How Many Players Does 'Titanfall 2' Need to Survive?

'Titanfall 2' might have missed some analysts' expectations, but it's far from dead.
November 7, 2016, 12:00pm
Image: EA

I'm looking down the barrel of a minigun being held by a robot the size of a building, but I'm not the one who's in trouble. It's the robot who's in trouble—or titan, as they're called in Titanfall 2. It just doesn't know it yet.

I turn on my invisibility cloak, run on the side of a building, jump off, and shoot the titan with my grappling hook, pulling myself in until I land on its head. I pull out its precious power core, call my own titan in from space, and jump off to hang on the side of the building. The titan turns to me and starts spinning its minigun, but doesn't get a shot off before my titan comes in from orbit and lands on him, smashing him like a bug.

I enter my titan and give it a little extra boost from the power core, which feels so much more satisfying because I stole it from the enemy.

Titanfall 2's multiplayer is an endless series of amazing moments like this, which is why it's one of my favorite multiplayer shooters of the year. It's fast, inventive, and devoted to making every step you take or bullet you fire feel like it's the coolest thing you've done in a video game.

Image: EA

And yet, if you followed the headlines in the gaming press since Titanfall 2 released on October 28, you might think that it's a failure, despite glowing reviews. Some are even worried that Titanfall 2 is "dead game," meaning there will soon be no one to play with online.

This is an unfortunate narrative that has formed around a great game, but after doing some research, talking to the Titanfall 2 team, and other online multiplayer experts, I'm here to tell you that—at least for now—Titanfall 2 is in good health, so jump right in. The water's warm.

The reason people are worried is that, according to GameSpot, research firm Cowen and Company said that Titanfall 2 sales are "substantially disappointing," estimating it will sell between 5 and 6 million copies as opposed to its original 9 million forecast. Gamesindustry.biz is reporting that according to some estimates, Titanfall 2 will sell a measly quarter of what its predecessor did. On various gaming forums, players are already wondering if Titanfall 2 is dead on arrival.

I'll admit that when I logged into the game on the Saturday night after its October 28 release and saw only a little over 13,000 players online on PC, I was worried as well. At that number, it doesn't even crack the top 30 most popular games on Steam, falling well behind niche, super-realistic shooters like Arma 3 (29,000 players) and ancient shooters like 2000's original Counter-Strike (22,000 players).

Image: EA

Players fear that its primary value comes from multiplayer, as its great single player campaign only lasts about five or six hours. If the player numbers are this low at launch, it could get too hard to find an online match a few weeks from now, so why waste $60?

This is not an unwarranted fear. This kind of thing does happen. After making its shooter Evolve free earlier this year, developer Turtle Rock still couldn't get a big enough community to keep supporting it. Eventually Turtle Rock announced it's abandoning the game, even though thousands of players have poured their money and time into it in the roughly year and a half since launch. The Windows 10 version of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is so poorly populated, Microsoft is issuing refunds.

Drew McCoy, a producer at Titanfall 2 developer Respawn Games, told me that after the last piece of DLC was released for the first game, some players could only match with a potential 20 people depending on what region they were playing in and what maps they owned even on the most populated evenings.

Will Titanfall 2 suffer the same fate?

"In general I don't think you can calculate how many players are needed for good matchmaking," Joost van Dongen, co-founder and programmer at Ronimo Games told me in an email. Van Dongen worked on the indie multiplayer game Awesomenauts, and wrote one of the most digestible posts I've read about the challenges of matchmaking and player populations. As he said, how many players an online game needs for good matchmaking, "very much depends on how the game is designed."

One thing is for sure: If you see 1,000 players online, that doesn't mean there are 1,000 players available to play with you at any given time. Low latency is especially important in a game like Titanfall 2 as even a little bit of lag will mess up your headshots, and thus the worldwide community is divided into different regions, each of which plays on a different set of servers in different data centers across the world. I live in New York, so when I log in I'm matched up with other players on the East Coast, who use the same servers in the same data centers. If I'm really having trouble finding a match, Titanfall 2 might look for potential players in the central United States or even the West Coast, but never in regions like Europe or Asia because it would result in high latency.

