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Play As Intended: A Case For Preferring Local Multiplayer
by Sjors Houkes on 05/16/14 08:31:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.

 

About two months ago, Bennett Foddy, creator of the wonderful QWOP, GIRP and Super Pole Riders, wrote an article titled Why you don’t want an online mode in TowerFall, which covers the issues with including online play. Foddy very clearly explains the technical problems involved with them, and touches on the fact that games could also be designed with only offline play in mind. It’s a great article, but I can’t help but feel it’s still slightly apologetic, seeing how much time is devoted to explaining technical hurdles. In my opinion, there’s no need for excuses when a game has no online mode, and instead derives its strength from so-called local multiplayer.

The lack of local multiplayer in commercial games has become a big frustration for me and others. Since around 2006, me and a group of friends, one of them a developer, have held regular weekly game nights at one of our houses. We started out playing Nintendo titles like Wii Sports and Mario Kart, interspersed with feverish matches of Bomberman. The latter two are still played on many occasions, even after we switched to the HD era and all bought PlayStation 3s. 

After Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was released, we played each new installment. Not because of the appeal of the military theme (it’s actually a turnoff for me), or because of the great campaign (play one and you’ve played them all), but because of the fantastically visceral multiplayer experience. CoD was one of the few games that offered 4 player split-screen. We had been playing split-screen for years on GameCube, so the upgrade to HD finally made it to where we could see what we were doing on screen. And we loved it. That is, up until the latest installment, Ghosts. In Ghosts, only 2 player split-screen is available, which means there are always people sitting on the couch without a controller in their hands, waiting for their turn against only one other human player and a handful of useless bots. It’s boring. With not much to play left, my friends sold their PS3s one by one, as they prepared for next gen. We went back to those old, forever replayable Nintendo games.

Mario Kart: Double Dash (2003)

Like Foddy argues, Nintendo focuses on a great local multiplayer experience. If you don’t rush to point to Nintendo’s failure to catch up with online, you will see the amazing experiences they created because of it. Nintendo has always been about getting together. ‘Famicom’, or 'family computer’ says it all, and came with two controllers. Every console up to the Wii-U has focused on the living room experience, on gaming as something you do with family or friends. I used to play games with my brother and dad, and we poured many hours into Duck Hunt, Donkey Kong Country and Goldeneye. I came to love games because of the experiences you can share.

Then I found out there’s hope. A few years ago, a small group of indie developers from Utrecht, the Netherlands, started organizing get-togethers called ‘local multiplayer picnics’. Jan Willem Nijman of Vlambeer and producer Kitty Calis, also responsible for a series of ‘indie meetups’, and fellow game developers introduced us (developers and other game people) to games we can now comfortably place among the new wave of local multiplayer games. At that time, I didn’t know any of these, because they were still in development. They were early builds, shared by their respective makers for playtesting.

It was a huge success. Over a series of ‘picnics’, we were introduced to games like Nidhogg, Super Pole Riders and TowerFall, each one a competitive multiplayer game, each one a unique digital sport. Players switched around and waited anxiously for their turn, booing and cheering, while exchanging high fives and shoulder punches. There was even a party in Rotterdam at one point (VERSUS), combining chiptune music by the Eindbaas collective and drinks with fanatical bouts of Johann Sebastian Joust, and Samurai Gunn played in a movie theatre.

To me, all this felt like a revelation: video gaming as a real social event.

 

I have only recently started in game development myself, making small games at game jams. But I’ve been professionally involved in the industry for years, and know many developers through my work. I organized large scale game jams and networking events for developers in the Netherlands, as part of my job with Dutch Game Garden, a government funded game studio incubator. A few months ago I relocated to Berlin, Germany.

At the A Maze festival, which took place here in April, it was again made clear that indie developers from around the world are interested in developing for local play. Many of them are creating new and exciting ways to play together on the same screen, an experience that they find lacking in big budget titles. It’s a positive development, but I don’t see it mirrored in bigger titles. Is it only us who are so close to the fire, that see the potential? Is gaming as a social activity generally still frowned upon?

Not a stock photo: actual people enjoying playing togetherA Maze / Berlin

My love for couch gaming obviously stems from my personal experiences. I can’t rely on everybody, or even most people, to feel this way. A lot of especially younger gamers have grown up in the era of always online computers, and are used to playing online multiplayer. Especially PC gaming is inherently a more solitary experience. The desk and inputs simply don’t invite others on the machine, and each player simply has his or her own machine and connects over the internet or LAN. But what I do know is that console gaming to me and many others still is a social experience. Console games are made to be experienced in the living room. They are made for couch gaming. To a certain extent this is even true for single player games. When my girlfriend is in the room, she plays along or talks with me about what I’m playing, or the other way around. Then why do so many big budget titles only allow online multiplayer?

