Designing local multiplayer games for microconsoles

By Leigh Alexander

Microconsoles are offering independent developers a wealth of new options when it comes to bringing smaller games to the living room, where they might have historically been limited to mobile platforms or browsers. There's now opportunity to add or enhance local multiplayer elements to games to create an even better fit for flexible new home consoles.

As we wrap up microconsole week on Gamasutra, we talk to developers who've brought games to Ouya and other venues about designing for a communal, local multiplayer experience, with particular attention to the microconsole space.

What makes a good local multiplayer experience, and what do you see as fundamental design elements required to facilitate it?

Bennett Foddy, Get on Top (Ouya port by Shay Pierce)

For me, the best local multiplayer experiences stand up to long or multiple play sessions, so you can experience the evolution of strategies and techniques with the other players. This usually, but not always, means that the best local multiplayer games are competitive ones.

It's also important that the game can be enjoyed by two or more people at wildly different skill levels. This might mean that the game should be enjoyable to someone even if they're always losing, or it might mean that the game has enough of a luck component to ensure that everyone gets a taste of victory. People eat up and dispose of games in a way that they don't with real-life sports, so you can't just wait for your friends to reach your level before you play together. You need to be enjoying yourself from minute one.

For these reasons, great multiplayer games will usually have been designed from the ground up to be multiplayer experiences. They won't be tacked-on additions to strong singleplayer games.

A local multiplayer game goes from being great to being incredible if it's also fun for spectators. The greatest local multiplayer experiences, just like the greatest sporting or musical experiences, are the ones that are played in front of a crowd.

Adam Spragg, Hidden in Plain Sight

The most important thing to remember in a local multiplayer game is that, by definition, the players are all sitting in the same room. This allows for a level of player-to-player interaction that simply isn't available in an online game or turn-based game.

With Hidden in Plain Sight, I've always thought that the fun part of the game existed in the room, in the space between the players. What's going on on the TV screen is just a tool or gimmick to facilitate some really interesting and fun interpersonal dynamics. I think local multiplayer games should be party games: lightweight, easy to learn, fun to win but not painful to lose, with rapidly-iterating rounds. That's not to say you couldn't have a heavyweight dungeon-crawling RPG that was local multiplayer, but I don't think that plays to the strengths of the genre.

The Men Who Wear Many Hats, Organ Trail

I gauge how successful a local multiplayer game is by how much laughter or anguish is in the room. If I'm spending time with other humans in the real world, it's probably because I want to share an experience and have feelings and junk like that. Sharing a laugh or frustrations or going face to face are great ways to generate strong feelings (good or bad) between friends.

In regards to design, you want to be able to share these games quickly with new people, so the mechanics need to be easy to grasp for newcomers. If I'm sharing a game with someone and I'm just beating the snot out of them because they have no idea what's going on; they will not be playing that game again. This is why I never got into most fighting games, they are designed with the assumption that you go home and practice to be able to contend (Unless you both suck, then it's still fun!)

Although I love the days of playing Goldeneye or TimeSplitters 2 for hours over at a friend's place... I think "bigger" games like that are more fitting to an online environment nowadays. And although everyone knows how to play a game like Super Smash Bros, we don't all have the franchise power Nintendo does, so fewer people are going to have heard of our games and so you can assume most players will not be skilled at what you've made. It needs to be fun without any skill involved.

When I have friends over and want to play a game, it needs to be quick and simple. Games like Samurai Gunn, TowerFall or Get On Top! are great to show show your friends and move on to the next cool idea. Meanwhile, there is enough depth there to facilitate us coming back the next time we hang out.

Eric Froemling, BombSquad

My favorite part of local multiplayer, and what I think separates it from online multiplayer, is the people component: the spectating, the cheering, and the smack-talking. I think a good local multiplayer game goes out of its way to encourage these things; it's not just everyone staring silently at their own little corner of the screen.

One of BombSquad's mini-games that I feel has been more successful in this regard is essentially a one-on-one tag-team match; even with a full eight-player game, all but two players at a time are just watching and cheering on their ally, and this makes for a surprisingly intense experience, both to watch and to play.