My potential player pool is then further limited by what modes I want to play. Titanfall 2 has 12 multiplayer modes, and players lined up for an Attrition match won't be matched up with players lined up for a Capture the Flag match.

On top of that, not all players are available at the same time because ideally most of them are in a match, playing the game. In my experience, an average Titanfall 2 Attrition match takes less than 10 minutes, so that means players are available for matchmaking once every 10 minutes.

Image: EA

Titanfall 2 and other multiplayer shooters ideally match players based on their skill level, but as McCoy told me, Titanfall 2 will quickly match you with any skill level if you're having trouble finding a game. It's simply more fun to get owned than to not play at all.

A new challenge for matchmaking in recent years is the popularity of DLC, extra pieces of the game sold separately, which often include new multiplayer maps. The first Titanfall's critical mistake was selling three separate pieces of DLC, which fragmented the audience into have and have-nots. It got so bad that Respawn decided to regroup the community by making all the DLC maps free, and Titanfall 2 will offer all future maps and weapons for the same reason: to avoid fragmentation.

"TL;DR: When you get to less than 1,000 users in a ranked playlist that requires 10 users to play for 10 minute matches, the wait times will start to go up past a minute," Ryan Cleven, the lead multiplayer designer on Gears of War 4 told me in an email.

Obviously, the 13,000 number that worried me is 13 times more players than Titanfall 2 needs to quickly put me in a match, and indeed, I've never waited more than 30 seconds to get into one.

Does that mean you're not going to have a problem finding a match in Titanfall 2?

Almost, but there are a couple of caveats.

I personally love the Attrition mode, where two teams kill each other and AI-controlled characters in a race to hit the higher score. But it is only one of the more popular modes out of a total of 12 modes.

Even McCoy will admit that players are currently having issues in some modes.

"We have some modes we knew weren't going to be as popular as others, but we've been bit by our UI more than I was expecting," McCoy said. "When you go to find a match there are eight tiles of different game modes you can matchmake in, but there's a second screen with a few more modes, and no one is going to those because the UI design was not obvious enough. We're working on fixing that."

On PC, you might have trouble finding a match quickly even in some modes on the first page. The Last Titan Standing mode is especially hard to get into, which is a shame since it's one of Titanfall 2's most interesting features. This doesn't appear to be an issue on the PlayStation 4, however, where it took Motherboard less than two minutes to find a Last Titan Standing match on Saturday morning, when about 22,000 players were online. Not ideal, but that's still far from dead.

Image: EA

As Gamesindustry.biz and other publications have noted, it appears that being released between Battlefield 1, which exceeded sales expectations, and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which comes from a series where blockbusters are a given, may have cannabalized Titanfall 2's sale numbers. But there's a big difference between failing to meet the expectations of a research firm that informs investors and a failed game, both in terms of player populations and the game's financial prospects.

What Cowen and Company neglect to note, for example, is that Titanfall 2 was developed by a relatively small team for a big budget video game: around 90 people compared to, say, the team of more than 300 people who worked on Gears of War 4.

"I don't think they [Cowen and Company] understand the difference between a game like Titanfall 2 and its budget selling a certain amount of units and a game like Battlefield 1 that has hundreds and hundreds of people working on it," McCoy said. "I don't think they understand how games are made or who's involved. It's always weird listening to those earnings calls."

McCoy compares it to the way people think some movies are flops even when they rake in big profits because they fail to match the success of billion-dollar hits like Avatar.

"That's the upper crust; that's not what's required to be successful and have people enjoy that franchise," he said. "In that respect, 13,000 people is so much more than you need to have a healthy game."

In fact, according to McCoy, the doomsaying around the game is potentially much more dangerous than the reality. "The thing that bothers me about that is that if people say the game is going to die, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that's where it becomes dangerous."

So yes, it's safe to buy Titanfall 2. It's a great game. Come play with us.

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