The hard problem of multiplayer indie games

There is a dark shadow looming in the future of Infinity: Battlescape.

That shadow is cast by the many failures of other independent games that have attempted to become sustainable multiplayer hits. Its a sad fact that most multiplayer games that are released struggle to retain the player numbers required to keep their game servers populated. When numbers of players begin to drop it creates a vicious circle where people leave the game because they have no opponents to play against.

There is a great article by Dan Marshall that describes this problem better than I can:

There’s also a slightly more optimistic article by Daniel Cook that goes into much more detail about the things you should be considering when designing a multiplayer game:

What can be done to cross this hurdle?

There are a few options and none of them are guaranteed.

Option 1. Carry on and hope that the game is good enough and gets good enough reviews to sustain a healthy community of players.

The problem is maintaining concurrent active users. As a rough guide your daily active users (DAU) will be in the region of 25% to 50% of your downloads in the first few weeks after launch and (usually) tailing off from there based upon how good the game is. Your concurrent number of users (CCU) is usually your DAU divided between from 50 to 100. As the sessions on I:B will be normally be long we could estimate the lower end of that range.

That means to maintain 50 concurrent users in the first few weeks will require ten thousand downloads of the game (50 * 50 * 4). There are just under six thousand backers of the game on Kickstarter and even with additional downloads after release that puts the game in the danger zone for active users. Also bear in mind that is at the peak time of the first few weeks after release and the alpha and beta releases will spread out the concurrent usage even further.

All that taken into consideration, ignoring the problem and hoping it will be okay will only be successful if the game is so good that it bucks the trend of usage tail-off. That isn’t impossible but it is a long bet to make.

Option 2. Provide enough solo content that other players are not needed in order for users to have an enjoyable play session.

There is an aspect of this already in Battlescape as simply flying around and enjoying the scenery is a satisfying experience. Unfortunately the commitment to an offline exploration mode will only make the problem worse. If players are offline, they are not populating your servers and aren’t helping to form a healthy community of active players.

For this option to be successful there would need to be enough solo content in the online game to make it worthwhile being online when the servers are underpopulated. This would mean additional content in the game and the small development team is already stretched with their current game design.

Solo content could be of the form of bots to fight against or activities that advance your own side and give an advantage for when more players come online. Another option would be the ability to find things within the playing arena that give your craft a boost. For these activities to feel meaningful there would probably have to be some persistence between game sessions. I don’t think that kind of persistence is within the scope of the current game design.

Option 3. Design the game to concentrate players during certain time slots.

Another option if you are expecting low server population could be to concentrate your daily active users into specific times of the day. This could be done by scheduling battles at certain times and telling users when they are allowing them to come back at that time.

This often happen in an informal manner when much loved games are in their dying days. Members of the player community will organise events to experience the multiplayer gameplay as it was intended. I’ve not heard of this saving a game in the long run but it could help to extend the lifetime of a game.


Great post @crayfish, I have been worrying about this same thing for a while now, one thing you didn’t mention is that one of the core selling and design points of IBS is the support of hundreds of players on a single server. How ironic is it that the reality might have us struggling to keep the game going on one server.

I would really like to hear from @inovaeflavien or @inovaekeith and their thought on this matter, it just might be one of the hardest challenges INS will have with IBS.


I like this idea, could be a lot of fun, like Event Matches.

IB has a lot of non-combat gameplay potential, I hope INS can get their resources upped for this.


I’d say bots are the most realistic option. With good enough bots, a few players (or even one) could still have fun during multiplayer matches, and it would seamlessly transfer if the server population increases.

The obvious problem is to create bots that are at least roughly on par humans in skills and fun to play against (and that don’t have hilarious bugs that will break immersion).

Obviously, there could be servers with many, few or no bots depending on preferences, though I suspect I:B will never have that many servers.

Events are also a good option at another level.
What kind of in-game events could be made to attract players for a special occasion? Mutations? Asymetric mutations? Events with NPCs, like a Last Stand, or a Hunt for the Black November?