E McNeill, Bombball

There's no one right way to do local multiplayer. Super Smash Bros, Mafia/Werewolf, B.U.T.T.O.N., and Hidden in Plain Sight all make good use of local multiplayer, but each does it very differently.

I can think of only two general guidelines for local multiplayer:

1) Offer frequent choices that are tightly linked to the actions of other players. A game where you're constantly and meaningfully interacting with other players is better for local multiplayer than, say, an RTS game where players spend most of their time building and managing their resources in relative isolation.

2) Allow for expressive playstyles as much as possible. That's what allows players to infuse the gameplay with their personalities, and it makes the whole experience feel much more personal (especially for competitive games).

Without that expression, even a multiplayer game can feel lifeless. If it's just as good to play against AI, what's the point?


Do you think microconsoles offer new opportunities in this arena? What makes them a good fit?

Bennett Foddy, Get on Top (Ouya port by Shay Pierce)

Games that are exclusively local multiplayer also haven't been big sellers in recent years. I think that's a big part of why the genre died awayóas internet connections and decent AI became more prevalent, people were prepared to spend more on games that didn't require another person to be physically present. But the microconsoles (and other cheap distribution options) make it much more viable for single developers or small teams to make games in less lucrative genres. It's not just that these consoles are cheap to buy, it's that they're super-cheap to develop for. So I think that's why we're seeing a bit of a resurgence.

As a developer of these styles of games, consoles (micro or macro) offer two great features: first, they're plugged into a big screen, which is good for sharing with other players but also great for attracting spectators within a living room. Second, they have proper controllers with lots of buttons and twin joysticks, which gives you great options as a designer. But getting things on the Xbox or Playstation is pretty hard, and it's expensive. With the Ouya or GameStick (or whatever else emerges) I can port my Flash or Unity game over in a couple of hours and have people playing the game on their TVs, with controllers, within days.

Adam Spragg, Hidden in Plain Sight

I think the golden age of local multiplayer was the SNES and N64 days, and I spent many an hour with friends playing Mario Kart and Goldeneye, Contra, Tecmo Bowl, etc. As we've moved towards bigger, online-centric consoles, we've moved away from local multiplayer gaming. If anything, cheap microconsoles remind us that these types of games are still fun.

The Men Who Wear Many Hats, Organ Trail

Some of the troubles I've had trying to get my friends to play co-op games with me includes situations where larger games might take to long, we don't have enough controls or we all need to have our own computers. The cheaper systems that support multiple input devices and make it easy for small devs to put their content out, all address these issues. We can sit down and play a 5 minute game on the couch with any controllers we already own, or the cheap ones that come with it. The bigger systems really lacked that experience this gen.

I remember thinking that my old roommate and I just weren't as close anymore because we didn't have time to sit down for 8+ hours to play all the way through Gears of War 3 anymore. While I still love that some games have that longer experience... there weren't enough smaller experiences to share in the brief hours we were both free.

Eric Froemling, BombSquad

A lot of microconsole games are so small in scope that they wouldn't look out of place as mini-games in Mario Party, but I don't think this is a bad thing. If I'm at a friend's house and he asks if I'd like to play co-op in some big console game he just bought, I'm going to be hesitant since I know there's probably a learning curve and a huge campaign we'd barely make a dent in.

But if he were to fire up something simple like No Brakes Valet I'd likely be down for a few games. I'd like to think that microconsoles will help give a wider audience to devs who want to (whether by choice or necessity) make these types of smaller, more focused multiplayer games

E McNeill, Bombball

Consoles are generally better for local multiplayer than PC or mobile, and microconsoles are more friendly to indies. They aren't bringing any new technology to the table, but that's not the point. Instead, they're opening the door to indie innovation on consoles, and since it was so hard to do before, it's natural to see a lot of local multiplayer as a result.


What do you think may be different about designing local multiplayer games when a microconsole is the intended platform?

Adam Spragg,  Hidden in Plain Sight

Nothing, aside from technological limitations of any given platform. A game is a game, no matter which platform it's playing on, as long as the input/ouput isn't too radically different. I kind of disagree with your line of questioning, that microconsoles have some fundamental difference to Xbox and PS3. I've only worked with Ouya, which feels like a "normal" console from a development standpoint.

