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The One Man MMO Project
The story of a lone developer's quest to build an online world :: MMO programming, design, and industry commentary
The 5% Problem
By Robert Basler on 2017-06-09 17:37:09
Homepage: email:one at onemanmmo dot com

When I started working on an online-only RTS, one of my biggest worries was that I had heard from a few sources that only around 5% of RTS players play online. What could I do to attract players when I don't have a single-player campaign or AI skirmish to rely on to bring in that other 95% of players?


The games I worked on at EA had online player percentages significantly higher than 5%. Yet we constantly struggled with people who wanted to cut online entirely because they didn't think it was worth the investment for "so few players." I talked to a friend this week who works on AAA shooters and their multiplayer numbers make 5% look pitiable.

"BTW, the actual stats are 2.57% of the player base has attempted to play the game MP at least one time. The rest, single player only." - Brad Wardell on Ashes of the Singularity

So how did we get to a place where 95% of RTS players ignore multiplayer and most RTS games have deathmatch and that's it?

I think it probably goes something like this: As game features go, online is expensive, complicated, difficult to test, and affects every aspect of the development of the game. The earliest RTS games had deathmatch and some people enjoyed it. If you're the person budgeting an RTS game, you have heard that 5% figure before. You may even have previous games you've shipped so that you can look at your own hard historical data. How much money and effort do you want to invest in a feature that only 1 in 20 players will even look at? You also know that the RTS "influencers" who will help sell your game believe it is critical that multiplayer is on the list of features. So what do you do with your limited budget? Do you spend the money on the campaign that most of your players will play? Do you spend it on challenging AI for skirmish? Do you do more than what it takes to get the multiplayer bullet point on the box, reasonably confident that 95% of your customers won't even look at it anyway?

I'm not saying a developer can't do well by investing in online if there is the political will to do so. Blizzard has invested a lot of their World of Warcraft money in Starcraft deathmatch, they've polished their deathmatch to the highest possible quality. They've even built an entire esports league around it. If you want to play the best RTS deathmatch, then Starcraft II is probably where you should go. Do more than 5% of Starcraft II players play online? Maybe. If there's a game where they do, that's certainly it.

One person suggested I was disparaging players and developers by calling RTS multiplayer lame. The dictionary defines lame as "weak; inadequate; unsatisfactory;" and I think that is an apt description of the state of RTS multiplayer compared to other genres. And it seems 95% of RTS players agree with me.

I also have nothing but respect for the people who make the multiplayer in RTS games. Making RTS games is ridiculously difficult to begin with. Adding online to that with limited resources and facing constant challenges from peers who would be happier if they didn't have to deal with online features at all, is laudable. I've been there. I can relate.

So what is the answer to bring the other 95% of RTS players into the online realm? I don't think the answer is more deathmatch.

The way I'm approaching this problem is to try to find more ways to play an RTS online in the hopes that those underserved RTS players will discover gameplay they find appealing and bring their forces online.

The next step along this road for Miranda is Nemesis Mode. In many of the RTS games I looked at the player chooses a game mode and then sits in a lobby hoping someone else will join their game. With that setup and a small player base, you can end up with lots of people just sitting around waiting to get a game. With Nemesis Mode, Miranda turns that on its head. Miranda looks at the players eligible to play, picks a mode that everybody likes, and starts the game.

But what if you just want to play Deathmatch? Well, you can opt out of all the other game modes and you'll probably be able to get in a game, but Miranda biases against game modes players have recently played when it chooses what to play next, so assuming the other players aren't also deathmatch enthusiasts, they will move on to another game mode and you'll be left behind to find a different group to play with. So if you're a deathmatch enthusiast, you should probably bring along your deathmatch loving friends. (Nemesis Mode also gives you the option to only play with friends.)

What would the RTS online community look like if we could find ways to welcome new players and increase its size by 10, 20 or even 30 times? I think its worth trying to find out.

The Imperial Realm::Miranda is available to play now in Early Access.

By Kurt on 2017-06-10 04:36:06
Homepage: email:kurt at pacomms dot co dot uk
The one thing i always wanted was a persistant online world where i could build up forces, build a base and defend it and the resources i hold. Would be good if it persisted through logoff time as well which would give people something to do if not many ppl are online. I like Miranda ... alot the idea is great the only thing i would love to see in the future is ai mobs/armies/missions whatever just to give the late night player who logs on when everyones alsleep something to do. Apart from that and some UI improvements the basis of the game i have always wanted is there... To be honest game modes/matches is not something i would be overly excited about, ai and base building on one world with everyone else... now thats my cup o tea ;-)
By Robert Basler on 2017-06-10 13:59:01
Homepage: email:one at onemanmmo dot com
Thanks for the feedback. Ideally at some point we will have enough players that there will be other players available 24 hours a day. I added Nemesis Mode to encourage players to interact with each other since often I see multiple people online who are ignoring each other. That's fine if that's what you want to do, but Nemesis mode makes it easy to find others who also are looking for an activity to entertain themselves. Nemesis Mode works more like a quest list than traditional RTS matchmaking. AI players are something I'm considering. If I do end up adding them, their missions will also appear in Nemesis Mode's list of objectives. Some of the reasons Miranda doesn't have persistent bases can be found here.
By on 2017-07-26 13:35:05
Homepage: email:kffff00 at gmail dot com
One of the major reasons there is so little competitive multiplayer in RTS (the scene is almost exclusively made up of starcraft, along with some other extremely tight communities) is that in most cases the competitive MP is designed for 1v1 battles, and these battles usually have an insanely high skill ceiling with very low randomness. Most people know they are bad, they know how much effort it takes to get gud, and they just dont want to invest the huge amounts of time and effort needed to improve. With the bottom skill bracket bleeding players you get a spiral where more bad players keep leaving because other players of their skill level are leaving, in turn further widening the skill gap between a newbie and decent player.

Compare this with the MOBA/ARTS genre, which is almost exclusively multplayer. In part it is because even if you are trash, there is a chance you will get carried by your teammates. This way, you can get some amounts of satisfaction before you are actually beter than your opponents. This greatly lowers the entry barrier needed to win games, allowing for much better low-skill player retention.

So my point here is that to make unskilled players play multiplayer, the game should give them a chance to win, either via RNG bullshit (like gambling games), Being carried by better teammates (like MOBAs), or severe blind RPS (cant think of an example here).

Then you have an option of adding a PvE component, where players cooperate against AI, but for PvE to be fun you have to tune it a lot to make sure it feels challenging, but not unfair, and has enough variety to last people longer than a few hours. While in PvP you can expect players to provide challenge to each other, in PvE you have to do it manually, which can be hard considering AIs limitation.
By Robert Basler on 2017-07-27 18:22:17
Homepage: email:one at onemanmmo dot com
That all sounds like a pretty reasonable summary of the state of RTS multiplayer. Mostly I played co-op multiplayer with friends because in 1v1 I would slaughter them. While you can play 1v1 in Miranda's Nemesis mode if that's what you want to do, it isn't the primary focus. There are also a lot of design things you can tweak so that losing doesn't suck so much.

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