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Time for Local Multiplayer to Get Physical
by Alistair Aitcheson on 03/04/13 10:00:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[Local multiplayer games are increasingly pushing the envelope, providing experiences only possible with real-world human interaction. Indie developer Alistair Aitcheson looks into the opportunities shared physical play offers, especially on tablets.]

In the current gaming climate we're used to the idea that "multiplayer" is typically an online affair. The days of playing Micro Machines and Goldeneye on a shared screen are a remnant of a bygone age, and gathering around a shared screen isn't seen as the exciting attraction that it used to be. 

Indeed, online multiplayer has numerous benefits. You don't need to gather a group of friends whenever you want to play against real people. You can fill an arena with 16 competitors at the drop of a hat. You can make sure you're pitted against people of the same standard, and there's always a tougher opponent online for you to strive to beat.

But sharing a screen is still a rich proposition - the laughter and joy of a shared game experience with friends is unique and special. So, with online multiplayer as a counterpoint, there's encouragement to push the envelope when it comes to local multiplayer design. The proliferation of touch screens and motion sensing allows us to explore shared physical experiences in a way that wasn't possible before. 

To get the most out of local multiplayer, designers can use the physical presence of players to do what cannot be done over a network. 

Getting physical

There's all kinds of imaginative play that comes out of physical interaction. Just look at Johann Sebastian Joust to see this in practice. This is a game where the path to victory is through pushing, tripping or tricking your opponent - the possible strategies in this real-life environment are endless. Your surrounding environment provides obstacles and projectiles in equal measure. Playing encourages creative tactics as well as control and reaction, in a way that's only possible with real people.

Johann Sebastian Joust, Die Gute Fabrik

The tablet space is similarly ripe area for physical interaction. 2012 IGF finalist Fingle makes the most of this by requiring players to contort their hands around each other's. The presence of a partner's hand in the game space becomes an obstacle - a physical challenge in the real world -and success demands direct communication between the individual players. 

It's a space that I'm exploring as a developer myself. My previous iPad game was Greedy Bankers vs The World, a puzzle game whose multiplayer divided the screen into two opposing sides. Players got bonuses by stealing gems from their opponents' side. So the "your side/my side" barrier between the two players was frequently broken. 

Greedy Bankers vs The World, Alistair Aitcheson

At the live demos I took the game to players loved it. Stealing from each other was deliciously mean; there was arm grabbing, the occasional wrestling match and a lot of laughs. Being able to get in each other's way, and breaking the rules by venturing into your friend's space, were great fun. 

Extending the limits of the screen

I like to think of the tablet as a big interactive canvas. You can do big gestural movements, and you can easily fit more than one hand on at a time. So it can deal with physically-demanding interactions, and has enough space for more than one player. And in the case of screenless games like JS Joust, the whole room is your canvas.

Looking specifically at the tablet - although these points are equally valid when the living room is the arena - there's no necessity to split the play space into two separate control areas. On a TV screen there's a disconnect between the player and their avatar. An individual controller is needed to bridge that gap, so the idea of each player having their own personal space beneath their thumbs makes sense.

The touch-screen need not place such a barrier between players. It's possible for both players to have full reach of the screen, making play feel less limited. In Michael Brough's O, players can pick up discs from anywhere on the screen - it's where they push them that's important.

Even more potent is when your opponents really are part of the game world. You have to be aware of where their hands (or bodies) are, in order to manoeuvre around them, grab them, or see their next move coming. Other people's hands are obstacles, and that's no bad thing if the game's designed with that in mind.

Playing dirty

Players of Greedy Bankers vs The World at GameCity 6, NottinghamWhen a game ventures into the real world there's an infinity of real-world strategies we can take. A lot of them could be seen as "cheating". And that's an opportunity; everyone loves to play dirty once in a while! It's fun to break the rules. When you're with friends and it creates laughter and leaves you with great stories to tell.

It's rebellious, feeling like you're doing something that shouldn't be allowed in the game, but the computer cannot stop you. The trick of the designer is to say "that's okay" and make sure that play doesn't descend into a stalemate because of cheating. This did happen a few times in Greedy Bankers vs The World, so I wanted to make sure this wasn't an issue in future games. While those players who ended up wrestling on the floor did have a great time I knew it would be a better game if that didn't become their be-all and end-all.

In my new game, Slamjet Stadium, a physics-based iPad sports game, characters naturally float around the screen. So no matter where your opponent's hands are you will be able to grab one from somewhere. It means that there's no "dead zones" - places where it's always best to have your hand so that play becomes about grappling for that spot - because the focal points are always moving, and there's always alternatives. The centre of the board in Greedy Bankers was the focal point for stealing from both players, and so became a dead zone if both players wrestled for control of it - but in Slamjet Stadium the best place to put your hand is different for each player and situation.

Slamjet Stadium prototype, Alistair Aitcheson

Similarly, I make sure that paying attention is also a path to victory. Even if you're grappling your opponent's hand out of the way, they still may find success by spotting a powerup that you missed because you were too busy wrestling. If the focus of play switches frequently between the highly physical and the highly attentive it results in a very dynamic experience!