Something like that.

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I would suggest “dynamic POI amount scaling”. This wouldn’t solve the problem but maybe mitigate it. This is done by lowering the critical mass needed to get an interesting match going by implementing said “POI amount scaling”.

Factories or simmilar will “come online” depending on connected player numbers. Not only will there be less POI when less players are online, they will also be closer together. An empty server thus should maybe only have one or three POI. Sure with that low amount of POI no advanced tactics can be used, but without players there isn’t a point in it either.

I too am worried about this possible failure of the game. For instance, I like to play Insurgency every now and then, a rather niche FPS. Wouldn’t there be enough players I couldn’t play it if I wanted, even though I think it’s an excellent game.
I hope this won’t happen to I:B, but I don’t see marketing or good reviews alone doing it.
I think Alpha will be a good testing ground, not only for the game but also for this exact concern. It is a mini release after all.
Still there are hundreds of games nowadays, even with I:Bs unique features it’s hard to compete for player time.


I think the incredibly unique mechanic of having hundreds on at the same time will be IBS’s saving grace. But as yet this has not been tested and it seems the only way to get large numbers of players on at the same time is for the DEVs to schedule an official test - this would go a long way in showing the general public that IBS isn’t just another pretty game. And of course this would help generate more interest. Also it would go a long way in proving DEVs claims about larger numbers participating at the same time - after so many other games have not followed through on claims and stated goals, it’s no wonder the public are skeptical.

Also, it is interesting that new games with next to no content are garnering a lot of support because they offer VR. Personally I would restructure goals and make VR a priority. Also I would seriously consider developing avatars as they compliment VR and make the experience far more immersive - even without VR technology.

That said, I would really hate to see IBS devolve into an single player experience so hope the upcoming patch will make the general public sit up and notice a tad more.

The option of bots suggested by @ThornEel does make sense.
There will be always some battlescapes that are accumulating players, but not enough yet to have something interesting without bots.

Let’s say the maximum players capacity is 100, but the minimum player base for an interesting play is 50 (assuming there’s only 2 teams facing each other, that’ll be 25 each).

Either the players can choose to queue up in server and wait for the minimum 50 players to reach, or they can hop into one that starts populated with some bots. Having the option between both possibilities could be nice.

Among your suggested options, I would add:
Keep improving the gameplay and adding some contents.

Considering the initial fundings gathered during the KS, it certainly will be hard to forsee the future content before the game gets actually released. Nonetheless, I think it will be crucial, past the first months, to add even minor changes / improvements to the gameplay.

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A good thought to post this! Here are my thoughts…

Not an option for I:B. It may be that it turns out to be immensely popular, but it’s unlikely to be enough to sustain the game on its own. I suspect a longer period of growth will be needed.

This is one of my favourite options. There’s no reason for this to be the offline exploration mode either. Saturate the game with a large number of single-player-friendly targets (whether that’s npc ships or soft targets on bases etc), then include a range of group-friendly targets too. Then people can jump in and feel like they have plenty to do immediately, but in order to make a real impact for their team, they must co-op. The key is options.

Dangerous. Especially when this game will initially rely on few players scattered throughout many different time zones. Longer event periods (say across a weekend) are fine, but scheduling battles is only going to work for the hardcore few with time to burn.

Definitely a biggie! If other people are anything like me, I definitely stay interested in games for longer if they continually update stuff! Even if it’s just minor adjustments to things punctuated by the occasional Big Update, it helps the game to feel alive and like the developers are responding to players’ needs.

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I’m late to the party, but I thought I’d chime in too.

If I:B can sustain a community as large as Squad (and PR) or M&B:Warband, it’ll be fine. The key to this I think is to provide gameplay that no other game can has, that’s what draws people to those games.
I think that really compelling game mechanics that are based around the engine’s strengths are what we need to pull that off.
If we get great and unique gameplay, word of mouth/youtube videos will do the job. Overall I’m actually fairly optimistic that a sustained playerbase of an adequate size will be had.

