Friday, January 11, 2019

GTMTM '18: Laser League, *Almost* One of the Big "League"s

Laser League

In 2009, a startup game studio calling itself Riot Games released a little game called League of Legends. It was relatively well received at the time, but with constant game updates and canny business strategy, LoL grew to become one of the biggest games in the world.

In 2015, a different independent developer released their second attempt at an idea so simple it's amazing no one else did it first: car soccer. Thanks in part to a hyped beta period and a free download for PlayStation Plus members, Rocket League exploded out of the gate, and rose to also be one of the biggest games in the world.

In an alternate 2018, yet another indie studio released the final, worthy conclusion to the League trilogy: Laser League. In that 2018--one that looks very much like ours but with just 3 key differences--Laser League found success on the same level as the first two games in this smash hit trilogy, with huge player numbers, constant press coverage, and countless stream views. But we didn't get that 2018. Instead, we got one of the saddest Steam charts I've ever seen:

Source: Steam Charts. Pulled 1/10/19

Laser League had all the hallmarks of a breakout hit: easy to learn but with surprising depth, as fun to watch as it is to play, low technical requirements, high skill cap, persistent account progression, and the list goes on. It certainly looked like it would follow in the footsteps of the other Leagues. Laser League has that instant magic of feeling familiar and approachable when you see it, but once you start playing it feels like nothing you've ever played. Just like LoL and Rocket League, whether you win or lose, Laser League makes you want to immediately jump back in for another game to keep getting better. 

All signs pointed to a perfect conclusion to the big League trilogy, and yet...Laser League has been all but ignored. I knew that just from the lack of conversation around it, but I didn't think it was this bad

Multiplayer games certainly have a chicken-and-egg problem: they're only fun for players if matchmaking is fast and good, but matchmaking is only fast and good if there's a lot of players. Unfortunately, online multiplayer games can't really grow virally like other internet artifacts. They can't be shared from one to two to four to eight, etc., because the one and two aren't having fun because there's no one else to play with yet. 

Instead, multiplayer games are more like bonfires: the developers have to build up the stack of kindling, sticks, small logs, and big logs as carefully and perfectly as possible, and they basically get one shot to light the match and drop it on the pile. If the whole thing goes up in flames, everybody cheers, then runs around wildly trying to find more wood to throw on, keeping it alive for as long as humanly possible. If that first match doesn't take, though, the fire dies and people walk away, no matter how big the pile of wood is.

Unfortunately for Laser League, the flames didn't take. If just 3 things had been different, though, I think a whole lot more people would've been dancing around Laser League's bonfire this year:

1. PlayStation Plus Timing

After working on it "in one way, shape, or form" since 2014, indie developer Roll7 put Laser League out to closed betas in late 2017. The closed betas were followed by an open beta January 26-28, 2018, then public Early Access on Steam starting on February 8, 2018. Finally, full launch on PC and consoles game on May 10, 2018. The game launched to generally favorable reviews, including high marks from the notoriously tough outlet Edge Magazine. It launched as a premium game for $15, but also launched on day 1 on Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft's subscription service that lets you download any game on its list and play as much as you want as long as you're an active subscriber. In a lot of ways, it looked to be following the Rocket League formula: a beta that got some attention, then distribution through an existing subscriber network that would have instant, "free" access to the game.

Unfortunately for Laser League, Xbox Game Pass is not PlayStation Plus. Throughout the summer, player counts disappointed and users complained about always playing with bots instead of other players. By August (just 3 months later!), the original developer team at Roll7 gave up on the game and passed all development responsibilities to their publisher, 505 Games (for some reason, Roll7's post about the transition is now gone, thus the DualShockers link instead).

505's first act, it seems, was to go straight to PlayStation to try and throw another match on the pile of logs. On September 26, 505 announced on Twitter that Laser League was coming to PlayStation Plus in October.

Great news! Except, oh wait, this was October 2018. The month that even the biggest videogame companies had decided to avoid, because a behemoth stood at the end of it, ready to suck up everyone's gaming time and dollars: Red Dead Redemption 2. Needless to say, PlayStation Plus brought in a slew of new players (including yours truly), but it didn't make the difference it needed to, and the fate of Laser League remains uncertain.

What if Laser League was a PS Plus game for May or June? We'll never know, but it seems pretty easy to conclude that it would've done better in months where the biggest releases were Shadow of War: Definitive Edition and The Crew 2 than the month of the single largest opening weekend in entertainment history.

2. Streamers' singular attention on Fortnite

Okay, what I said earlier about multiplayer games not going viral wasn't entirely true. Sometimes, you can start with just one person watching the fire--as long as that person has enough friends. In the gaming world, we call those people streamers.

As far as I can tell, Laser League never even sparked on Twitch. The top clip of all time of the game has just 4,500 views. No matter their ultimate fate, dozens of multiplayer games have been able to drop extra matches on their bonfires by sponsoring playtime from the top streamers. As far as I can tell, absolutely none of that happened for Laser League on Twitch. (However, it does look like at least one sponsored video got a little traction on YouTube.)

