There's never really been an easy time to debut an online-focussed multiplayer game on Steam, but the past few months have suggested there's never really been a more brutal one. PUBG and Fortnite rule all, leaving high profile casualties such as Lawbreakers in their wake while many more smaller games have suffered. And into that, roll7 - the developer of the brilliant OlliOlli, its sequel and Not a Hero - has made its first ever multiplayer game in the future sports title Laser League.
"Well, it's incredibly difficult - I don't think we're going to shy away from that fact," says roll7 director Simon Bennett as the game emerges from Early Access on PC and makes its debut on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. "I think one plus we have coming to console is that it's a great local multiplayer game. We're hoping that people latch onto that fact as well. But ultimately we've invested a lot into getting that online side of it working, and for us as a developer getting the publishing and commercial aspect of it to work. Actually getting players to it, we're working with publisher 505 to do that... We've seen so many games that just can't get that concurrent user base."
"So we're adding a Battle Royale mode," jokes creative director John Ribbins.
"What we're hoping, though, is that because this is such an original IP it will help," says Bennett. "You've not played anything like this. It feels like a mixture of lots of different things, but it isn't in that same vein. We're hoping that when people play it, we hope they play it with their friends - it's really easy to pick up and play, you don't need to have a deep understanding of the mechanics. It harks back to an arcade kind of play, and that's our USP in the marketplace. Going up against Fortnite and PUBG, though, is just incredibly hard.
"This industry has changed so much, fundamentally, since we signed this game and began it. There are a lot of things in the way of this being a success, and we can only hope that it reviews well, and that people get their hands on it."
Laser League at least has a fair wind going in its direction - the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive throughout its time in Steam Early Access, and in entering Xbox's Game Pass it should at least guarantee itself a sizeable player base on day one. The fact that Laser League is absolutely brilliant helps its cause, too; this is a dizzyingly pure arcade experience, distilling the energy of indie darlings such as Hokra and Videoball then building out upon them until what you're left of is a game that's easily the equal of roll7's excellent OlliOlli. I'll be going into a little more detail when our review goes live later this week.
Laser League is, however, a fairly slim package - beyond the tutorial and the ability to play against bots there's no real single-player mode, while online there's no ranked mode currently in place either (though it's worth noting that your progress is met by a fairly in-depth levelling system that unlocks cosmetics along the way). "It's that checklist of features that everyone's going to ask for," says Ribbins. "When Not a Hero came out, people were like 'I want online co-op'. If you release a single-player game with no online, people will ask for it regardless of whether it'll work or not. With this it's our first multiplayer game, and you know to a degree we're releasing it and trying to see how it works and where the interest is, and I think it's standard that people are saying they want a ranked mode and that sort of stuff. Because that's what you expect from a massive multiplayer game, something like Rocket League - but there's no point building that mode unless you know the audience will be there."
"We went into Laser League with two specific objectives," says Bennett. "Does this actually work on a network, and do people enjoy it? If we'd taken it in when we were still thinking 'what is this game', well we knew very much what it was at that stage. The feedback we've been looking at is does it work, do people enjoy it? I think some of the community were expecting to be able to go 'cool, can you now build a ranked mode and all these different things', when we're ostensibly just balancing and fine-tuning things. Some people were hoping it'd be in for longer so we could build more features, but obviously there are commercial and timing restraints around that."
At least now that Laser League is out, there's the opportunity for those beyond the PC market to finally sample its brilliance in what is roll7's first big multi-platform day one release. There is one platform that's missing, of course - and more's the pity, given how well suited Laser League's fine-tuned multiplayer is to Nintendo's Switch. "I know for a fact it's perfectly set up for Switch," says Bennett. "You can play it with one hand! Originally the idea was having a game you could play while smoking a cigarette or having a beer and playing it local multiplayer - we're of that generation that grew up with GoldenEye and Mario Kart. It'd be awesome on Switch, but right now it's just one of those standard developer lines - we'll suck it and see when it launches."
Laser League leaves Early Access today on PC, and is out now on PS4 and on Xbox One, where it's also part of the Game Pass. We'll have the full review for you early tomorrow.