Gun Monkeys is a barrel of laughs. Something to play for an hour every now and again with a mate. It sold enough to cover costs and got good reviews, but Size Five Games’ Dan Marshall’s advice to indie devs contemplating a multiplayer game is simple: don’t do it.
“[I]f you’re an indie developer, don’t make multiplayer games,” Marshall says in a blog post. “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.”
It’s probably rather good advice. Marshall says Gun Monkeys was successful in terms of reviews and covering development costs, but since it was designed to be played by mates, arranging games themselves, people looking for packed servers were put off.
“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,” he says.
It’s even worse when the game does depend on a larger audience, as was the case with the excellent but unfortunately forgotten Showdown Effect. Strictly speaking, The Showdown Effect isn’t “indie”. It was developed by Magicka creators Arrowhead and published by Paradox Interactive. But it was a small project compared to the likes of multiplayer giants at the time like League of Legends, PlanetSide 2, or any number of MMOs. A month after I reviewed it, it was a ghost town.
At least Gun Monkeys doesn’t require the number of players The Showdown Effect did. But it was still forgotten, Marshall says. “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.”
He did learn a lot from the process though. And the blog post details what indie developers must do, as he learned, if they do decide to go down the multiplayer route. Which they really shouldn’t.
“Be prepared to make your game, finish it, and then spend a year or so promoting it at shows and building interest before releasing it,” he says. Multiplayer games don’t generate hype after they’ve launched if the servers are empty.
Bots are also a necessity, he believes. But they can’t be crap. They have to have human-like AI. Can an indie developer really focus on creating that when they are building a game where, in a perfect world, the bots wouldn’t even be necessary?
Most of it does seem to come down to money. Designing good AI costs more, advertising everywhere is expensive, going to trade shows and drumming up hype ain’t cheap, and supporting it for six months to a year isn’t free either.
It’s likely a bit depressing for a starry-eyed developer about to embark on their first multiplayer game. But Marshall says it’s a case of needing to be boringly realistic. “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.”