Let’s discuss one of the more often heard complaints, which is that not everybody has friends around willing to play games with them. I get this problem, but it’s not a problem with the game. Sure, being able to play online has resolved this issue in many cases, and most games are developed with online play in mind. That's wonderful that we have the possibility to connect to so many others at any time. But to be fair, not being able to play a game because of a lack of available players is the result of one’s personal social situation, not of the game itself.

These critics don’t say ‘I’d prefer playing this with people online’ or ‘I can’t see the appeal of playing offline’. Instead they are articulating a real-life hurdle they experience in trying to play the game, and transferring this problem to the game designer. The designer should have come up with a way that this game, which was meant to be played offline, together, should be made playable by individuals over the internet. It's like asking a board of card game designer to include a single player scenario.    

I take issue with this. As gamers we still face the social stigma of being anti-social, of being loners. Many non-gamers still regard video games as trivial entertainment for socially awkward people, who can’t handle interacting with the real world. Or worse, as harmful and dangerous. As games rose in popularity they also became more accepted, if only through their omnipresence. But at the same time, games have become increasingly less focused on local multiplayer, to the point that almost all PS3, Xbox and PC games are either played in single player or online multiplayer. This means that gamers are more often than not engaged in a solo experience that does not involve the people around them. 

Of course this goes parallel to the integration of online services in every part of our lives, drawing us more and more to our personal screens. Have no fear, I won’t be telling you smartphones are bad. I love mine. But can’t we use these personal devices locally some more, now that we all have them? Why can’t we play more game like Henry Smith’s wonderful Spaceteam, screaming at each other and feverishly shaking our devices at every asteroid heading towards us? Or play a game of sensual finger twister with Game Oven’s Fingle?

Kitty Calis & Jan Willem Nijman playing Fingle

I have heard no complaints about these games not being online, because the experience they offer is so unique that you can’t even imagine how that could work. Why would we want to force an online mode into that? Similarly, should we feel the need to tick the ‘online’ box on every console or PC game that comes out? No-one complains about the lack of offline modes. As you can imagine, I personally would like to see more games playable in split-screen, but I would never assume it as a feature. If it’s not there, there's simply less chance I’ll play the game, and I’ll look elsewhere for my multiplayer gaming experience.

There was a time when you were able to play most of the important games coming out. Presently, there are way more games coming out each year than any of us can play. That means we have to start making choices, and not just based on quality. There is an overwhelming amount of high quality games. Personal choices and preferences start to matter, which is a sign of the medium maturing, slowly but steadily. That also means you can choose a game based on your preference for offline or online play. Not having one or the other is not a sign of inferiority, it’s a design decision.

Many people still don’t have this notion. The recently released Titanfall (not to be confused with TowerFall, which is in many ways the oppposite) was praised highly for its amazingly refined multiplayer. Reviewers wrote they were putting tens of hours into the game, and were far from bored. At the same time however, many of them complained about the lack of a single player. Some even went so far as to state that it would have extended the life of the game. I have a hard time understanding this point of view. If a game compels you to play hours at a time, why shouldn’t that be considered a complete game? I would gladly point these reviewers towards any fighting game to date.

Differentiation in games is a good thing. We should applaud focus on quality of gameplay over quantity of features. We should also appreciate every move to make gaming more social in the immediate sense, and every new way to play them. Games have matured to be part of society, and can be designed to be played at parties, or to be used in for instance education or health care. They’re not just on your personal computer anymore. Yes, you’re always connected, but does that mean everything should be online?

Sportsfriends: Super Pole RidersWe can play different games at different occasions. For some, you have to get together to have the experience, similar to playing a board game, or sports. Samurai Gunn, Nidhogg, TowerFall and Sportsfriends have all launched to an enthusiastic audience, and I’m glad they’re well received. Meanwhile my friends, some of them very picky about what they play, have become fanatical TowerFall players, and I’m glad about that.

Unfortunately, there are only a few games like these. We need more. Way more. If there’s anything reviewers should be lamenting, it’s the lack of local multiplayer games.


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Comments


Lex DeBussy
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I think this accurately explains a problem I have been trying to figure out in console games. I love playing them, but I could never sit down and play for more than a couple of hours whereas I used to play for at least 8~10 hours in a session. I never realized that it was because they were local multiplayer games I would play with my friends. It seems I've failed to move forward to PC gaming as much as my friends have as they don't play console games anymore. They would prefer the comfort of the PC.

Thanks for the insightful article and I hope that I can get people around me back into local multiplayer gaming.

Bob Johnson
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Wish upcoming Mario kart had lan mode.

More so since you don't even need a tv for the Wii U. I could have 4 Wii Us in the same room and play on just the controllers. (unless interference is a problem.)

