Multiplayer games have the potential to be cash cows. While business practices like microtransactions and loot boxes have come under fire for their exploitative nature, triple-A game companies have raked in some major money by unleashing these “surprise mechanics” upon their customers. Add in other purchases like skins, cosmetics, season passes, new characters, and other goodies and you have a recipe for a very profitable quarter.
Except the multiplayer market isn’t the vast ocean of riches publishers think it is, it’s more of a swimming pool that’s nearly reached maximum capacity. Many games have been thrown into the deep waters of online gaming only to sink to the bottom like a stone. Even though it’s very possible to find pearls at the bottom, launching a new online multiplayer game these days is practically a fool’s errand.
Fans are often loyal to their game of choice, which makes building up a new player base incredibly difficult. Even games that receive critical praise often have a hard time finding an audience. The list of excellent shooters, MMOs, live service games, MOBAs, and other multiplayer titles that have failed is extensive because the marketplace is mostly spoken for, and there’s just not enough room for everyone to win.
There's only so many people in the world and they usually like to stick to a game that they're comfortable playing. It's hard to convince a large population of gamers to abandon something they've plugged hundreds of hours into for something new. There may some adventurous people who are willing to experiment, but many end up back at their old stomping grounds with their online friends and familiar gameplay.
It’s a sad state of affairs for any good game that’s trying to carve a niche out for itself, but what’s even worse is when a game doesn’t bother trying to innovate and tries to emulate another popular title instead. Trying to latch onto a zeitgeist is not the way to build a multiplayer franchise. Yet, games keep getting made and marketed on the basis that they could be the next Fortnite, the next Destiny, the next World Of Warcraft, and it rarely ever works.
Boss Key Productions was a studio founded on creating interesting multiplayer games. However, despite having Gears Of War's Cliff “Cliffy B” Bleszinski at the helm, the company’s major two titles seemed to be imitating what was popular at the time. Lawbreakers was a team shooter where each character had a special ability, a game that ended up being very similar to Overwatch. It received good reviews, but Overwatch was already a hit at that point so Lawbreakers failed to find an audience. It got even worse with their other game, Radical Heights, a desperate attempt to attach themselves to the battle royale craze, which turned out to the final nail in the coffin for the company.
Gamers don’t want something that pretends to be the next version of a game they’re already playing. If something sells itself as the next Fortnite, but it just looks like an inferior copy of Fortnite, then why would they leave Fortnite? The only time they want the next edition of a game is if it’s truly a sequel. Call Of Duty players will flock to the next yearly COD, but they’re not going to migrate over to a new game if it claims to be exactly like COD but slightly different.
Most popular multiplayer games succeed because they either did something that had never been done before, or they refined and improved a previous idea thus turning it into a separate unique product. But money-hungry publishers don't have time for all that creativity nonsense. Their aim is to get into the scene as fast as possible, so they simply try to stitch together a product that looks like something popular and hope that will be enough to trick consumers into jumping onto their bandwagon. This usually results in a game that’s a complete mess.
A Lack Of Trust
Companies tend to think about the short term gains and worry about long term problems later. Once a product is completed enough to be in a passable state it gets placed on shelves regardless of what the designers or testers have to say. But the people in charge don’t realize the difficulty of creating a multiplayer game.
Having to account for a large number of online players, stable servers and net code can be a daunting task, and if there’s a non-negotiable release window to be met, then quality assurance goes right out the window. This means we've seen some truly awful games come out due to rushed development cycles, irreparably damaging the reputations of formerly beloved developers and causing players to doubt the longevity and quality of future multiplayer titles.
Anthem and Fallout 76 are both examples of the hubris of avaricious developers. In their pursuit of a golden goose, both Bioware and Bethesda released games that were broken, buggy, and just plain bad. Anthem is now a dead game with no future content planned, and Fallout 76 is a microtransaction-riddled catastrophe, complete with a $100 subscription pass that doesn’t even work properly.
If terrible, money-grubbing games like these can be made by two names that used to be counted among the most reliable developers in the gaming industry, what faith can the average consumer have in a new multiplayer game from a new studio? The trust has been lost, so now even if a great new game does come out it’ll have to work extra hard to prove that it’s worthy of a player’s time.
It’s baffling how many developers still want to enter the multiplayer market considering the limited amount of successful new games that have been launched in recent times. For every Overwatch there’s a Battleborne, for every Apex Legends there’s a Titanfall. Titles with fresh concepts or high levels of excellence are being sent out to die in an overpopulated ecosystem that just can’t support them.
The amount of players who are willing to give new games a try is distressingly low, and even those who do play new releases rarely stick with them. And that's with the good games. The publishers who try to nudge their way in with a blatant copy or undercooked disaster only damage their standing with gamers and lower the chances of anyone wanting to play anything from them or any other developer in the future.
Of course, this isn't all to say that new multiplayer games shouldn't be made. If a company has a great idea, a decent budget, and the time necessary to iron out all of the kinks in the software then it may be worth taking the chance. But assuming that just because you have something that a bunch of people could play and pay you money for doesn't mean it's going to happen. It takes effort, passion, and a whole lot of luck to make it in the multiplayer business. It’s not worth it if you’re going in with nothing on your mind but greed. That’s how you wind up with something like Anthem.