One thing I want to throw out there is that having good comms could be an important factor. I think BF2:PR and Squad proved this point very well, despite being totally different games to I:B. Their implementation of VOIP comms goes a long way for enhancing the teamwork and social aspect for the game. Something like that could help you feel like you’re part of a squadron/fleet. This might not necessarily have to be done via VOIP, useful UI elements and stuff could go a long way as well.
If you’re not able to adequately coordinate with your buddies, space will quickly become a very lonely (and boring) place.


Another thought that occured to me lately:

Give the players long objective goals.

Since the game will mostly be multiplayer oriented, one should consider how other successful multiplayer games try to keep their players coming back. Beyond the obvious good gameplay, the other ones are achievements and ladder.

Not necessarly a full MMR rating, but it might help.

Also, not giving everything from the start might be interesting. For instance, you may unlock customization of weaponry after a few hours of play.


After waiting days, even weeks, in EVE to unlock things, I could live with that.

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I agree that some persistence of data such as experience level unlocking features of the game would go a very long way to alleviating the problem. Consider how much fun DayZ would be if you had to start from scratch every session. Even just a ranking based on time played attached to the user’s account would be enough to allow this.

The technical issue I assume would be that the game would have to connect to both the game server and the user account server to do this. I think it was one of the stretch goals to allow some persistence. There are different types of persistence; character persistence over multiple game servers is a lot easier to do than game state persistence.

I’ve seen a few games where a ladder system didn’t seem to help with retaining users. Half of the users (and the ones most likely to leave) are in the bottom half of the ladder and this could give even more motivation to give up playing.

Good post dude, I feel like well thought out time slots also make the game more interesting.

Just saying only 500 people have the game right now and all you can do is wonder and kill for no real reason, the player amount isn’t that bad(really quite good for the amount that has the game) there are lots of games like this that you can join at like any time and there are hundreds on. So infinity battlescape isn’t having really any problomes with that right now for the small community with the game and when there is no real goal.

Weeks?? You should have at least gone with 6 months to properly outfit a ship :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Talking about individual modules - not entire outfitted ships.

Hey @inovaeflavien , I noticed you are somewhat active on the forums recently and you expressed intent to contribute to this thread on Discord, it’s easy to forget, so I’m gently bumping this for you.

//post too similar
Damn, posted in the wrong thread, this is the right one, sorry.

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You could make a strong case that until we’re doing alpha testing of real gameplay it’s not easy to judge the seriousness of this problem.

A fundamental question here is “If I see an empty server why should I be the first to log on to it? What incentive is there for me to spend time on an empty server?”


Nonetheless, creating an incentive so that a lot of players come back regularly after the original first months is not a trivial question to be set aside with a hand wave.

I’ve seen quite a few multiplayers indie games go drastically down, sometimes to only a bare hundreds, in terms of player numbers past the first 2 months of release.
When the multiplayer requires at most two teams of 10 players, it’s OK. When speaking about Battlescape that will host up to 100 players with a lot of playground to fill, it’s a serious challenge.

I agree that gameplay will be analyzed later. Thinking ahead like ladder or game progress / achievements can be spoke out loud.

As for why go on an empty server: one of the answers could be better gathering with your friends? Apart from that, I don’t see many valid points for joining an empty server, unless all servers are already saturated and that many players are waiting in line to join a new one.

Most MMOs are even gining extra bonuses for leaving the “dying” zone so that there’s less hustle when merging worlds.

However, for I:B, the consideration could be different. Since the battlescape’s instance can be open for 2-3 days, it depends on INovae’s point of view.
If it doesn’t matter to have 2 filled up instances and all the others temporarily “empty”, the ebb and flow will naturally guide the players towards the almost filled servers.
If it matters that all instances are to be somewhat populated for the server charge, there can be a few solutions to pull out of the hat.

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