be something you play against friends, people on your Steam list. The idea was you drop someone a line and say 'Hey, fancy a quick game of Gun Monkeys?’” Marshall said. “Something that was organized, not necessarily something where you swan onto a server looking for a game. Naive of me, definitely. But it turns out that’s how people want to play, so I’m now busy adapting the game and the code and the community around that.”
The solution he came up with is simple, and rather elegant. If a player is sitting around, waiting for a game, a Steam key for the game itself is spit out after a set amount of time. The copies of the games won’t be unlimited, and it won’t be every time, but if you feel tired of waiting, odds are you’ll get a key to give to a friend to get a game going. This allows people to invite their friends for a quick match, as was originally intended, as well as seed the community with players.
Still, won’t this hurt sales of the game? Marshall laughed. “I have no idea! That’s one of the joys of being an indie developer, and the only guy at the company to boot,” he explained. “I can make these big silly decisions that might not pay off. If it doesn’t, we’ve all learned a lesson.” The idea is that, at the very least, there will be more players to spread word of the game, hopefully convincing more friends to play, and then suddenly there’s a thriving community.
“My main priority right now really is to the community and the people who have bought it, hence this Free Keys promotion,” he said. “If it brings in more players to make sure they get their money’s worth, I’m happy.”
This is all good stuff, but the bad news is that this experience has made Marshall skittish about making other online titles, and he cautions other indies against taking that path. “I’ll stick to Single Player for the next thing. It’s just too much of a gamble and the indie market has shifted so much, there are so many games coming out now that you can’t afford for a multiplayer game to get lost in the crowd,” he said.
“If you’re making something multiplayer you need to be pretty damned confident it’s going to hit that Fez/ Meatboy/ Limbo zeitgeist level where everyone, and I mean everyone, knows about it.”