Sponsored streams guarantee you eyeballs on your game, but they're not the only route to streaming fame. Top streamers have to keep their audiences pleased, and many are constantly looking for new games to delight their audience and bring in new viewers. With it's vibrant colors, single-screen gameplay, and fast pace, Laser League seems like a shoo-in for prime streaming content. 

However, on this front Laser League was cursed by timing again: in the year that was 2018, Twitch was just a bit preoccupied with Fortnite. With the unprecedented success of Ninja and the explosive rise of Fortnite in general, virtually every streamer trying to gain or keep an audience in 2018 was almost 100% focused on Fortnite. The game was so dominant that when the end of the year came and The Game Awards looked for nominees for its "Content Creator of the Year" category, all 5 were Fornite streamers. It was perhaps the most homogeneous year in Twitch's history, and Laser League was just one of the undoubtedly dozens of games that paid the price in lost attention and potential player base. 

Whether from sponsored streams or organic attention, in any alternate universe where Laser League got the player base it deserved in 2018, streamers were certainly involved. In our 2018, it seems like streamers didn't even know it existed.

3. Online custom games

To be honest, after downloading and playing Laser League a few rounds, I wasn't sure what I thought it yet. I got kind of destroyed by the bots, and it definitely seemed like the different classes in the game were unbalanced at best. But then I played a few rounds online with StanimalD and started to learn some of the nuances, and suddenly we were both hooked. We were so excited that we wanted to bring the rest of our gaming crew together on a Tuesday night and take a rare break from Overwatch to all jump in and play Laser League together. We were shocked to find out there was absolutely no way to do that.

For whatever reason--perhaps just oversight by the small team, rushed development, or technical challenges--Laser League had no way to start a custom online game to play with your friends (and at time of writing still does not). You could play local games with your friends all in the same room or you could play with one or two friends online against match-made opponents, but there was no way for four friends to play 2v2 against each other, or six friends to play 3v3s.

This might seem inconsequential--it's pretty rare to have a group of six or even four friends playing all together simultaneously online--but it only takes that happening once for one fan to create 3-5 more, who can each go back and create their own new fans, and so on. Custom online games are also essential for an organic competitive scene to rise up, with top players using reddit or Twitter to find each other, coordinate a game, and face each other. As the best players learn from each other, the skill level rises, competition heats up, guides and tutorials start being created, strategy starts being discussed, and suddenly a passionate community has formed.

In these ways, custom online games are another way around the multiplayer game chicken-egg problem. But for whatever reason, Laser League didn't allow itself that opportunity, despite more than a few requests. And so we got the version of 2018 where Laser League sputtered and died, instead of the version where an intense competitive scene grew around the game and drew in eyeballs from all over the globe to see top-level play of this mesmerizing game of lasers and colors, inspiring many to pick up the game and try their own hand at it.

Our only hope: put it on the Switch

In a story full of bad timing, there's one shining glimmer of hope: the Nintendo Switch. Combining home and portable console gaming into one device was a huge game changer, not only for a Nintendo who's fate looked a little uncertain after the Wii U, but also--and perhaps especially--for indie games of all shapes and sizes. Other indie games that were perhaps unfairly overlooked while only living on PC have found second life on the Switch. The most prominent example of this phenomenon is Hollow Knight, which launched on Switch almost 18 months after its PC release date, and yet grew its lifetime sales by nearly 50% in just two weeks thanks to the new platform. An even more inspiring story comes from Blossom Tales, which had such better success on the Switch over Steam that it prevented the developer from closing its doors entirely.

Similar success isn't necessarily guaranteed for Laser League on Switch, unfortunately. The Nintendo crowd tends to go for single-player, linear experiences that hearken back to the good old days of Nintendo (both Hollow Knight and Blossom Tales fit this mold), and Nintendo is notoriously bad at facilitating online multiplayer. However, Nintendo remains the top platform for couch play, which is consistently Laser League's best mode of play, and Nintendo is actively working to improve their online capabilities, so hope remains.

I almost dare not say it, but there is one other route of hope for Laser League: phones. The only controls for Laser League are directional inputs and a single button, making it a prime candidate for a phone port. The progression structure would need to be reworked, free-to-play would have to be considered, games would have to be shortened, and the problem of your fingers covering the play area would have to be addressed, but mobile is a much, much bigger world than PC and consoles combined, and iOS and Android ports done right could turn this whole story into just a bump in the road toward the global success that I know Laser League is capable of.

Laser League is a great game, and it mattered to me in 2018 because it felt like that rare moment of being at the beginning of something huge. I can only hope that somehow in 2019 or beyond, 505 finds a way, and the world gets to know this game the way it deserves to be known: as one of the big Leagues.

(Thanks for reading! This is the fifth post in my "Games That Mattered to Me in 2018" series, posted one a day between January 7 and January 16, 2019. Go here to see the rest of the series.)

PS I swear I outlined this whole post before I even knew this article existed, which basically reaches all the same conclusions as me. But take that as a sign; this game seriously deserves more attention, and everyone who's played it knows it.

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