Starvoid, the new A-RTS stlye, MOBA style game from Zeal Game Studios doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. In fact, the Paradox Interactive Wikipedia page for it has the title release as TBA. The game actually released 30 Aug 2012, so when I loaded it up and headed into the server browsers, I was bemused to find 15 UK based, high quality Multiplay servers, all with a 0/0 player count.

What’s wrong with my connection? Is it a port issue? Why are there only Multiplay servers? These are all questions I asked myself as I browsed the competent and interesting UI, checking out the ‘Commanders’ (heroes) and all their customization options.

I can’t wait to find a game of Starvoid, I thought to myself.

So, since I’d been tasked with reviewing the game, I did a little research as to how to fix the issue of no players. The Steam Community seemed promising, with enthusiastic players asking opinions and talking about the inner workings. Some comparisons to DotA 2, etc, all very promising. So where are the players?

A few forum searches later and I came across threads and threads of people asking the same question. I came across a review from Gamespy that summed it all up; suddenly I knew this wasn’t a connection issue…

Starvoid in a nut-shell: Appealing mutiplayer real-time strategy with good ideas but no players.

The thing is, Starvoid really is an appealing multiplayer real-time strategy game. It bridges the gap between DotA and Dawn of War II, offering functional, polished visuals with some great upgrades, items and hero balancing ideas.

For a multiplayer-only game with no bots, that means whatever possibilities might’ve existed go up in smoke. It’s like a new dance club with a theoretically fabulous floor plan but nobody to dance with.

I contacted Paradox and Zeal Game Studios to ask, simply, what the hell, guys? I asked “why does Starvoid have no players despite looking like a promising game all together?” and the response I got was a bemused: “agreed, and a game our team spent months playing before release, we are looking at what more we can do!” 

The thing is, I didn’t just pick Starvoid up off the back of a lorry – I attended Multiplay’s iSeries, i46 about 6 weeks ago, and Starvoid made quite the star appearance. Playable at the event, beta keys were given out to people after playing the game, and there was a substantial crowd gathered around to give it ago. It was hailed as the answer to DotA 2 for those intimidated by high pressure strategy gaming Koreans. Since then, the game has had quite an alpha and beta following, and right up to its release there have been thousands of gamers looking forward to playing it.

So why the ghost town?

Unfortunately all I have are theories, and one of them is really what plagues PC gaming. Unlockables. Free-to-play. Investments.

That damned band-wagon

Remember Section 8 and Section 8: Prejudice? Both these titles, released as downloadable’s on Xbox Live and on PC, were met with quite high critical acclaim prior to release. The original Section 8 was a popular event spectacle, and it was an exciting mix of Halo meets Unreal Tournament, with even some Battlefield 2142 thrown in the mix. Come release, however, and servers went from quiet to dead for both launches as quickly as an elevator in a baked bean factory.

Why? Word of mouth is like a virus. When a single person notes dwindling numbers, even through merely one single server browse, he instinctively thinks “oh, no one’s playing this, I’ll go and play Battlefield or Call of Duty”. When someone asks him how X game is, he says “no one’s playing it.” Because of this, his friend then tells his friends that no one is playing X game, and suddenly word’s got around that no one’s playing X game, when in reality all of these people actually want to play it, they merely believe no one else is, so head to something else. Before you know it, people stop trying, and people stop bothering. They won’t wait around and search for games where they believe no one will be playing.

Why put so much time and effort into a relatively obscure title when you’ve DLC pack 902 and a list of unlockables for Z game to obtain? It doesn’t matter if X game is fun, new, or exciting – there’s always something to do in Z game, and there’s always players. It doesn’t matter if it’s a different genre, and it doesn’t matter if you even enjoy it – Z game is there for you when you need it, X game requires effort, no one can be bothered.

It seems that Starvoid has faced a similar problem. It’s not buggy, it works, it has great potential, it was built, yet they do not come. Despite forums talking about how no one can find a game, none of the posters on those forums are prepared to go and make one.

Server browsers and saturation into a more concentrated group of games, usually monetarily invested, or with time for unlockables, makes instant, rewarding action just a few clicks away – and as we know from the relative death of Nexuiz, or even Gotham City Impostors, it doesn’t matter if you lure them in with a pretty price, if it isn’t clearly and definitely here to stay, it’ll be a stillborn upon arrival – and that’s just damned tragic.

There are a few notable exceptions to the rule, but they only happen in niche markets. For example, Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad has a huge following, and even though it’s a FPS in a market saturated with high quality FPS, it stays strong because it fits a niche. Name another high quality, accessible, modifiable World War 2 FPS with the same level of realism? You can’t, because, arguably, there isn’t one.

Starvoid, however, is replaceable. There are alternatives. Those who want MOBA’s head to DotA, HoN, LoL. Those who want RTS head to CoH, Wargame: European Escalation, Dawn of War II. Those who want something in the middle… well, they simply don’t exist. They used to, but they don’t any more.

It just goes to show, at least through anecdote, that gamers don’t necessarily want something interesting; they want something reliable, something they know will be there whenever they want to play it. And despite there being millions of Steam users always on at any one moment of time, they’ll mostly be on DotA 2, TF2, CS, CoD, Skyrim and Battlefield (non-Steam).

This creates more questions that it really answers, one of them: how do these projects even get through proof of concept? Where’s the market? It’s been proven to have failed time and time again. It really seems that, although you can get people to buy your game in 2012, it takes a lot more to get them to play the damned thing.

Maybe sales have spoiled us, or maybe we all have too much money. Maybe we’re buying too much but don’t have enough time. Whatever it is, I hope it sorts itself out, because I want to play a round of Starvoid.