Getting Mobile Multiplayer Right (part 2): Design, testing, and scaling

Mobile Multiplayer Part 2 cover

As we saw in part one of our multiplayer series, the mobile multiplayer opportunity is bigger than ever. And there are a lot of reasons you should make multiplayer part of your next mobile release.

But how do you get started with actually implementing multiplayer into your mobile game? There’s a lot to consider. And a bounty that makes it easier than ever to get right. You’ll need to read more than a two-part blog post to master it all, but we’ve done our best to round up as many pointers and links to get you started on the right path.

So let’s dig into part two.

There are rules to mobile

Over the years, mobile gaming has diversified (and then some). Game genres like casual, mid-core, hyper-casual, pay-to-earn and premium now offer very different gaming flavours to a broad audience that offers up a dizzying array of user demographics.

But despite all the differences, a number of universal rules apply for mobile. Mobile gamers often play in short sessions, on the move, or while distracted by other screens. Your multiplayer mode needs to respect that. Now, these rules are really loose guides. What counts as ‘short gameplay sessions’ will vary from genre to genre. And depending on the kinds of social features you’re layering in, you might need to tip-toe away from absolute simplicity. But to give you a place to start:

  • Keep it straightforward: Plenty of brilliant MOBAs and competitive FPSs have thrived on smaller devices. But think about how you can cut back excess features and get to the core of what a multiplayer experience is about. You won’t need a suite of distinct modes and options either. That player squeezing in a session while waiting for a bus just wants to dive into the action – not browse a range of multiplayer modes.
  • Keep controls simple: Smaller screen = less room for controls. Think about what players can actually do with just two thumbs, and what areas of the screen they can reach. Resist cluttering a phone screen with too many virtual buttons. In Fortnite Mobile, you can see how the same UI element can be tapped or held to register different inputs. Players can also reposition buttons to suit their own preferences. There’s a lot more you can learn about getting mobile control systems right – but most importantly, design simplicity of control into the heart of your game from the start.

Fortnite controls example

Image source: Fortnite mobile

  • Keep it satisfying: You want all your players to have fun. Someone is always gonna lose, but it shouldn’t be an entirely negative experience. Give them XP for participating, so they can unlock something later.
  • Keep it short: Mobile players tend to squeeze play sessions in short snatches of time, so you want mobile matches or clashes to take up minutes at most (this really does depend on the type of game you’re going for, though). Focus on giving them a core multiplayer loop that emphasises brevity. That will also help retain and monetize your players over time, while building a community around your game.

Step 1: Sort out your Matchmaker

If you’re taking your game multiplayer, you’ll need to set up a matchmaker. These mathematical systems, tools and programs pit your players against each other based on a range of aspects. But the biggest one? Skill. You don’t want a newbie matched up to a seasoned pro. That’s not fun for anyone.

Matchmaking can make or break your retention

Quality matchmaking can even help retention. Your matchmaker should pair up groups of players of a similar skillset – so that those players get the right level of challenge and reward. Too hard? Then it’s not fair. And too easy? It’s not fun. Getting the balance just right gives them incentive to come back.

Make sure to pick a rating system

Short of building your own matchmaker, you’ll need to pick a rating system like the infamous Elo system (which best serves two-player competition) – and the best option for your audience and game type.

Depending on what you go with, matchmaking systems can get complicated. And they need some time maintaining them. But that isn’t a reason to worry or step away from your multiplayer dream.

You can use off-the-shelf options like Microsoft’s TrueSkill 2 or the public domain, Elo-based Glicko-2 – often as a starting point to build your own matchmaking. Better still, you could start with a BaaS (backend as a service) that includes matchmaking support. That will leave you with more time to focus on building and maintaining a great game.

Step 2: Pick out your perfect backend

Tools which offer backend features are everything to an online game – they let you maintain your game, host events, offer leaderboards and social features, manage in-game economies, streamline development workflows, pool data, offer achievements, and more. And some do matchmaking, of course.

Picking a ‘backend-as-a-service option saves you building your own. Instead, you get an out-of-the-box backend option that can plug into and support your game. Our friends at LootLocker, who provide just such a technology, have shared a thorough guide to picking the right backend right here on our blog.

Step 3: Test, and test again

Testing is fundamentally essential to almost every part of your game.

In terms of multiplayer, you’ll be ready to test once that multiplayer mode exists as a minimum viable product (MVP). That means a playable experience that captures the core gameplay loop and complete multiplayer player journey. That’s because you want to be able to test everything from when a player enters a lobby right through to gaining rewards after a victory or loss.

Figure out what you need to test

What do you actually need to test? It depends on what you’re trying to do. You might have players joining sessions from all kinds of devices and OS variants – and you want to be sure they all have a shared, consistent multiplayer experience. You also want to be sure your server can handle everything from the quietest patches to – hopefully – that moment when tremendous numbers want to enjoy your creation simultaneously.

A real challenge here is that you need players to test multiplayer functionality. But you want to get multiplayer right before unleashing your game on the masses. The solution? A carefully planned soft launch process is vital. A soft launch of your ‘almost ready’ future hit before you’ve geared up the marketing machinery gives you a player base to test all kinds of experiences, without exposing an unpolished entity to the full market.

Our own guide to testing hyper-casual titles shares a lot of testing lessons that can be transferred to testing mobile multiplayer.

Step 4: Prepare to scale

You’d think having too many players is a good problem to have. But if your servers aren’t ready for the load, it can actually lead to a bad player experience, and in turn, low retention. Famously, Among Us’ explosion in popularity during the pandemic saw the game struggle with its new popularity. They experienced downtime and long queues. For the devs, more servers (plus some long shifts reworking the game) were the answer.

Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do.

Again, backend tools are your friends on the technical side here. A great many BaaS platforms have scaling support built-in. So as your game grows, so too does the likes of server support.

And while we’re talking severs – put some thought into where they are located. If your game is turn-based in the vein of Words With Friends, you might not need to fret about low latency and lag. Offering simultaneous high-action multiplayer? You really want to host sessions on servers near the players in question. Options by bigger outfits such as the aforementioned Google App Engine are linked to a truly vast network of servers, so may be just what you need.

Start small, and build on it

Having lots of players is great. The idea of having thousands of them join your game simultaneously is a real test of what you’ve built. And the more there are, the more you’ll want things to run smoothly.

The guide here has just been about setting you on the right path. Do more research, follow those links, and make sure to plan time to learn enough to get it right. But be sure even the smallest teams can do it. Among Us prevailed when it had a team of one at the reins.

With the right blend of backend, testing process, matchmaking and thoughtful refined design, a mobile multiplayer triumph that assures the future of your studio is absolutely something you can do.

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