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I covered Chess 2: The Sequel when it came out for OUYA back in January, but for those who are unaware, it's a digitized version of a print-and-play chess variant originally created by game designer David Sirlin. Ludume Games created the digital version, which didn't fare so well in its first few months. Zac Burns of Ludeme Games sat down with me a few days ago, though, to talk about how adding asynchronous play, or "playing by homing pigeon", to Chess 2 has made all the difference. It's a story about the indie game multiplayer problem and revelations in hindsight.

Zac: The concepts are simple... you are aware of the indie game multiplayer problem?

Lena: Yeah. Not enough people leads to empty lobbies, which means people stop playing because they can never get a game, which leads to emptier lobbies, and so on.

Zac: Yeah. It's a downward spiral. Chess 2 had a lot of activity at first... but all it takes is a player to log in at an off hour, or some players not to return, and the situation gets continually worse. Chess 2 is having no problem now though. In fact, it just keeps growing and growing. I log in two or three times a day, with plenty to do, and I'm not even in the U.S.

Lena: When did you get the asynchronous mode patched in? And have you added anything else?

Zac: Yeah, I also added 3rd party controller support, an upgrade to 1080p HD, a new ranking system, and a bunch of small stuff. Asynchronous play is the big feature though, and is the key to all the increased activity. The correspondence update was on May 25th.

Lena: Well, it certainly sounds like the other stuff in the latest patch wouldn't have contributed to greater playing, for sure. So it's been about two weeks. How much growth would you say you've had?

Zac: Let's put it this way: there have been more than a 100x more games in the last few days since the correspondence update then there have been since the last update months ago.

Lena: That is impressive.

Zac: It's actually a pretty simple solution. If players don't have to be online at the same time, then even a small community can be very active. Not only do they not have to be online at the same time, everybody is playing lots of other people at once. So before, if you were lucky, you logged on at the same time as one other person and they were your only option. They may not even be your best match.

I mean, let's say that players play for one hour a week. If there are 168 players, you can still have them all log on and not see each other. At least one will not see somebody else, and they will drop off. In that fake scenario, we could even imagine zero games, because in real life nobody actually waits in the queue for an hour anyway.

So, with asynchronous, let's imagine now we only have 10 players who log in once a week. Now, they all 'see' each other... and there are 100 games! And, that's what's happening for Chess 2.

Lena: Right. It wouldn't work for all games, but yours is turn-based anyway.

Zac: Right. The game has also gained over 100 places in the O-Rank since the update. We're ranked 42 right now. I checked before the update and it was 160-something.

Lena: So... I was going to ask you what you would do differently if you could go back, but I feel like that's obvious.

Zac: Yeah, I'd definitely add correspondence from the start.

Lena: I don't really have any more questions for you. Is there anything you'd like to add?

Zac: I wanted to follow up on [the fact that nothing is configurable] from your previous mention of that in the article... it's not configurable as a lack of feature, it's on purpose.

Lena: Why is that?

Zac: Each option has the potential to split your available opponent pool in half. So, for an indie game where that's the number one concern... finding the best option to suit the common good is the choice that was made.

Lena: Ah, I see.

Zac: There are some other technical details that might be interesting. The matchmaking goes really slowly, to make sure that if you haven't been waiting for a long time you get a player of your rank. It's really intended that you log in once or twice a day, but some people play all the time. If you start many games, the matchmaking goes faster. So, if you started, like, fifty games, maybe it's not so important to you that the one game be super close.

Lena: Nice. It adapts for people who want ALL the games.

Zac: Right. And if one player doesn't select an army, the crowns are refunded and the game is unranked, so flakes have practically no negative effect on regular players. The crowns based monitization working well for everybody. There's a maximum negative impact that a non-paying player can have on the community. A regular player has to wait a couple days to get their crowns back, but the crowns packages are so huge it doesn't really matter. That and the fact that you only get matched to someone once until you finish your game with them [means that] there is a very small impact a flake can have on any particular regular player.

People who come back keep coming back several times per day, and because they keep coming back the game continously is growing now. I don't think we've actually lost a single player yet. Not that I've noticed, anyway.

Lena: Have you seen the number of active players rise? You just mentioned number of games before.

Zac: Oh, absolutely. Before I would watch the graphs and usually nobody would be online. In fact, once the server went down because the hosting company did routine maintenance and I forgot to restart it. When I remembered four days later, nobody had ever complained. (This was before the update.) Now, I've never seen nobody online, not once. I can't find a time to restart the server at all, because there are always players. I mean, I've got 2 moves now... and I only checked last, like, one hour ago. It's exactly the experience I wanted to have playing the game.