Games designed as an ongoing service have become the new frontier of development – the proverbial “golden ticket” to drawing long-term success from a single product. The eSports model in particular has gained huge popularity among creators and players in recent years, as titles like League of Legends, Counter-Strike and many more continue to grow their player bases. One of the great things about this model is that it isn’t limited to the AAA market; Rocket League and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds are both proof of that. But all of these games had to start with one crucial thing: a solidly designed foundation.
As the first title to come out of fledgling studio High Horse Entertainment, Disc Jam sets itself up with a simple but fun framework and big plans for the future. Conceived as a modern take on the competitive flying disc game in the vein of Windjammers, Disc Jam has players frantically sprinting, sliding and throwing in high-powered, score-based frisbee. But after launching to some success as a PlayStation Plus freebie, the growth of its player base slowed.
That might sound like a death knell for an eSports-focused game - but Disc Jam’s most recent update has added dedicated servers, skill-based matchmaking, crossplay between PC and PS4 and more. We talked with Tim Rapp and Jay Mattis (the two-man team at High Horse) about building a game with eSports in mind, sustaining that model with content, and how they plan to grow their audience further.
"As much as I would like to say we had a marketing strategy targeting a key demographic, it really just came down to Jay and I playing a ton of old Pong-likes and saying to each other: ‘Why aren't there more simple, PvP-first games like these?’ "
Disc Jam takes a lot of clear inspiration from other games, and the arcade classic Windjammers was the primary influence. While Windjammers never got a sequel, it did maintain a dedicated cult following. Rapp says this was an underserved market that they wanted to appeal to with Disc Jam - despite not having an orchestrated marketing strategy.
“The word ‘underserved’ strikes a chord with me because it’s exactly how I feel as a PvP guy who loves arcade games.” he said. “As much as I would like to say we had a marketing strategy targeting a key demographic, it really just came down to Jay and I playing a ton of old Pong-likes and saying to each other: ‘Why aren't there more simple, PvP-first games like these?’”
As experienced fans of the genre, they set out to create one of their own using Unreal Engine 4.
“The struggle, of course, is modernizing the experience so that it resonates with today’s gamers while hopefully capturing the excitement of those fast-paced coin-ops that make present-day sports games feel sluggish,” Rapp said.
"Rocket League's success was encouraging, but not because it’s a self-published indie title. It’s because it’s an online PvP experience."
Disc Jam was in development before Rocket League came out, but Rapp and Mattis still cite it as an example of how commercially viable a small game with an eSports model could be. “Rocket League went on to conquer the world despite very little pre-launch coverage.” Rapp said. “It was encouraging and even a little validating, but not because it’s a self-published indie title. It’s because it’s an online PvP experience first and foremost.”
This, according to Rapp and Mattis, helped give Disc Jam a better sense of identity: using core competitive gameplay to illustrate why simple teamwork and victory are fun, without the need to grind for levels or items that alter gameplay for some players but not others. “I think a lot of games today still wrestle with that identity crisis.” Rapp said.
Disc Jam may be a simple game at its core, but that doesn't mean High Horse isn't planning to build on its foundation. Many eSports-focused titles in recent history, like Overwatch and Street Fighter V, survive and thrive by adding refinements, balances and content over time. This is crucial for Disc Jam as well. “Being a team of two, we always knew that building games-as-a-service would be the best model for developing our IP and technology.” Mattis said. “It enables us to be flexible and shift priorities to better serve our players.”
One of the appealing things about sustainable games is looking forward to their content updates. This is how games like Disc Jam achieve longevity, but it also means that these games are never truly “finished.” Rapp says he doesn’t have a problem with that.
“Very early in my career (I think it was my first game, in fact), my lead told me ‘no game has ever shipped completely finished.’ I remember being disappointed to hear that, but over a decade later, I’ve come to embrace that simple truth.” Rapp said. “With Disc Jam, we have a pretty clear vision of what the game looks like 3, 6, and 12 months from now. We’re focused on new characters, maps, game modes, and more custom content… so that players can expect to see a steady stream of content updates while we continue rolling out new features.”
Disc Jam originally launched as one of the free monthly games available to PlayStation Plus subscribers. Rapp told us about the idea behind temporarily offering their new game for free, and the methods they’re using to gain players and concurrency.
“Player count is the lifeblood of any online game, and we knew that launching into Plus or Games With Gold would solve that problem and put the game in front of people without spending money we didn’t have on a massive marketing campaign,” he said. “Every business decision we made was guided by our main objective: build the largest player base we can. Launching into a subscription service was the best possible scenario given the project’s humble beginnings.”
Mattis also spoke about some of their plans to expand Disc Jam’s influence:
“We’re just starting to get going with some of the promotions we have lined up. We had a Steam free weekend which was amazing because Amazon sponsored the server costs and we saw our concurrency jump in a huge way,” he said. “But going forward, we have a bit of a ‘kitchen sink’ mentality. We’ve been making games for over a decade but this is our first time marketing one, so we have a lot of different strategies to try.”