One of my last jobs as a freelancer was to go look at LawBreakers and see whether I thought Cliff Bleszinski could bring back the "good old days" of the multiplayer FPS. In what would wind up being one of my more prescient opening lines for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I asked who was going to give a damn about this game? Now, just over a year later, we have our answer: almost nobody.
Last week, Bleszinski spoke to GameSpot to explain where the game is at, where it's headed, and to address its devastatingly low player counts. Amidst promises that his studio, Boss Key games, would continue to support the game, as well as some mea culpas for not including features like Team Deathmatch at launch, Bleszinski also said something revealing about both his vision and his diagnosis for LawBreakers.
"We need to do what we can to let people know this is a really sweaty palm type of experience that can hopefully lend itself to eSports," he said. He added that neither Boss Key nor the marketing they've done around LawBreakers have managed to communicate what's great about the game (which has been well-received by those who have given it a chance).
But I think it's a little more complicated than that. Fundamental to LawBreakers' attitude and its "good old days" marketing is a plea to embrace a shared nostalgia. But for me personally—and I expect a number of other potential players as well—my memories are of that time are somewhat illusory. I rarely played those classic 90s FPS games as intended. When I booted up Unreal Tournament, it wasn't to play with friends, but against bots. My memories of playing it with friends all took place years later, when UT was already an object of wistful nostalgia. We weren't recreating our youth, but our sense of what that gaming youth should have been: firing Redeemer nukes at each other across Facing Worlds, or spamming rockets down the tunnels on the Overlord assault map.
We did play together from time to time, of course. But I was lucky to attend more than a couple LAN parties a year, if that, and on the clunky dial-up internet available in my area until the mid-2000s, online play was frequently tedious and frustrating. Most of the games of Quake 3 I remember come from a single day when my friends and I skipped school and spent the day playing in a sketchy LAN center in our local hobby store. For me, Quake 2 was a single-player shooter!
LawBreakers addressed itself to my memory of those treasured arena shooters of the late 90s, but that memory was alternately selective and imaginary. I hardly ever played a "white-knuckle" FPS, but instead played alone and occasionally with friends in a gorgeous and violent sandbox full of cartoonish characters and fanciful weapons.
The dilemma facing LawBreakers right now reminds me of the difficulties that have plagued the RTS genre for years: Designers and players conceive of carefully balanced and tuned competitive masterpieces, but the reality for many of us was single-player campaigns and cooperative "comp-stomps."
I suspect few of us were ever all that good at twitch shooters, but we were only occasionally confronted with that fact.
People like me may have talked a good game, and never shut up about those few magical competitive experiences we did have, but for the most part we played in safe, non-competitive environments where the point was less about winning than it was about seeing things blow up in hilarious and unexpected ways. I suspect few of us were ever all that good at twitch shooters, but we were only occasionally confronted with that fact.
For all the chest thumping, testosterone drenched marketing and hype around the golden age arena shooter, I don't think most of the people who played them approached them with that seriousness of purpose. They were among the most striking games of their day, full of setting and art that seemed beautiful and transporting at the time. They let us experiment with new weapons designs and how they interacted with level geometry. I never really figured out what to do with the Goo Gun. But I remember showering rockets down spiral staircases in Unreal Tournament, knowing that my secondary fire mode would send them tumbling off steps and walls like live grenades, killing whoever was coming up behind me.
Maybe people eventually took them seriously enough that competition and skill-tests became an end to themselves. But they began life as pretty, fun toys. The biggest problem facing a game like LawBreakers today is that those are much cheaper commodities now than they were 20 years ago. And the pitch that Bleszinski led with, and is still trying to send across to players, is based on a nostalgic lie we told about why we played games like this in the first place.