Recently I was attempting to write a review for CellFactor: Psychokinetic Wars -- it's a quality arena shooter with some new ideas that work well, and was released for XBLA on June 1st. When I got to the point where I felt I had to stop and wrap things up with the conclusion, I froze.
Why should anyone buy it? It's a fun game, but nobody plays it online. Of course they don't -- what sort of caveman would be so bereft of online shooters to invest time in a downloadable console arena shooter?
So why was it made? I have no idea. Surely it could have been foreseen that the players would not be there waiting for it. Right?
It's long been touted as a fact that demographics exist; these fuzzy statistical groups who help determine who a game is marketed to, and to some extent made for. I don't know much about that, and my stance is skeptical, but common sense alone at least dictates that fans of something will respond to fan service.
The Dawn of War franchise serves several different groups of fans that coagulate -- Warhammer 40k fans, Real-Time Strategy fans, and Relic fans. I like to think that, mixed in there somewhere, are "fans of awesome shit and big guns", people who aren't 40k fans but have been attracted to the IP through Dawn of War's presentation.
To conceptualize that, I'd like to use the idea of a large single-celled organism -- multiplayer gamers. The organism is made up of many different elements; different sorts of fan groups with their own tastes. Every so often when a new game is released some piece of the organism breaks off and becomes its own thing -- its own community. It will probably bring lots of different types of fans with it, but they're all multiplayer gamers.
Thing is, this organism doesn't just split down the middle for anyone. If a game has enough gravitas it will cause a split -- Dawn of War has grabbed a small chunk of the organism, while Call of Duty 4 has requisitioned for itself a very large part of it, which still cowers before the super-organism that WoW has since developed.
Yet games are made that have little influence over this organism of multiplayer gamers. Section 8 sought to steal Tribes fans, but the servers are dead. CellFactor was released into a void rather than into the writhing hands of fans.
You don't have to be an established franchise to serve fans, by the way -- fans existed before games did. I'm not sure anyone is a fan of generic, middling science fiction and nameless gunmetal machineguns, but make a game about zombies and you've got a starting point.
What I'm trying to say is, it's a shame that some creators seem to be unaware of this multiplayer organism, because most of these games are good if not great. I believe even a small community can foster a game and its developer.
As a kid I spent hours playing Raven's Soldier of Fortune II, playing in clan ladder matches and playing as a regular on several clan servers. It was at a time when, to my peer group, the choice was simply Counter-Strike. I chose to devote more time to SoF II, along with thousands of others to Counter-Strike's hundreds of thousands.
The community persisted for some time and I believe that sort of following helped solidify Raven as a quality developer in the eyes of fans and other developers. Even if it turns out they didn't make a fortune, they survived and with good marks.
Soldier of Fortune II served a niche, that's for sure. That niche was probably filled with different fans; maybe it was as generic as "online shooter fans", but these certain people were attracted. Me and my clanmates shared a definite love of the game's level of violence, dismemberment, randomly generated maps, weapons with kick, and cutthroat arena-shooter speed. We all gushed over it -- it was made just for us.
Now, Section 8 was made for Tribes fans -- maybe Battlefield fans in actuality. But it failed to be a better version of those games; the quality here still matters, and so does market saturation. Battlefield fans have a Battlefield game to play right now -- your game will not get those players. As for Tribes fans, you will not get those players if you don't live up to their high expectations, if you don't really aim to be a Tribes-like game. Section 8 served fans a lukewarm meal while someone else had already prepared a hot meal for them.
Fans are out there, and I want to believe they're eager to split off and find new games, to join new communities and learn new rules; get better at new games. I believe all gamers want this.
Don't give them something fake, find a real niche/demographic/group of fans and attack it -- more importantly the developers should be part of that niche, working to fill it. That's when the best games are made, you can tell. Multiplayer games require more time and investment than a single player experience, so it has to be something especially special and it has to last.
Developers should not be wasting themselves on games that people, honestly, are never going to play in the current or predicted multiplayer environment. Woe is the multiplayer arena shooter who competes with Call of Duty for multiplayer mindshare. But Left 4 Dead will survive, and so will Red Orchestra, Counter-Strike and I'd like to think Dawn of War. Because those are fans that wanted something and got it, and they don't feel like leaving yet.