The Men Who Wear Many Hats, Organ Trail

I think the smaller the system the less time and money you will get from the players. You should design around this idea. I'm sure there can be awesome big games put out there successfully, but that's not what the market is currently primed for. Then again... I might just be saying that because I haven't really heard of any yet. Otherwise, I currently expect the scope of games for these systems to be that of a mobile game but with a controller input and nicer resolution.

Eric Froemling, BombSquad

Aside from having a generally more casual target audience, I think there's also some unique design opportunities with microconsole multiplayer such as interaction with mobile devices, since those will probably be a lot more prevalent than actual controllers. I'm envisioning a situation where I'm at a party and there's a big TV with some simple multiplayer game running on it that I can join simply by pulling out my cell phone. Suddenly the game becomes a fun inclusive activity for anyone standing around; not just something the 4 socially awkward guys in the corner are doing.

E McNeill, Bombball

So far, it looks like microconsoles are establishing a reputation as a home for quirky, experimental titles that may not have the polish that's usually expected elsewhere (see: No Brakes Valet, The Amazing Frog?). It might be the right place to try out your more wild ideas.


What considerations and adaptations are relevant when bringing an existing game to a microconsole?

Adam Spragg, Hidden in Plain Sight

Only minor technological details, but nothing design-wise. I brought Hidden in Plain Sight from XBLIG to Ouya with very few modifications.

The Men Who Wear Many Hats, Organ Trail

Dear lord! Please, please, please don't tack on your controller support. I've booted up several games that were unplayable because they were designed for touch and only the slightest amount of effort went into porting them to a new controls scheme. Good controls are the cornerstone of an enjoyable experience. You can't half-ass it. You need to put your full ass in it, playtest it and iterate. You might even have to... re-design it a bit (gasp)!

Eric Froemling, BombSquad

This could just be my bias, but I find myself turned off by a game if it "feels" like a mobile device port; if it has giant touch-screen-looking buttons on its main menu, if the graphics all look like they were designed for a 4 inch screens, or if it doesn't account for the TV-safe border, I'm more likely to skip over it and try the next game.

There's an assumption out there that microconsoles will be nothing but mobile-games on a tv, so I think having the "feel" of a real console game is important to set your game apart from the mobile-port-shovelware herd.

E McNeill, Bombball

I hope that developers will ask themselves if their game is truly a good fit for a console. I feel like there have been a lot of mobile games that really wanted to be played on a console, and the reverse (a console game that wishes it were a mobile game) is just as disappointing.

It's also worth thinking about the business model for each game. Ben Cousins made a good point: most free-to-play games (a requirement for some microconsoles) need a ton of downloads to be successful, but so far the consoles don't seem capable generating those numbers in the way that mobile devices can.


Any experiences or thoughts regarding your own game that you think are relevant to devs learning about multiplayer in the microconsole space?

The Men Who Wear Many Hats, Organ Trail

The game we have out right now on Ouya (Organ Trail: Director's Cut) is not multiplayer. However, another game we are about to put out (Max Gentlemen) started as an game in an arcade cabinet and will probably be making it's transition to Ouya. We learned a lot by watching drunks play our game at bars. There is certainly a lot to learn about local multiplayer from any arcade game out there. Go research those.

Eric Froemling, BombSquad

With BombSquad, I put a lot of effort into making the game playable with any controller you throw at it (including writing a controller app for iOS/Android devices) and that has paid off tremendously. I'm hearing stories all the time from people who've had several friends over, had only one controller, but were still able to get a big game going using spare PS3 controllers, a few iPhones, etc.

So if you're writing a local multiplayer game I'd highly recommend putting effort into making it work with as many peripherals as possible. Or, if any device makers are listening, I'd highly stress making this as easy for developer as possible. If I could plug in any no-name USB gamepad, run some global config UI to tag 'x','y','a', and 'b' buttons, and then have every game just work with that instead of relying on individual games to support it that'd be *awesome*.

E McNeill, Bombball

Local multiplayer is awesome, but be flexible with your multiplayer options. My game was focused on a 2-player mode, but I got a lot of request both for more singleplayer content and for a 4-player mode. The more easily people can engage with your game, the better. I especially admire games like Pipnis or Get On Top that allow for multiplayer with a single controller.

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