Studio says Knockout City’s closure is part of the game industry’s “heartbreaking truth”

City knockoutTheir days are short, but for Velan Studios, there is still a strong sense of optimism. While the live-serve PvP handball game nears its second anniversary on May 21, it will only stay in its current state for a few more weeks after that. In a blog post back in February, Velan revealed that Knockout City would be shutting down on June 6, with the notable exception that Velan would allow private servers to be hosted on PCs after that.

News comes as the latest in series of live service game closures identified for January 2023and looking back a few years proves this is not a one-month trend. It’s getting harder and harder to stay afloat in the competitive and ever-changing world of live-service video games. Since Knockout City is my personal favorite, the news hit me like a dodgeball. I wanted to talk to the team to find out what it’s like when the game you love in development ends up under the market conditions instead of your own. While the people I spoke to admit there is a sad situation, they are not without hope for what comes next, both within Velan and the industry as a whole – even if a paradigm shift will be needed. figure to get what they need. .

“This is my favorite game I’ve ever made,” game director Jeremy Russo told me. “And it’s also one of my favorite games that I’ve ever played. Like, I still play this. And if you talk to most of the developers, none of them play their games. their own. But I’m still happy to log in and play with my game. friends, team up and join these brawls.”

Russo explains how the six years on Knockout City have been significant for the studio, which was founded in 2016 and has developed augmented reality racing games like Mario Kart Live Home Circuit and Hot Wheels Rift Rally upcoming. “We built the team, we built an engine, we built this whole game experience, we released it […] Running a live-ops experience was the first time many of us did it even though we’ve been in the industry for a long time. And so what we’ve achieved in terms of critical acclaim we had at launch and the ridiculously loving community we have, it’s hard to feel anything. other than that this worked out and think about the pride I have on the team and in the game itself.”

Like many live service games, Knockout City leans towards crossovers with other IPs.
Like many live service games, Knockout City leans towards crossovers with other IPs.

There were a few words that came up a lot in my 40-minute conversation with Russo, CEO Karthik Bala, and chief marketing officer Josh Harrison. “Pride” is one of them. “Analysis” is another.

“It really depends on what we’re trying to improve at the time,” Russo told me when I asked what Velan’s live performance analysis really investigated. “You know, we’re looking at concurrency? Retention? Monetization? Like what are we really testing with this new idea? And then we’ll add analytics for the owner. And we’re going to focus on that. And a lot of us figured that out when we went along and found out, “Okay, we think we have a problem. here let’s add some data to try to verify that. Okay, now try to add a new feature or change a feature to try to improve that number.'”

If it sounds unclear, I agree. Especially for live service games, analytics is an important guideline for studios. You have to accumulate data, find weaknesses to improve on or strengths to reinforce, then refine the game and see how these data points change. When things are going in the right direction–players play a lot at once, they come back to play often, they spend money in-game–your live serve game is probably doing well. But when the numbers show difficulty ahead, it can be difficult to pivot because the allocation can be ambiguous.

Did players stop interacting because of a change you made to your game, or because of something external, like another game launching or becoming the next big thing on Twitch? There are many different factors that make the science of measuring success unclear. Even people with clear minds need time and resources from other areas–especially for an independent team like this one.

“There is no autopilot,” Bala said. “And when we looked at the feedback from the community and what was needed, there was a group of potential customers in the project, [like] Jeremy, we have top engineers, artists and physicists – the core belief of the brain. And so if we’re trying to retool, that small core engineering and creative team is needed to be able to do that. But it’s that team that’s running the day-to-day operations, you know, and there’s not a huge force of people out there that maintain and run the game.”

I love Knockout City and I’ll be playing it even without the new Brawl Pass cycle and in-game events for what Velan might say is a monthly or even a year retool period. But that is my view as a fan that has been heavily invested. In reality, “the internet isn’t static,” as Bala explains, and the team needs to retool the game in fundamental ways while keeping the pulse of the main content intact if they want to keep most players coming back.

Bala told me: “It has come down to the figures. “There is a possibility of player retention. We have a strong core community, but a lot of people really enjoy the game [just] Pass. They may be gone for a while, they may come back, but overall retention–which is important to the pulse of any kind of live-service game–must be at a certain level. , monthly, to make it meaningful. Otherwise, you know, you can’t create a sustainable business to keep growing. And it’s the cold, harsh reality that we have to face that makes this really difficult and really emotional.”

In a market that can change coins – remember how Fortnite usurped PUBG almost overnight? – the volatility of the live service world as well as a whole war for your money and time making it extremely difficult to grow in this space. Despite having more than 12 million players since launch, Knockout City joins countless other games that are struggling to find a fun medium. It’s not the biggest game in the world, but its lobbies aren’t empty either. I’ve played other games where at the end of the day you find yourself in line with the same 6-10 other people because you’re literally the last player in the community (RIP Onrush).

From the outside, Knockout City performs much better than that, but it also falls far short of Fortnite’s level. And now it feels intimidating as a player–and certainly as a developer–to witness doubt about the game’s ability to preserve the game on a macro level as well. and micro in the future. If great games like Knockout City can’t achieve stability and are almost wiped out of history, is there a future for live service games that are not all or nothing?

Answering that question reveals a “heartbreaking truth,” Bala said, but he likens a way out of it to when we’ve seen the rise of groundbreaking indie games. can find success in a huge sea of ​​triple-A games. “The free-to-play business, if you’re not on a large scale, is really tough. You know, we’ve grown from games that are just multiplayer and have high mid-range prices, multiplayer only, you have to be free to play to be able to get to the global scale, and if you don’t hit the exit speed, it’s hard to keep the lights on.

“And I think the industry is going to grow from this. There will be new models. I don’t think players will be satisfied just with the big games that are dominating and you’re going to get some groundbreaking stuff. follow the new business models and you know the players will love it.Personally I don’t think we’ve been there, but I think this is also the exciting part for us, because we have the idea. about where it might go.”

Adding hangout space with trophy cases, jukeboxes, and mini-football games was one strategy Velan used to attract player investment.
Adding hangout space with trophy cases, jukeboxes, and mini-football games was one strategy Velan used to attract player investment.

For Bala, he envisions a meeting of souls ahead. “I think we’re not the only studio on this particular boat, you know? And GDC is coming, the DICE conference is coming up.[…] Because it’s such a hot topic in our peer group, we’ll be talking a lot about it in particular.”

“I don’t think we know the answer,” added Russo. “I think that’s something that needs to happen across the industry. The industry needs to figure this out. Like the indie game example, how they find a different approach to creating quality content. For multiplayer- focus on indie games, I think that’s the next big business model to figure out so it can be sustainable in the first place with a small audience, trial game features experience.”

The conversation was definitely bittersweet. Obviously, in the best-case scenario, Knockout City will go on longer. Still, Harrison says the game is an important learning experience for everyone that better days are ahead. “This is the end of this chapter of Knockout City, but it may not be the end of Knockout City in general,” he said, referring to what the team has publicly called the Knockout City universe.

“We’re not going to look back at this franchise and say, ‘Hey, this IP isn’t great.’ We love Knockout City. If we can solve some of these challenges, we can bring it back into the world. There is a world where we can consider another element of this IP. And even if neither of those things happen, we’ve learned a lot from this, that whatever we create next will take cues from everything we’ve learned. be here and get better because of it. ‘ made it here. And it’s hard not to see that on a positive note.”

For more on the upcoming Knockout City final days and how the team has allowed the game to persist in some way beyond June 6, see recent blog post.

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