How many players does a game like LawBreakers need to survive?

LawBreakers released on August 8 to a gaming world that largely didn't seem to know what to make of it. Reviews questioned its niche in the class/hero shooter genre, and one of the key questions was whether the title could compete with titans like Overwatch, since as an online-only multiplayer game it would live and die by its playerbase. When our review published Lawbreakers had a 24-hour peak of about 1550 players, a number that as of writing this article has dipped down to a 24-hour peak of around 675 players, and a 30-day average of just over 800 players.

As we noted in our review, Lawbreakers isn’t a bad game. It has some rough edges, but manages to do some interesting new things with its combat. Unfortunately, it's looking like the game is having trouble establishing itself in the crowded shooter genre. The daily player counts are declinining, and the gaming graveyard is littered with similar shooters that tried new things, but never found enough fans. 

Steam Charts player data

Using the wonderful Steam Charts site, we can look at how many people are playing a game right now, as well as over recent and long-term history. These numbers aren't quite as useful for games like The Division, which are on platforms other than Steam, and aren't available at all for non-Steam games like Overwatch, but they do allow us to know that, right now, far more people are playing Brink than LawBreakers

Developer Cliff Bleszinki has said that he isn’t bothered by LawBreakers’ lackluster launch, falling back on the standard “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” perspective, but it’s hard to deny that the current numbers make it look like there are going to be very few players running the LawBreakers marathon in the coming months unless something changes drastically. So when is the right time to start worrying? 

Naturally there’s more to a game’s success than launch numbers, and it often has more to do with factors like a game’s core audience, what the developer does to respond to criticism, and how they handle factors like price, payment models, and public relations that determines whether a game continues a slow decline, or grows in one fashion or another.

But hard numbers do matter, because if player counts drop too low it becomes harder and harder to justify keeping empty servers open and new content updates rolling out.

In search of a core audience

To put things in perspective, it’s important to look at the trends of games similar to LawBreakers for several months after release. As you would expect, the highest player counts for most games tend to be at launch, or in LawBreaker’s case during its various free alphas and betas. Launch numbers tend to plummet early as people establish opinions and generally swap to other games or move on to new horizons. What remains after the launch excitement has worn off is is the core audience. These are the players that are undeniably interested in the game and willing to continue playing over the long term. 

Near its launch Battleborn hit a seemingly significant 12,000 player count peak, but one month later in June (following the release of Overwatch) that number had dropped to just over 2,300 players. A few months later it fell to just over 600, finally dropping to around a 150 players in May of 2017 before the title went full blown free-to-play a month later. As a free game it hopped back up to a peak of about 1,700 players, far from its initial launch numbers and certainly not enough to call the transfer a full-blown success, primarily because the game then repeated its previous decline, returning to its approximately 150 players in the two months since the game went free-to-play.

Evolve’s initial peak rounded off at 27,000 players, but it shared a similar fate to Battleborn, dropping to just under 7,000 in its first month, then steadily decreasing to 4,000 in the second month, 1,700 in the third, 1,400 in June, and then quickly losing traction not long after to a bare 200 players, before it was finally converted to a free-to-play title in August of 2016. As was the case with Battleborn, as soon as Evolve “Evolved” to a free-to-play model, it jumped up to a peak of over 51,000 players and an average of 15,000 players for the month of July, until again resuming its decline. As of writing this article the average player count has dipped down to around 400 players, a small improvement compared to Evolve’s previous low but not enough to consider it a thriving community.

There’s a lot of information here, but what we can glean from this is the tendency for there to be a small core group of players that stick with the franchise even through the lowest of lows. Both Battleborn’s relatively static 150 players and Evolve’s somewhat more impressive 400 players demonstrate that even when everyone else in the community has abandoned the title there’s often still a core audience that enjoy the game enough to keep playing.

Without this dedicated player base a multiplayer online game is dead, as is unfortunately the case with Mirage: Arcane Warfare. That game released back in May with a peak of 830 players, but soon drifted off to an average of 4-5 players at any given time per month, which is less than the number of players it takes to fill out a single match.

Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, the predecessor to Mirage from the same developers, has had a long and successful run on Steam. Despite the fact that it’s lost a lot of its players in the last several years, it still has never dropped below around 700 players. That's more than enough to keep servers full for the bulk of matches, and pretty good for a game that launched back in 2012.

But unless something changes to create a core audience, Mirage: Arcane Warfare is as close to dead as a game can get. It's hard to ever say for sure that a game can’t bounce back under the proper conditions (take the current surprising playerbase for Brink, for example), but it becomes more difficult the farther a game falls.

For LawBreakers, it’s important that it establishes this core audience early, and that it finds ways to keep players engaged to level off the consistent decline we’ve seen in the weeks since launch. The game is already starting at a numbers disadvantage, with a peak of 3,000 players at launch and current 24-hour peak at 675 players. If a game like Battleborn can drop from 12,000 to 150 in less than a year, then it's hard to be optimisitc about the future of LawBreakers.

Survive and Thrive

So what should LawBreakers do to try to reach this hypothetical core audience? It's already in a niche market saturated by other class-based shooters, and although Lawbreakers offers its own distinct style and twist on the traditional shooter compared to the competition, some of the larger titans like Overwatch are going to consistently make building up these numbers difficult. Especially when the competition already offers a streamlined system for ranked, casual, and specialized matches far beyond what exists in LawBreakers

Despite the obstacles, if  the team behind LawBreakers plays their cards right they could still manage to build up a strong community. Added features can bring added excitement and media coverage. Right now quick play and custom matches are the only options available to players, but ranked matches are supposedly in the works, and we can expect to see competitive play go live in the near future. With a little luck, this update, when coupled with other tweaks based on community feedback could help LawBreakers bounce back by some degree. 

Going free-to-play clearly gave both Evolve and Battleborn a temporary boost in numbers, and games like Warface and Gigantic have managed to keep their numbers relatively high on a purely free-to-play model. Warface currently has a 24-hour peak of over 5,000 players, and Gigantic has managed to level out at an average of 1,500-2,000 players in the month since its release (although we could still see this number continue to decline).

Warface is interesting because it shines as a straightforward arena shooter that’s reminiscent of classic Call of Duty: Modern Warfare PvP. It isn’t packing any gimmicky mechanics, and by all accounts it’s a more of a generic shooter than a fast-paced gravity-defying action title. Yet it’s managed to survive and thrive on a relatively consistent 1,500-3,000 player average since its Steam launch back in 2014, rarely dipping below 1000 players for any consistent period of time.

With these numbers in mind, we can theoretically use Warface as a guide to rate a game has managed to find some level of success, Evolve as an example of where a game is considered surviving, if only barely, and numbers between Evolve and Mirage: Arcane Warfare as a baseline for a dead or dying game. Each title gives us a rough line which we can use to take a guess at the size of the core audience LawBreakers is going to need to survive in the current climate.

These numbers are rough, but we can assume that if LawBreakers levels off near 400 consistent players in the coming month then it’s technically surviving with just enough players to fill out online matches in highly populated countries. This is still arguably the number where games are considered a total flop, and if it drops below this line in the first month, the next several months are likely to see it drop even more. 

If it averages anywhere below 200-400 core players for a significant period the title is going to become dangerously close to dead, at this point across international servers there’s rarely going to be enough players to consistently fill out matches, and it’ll likely force players to begin playing on cross-country servers where their ping is dangerously high. Some games can get away with a bit of extra lag, but it's death for a competitive skill-based shooter, and players that have to consistently play with a lag handicap are sure to move on to greener pastures if it becomes a regular part of the LawBreakers experience. At the same time, lower player counts means less money going into the game through microtransactions, which in turn means less money to pay developers to add content and fix bugs, which will in turn drive more players away. This is the death spiral LawBreakers needs to avoid. 

There’s still potential for LawBreakers to reinvent itself, either by a free-to-play release or regular, quality content updates that manage to gather attention and suck players in. The numbers we have for both Evolve and Battleborn show a massive temporary increase in players when a game rolls out a big new update or goes free-to-play. But there’s no doubt it’ll be a hard road, and it’s likely that even a small misstep will cause LawBreakers to follow the trends of those same games, with a short, rapid rise in player counts followed by an immediate fall back into obscurity.