How math killed LawBreakers

Last Updated July 5th, 2021

There are many reasons for the death of Lawbreakers. Some say it was a failure of marketing. Some say it was an unfortunate release time. Some say that it was released in a state too unfinished for a full price game.

All of these are true to some extent, but there is one other thing that killed LawBreakers. It’s an insidious killer that is always stalking us, stealthily worming its way into our daily lives. A killer so well hidden we stare right at it and never think twice.

LawBreakers was killed by math.

The Mathematical Murderer

By now you have heard the reports on how LawBreakers very quickly fell to less than a hundred people playing in a matter of months, and how recently fewer than 10 people were playing the game on average. When nobody plays a game, the game dies. Pretty simple, right?

Well there’s a little bit more nuance to this. Cliff Bleszinski notoriously said that LawBreakers was running a marathon, not a sprint. It was OK if LawBreakers had a low player count now because they could regain interest as new updates came out.

However, I believe that Lawbreakers was actually mathematically set up to fail, merely because it was a 10 player, five on five, arcade shooter.

When Lawbreakers was in beta it had about 7,500 players, but when it released it barely even reached 3,000 players at its highest point. But there are fighting games that average well below this that manage to live long and thriving lives. In fact, Dragon Ball Fighter Z is currently averaging 2,324 players on Steam and is still breaking EVO pre-registration records. Why is that?

Small Games Have Big Potential

The important difference comes down to how many players are needed to play different types of games.In a fighting game, each match is one-on-one. So if it had an average player base of 3,000 people (the best that LawBreakers ever did,) then there would be about 1,500 games happening at any time. Estimating that players can be dropped into three rough categories, novice, intermediate and pro, you can expect to find about 500 matches for any given skill level at any time. Further divide this up by popular connectivity regions (U.S. East, U.S. West, Europe, Asia/Pacific) and at any given point in time you have your choice of 125 matches, all with good connections, all in your skill level.

This is more than enough variety to keep a game alive for a good long time, even with a supposedly “low” player base. With 125 “good” matches always active and always open, your chances of finding one are high, and your chances of playing the same person in another match is low. As long as the matchmaking is good (which, to be fair, DBFZ could stand to work on) 3,000 players in a 1v1 game will keep it alive.

But LawBreakers is a 5v5 team shooter, and the numbers don’t pan out as well for that genre. With the same playerbase you could expect about 300 games to be active on average. Once again, divide this by three for skill level and four for connectivity region and you have your choice of only 25 matches. Not only will you experience problems with finding a match at that point, but you’ll also end up playing against a lot of the same players.

Remember, these numbers apply to LawBreakers at its very best. That only creates a further problem. If you start having problems finding good matches, you’ll stop playing the game entirely. Each time ten players drop the game another “available match” dies in a region. If you expect, say, half of your player to eventually fall off, you are looking at only 12 possible matches.

And that’s being generous. DBFZ, which is still the most popular fighting game in the community, has retained only five percent of its all-time peak audience, and that’s actually relatively normal. Five percent of LawBreakers’ numbers leaves us with a little more than one match available to be played in any region at any time. And that’s not enough to keep a game alive.

Large Games Have Large Turnaround

LawBreakers publisher Nexon blamed PUBG for its quickly declining numbers, but that confronts us with another problem. Battle royale shooters involve hundreds of people in a single match. How are PUBG and Fortnite able to thrive with such demanding player counts?

Hypothetically, let’s say that a battle royale shooter has a total playerbase of 101 people on average, and which can support matches of 100 people. 100 of those people end up in a match and one ends up waiting to queue for a match. Then as players are eliminated from the game they can immediately start queuing up for the next match. They don’t have to wait until the first match is over like they would have to in a team shooter. This means that it’s actually relatively easy to find a game, even with small player counts.

So let’s apply some math to the numbers we have been working with. In a battle royale shooter that can support 100 players, a 3,000 player base will create 30 matches. Then, when the first player in each match dies, there will still be 30 matches, with 99 players in each, and 30 other players waiting to queue. Repeat this pattern three more times and you’ll end up with 31 matches, most with 96 players, one new one with 100 players, and 10 players in the queue.

Note that this 31st match is full of players that didn’t play with each other in their last game. As this pattern continues more games get created at a faster and faster rate, each full of players that get to experience completely different competition than their last game. This is because each new game leaks players into the queue making it fill faster and faster. This mathematical model actually allows available matches to increase as the game is being played. That’s genius for a game that is dealing with smaller player bases.

Now remember, this is just an approximation. People will drop out of games and queue up for new ones at different rates. However, there’s something to be said for how mathematically robust the battle royale formula is. With a relatively low player base the genre could still thrive, and PUBG has millions of people playing it. No wonder LawBreaker’s developer Boss Key is jumping on the bandwagon with their own battle royale shooter, Radical Heights.

All this math is to say that Cliff Bleszinski was, unfortunately, wrong. When your game requires a dedicated amount of players to make each match work, it needs to be a sprint, not a marathon. You need to start with a very large player base in order to keep game interest up. Without it, it will be difficult to find good matches, which will cause more and more players to leave your game. Eventually you will find yourself without enough players for a single game, exactly where LawBreakers ended up.

If you plan on running a marathon, first you have to do your math. Your game has to be able to support many games with low player counts. You can do this by making matches small or by making the matches large and fast. You have to keep the math in mind, or it can doom your game from the start.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *