It's been just over a month since Battalion 1944 launched into Early Access, so we decided to catch up with the studio head over at developer Bulkhead Interactive Joe Brammer to see how the last four weeks have been for the UK-based developer
How would you assess the launch of Battalion 1944 thus far?
There were two sides to the launch. In terms of the excitement around release, the number of people buying and wanting to play the game, it was a great success - certainly, it beat our own expectations. Remember - this was a launch into Early Access, and the aim for this was to go to real players and get the critical feedback that games need.
We felt that any bugs we found would simply be an opportunity for us to show our community how we want to work with them to make the game better and better over time.
However, on the flipside, that unexpected level of success - where, to be clear, we had many more people jumping into the game on day one than we had even for our free open beta weekend not long beforehand - caused some issues. We certainly didn’t expect the severity of some of the problems, and we put everything into addressing them as soon as humanly possible - which is what we’ve done, and continue to do.
What were your expectations ahead of launch, in terms of player base and critical reception?
I don’t want to get too specific but, we thought we’d get considerably less than we had on the first day. We thought PUBG had cannibalised the marketplace for combat games - and rightly so, because it’s awesome. We were at the end of a long two years of earning nothing and working 12-to-18 hour days - ask anyone we work with. We were definitely stressed and it was a strange time at the studio, but we were confident we’d achieved something amazing: 20 people in two years built an FPS game from scratch with matchmaking. That’s impressive for anyone in the know, but it doesn’t change the fact that in 2018, you need to be special.
What would you do differently were you to launch the game again tomorrow?
The reality is, I think we nailed the hype for the launch itself. We drove players to the game, awareness was extremely strong, the game looked fun, and the experience people had in alpha and closed beta pushed word of mouth to the game. Massive streamers just seemed to gravitate towards the game as a result, but ultimately it was the fact the launch went so well that ended up hurting us, too. The game still had issues and we were just in the middle of highlighting them. We had a few all-nighters that week to fix some huge issues.
So, while you would always like to go back and make sure the issues never happened, those issues aside I don’t think I would actually do anything ‘differently’. The reason we went to Early Access at year two of a game that should be developed for three years was to get meaningful feedback as early as possible. It’s important for us as a developer to define what Early Access is to us and how we intend to use it.
The game had issues with matchmaking on launch. Why was this?
Initially, I took the fall for this one. On Day One players were taking up to an hour to find a game. Now we certainly underestimated the amount of players who’d be playing Battalion 1944 on day one, but any publisher or developer will tell you that it’s becoming harder than ever to predict unit sales on a Steam game.
The main issue was actually caused by a partner service, which to be honest we would never have expected. On launch day there was a bug in the Google App Engine service, which was something we didn’t have any direct control over. It was a bug exposed to both Bulkhead and Google by the rapidly growing playerbase in Battalion 1944.
Whenever this kind of thing happens, it’s frustrating, but we still work with Google and they’re a good partner of ours. There were a couple of issues with this in the first week, but they were quick to fix and repair them once they were highlighted.
We thought we’d get considerably less than we had on the first day. We thought PUBG had cannibalised the marketplace for combat games - and rightly so, because it’s awesome
What advice would you offer someone looking to launch a game into Early Access in 2018?
I don’t think I can really give advice here, if I’m honest. I know FPS games and how to release one of those on Steam Early Access, but what works for Battalion 1944 isn’t necessarily right for a survival game, for instance.
What I would say is that with streaming becoming the best source of advertising in video games, what are the games that aren’t designed for streaming supposed to do? We acknowledged early on that Battalion 1944 was not emergent gameplay or comical in any way, areas where games like PUBG and Fornite thrive. Because we acknowledged this early, we built the game around ‘clips’. Players would make impressively skillful shots that they would clip out using Nvidia or Twitch and share with their friends and fans.
I think what I’m trying to say is, you need to make sure your players have a way to create content for you. When your game is released, how are players going to show their friends what they’re doing? To get on the front of the store, you need your players to market the game for you. How does your game’s design facilitate this?
One of the big parts of releasing a game into Early Access is working with the community. What has this experience been like?
It’s been a big learning curve. Neither of our previous games were online, persistent games, so while we had some experience of responding to questions and comments at launch before, the scale of the feedback in the first few days of Battalion was something new.
As FPS fans ourselves, we’ve been part of the community for these games for a long time - but being on the other side of the fence is quite different, and until you experience it first hand, it’s hard to really understand what it’s like.
Our main ambition was to be as open as possible, lose the kind of corporate BS that most teams come out with, and try and stay transparent. Tell it like it is. Of course, that means if we disagree with what’s being said, and we call that out, people don’t expect it - and don’t like it.
We don’t want to be a team that only engages with the people being positive. We want to learn what people think, and we want that feedback to improve the game. That’s the whole point of Early Access for us. That said, it can get quite personal, and when you see the impact some of the negativity has on the team - who have been working so hard for a long time, and only ever wanted to make the best game we could - it’s tough not to respond.
We’ll continue to learn, and we don’t want to just switch off - but in the end we understand that community is the single most powerful tool we have as game designers. So we’re trying to take the rough with the smooth. So here’s a big shout out to the 99% of the community who strive with us to improve the game.
Is there any advice you'd like to offer when it comes to dealing with influencers?
Get a great publisher like Square Enix Collective. Square has some great people working for them that put in the hours to communicate our release to streamers. It’s also good being active on Twitter all the time. Often we’ll just get contacted by some major streamer just for being available, but really the credit goes to, firstly, Square Enix Collective and, secondly, the streamers themselves for identifying a good game and getting involved as early as possible.
Did you take any lessons from the launches of other online games? Something like LawBreaker springs to mind as a game whose launch was not great, with the overall performance taking a dive as a result.
I don’t want to specifically comment on other game launches, but we were very closely watching everything multiple games did in the last two years, including PUBG which came out of nowhere. I have a team of people that work with me and we spent time analyzing and predicting each major launch of combat games last year. We were correct on every single one. Almost exactly when it came to unit sales on many.
So from the business side, that’s how we judged that what we were doing was right. When it comes to the tech side, gamers point to other games in the past having tough launches and ask why these things still happen… but the reality is that pretty much every game is different, using different pieces of tech, or in different ways. And the teams behind them approach solutions with different levels of experience, or ideas.
You could ask, “how come parents today aren’t perfect at bringing up children, since it’s been happening for generations?” Again, it’s the reason we launched into Early Access, rather than going for full launch.
How long are you planning on staying in Early Access? What's your ambition moving forwards?
We’ll be staying in Early Access for one year from our launch. Our ambitions are to deliver exactly what our community wants. In just four weeks we’ve been able to gather top quality information, just by listening to our players. I don’t want to give away our plans just yet, but I’m excited to say the least. We’re working with partners now who as a kid I never would of dreamed that I would have the opportunity to work with. This is going to be a good year, even if it has some rocky moments!