What Happened to Battleborn? Some Thoughts…

I’ll just start with this chart, of the peak players of Battleborn on Steam for the last month. (Note: Steam only, I don’t know if reliable console stats are available.)

The trend is pretty obvious. Courtesy of SteamDB
The trend is obvious and depressing for fans. Courtesy of SteamDB

Death Knell

If this were a single player game, that trend would be not ideal, but probably somewhat expected. People play those and gradually move on. Most importantly, other people not playing it doesn’t particularly harm my ability to play it. Battleborn, however, is a team based shooter (aka: multiplayer). Other players are required for most of the game to work, including matchmaking.

The impact on a multiplayer game of player numbers getting that low is that matchmaking stops working properly, and takes a very long time to find matches (and matches it does make start being suboptimal). Also remember that this is *peak* users, so some times of day will be significantly lower still. You can see the impact in the more recent Steam reviews, where they complain about matchmaking.

So, what happened? I obviously can’t say for certain, but there’s some things I do know…

Never Challenge Blizzard

The easiest answer is to say that this other game happened.

Overwatch box art
You’ve probably heard of it

Much like the old Klingon story about a warrior standing in the path of a storm and challenging it, only to get killed by it because “a storm doesn’t respect a fool”, releasing near a Blizzard game is something of a fool’s errand. Other developers in other genres have learned that. (Incidentally if you like strategy games, check Arcen’s stuff out!)

Overwatch pretty much eclipsed everything that happened around it, and Battleborn was only a couple of weeks before it… with a launch that just happened to be the same week as Overwatch’s public beta. Blizzard is a very cold entity, sometimes.

To be fair, Gearbox and 2k couldn’t have known the open beta would hit them. The timing of the whole launch and marketing is something that can be hard to change for a traditional publisher like 2k (things are planned well in advance for big budget games), so it’s questionable if it’s really their fault that it happened. It doesn’t matter, though.

They stood in the path of a storm, and the storm won.

Poor Design Decisions

While we’re on the subject of Overwatch… you know one of the things that makes Overwatch great? It’s no BS. You buy it, and they give you the game to play. There’s no locked characters, no “hey, now buy the seasons pass!” No “you must reach level 8 before we unlock multiplayer”.  The philosophy is to get you into the fun part as soon as possible.

Battleborn? Give or take, half the character roster is locked out of the box. On a $60, competitive game. Think about that for a second.

Gear is highly important to your effectiveness, but you don’t get loadouts until level 3. Oh, you have a level, and your characters also have levels, and gear. Finding good gear is important to being effective with a given character, so you’ll have to do it for characters you intend to use competitively or you’re at a disadvantage. Matchmaking also has to be able to take all this stuff into account, which only works with a very large player pool.

It seems in a lot of ways like they really leaned on all the progression stuff in Borderlands and thought they needed it all here too, except that was a single player RPG and this is a competitive team MOBA type thing. At some point, you need to set aside the need for tons of “progression”, and let people simply battle each other on a level playing field. Super leveled people with legendary gear fighting people with early (or no) gear isn’t competitive, it’s basically just ganking.

It probably also goes without saying that making a MOBA is a risky idea in general, considering how flooded that market is, how many of them are failing due to it bieng flooded, and how difficult it is to pry players away from League of Legends (one of the most successful games on the planet, by any measure), DOTA2 (nearly a million simultaneous players yesterday), and Heroes of the Storm (Blizzard, again). Back when they started, I’m sure they thought it was a good idea, but it wasn’t.

Marketing Fail

Battleborn’s marketing was… not great. Aside from the sheer number of people who think it’s the same as Overwatch, the marketing does a bad job of explaining what the game is. You see that mentioned in the Steam reviews as well – how they did a bunch of writing for single player and people don’t really know about it.

Personally, the marketing never connected with me at all. I follow Gearbox on Twitter, and I own all three Borderlands games… and I found the Battleborn marketing sufficiently annoying that I flat out muted it. I never found it did a good job of explaining what the game was. Rhiss is interested in it, and had to explain it to me in order to try and convince me to try it*. I know I’m not alone on that, there was a lot of confusion about it.

More recently, they responded to the weak sales initially by having a sale. That’s fine, except it was a 33% off sale, three weeks after launch. Lots of people were not amused, as it was a classic case of “pre-orders are for suckers”, to have a drop that large that quickly. It was necessary when they saw that they needed to get more players in, but not doing anything for the folks who paid full price wasn’t exactly a way to garner goodwill.

I think it also wasn’t helped by Gearbox itself. Gearbox has put out really great Borderlands games, some solid other stuff, and then some total garbage. (Exhibit A. Exhibit B. The Pre-Sequel could probably be Exhibit C in the writing department, but 2k Australia actually developed it)

They’re mostly known for Borderlands, though, and their last game was an obvious set up for Borderlands 3. Then they released not-Borderlands 3. It seems to be that Gearbox fans bought into Battleborn, but Borderlands-specific fans did not, because what they really wanted is Borderlands 3. (I am the latter, and I’m definitely waiting on news of Borderlands 3.)

* For the record, Rhiss succeeded at explaining what type of game it is to me, but failed at getting me interested in playing it. To be fair, Rhiss did manage to convince me to play Magic: The Gathering for the first time in 16 years during the same weekend, so it was still an impressive effort.

It’s Kind Of Sad

I have no interest in playing Battleborn, but Rhiss does, so I’d like it to be successful. It’s not. If the Steam trend line continues as is for much longer, it’ll drop down to the point where matchmaking flat out won’t work during much of the day, and that is what a dead multiplayer game looks like.

This is a cruel industry, in that sometimes things go wrong that are out of your control. Although I think they made some bad design decisions, I don’t think any of them are bad enough to have expected this outcome. It’s sad, because being primarily a multiplayer game, without players to keep it going, it dies entirely and even the fans can’t enjoy it anymore. That’s not to mention all the staff who worked on it.

The worst thing, to me, is that games like this don’t typically get a second chance. If a competitive multiplayer game fails, turning it around is extremely hard. Even if they hypothetically make changes that would make it a much better game, it requires a player base already being there in order for newbies to come in and have a good experience. In effect, the lack of players creates a situation that causes a lack of players, and pulling out of that tailspin becomes increasingly difficult because it’s not under the developer’s control.

But… at least Borderlands 2 is still going strong, almost six years in?

Gearbox game usage in the last month
Borderlands 2 is incredibly resilient for it’s age. Courtesy of SteamDB again.