Michael Brough's O does this very well. Its points system is based on collecting like-coloured discs in sequence. Even if you're being pushed out of the way you can still get revenge by placing a wrong-coloured disc in your opponent's endzone, all with a single swipe. If players can play smart as well as rough, your game opens up a wide spectrum of play styles.

Making friends

There is something very special about shared gaming experiences, and it's exciting to see them pushing ahead. Innovative designs such as Spaceteam, and events such as Wild Rumpus, show there's definitely a hunger for pushing boundaries and discovering great work in this space. 

We live in an exciting time. Technology is opening up new possibilities and the presence of online multiplayer demands designers to ask what they can do physically that they cannot do online. The future of local multiplayer has never been brighter!

You can read more about the design of Slamjet Stadium on my blog:

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Chris Clogg
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Cool article, very interesting to see others' take on local multiplayer (on tablets). I'm actually surprised there hasn't been a huge amount of content in this field so far... better take advantage!! lol.

On a very related note, that was actually a big feature for our iPad game, Stratosphere. It is basically a tower defense where 2 players face off vs each other (defending and sending). Seems to be getting positive feedback, but immediately the requests for "online multiplayer" flooded through lol.

As well, we made sure to put a single-player component in (yay @ making an AI!) because I think a large chunk of downloaders aren't going to always have someone around...

Alistair Aitcheson
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Thanks - glad you enjoyed it!

I created AI for Greedy Bankers, and also for Slamjet Stadium, and had a lot of fun doing it! With Greedy Bankers I didn't get many requests for online multiplayer because the stealing mechanic was such a big deal and I think it was obvious that you couldn't really replicate that online. I'm hoping the same will be true for Slamjet Stadium, as I don't think it would be technically feasible to make an online version - not without it being a significantly watered-down experience. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Chris Clogg
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Yeah haha, online in itself is a crazy sob to code!

James Yee
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While on the one hand I'm glad more devs are coming to shared screen and physical game space, on the hand I have to ask, "Why not board games?!"

Seriously most of the shared screen, or multiple screens in the same room games, I've heard about are basically similar experiences to board games that have been made for years. :|

Alistair Aitcheson
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I wouldn't say most shared-screen games are similar experiences to existing board games, as the technology means you can do things that just wouldn't be possible in a board game. Players don't need to worry about scorekeeping or timing, you can introduce variations easily on the fly, and as a designer you have a lot more room for imaginative twists. In Slamjet Stadium there's multiball releases, goals that change position on the fly, wormholes that transport pieces across the arena... the purpose of them is to keep the flow of play moving, frantically changing, surprising. I don't see how I could do all of that without the computer - not without taking away the fast-and-furious pace of the game.

I love board games too, and I think they are a very special shared experience and a great deal of fun. But I think the technology we have, for example in tablets and motion controls, gives designers an opportunity to expand on what board games are doing, in new and surprising ways. :)

Michael Brough
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The big thing is real-time, there are very few real-time board games. But certainly the comparison is apt; I describe my game Glitch Tank as a "digital board game" and O as a "touch-screen sport"; we're bridging the gap between these two phyla of games that evolved independently for a while.

Aniruddha Loya
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Nice Article! We recently did a physical multi-player game, Heart Racer, (for 2-5 players) as part of Global Game Jam 2013. It can be played here

Alistair Aitcheson
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Thanks! I tried to have a go but the menu screen didn't show up, even when I reloaded a couple of times. I'm using Safari on a Mac, if that's any help for deciphering what the issue could be

Aniruddha Loya
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That is weird... I believe it has something to do with Unity Web Player (plugin) coz it doesn't even show us the menu if we disable / clean the cache. I tested with Safari in Mac and clearly there is some issue there. But works fine with Chrome & Firefox. Alternately, I can send you a native application for Mac.

Alistair Aitcheson
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Sorry for the slow reply! I'm away for the weekend but send me an email to and I'll give it a shot when I get back. That or I can install Firefox on the mac when I'm back home :)

Aniruddha Loya
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Sorry for a late reply, there is no notification sent to tell that a reply has been posted. In case you haven't tried the game yet, I have added the downloads for stand alone applications for all the platforms.
Let me know if it works for you!

Thomas Bedenk
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Nice wrap up Alistair. I am a big fan of local Multiplayer. J S Joust And Greedy Bankers are both awesome!

You also might wanna check our soon to be released game SPiN WARS, which originally was a submission to the Gamma IV one-button competition in 2010. Since we kept playing that 3 day prototype at all of our parties, we decided to give it a proper release 3 years later :-)

It's a 2-4 player local multiplayer arena shoot 'em up that we will announce soon for iOS, Android, PC and maybe more...

Trailer is already online at

Alistair Aitcheson
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Thanks very much :) I'll take a look - sounds cool!

Thomas Bedenk
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Hey, I posted a kind-of-reply to your article here