Yesterday, we were given a long overdue update on LawBreakers, the physics-defying online shooter from industry veteran Cliff Bleszinski. It came as no surprise (so little in fact that the post itself even makes light of it) that the studio behind the game was finally admitting defeat and moving onto new projects. There is a little ray of hope in that the game may yet thrive in the free-to-play space, but both its tumultuous history and the update’s tone itself seem pretty pessimistic. So with active development on LawBreakers coming to a standstill for the foreseeable future, it certainly begs the question as to why the game failed to find its feet or capture the hearts and minds of players in the first place.
From the very beginning, LawBreakers seemed to be a direct reaction to the direction that the online first-person shooter genre was going. With games like Destiny entering the fray, and Call of Duty becoming more and more of an arcade shooter with each entry, Boss Key Productions set out to create a shooter that had a heavy emphasis on player skill above all else. Early glimpses of the game had a decidedly more serious tone than its competitors, covering themes like ‘clandestine government conspiracy’ and ‘super-powered cartels’ in a way that set it aside from Destiny’s space-faring adventures and Overwatch’s colorful focus on the quirky personalities of its cast. Seeing LawBreakers in action, even if it was in heavily scripted E3 demos, always went a long way towards making up for the rather bland tone, managing to look genuinely exciting and fresh. Watching players exploit each arena’s gravitational anomalies to gain the advantage over others was thrilling, giving the impression of a mechanically solid and truly skill-based shooter.
Further positioning itself away from its competitors, LawBreakers was initially intended to be free-to-play, making it seem even more like an innovative underdog. Eventually, the game pivoted to a paid model, with the developer citing that they didn’t want to fall into the ‘sleazy tactics’ often employed by free-to-play games in order to make money. More than anything, LawBreakers seemed to be entirely player-focused, with Bleszinski’s trademark transparency allowing the team to speak more freely than others in the industry. This attitude is perfectly encapsulated by Bleszinski’s comments on the game’s price point, saying ‘none of that $60, multiplayer-only bullsh*t.’ All seemed to be looking good for the game in theory, but honestly, it couldn’t have been released at a worse time.
At every single turn that LawBreakers took, every trailer, every little piece of news, Overwatch was there. The two were intrinsically tied together, regardless of whether or not they were as similar as many thought. LawBreakers had to either do what Overwatch was doing, but better, or distinguish itself entirely. On release, it was clear that neither was the case. The game’s focus on skill drowned out almost every other aspect of the game. While individual maps from Call of Duty and Overwatch were making names for themselves, the ones in LawBreakers simply gelled together. Each character type was different in gameplay only, lacking the distinct personality that each hero in Overwatch offered. The PS4 version was also plagued by technical issues, specifically, a stuttering glitch which rendered the game pretty much unplayable, given its emphasis on tight, skill-based action. All of this resulted in LawBreakers primarily appealing to a smaller, niche audience, which in the online shooter genre, is so often a death sentence.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen games learn the hard way that there is only so much mind-share to capitalize on. With the online-shooter genre becoming more and more over-saturated, players are often funneling more of their time into one individual experience, meaning that it’s harder than ever to nurture a player base. Industry titans like PUBG and Fortnite complicate these issues even further, managing to drown out even the biggest of games like Destiny 2. This is something that publisher Nexus addressed in its Q3 earnings report last year. In it, they blamed games like PUBG for LawBreakers’ failure stating:
‘We had very high expectations for its launch; however, the timing of its launch turned out to be unfortunate, specifically the blockbuster PC online game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds came out right about the same time, making the market environment very tough for first-person shooters in general and for LawBreakers.’
This statement is over-simplistic of course, seeing as LawBreakers’ failure surely has a lot more to do with Overwatch than PUBG, but it still goes to show just how little wiggle room there is in this genre. There are other reasons why LawBreakers failed to garner a devoted player-base, reasons which look inwardly rather than at competitors. The game itself is incredibly set on fulfilling its initial goals. As a skill-based shooter, it’s a seriously competent offering (something which we pointed out in our review), allowing players to measure their improvement in performance rather than flashy loot and XP. Problem is, this mantra makes LawBreakers incredibly daunting and unwelcoming to new players. It’s the very embodiment of the ‘git gud’ attitude to gaming, demanding players either master the game or die, over and over again. There’s very little fun to be had when you’re not doing well in LawBreakers, a stark contrast to Overwatch’s ‘just fun to be a part of the action’ vibe. The game failed to keep players invested, other than with the promise that if you’re good enough you will prosper. This factor above all else directly correlates to a small player-base, with players who are not seeing results migrating to other, more rewarding experiences. And this is exactly what happened, with player-count falling as low as 10 concurrent. Even those most likely to stick around were frustrated by the game’s simplistic and near non-existent progression system, with it launching without any sort of ranking system to speak of, a factor which turned many players off from putting more time in. These omissions were later rectified, but the majority of the player base had already left to go and play Destiny 2, which launched a week after the updates landed.
Looking back then, what started off as a step towards a more skill-based shooter with all the right intentions, ended up being drowned out by its competition, and held back by its inability to allow any wiggle room on its core design goals. The game feels great to play, but when no one else is online, and matchmaking is therefore non-existent, there’s very little reason to stick around. By positioning itself as a game for the best of the best, it alienated a huge section of players, players which were difficult to pry away from their shooters of choice anyway. LawBreakers tried to set itself apart from the competition but failed to recognize that these games are popular for a reason. Post-launch additions like a Team Deathmatch mode show a possible acceptance of the fact that some popular elements of other games are popular because they are good, and the news that the game would be once again targeting a free-to-play model further shows that LawBreakers is still yet to find its identity.
At the end of the day, the team behind LawBreakers is made up of some fantastically talented people. Without them, we wouldn’t have Gears of War, Unreal Tournament or arena shooters in general, at least not in the way we know them now. It’s comforting to see that yesterday’s update offers future plans for the game in some form, and that the studio is still active and able to move onto new projects and not just shuttered like many were expecting. LawBreakers serves as a lesson as to just how powerful having a large share of the market early on and the ability to keep players invested is, given that there are only so many hours in a day for players to commit to a game. An identity crisis, and unfriendly progression system buried what was, at its core, a solid online shooter experience. Hopefully, the game can find a new audience in the future but for now, it seems all but dead.