The gaming world has recently experienced a resurgence of local multiplayer games, i.e., titles in which two or more players play together (competitively or cooperatively) in each other’s physical presence and generally using the same console or device. A classic such title would be Super Bomberman on Super Nintendo, while Wii Sports represents one of the more popular recent examples.
This trend presents an interesting counterpoint and follow-up to September’s article on the trend of watching games. This trend results partly from the popularity of competitive online gaming.
This resurgence is being led largely by small independent game developers (or “indies”) who do not have the backing or big budgets of major publishers. They often work out of their homes and link up with other developers around the world to work together remotely.
The lack of overhead or massive budgets to recoup allows such teams to take risks with experimental game play and delve into forgotten genres and mechanics. That’s precisely what they are doing with local multiplayer and has led to inventive, artistic titles such as Sportsfriends and Nidhogg.
Canadian developers also have a visible presence, with Montreal’s Spaceteam and Vancouver’s TowerFall (pictured above) figuring among the vanguard of this trend.
Why is this happening?
Following the arrival of high-speed Internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s (freeing up millions of phone lines worldwide), online gaming became more and more feasible, allowing players to seek out competition beyond their neighbourhood, and engage with up to thousands of other players at once in MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) titles such as World of Warcraft.
At roughly the same time, another important factor that contributed to this resurgence was taking place: the death of the arcade. For decades, arcades were relevant largely for two reasons: they were the place to be to play the most technologically advanced games and served as a gathering place for people to socialize and play games together, much like a sports bar brings sports fans together.
However, as computing technology became smaller, cheaper and more powerful, the arcades lost their technological advantage to home consoles and PCs. Meanwhile, online multiplayer gaming represented a new frontier of massive virtual worlds with which a few friends crammed on a couch or huddled around a machine in a bowling alley could not compete. Online gaming was—and still is—not necessarily better than local multiplayer, but it was different and new. Thus, arcades largely disappeared while local multiplayer was relegated to second-tier status behind consoles and computers.
However, games have an inherently social aspect to them. In-person interaction offers a unique experience to that of communicating via a keyboard or headset. Simply put, there was a void in the gaming world and this void went unfilled long enough that developers and players reacted to fill it. Independent developers began creating the experiences that arcades once offered and that larger companies were no longer providing.
Proof is in the sales of this unmet demand for multiplayer games that get people playing together in the same room: the latest entry in the Smash Brothers series on the 3DS has already sold 2.8 million copies worldwide, and TowerFall has grossed $500,000 in sales so far. This is an extremely impressive number for a small indie game.
In understanding how we got to where we are now, it’s important to note that Nintendo has arguably done more than any other company over the last decade or so in keeping the local multiplayer game from completely vanishing from the mainstream consciousness, as their Wii Sports, Smash Brothers and Mario Party series have all been consistent commercial and critical hits.
Takeaways for developers
Developers interested in local multiplayer can look toward new technological applications for opportunities to create novel experiences. Successful examples of such a strategy include Wii Sports (motion control), Spaceteam (Bluetooth) and Johann Sebastian Joust (using PlayStation Move controllers hacked by enthusiasts).
This resurgence also points toward an interesting strategy for all media creators (not just games). Look at genres, styles and sub-cultures that are currently being neglected and could be primed for a comeback. After all, pop culture is cyclical.
However, developing local multiplayer games is not without its challenges. Because of the inherent nature of such games, it can be difficult to scale the user experience and create organic user base growth. If a player wants to play TowerFall but all of his or her friends are busy, the player is out of luck. But if the same player wants to play Hearthstone, he or she can go online and find thousands of opponents to play against at any time of day.
Local multiplayer games can offer unique dynamics outside of the game itself, dynamics that enrich the overall experience, help maintain a human element in something that is a very part of what makes us human to begin with: the desire and need to engage in play.
There isn’t any reason local multiplayer can’t exist alongside its online sibling. So let’s welcome it back and ensure we don’t abandon it again.