You boot up a game only to find empty servers. Yep, it sucks. It’s an especially big problem with indie games where there simply aren’t enough players to populate servers 24/7.
I knew this would be a challenge for Arms of Telos — especially starting out. It’s something I’ve tried to think up solutions for as I’ve been developing the game. I’ve talked a bit about one of the small things the game already does:
But I knew more would need to be done, so that’s a big part of what I’ve been working on lately — I want to try and solve this before it hits Steam Early Access so that launch can be really strong with an already vibrant community. Combined with the ideas I’ve been developing behind the scenes, the early feedback and observations have been super helpful in helping me identify what might help right now.
But first, I think it’s important to describe the problem. The first thing people think is that enough people simply don’t own the game — it’s easy to say stuff like “just make it F2P” or “do better marketing” but I think it masks the actual issue. The problem is being greeted by empty servers when you boot up the game. Yes, it’s possible to simply sell enough copies to populate servers 24/7, but there’s two big problems with trying to use that as a strategy. First, it’s basically a brute force solution that is incredibly inefficient. You’re still randomly distributing players across the world hoping they’ll randomly bump into each other at any given minute on the servers. Second, selling copies of a game isn’t even a solution — it’s a challenge within itself, even for F2P games. If there was a sure-fire way of marketing games in a cost-effective way, it’d be really hard to have a failed game — the truth is that most games fail because there aren’t any sure-fire solutions to any of these things. I’ll be putting a lot of effort into trying to more effectively market Arms of Telos (which will be a unique challenge as a competitive indie multiplayer game) and sell more copies, but I look at it like a separate problem. Again, the problem is being greeted by empty servers when you boot up the game and I think I can find solutions that address that specifically. I feel like most games simply ignore it and rely on the brute force solution — AAA games have gigantic marketing budgets, so maybe it’s easier for them to be lazy about it — but as a small indie, I think finding these unique solutions is do or die and will require a very different approach. To be clear, I do hope to grow the game to a point where servers are populated 24/7, but I think it’ll be a lot easier to get there if we find solutions to help before then.
Imagine signing up for a social kickball league but there’s zero organization — no schedule, no agreed upon play times. So maybe after work you feel like playing some kickball, so you randomly show up at the park hoping that enough people from the league will happen to also be there at the same time. That would never work, right? It’d take a ridiculous amount of people signing up for that league to make the park packed 24/7 with people randomly trying to play together. But that’s pretty much how games typically handle it. So until the community is large enough to sustain play 24/7, I think it’d be smart to borrow that aspect of social sports leagues and optimize this community with a little structure — basically compress play times so that people know when they should show up and ensure as many people as possible are there playing during those times. That way, even a small community can feel larger and you can do what you really want to do — play the game!
I’ll be rolling out various features over the course of development as I observe what works and what doesn’t, but today I can talk about a couple that are coming real soon. The first is largely thanks to one of our players, @Grandy! He took it upon himself to write up a nice Discord bot to fit our needs. First, if anybody is playing it will set the topic for the #lfg (looking for game) channel to show how many people are in servers. This way, you don’t need to boot up the game to check if anybody is playing — it’s as easy as alt tabbing into Discord to check.
Next, it can schedule a play time and display a countdown. This gives you a chance to schedule and block out some free time in advance to help maximize turnout. Right now, only a few people can schedule play times -- this is to reduce spam and empty play times.
If you subscribe to alerts, it’ll ping you when the countdown finishes, which is great because you’ll see it whether you’re at your computer or away. So head on over to the #lfg channel and type !help to get started!
But the bot will be most effective if those scheduled play times are compatible with as many players as possible. What makes things even tougher is that everybody is on different time zones. The Arms of Telos community is small, but it’s already spread around the world. We used something called Doodle to find the best times for closed playtests. It let everybody set their availability and then made it a lot easier to find the best days/times to have playtests. So what I’ve done is built something like that directly into the game.
You simply mark the times you’d typically be available to play and click save. I’ll be able to put all the data together, adjust for timezones, and find the optimal play times. You’re not obligated to show up at those times every week or anything — it’s just to help me optimize things and help increase turnout for times that work for you. This will be available in the next major update to the game, 0.18, coming soon!
I view the first step as getting people to consistently play on weekends — this is easiest because it works best across wildly different timezones. Next step will be daily turnouts on weekdays, which is tougher because evenings don’t align and people usually have jobs during the day. From there it’ll be trying to grow those play times to have more players and cover longer hours. I hope these new tools will help get us there, but I have more planned for future updates.
I think another key part of making this work will be more direct communication with players. In addition to Discord chat and forums, you can subscribe to the news RSS feed and I’ll be starting a mailing list for people that own the game. I know you may be worried about spam, but presumably you’re here because you want to play Arms of Telos — staying in touch will help that happen! Instead of quickly reaching for that unsubscribe button or muting the Discord channel, I encourage you to give feedback on how I can improve these communications. What don’t you like? What do you think I could do to do better? I appreciate your patience as I try and grow the game and I’ll need your help to make this happen. Tell your friends about it, help spread the word on social media. When playing the game, try to be helpful to the newer players — the goal is to get more people playing, so try to make it a pleasant experience — keep teams balanced and teach new players the ropes instead of stomping them.
0.18 will have some other cool updates to the game itself that I’m excited about. A mix of things requested by you and some surprises. Think I’ll try to get major updates out on the 1st of every month. As always, let me know what you think of all this!