Well, I think Licho's question is right on, but I think the focus is wrong.
If you want more players, you can get them. If you want more online players, I think you're hosed.
The real question that has to be asked (again) is... why is that the only goal? The last time I brought this up, I got brushed off by people who said that that was the criteria for "success". My question is... how many more years are you guys going to have to fail to meet that goal before you change tactics?
I mean... this is game design. The winner is the one with the most sales, whether that's free downloads or paying customers. Online play is just a drop in the bucket, when it comes to players.
Seriously! Why define "success" in such incredibly narrow terms? Is MP in Spring's Lobby the only thing that's fun about playing games with Spring? No!
If you guys simply finished a campaign that didn't suck, picked up World Builder (or a fork designed with your game balance in mind) so that you could have maps that were incredible looking (trust me, the next version's going to rock) and maybe spent a wee bit more time marketing outside the Spring gulag, you'd be doing well. If you got a bit more serious about your content goals, and started building more single-player games, I think you'd suddenly be the hot thing on this engine. I mean... look... your only real competitor in that area is me, and I'm one guy, vs. a large development team.
But my basic advice is... quit focusing on MP in the Spring Lobby. Develop more cool, single-player experiences, like Chickens, and quit worrying endlessly about a goal that's not worth reaching in the first place.
<cues inevitable flames>
Or, if multiplayer is the only thing you can get motivated about... get serious about it, host your own server, and advertise for players totally outside the Spring pond. You guys are in the same situation I am, but you have more real resources, in terms of people who can Do Things. Hell, you guys have more real resources, in every sense, than I ever have had, in terms of trying to get P.U.R.E. to fly.
Before everybody flames me (more)... let me say this. I've been here longer than almost everybody... and a behind-the-times, really-backwards-technically OTA mod has always held the MP seat, and it's always been about a very tiny number of maps, and a very restricted gameplay.
It's not a curse, or whatever. If BA suddenly goes away for some reason, I do not predict that suddenly P.U.R.E. will be the multiplayer experience... nor do I see CA in that light. Probably XTA, or whatever Caydr's doing. It's just how it is, folks.
RTS games are really complex and have high barriers to entry, for online play. Spring's UI is the most incredibly complex of any RTS available, period... so this narrow focus isn't terribly surprising. People pick up one game- whatever's most popular- and stay there, because games outside that comfort zone are hard to pick up. It's not like single-player, where you can just put it on Easy.
The thing with this game, though, is that most of your real successes have come from innovations that weren't tied to MP (in the case of PlanetWars, I think that it was mainly about offering a genuinely interesting MP experience with continuity, and that's certainly an area to re-examine). Yet I see your core developers spending most of their time on it, which is a strategic error (imo).
Moreover, any time you build a genuinely useful new Widget or UI toy, it just gets ported right away, so there is little real competitive advantage, and hardly any market share gained.
You folks have consistently had the most uber-complex UI of any Spring game (far too complex, imo, but you folks are correcting that) and the best special effects technology (although, and again I'm going to get flamed, you guys have done a mediocre job of leveraging jK's LUPS overall, and really should focus on making sure all of your special effects are equally nice, not just a few of them... and getting really serious about debugging it for ATi, if not for Pxtl's Intel chipset, which is Not Doable).
But basically... meh... look at the game as a product, using the tech and techniques you have, where the real goal is to make interesting experiences for people. Not necessarily win an online playerbase.
Remember... over 90% of RTS gamers never play online, or play only very rarely. So... reach out to those people!
As just one example... you guys could build a Tower Defense clone in a week or so (I know, I built the game-logic for one over here in a couple of days, it's really easy).
Boom! New players! And that's just one idea- if you want more, I have plenty of simple ideas that basically involve leveraging a complete game and World Builder, and would not take serious coders much time to develop.
As another example... you guys are sitting on top of the Mission Editor, which I used to build the current P.U.R.E. campaigns. It's a powerful tool, if people know how to use it. However, instead of polishing out the remaining bugs and sitting down and planning a campaign, the CA community has produced just a few Missions, and... uh... they aren't exactly gripping, and have low production values.
Again... focus on the numbers that actually matter, and you can succeed. Are people having fun? Are they coming back for second downloads?
If not, how can you improve the experience? I got excited by all the "let's finally make the UI not such a mess" discussions, but that's just one of many areas where I think that the focus could be changed for the better.
Just one other example of an area where I think the core devs should look... ModelBase is producing models on a regular basis. Some of them are obviously excellent. And I really don't have time to skin them all, much as I'd like to.
Why aren't they being focused on? I know you guys don't have a proper art director atm, but still, that's a major issue. As much as you guys talk about "hurry up and get it done" on content, I see a lot more talking than action.
I can't really comment on the current mp balance at all, but my impression is that it's pretty polished atm.
If I were you guys, I'd look at it as stable, and concentrate on the things that will actually help make your product more attractive overall, and do a better job marketing outside the Spring fishbowl.
But the main thing is... look at your success stories, and learn from them. With better single-player gameplay, which I know that several of you are quite capable of developing, you could have a very nice product. With a little more... eh... focus on the Make It Happen side of content development (for example, get one of your active devs to learn uvmapping and spend a week on that, and then find somebody to paint... and remember, I said I'd do stuff under certain conditions).