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Designing local multiplayer games for microconsoles
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Designing local multiplayer games for microconsoles

August 30, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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?

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