Another thing is tvs take up so much less room nowadays that people are more inclined to have a few more than before. Or easy to move around a few smaller tvs to same room.

I know it wouldn't be something everyone would do, but ...if you got online mode in MarioKart why not Lan too.


Sjors Houkes
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Mario Kart: DD on LAN is amazing. It allows you to connect 2 GameCubes and play with up to eight people. We have organized a few nights of that. Hardly anyone had the broadband adapter, but managing to get one was worth the effort.

I'd love it if they repeated this trick on Wii-U, if only for the novelty factor. The chances of it happening however, are slimmer than I can imagine.

Justin Kovac
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It was possible to connect 4 GC and have 8 teams of 2, 16 players.
Never tried it but it might have been possible to do 8 GC, each team has their own screen.

Glorious LAN days.

Nathan Mates
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On the 2D consoles (e.g. 2600 thru Genesis/SNES era), local multiplayer was generally easier to develop for -- the extra player just took up another sprite, replacing an enemy's sprite if the budget for sprites (a well known, fixed number) was exhausted.

Since moving to 3D, if there's a separate camera per player (e.g. Mario Kart), then there's a big CPU/GPU performance hit for setting up new render targets, culling, re-rendering things. And, that usually means that a separate art/tuning pass needs to be done to more aggressively LOD/cull/simplify shaders/etc for the separate camera. That's a big expense, especially for games that make their name on the strength of MoarBettrePixels(tm), and why I suspect more games don't do that.

Some fighting games like Smash Bros use a single camera that keeps character(s) onscreen to avoid the performance implications.

Sjors Houkes
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I get that, and I know that one of the reasons for big titles not to include it. But we're getting to an era where graphics are not everything anymore, as many games show us. That should allow some room for new offline play modes. Unfortunately, I also think money has something to do with it, since online will make sure players can play more often, play it for longer, buy DLC, get others into it, etc.

Jason Ryan
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Split screen competitive play has died for me for a couple of reasons. There are a few games these reasons don't apply to, but in general:
1. Players sitting next to you can see exactly where you are, eliminating the beloved possibility of stealth play in many games.
2. Same thing, players can see your health, stats, etc in the split screen, allowing for greater opportunist situations.
3. Rendering to multiple viewports has serious performance consequences, this could be anything from framerate, textures, meshes, and even the dreaded input latency. (this one often pairs with framerate)
This is probably the biggest reason I can think of not to play split screen multi-player in a lot of games, I have played games I loved solo, and loved in split-screen too, but at no point did I discount the value of being able to set up another screen and system next to or nearby my buddies and enjoying a richer, stabler experience.
LAN parties exist, they are everything you would want from split screen and more 90% of the time.
There are also games that developers today have really outdone themselves on when it comes to good local multiplayer, but they all share one thing in common that really sets them apart and brings them into next gen local multiplayer(at least for me). One screen.
Some good examples would be any Smash Brothers title, most 2D fighters, Trine, and Super Mario Galaxy.
A friend and I threw a good 6+ hours into Child Of Light two nights ago in fact.
I am sure there are many more.
Like I said before, there are still games that are great split screen, but many of my childhood splitscreen games were ones that would actually benefit from multi-machine multi-player, and I think that is why the industry develops the way it does today.

Sjors Houkes
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I agree, LAN is an amazing way to play, especially for games that would otherwise require split-screen. However, you always need two machines. With PCs/laptops this is easy to accomplish, but imagine the trouble of having to carry both a TV and a console back and forth multiple times. It's something hardly anyone will do.

You are right about the one screen games. I'm not arguing for more splitscreen in particular, or that the old games were perfect the way they were. There were always issues, some of which you mentioned, and mostly people just found ways around them. I'm saying that if a game is properly designed for local play, like the one-screen games mentioned in the last paragraph, there is a unique experience to be had that can easily be accomplished with just one machine and screen, accessible to everybody.

Christian Nutt
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I'm one of the few people who bothered to play Wipeout XL (Wipeout 2097 in Europe) with the link cable. We were such huge fans of that game. We did it... once. =)

HD makes split-screen a lot more comfortable, though, thanks to aspect ratio.

Jennis Kartens
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Dual-Monitor-Splitscreen... a dream :) Sadly there are almost no games supporting that.

Dane MacMahon
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I'd love to still be playing local multiplayer, but pretty much all of my friends "retired" from gaming along time ago. Also I moved away for work. So... yeah. It's just not doable for most people, I feel.

Christian Nutt
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It isn't, but the issue is less about whether it's "doable" or whether it's the right thing for the game in question -- and if the developer and audience can understand the implications of these things. I think that is absolutely what's key.

Dane MacMahon
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Fair point.

Do you think there are tricks to making online multiplayer feel more like couch multi? Or is it just not really possible?

