Something I've been watching with great interest is the progress of LawBreakers or, to be more accurate, the lack of progress of LawBreakers, Cliff Bleszinski's latest. The launch numbers for it were low, beaten even by the numbers for Battleborn, the new industry go-to comparison for low numbers. Yet, at the same time, it doesn't appear to be a bad game. The review scores weren't bad, and the people who like LawBreakers do really like it. So I have gone to them, the Lawbreakers fans, to ask why they love it, and what has held the numbers back.
I expected them to be a resigned breed, not unlike the people who still play the aforementioned Battleborn, offering a lot of 'Yeah, I know, but...' Their points, however, were very salient and they'd come to a lot of the same conclusions independently. They're also infectiously enthusiastic about the game itself.
The need for speed
'I enjoy just how fast the combat and movement is. If you stand still you're dead. There's also very little downtime during a match. Respawns are fast, maps are small, so you're nearly always in the middle of the action.' - Rich
'Movement. It's all about that mid-air shooting. Dancing round an enemy several feet above the map, trying to line up a shot with the full use of 360 degrees of direction is just so much fun.' - Sam
'The best thing about LB is the pace. Its fast, competitive, and crazy. Not everyone is gonna move around the maps the same way. If you are on the ground you are playing the game wrong.' - Brianna
'It bears the characteristics of a fast-paced twitch shooter while also dipping its fingers into the growing popularity pie of hero shooters.' - Jordan
Everything in LawBreakers does move very fast, which I found slightly disorientating when I played it, but seems to be the main thing LawBreakers fans love about it once they've got the hang of it. You can understand this, especially if respawns are fast too; your digital life becomes expendable and death is an accepted part of the game that doesn't slow it down. There can be something almost soothing about being akin to cannon fodder, and it's weirdly enjoyable in massive versus battles like those in Star Wars Battlefront or Battlefield 1, although this in particular doesn't seem to be the appeal of LawBreakers. Instead, many people referenced how it relates to the different traversal methods characters use, and how the game rewards skill rather than luck, or choosing a class that counters the enemy.
Do you feel lucky?
The emphasis on actually being good at the game is something that the fans appreciate. Andrew said that he rarely feels 'cheated' when he dies; he can always pinpoint what he did wrong. On the flip side, when he does well, he feels it's down to his own skill. Brianna, a streamer, said that it 'takes skill to play well, but you can have fun, intense games even playing casually.'
On the other hand, I found that my own contribution to the game felt like essentially nothing, because I was almost immediately killed after respawning in a constant cycle. LawBreakers fans are aware that the sharpness of the learning curve hasn't helped win people over.
'If you're not familiar with the old school type shooters you're also going to get destroyed in your first few games. It lacks a decent tutorial, and it's not particularly welcoming to your average Overwatch/other squad based shooter player.' - Rich
'Now, because of the skill ceiling, new players are going to get slammed repeatedly, so I don't see the situation improving until a deep sale or a free weekend.' - Jake
The elephant in the room
Every single person I spoke to cited Overwatch as a contributing factor to LawBreakers' low numbers. They were at pains to point out that, while comparisons to Overwatch are easy to make, they're also inaccurate. Alan said that, 'It's easy to dismiss LawBreakers as being derivative, though once you play it, it really isn't.'
'In much the same way as pretty much all third-person hack-and-slash games are compared to Dark Souls these days, so it is for class-based first-person shooters and Overwatch. And when Blizzard's joint is as slick and as approachable as it is, it's exceptionally difficult to make a mark in that field.' - Andy
'Overwatch is a similar game yes. It's a team shooter with objective game types and loot. But LawBreakers pushed beyond that.' - Brianna
'LawBreakers is no more similar to Overwatch than, say, Mortal Kombat is to Smash Bros. But the perception is there, and I imagine a lot of players went "Well, I already have OW, no need for this."' - Andrew
Even without comparisons being made, Blizzard's hero shooter had become a phenomenon that cornered the market before LawBreakers was even released. This ties into another issue that LawBreakers has had.
