You can never predict what’s going to become a hit in videogames. Who could have foreseen an absurd fusion of football and rocket-fuelled cars (which had already failed to make an impact on PS3) would become a global esport, or that Fortnite would surpass the game it had began imitating to become a worldwide cultural phenomenon? But where there is fortune, there is also misfortune. And if there’s one game that hasn't had much luck at all in 2018, it's Laser League.
With this game London-based developer Roll7 (OlliOlli, Not A Hero) took a bold step into team-based multiplayer and imagining a sport of the future. In 2018’s landscape Laser League is original, the basics being two teams using nodes on a single-screen map to activate lasers and eliminate the other team. With just the analogue stick and trigger used to to control, it hits that sweet spot of being easy to pick up and play (even one-handed) but difficult to master. Capturing nodes and trying to outwit a similarly capable opposing team has all the excitement and spectacle of any live or digital sport.
Don't take my word for it: critics like Edge (9/10), Games™ (9/10), and GamesMaster (90%) loved the game, and an overall Metacritic of 80% across platforms is the kind of result most developers would be very happy with. Commercially, it's a whole other story. An indie game is unlikely to pull in as many concurrent players as PUBG or Overwatch but the numbers for Laser League on Steam Charts are pitiful, with a peak of 362 players in May 2018 at launch (though the game had been in Early Access for almost a year before that) and concurrent players regularly falling into the single digits.
I don’t have any stats for the consoles but the miserable matchmaking experience speaks for itself on PS4. Even during the week of launch, I could count on one hand the number of times I played matches made up entirely of human players. At least the game has decent bots to play with but, a scant few weeks after launch, all I had to play against were bots.
Bots might make for good practice but, like any multiplayer game, the real magic and adrenaline obviously comes from playing with other humans, competing to see how well you stand amongst friends and indeed the world. Without players, Laser League is doomed.
If a game doesn’t gain a playerbase at launch (or indeed during an Early Access phase) it becomes more or less impossible to escape that rut. I was lamenting the player count on social media last month when someone replied with an interest in the game — but then decided not to try it after looking into the awful numbers. Developer Roll7 is between a rock and a hard place.
This was reflected, alas, in a recent blog post confirming the developer has stopped supporting the game, with its future essentially given over to the publisher 505 Games. Whether that’s just a soft way of consigning Laser League to a quietly undignified death is debatable: there is clearly a tonne of unfulfilled potential here. But if the publisher does have plans to salvage the game, there are a number of things worth addressing.
The most obvious error in judgement was the name, seeing as there’s already another team-based futuristic sport title that has ‘League’ in the title. Laser League may not be attempting to imitate Rocket League in design terms, but mimicking the name in this way felt like a cheap stunt and alienated an enormous amount of potential players (the assumption being that, if you're trying to ride the coat-tails of success, the game probably isn't high quality).
The player pool is so low that Laser League doesn't really have a league to speak of so, if a re-launch was ever considered, a rebrand wouldn't actually be a big deal. We’ve seen this happen recently with online adventure game Raiders of the Broken Planet, which rebranded itself as Spacelords as it also changed to free-to-play. It’s the most obvious 'fix.'
It’s funny that industry-watchers ponder whether there's a future for £60 singleplayer games when, on the other end of the spectrum, people don’t seem to want to pay for multiplayer anymore either. The game of the moment, Fortnite, is free-to-play, and so many players are racking up so many hours on that alone. Is there any incentive for these players to fork out an upfront fee for a multiplayer game with its own unique playstyle and ruleset?
Some games can manage it (or at least have until now). Premium products like Overwatch, FIFA and Call of Duty persist, but backed by enormous customer loyalty and marketing budgets. Rocket League is another exception (though it smartly launched as a Playstation Plus title to build an instant playerbase), but is also a game of truly exceptional quality that swiftly benefited from word-of-mouth and streaming.
In fact, Laser League did launch on Xbox One as part of Xbox Game Pass which, while not free, at least meant subscribers can access the game, and this initially led to a more reliable playerbase than PS4. But it's not free.
It does feel rather tough on developers in this space, essentially having to give away their work in the hopes of winning over players at the start before monetising later. But both the competition and potential rewards are enormous. There’s also the plain fact that, while the kinds of studios behind Fortnite or DOTA2 or Paladins can bankroll experimental business models, a studio on the much smaller scale of Roll7 doesn't have the same kind of deep pockets to back a new game. Free-to-play might seem like an obvious answer, particularly from the perspective of players, but I’m not sure how viable it is for smaller indie games.
And Laser League would be a particularly bad candidate for this business model anyway, for one obvious reason...
The (Lack of) Personality
Gamers of a certain generation can see the appeal of Laser League’s visual style — it’s basically Tron, right down to how eliminating opponents results in a 'derezzed' effect. The minimalist colour palette also makes a busy game on a single screen much more readable, so you can see why team members and their own lasers are the same colour.
But here's the rub: it also lacks the kind of personality and customisation that younger players in particular expect. Laser League often looks fantastic, but at key moments it can also come across as generic and visually boring.
Other multiplayer games like Fortnite, Overwatch and Rocket League have terrific gameplay worth sinking hours into, but people also love these games for the character designs, the customisation, cool cross-over promotions, or the stupid dance emotes.
Laser League does have cosmetics. Levelling up unlocks a whole bunch of stuff to personalise your team— new masks, new avatar profile photos, new costumes. But toiling under these single colour palettes, they’re too subtle to stand out. It's impossible to imagine putting this stuff in a box and expecting anyone would buy it.
It's not enough to just get the 'game' part of a future sport right. Talk to any player of Speedball 2 and they'll smile when you say "Ice-cream! Ice-cream!" It's touches like these that build a world and, putting the business model to one side for a moment, Laser League didn't have a sense for them.
One of the most important things about Laser League isn't so obvious. I’ve been mostly comparing it to other big-hitting online multiplayer games, but in truth I’m probably comparing the wrong kind of multiplayer games.
Laser League is at its absolute best played locally on one big screen with folks in the same space, whether that’s bunching up on a couch or down at a bar with a pint and a sizeable audience to witness the spectacle. It’s more comparable to Bomberman or the hilarious Nidhogg than Fortnite really.
Perhaps the answer is obvious: get Laser League on Switch.
One has to feel for Roll7 because Switch turned up at just the wrong time of development for them (i.e. right at the end), and even though the fit is obvious the studio clearly decided to focus on the PC and console versions. Whether 505 Games would be prepared to spend extra money on a port of a game that’s been a failure on other platforms... is doubtful.
It looks like, understandably, Roll7 has chosen to cut its losses and begin work on another title altogether. That's an enormous pity because, regardless of the minor issues the game has, the fundamentals of Laser League are so excellent that it's concievable a future iteration could hit the mark. Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars developer Psyonix, after all, didn't get it right first time either.
Video games have seen a number of high-profile failures this year, from arcade racer Onrush to CliffyB’s double whammy of setbacks with LawBreakers and Radical Heights, and at the absolute nadir you get something like The Culling 2. It goes to show that, if you work hard and do your best, you can still be lumped in with all the rest. Of course some games release at the wrong time, and some aren't good enough. But some, like Laser League, are just plain unlucky.