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The challenges and rewards of designing local multiplayer games

The challenges and rewards of designing local multiplayer games
November 23, 2016 | By Phill Cameron

Making any game is a risky undertaking, but making a game in a niche is going to be twice as daunting. When that niche is local multiplayer, a format that has more obstacles to play than any other, that’s a lot of risk to take on.

“When we were making Sportsfriends, we would talk about how the hardware platform for couch multiplayer isn’t a particular console or operating system; it’s gamers who have more than one controller,” says Bennett Foddy, creator of Super Pole Riders & QWOP. “That platform declined enormously when the console manufacturers stopped packing two controllers in with their consoles, and it declined again with the rise of network multiplayer games. By the early 2000s there was basically nowhere to play couch multiplayer games, especially because most PC owners didn’t even have a single controller.”

Despite that, we’re seeing local-multiplayer games become more and more common over the past few years, and alongside that they’re often novel, mechanically experimental and generally great fun. Which raises the question: Why make your game local multiplayer rather than online?

We spoke to the Foddy, as well as the developers of Overcooked and Spaceteam, about the appeal of developing a local multiplayer game.

Foddy's Super Pole Riders.

"Some of my fondest gaming memories involved gathering round a screen with my friends or my family, and that just felt like an experience we really wanted to try and recapture."

Today, the proliferation of fast and reliable internet connections has left online multiplayer perhaps the most successful branch of video games in the world -- look at the likes of Dota 2 and League of Legends. The fact that these online multiplayer juggernauts haven’t completely squashed local multiplayer suggests that the experiences aren't really comparable. 

“For us, the appeal of making a local multiplayer game was that we had grown up playing those kind of games,” says Phil Duncan, designer o local co-op cooking game Overcooked. “Some of my fondest gaming memories involved gathering round a screen with my friends or my family, and that just felt like an experience we really wanted to try and recapture.”

In addition to the uniquely intimate experience, local multiplayer also avoids some of the biggest headaches that developers of online multiplayer games must grapple with. “With internet multiplayer you have to worry about cheating, griefing, unresponsive players, ping times/lag/latency, text chat/voice chat, servers, state synchronization, matchmaking, NAT punchthrough, downtime, player accounts, profanity, privacy issues,” Henry Smith, of Spaceteam fame, tells me. “There are companies selling Backend-as-a-Service products just to solve all these problems.”

Overcooked, which Phil Duncan worked on.

These problems can represent a large cost for developers in terms of both time and money. Nidhogg, one of the most compelling and downright fun local-multiplayer games made in the past few years, was plagued with online issues after launch. It struggled to translate the frenetic feel that it had been creating excitement around at demo events into the online space. 

“If you’re designing an internet multiplayer game, you have a huge number of constraints, but the main one is this: for any given series of events in the game, those events might happen at a different time, or even in a different order, on different people’s computers,” Foddy explains. “If I was designing Towerfall for an internet connection, I’d need to either slow the arrows right down (so they can be course-corrected to match everyone’s computer) or make them infinitely fast (so that players don’t notice any discrepancies in flight). It would be a very different game. These are the reasons why certain genres, like FPS, RTS and MOBA games, are so much more popular than other genres of online games.”

Matt Makes Games' Towerfall.

So a wider range of design options, fewer technical constraints, and a little dose of nostalgia certainly go a way to explaining the steady flow of local multiplayer games over the past few years. But Henry Smith asserts that it’s more than that. “It's mostly unexplored territory," he says. "There's so much room for experimentation and new experiences and new audiences. I get quite a few Spaceteam reviews that say 'I'm not a gamer, but I love your game' or 'This is the only game on my phone!.' People are playing with their kids and grandparents and their teachers. Seems to me like there are some great opportunities here.”

The fear is that you’re putting restrictions on the ‘when’ of your game, rather than the ‘how’. Instead of relying on someone merely being interested in playing your game, you need them to be interested and have enough people to play it with and have enough controllers. The trade off, Foddy tells me, is that developing local multiplayer is just plain fun. 

Bari Bari Ball, which was part of Sportsfriends along with Super Pole Riders.

“Making a good local multiplayer game can be more enjoyable than making a good single player game," he says. "With local multiplayer games, as soon as you add the most basic functionality and placeholder art, you call over your friend to play it and you’re instantly having a good time. With single player games, there can sometimes be months or even years of work before you have your first enjoyable playtest.’

“The best local multiplayer experiences involve deep competitive gameplay, but they also bring out a spirit of social fun and camaraderie, and a party atmosphere that is completely absent in networked multiplayer games," he adds. "That’s the major draw for me.”

Both Duncan and Smith gave me variations of the same answer when I asked them why we were seeing more local multiplayer games, and that’s that there is just more people playing games these days. 

“My guess is that games are getting more diverse and inclusive in general, and they're losing some of their stigma, so more people want to join in,” Smith tells me. “They might be people you hang out with anyway, or your family, or roommates, so adding games to the mix is a pretty natural extension.”

Messhof's Nidhogg.

Duncan agrees: “The way we look at it was that most people live with someone; be that their family, their partner, housemates etc. and that most games don’t allow for these people to play together in the same space (either because they don’t cater for players of different ages/abilities or simply because they don’t allow same screen multiplayer). We wanted to create a game that people could play together with their friends or their family in the same space and which would allow people who maybe don’t play many games all that much to have fun together.”

As the interest in these novel experiences grows, so too does the ability to play them. While digital is a big factor in actually getting these games into the hands of those who want to play them, the proliferation of control methods is growing too. This is exemplified by Smith’s Spaceteam, which uses mobile devices as the controllers. It even works to the game’s benefit, as having your own screen and not seeing those of the people you’re playing with is an essential element of Spaceteam’s chaos and confusion. 

A group playing Henry Smith's Spaceteam.

“I try to design for the unique strengths of the platform and environment I'm using,” Smith explains. “For local multiplayer games, that means things like: being able to see and talk to other players directly, a shared screen or small play area, the possibility of spectators. For phone games like Spaceteam, there are additional aspects: touch input, movable devices, ability to play in different physical locations, seeing other players' screens.”

There is no single answer to why you might want to make a local multiplayer game, but from talking to Foddy, Smith and Duncan, what’s clear is that, primarily, the time from idea to playtesting is an extremely short one, relative to other types of games. That means that during the development, you’re going to be constantly iterating in a very hands-on way, able to get an idea of how your game feels and plays throughout the development, rather than after you’ve done a chunk of work. When you think of it in that way, it’s hard not to see it as an attractive prospect. 

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