What even is LawBreakers anyway?
Many of the fans I asked said that the marketing seemed like it didn't really know what LawBreakers was, and that there was a lack of awareness about the game in general. Andrew said he might not have even known it existed if he didn't follow CliffyB on Twitter.
'Even the name doesn't communicate the core concept.' - Sam
'The PR felt poor in that it didn't seem to know who it was aimed at and went for 'attitude/FPS player stereotypes' rather than focusing on the game itself.' - Rich
'I think marketing has been tough for Boss Key - a lot of people didn't know the game had come out and from an outsider's point of view, it lacks the aesthetic appeal of an Overwatch.' - Jon
'By trying to implement so many systems found in other games it somehow fails to carve its own niche in a frankly over-saturated market.' - Jordan
LawBreakers does read, visually, like a more standard FPS, with a lot of gunmetal grey and muzzle flash when compared with the technicolour approach of shooters like Overwatch and Splatoon. Splatoon in particular gives me the impulse, as most Nintendo games do, to eat it. LawBreakers looks like it would taste more of concrete and hot tin rather than a Fruit Salad. This may of course be the point, but one is still more eye catching on a storefront than the other.
Overwatch positioned its characters up front as a point of entry, which is something LawBreakers hasn't done, possibly because Overwatch already did it. But this might have helped: Jon says that while the zero gravity might have been LawBreakers' USP, 'it's the depth of the abilities in each class and how they combo together that really makes LawBreakers special,' Brianna feels it's 'added some great characters who all bring their unique skill sets', pushing it beyond Overwatch, and Sam says she 'has a special place in [her] heart for the loud, vibrant outfits of the assassin Kitsune.'
Jordan makes the interesting point that LawBreakers isn't appealing to 'nearly as many demographics as it could'. They say that CliffyB is a 'hugely talented developer', but looking to other demos beyond male gamers could have benefited LawBreakers. Blizzard has really leaned into that with Overwatch, especially in the backstory of its characters, and deliberately appeals, as Jordan puts it, 'to men, women and members of the LGBT community in a bunch of ways.'
The LawBreakers marketing cycle was unusually drawn out, too, with a couple of open betas and the weird pivot from free-to-play to paid-for early on all leading to LawBreakers becoming a slightly confused background noise for a lot of consumers.
Self fulfilling prophecy
However good it is, Lawbreakers is now at the point where the low numbers are the very thing keeping numbers low (and driving them lower).
'I haven't had that much issue with getting into matches for the first couple weeks but last night there really was just a long window of killing time and waiting for the game to fill up with enough players, and even then you'll often find one team a player short.' - Alan
'The same thing hit Titanfall and its sequel: that due to the low numbers, the game will be dead soon, so no one wants to invest. I think LawBreakers has the quality and pedigree to maintain its audience - I'll certainly be playing it for a long time - but we've seen this way of thinking damage higher profile games before.' - Jon
'The game's only been out for 2 weeks, but already pretty much the entire "story" around it is that no-one's playing - and once that becomes the perception of your game, who's going to buy it?' - Andrew
It was reported only this week that the concurrent players for LawBreakers on Steam dropped to less than 500, which, uh, isn't great. Without a significant infusion of players, and quickly, it looks like LawBreakers will suffer a slow death, like a favourite TV series that gets cancelled by the network mid-season, and you will forever remember for what it could have been if only the bastards had supported it.
It's seems like positive word of mouth will be what keeps LawBreakers alive. Everyone who likes it talks about the game with such an untrammeled enthusiasm. I'd couldn't fit everything everyone said in this piece, because it would have run to almost 30,000 words. It's enough to make you want to try it yourself. 'I don't think I've played a shooter that's made me laugh so much out of wonder when I get into a killing streak,' said Alan. I mean. That does sound pretty good.