Christian Nutt
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Well, I am probably the wrong person to ask, and there's also the question -- "what does 'more like' mean?"

However, I think that a lot of the conventions of online console multiplayer are derived from the FPS genre, as is so much about modern console games, both from a design and from a functionality perspective.

For example, how Animal Crossing NL handles multiplayer is nothing like that, and it was clearly designed from the ground up to function well for New Leaf specifically.

However, it's friday, I'm tired and generalizing a lot. =P

And that doesn't REALLY answer your question. So, I guess my answer is "yes" but I don't know if anybody is trying!

Sjors Houkes
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Exactly my point. I hear a lot of this, and I fully understand that it's hard to play together if you are older, have a job and a family, or if you moved away. But it's not a problem the game should solve for you (the general you) by changing its design.

We could also think about this: we grew up with games, and became confident enough to see that games are not just for children. But the thing is: at the same time they are played by children. A lot. If we stop thinking of ourselves as the main audience, what message are we sending to them? What if they can only play a game over the internet? We'd rather see them socialize and play together, and if they like games they need games that facilitate it.

And why don't we allow games to do the same for ourselves?

John Paduch
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"But it's not a problem the game should solve for you"

Why not? You understand that your game will only sell a fraction of what it would otherwise if you don't include the OPTION for online multiplayer, correct? Also, how would you have to "change the design"? How is a situation with two people next to eachother on a couch and seeing the same screen (eg - Towerfall), any different from those same two people on their own couches with headsets/mics on and seeing the same screen on their respective TVs? (I understand the underlying code would have to change to accomodate online, but you said "design", which I take to mean how the game plays on the surface).

All of us who grew up with the older consoles in the 80s and 90s aren't kids who can just pull their friends into the house on any given day and play on the couch, anymore. Why should your intended audience be the ones who have to adapt to a model that is outdated and impractical for them, when you could put online MP into the game and re-open that entire potential paying audience?

Matthew Lewis
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This article is something that I feel should be frequently repeated and spoken about among new small scale developers. As a child gaming through the 90's and into mid 2000's (before I became an 'adult' gamer) I'm much more fond of the immediate social interaction of local multiplayer on a single screen. We are now a massive market as adults and going forward, surely it is out job to ensure local multiplayer makes a comeback in a big way (although there are now a lot of titles I can think of on consoles and steam are doing this). It's easier in a lot of ways for small developers to create single screen/split screen multiplayer than online too.

I don't see the point in making online 'more like' local multiplayer either, they are different beasts and just having others in the room with you making noise, exchanging crude hand gestures etc is something online multiplayer just can't deliver in the same way. Plus, friends in the room can grab you beers between bouts.

Matthew Lewis
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Ok I take that back. Of course there is the promise of VR, virtual rooms where everyone has a presence, you can poke, smile, punch or comically murder your best buds all playing pseudo local-multiplayer games that could capture a large slice of the true 'IRL' local multiplayer experience.
I'm not sure how well a crowded room with a fixed space screen area displaying split or same-screen multiplayer games would work but it might just be something.

Joris Dormans
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As a developer for the indie iOS game Bezircle for which the local multiplayer is the heart and soul (www.bezircle.com, sorry for the shameless plug), I have to say it is increasingly hard to reach the right audience with local multiplayer games. To me it seems that that type of game is best produced by small teams, because of the typical brief and condensed gameplay. Yet local multiplay is more prevalent on console and PC which is dominated by big budget titles. It's a shame really because as Sjors so eloquently puts forward: playing together is among the most powerful game experiences.

Dane MacMahon
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Most indie games sell best on PC from what I have read, but ones heavily focused on couch co-op sell better on console. I think it's a very console-focused style of play.

Marvin Papin
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I'd like to speak a bit about a specific game :

CEL DAMAGE

It was one of the lasts games I played in split screen and is awesome.

- you have 'til 4 players on the same screen with simple graphics and wolrd. So no performance problems for multi-cam displaying.

- EXTREMELY easy to take in hands. Less skill disadvantage for casual players.

- Nervous and fast, fun, crazy and full toonished

It's exactly th kind of game I expect to play MP on a couch. And that work.
However, I do not support the remake that much since it lacks SERIOUSLY of new content.
________________________________________________________________________

Offline MP has to be quite different, even for a same game, having a radically different gameplay approach sometimes works.

I missed that kind of gameplay, Mario Kart Mini Games, Mario Party, New Beetle Adventure Racing (Yeah, you probably donno it... but a reference for me) for MP games.

Dave Burpitt
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Local multiplayer games definitely seem to be making a big comeback in the Indie scene. London indies are putting on a third local multiplayer focused night at Scenario Bar! 19th May - http://www.meetup.com/London-Indie-Game-Developers/events/1816702
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