Online play has consumed multiplayer gaming so completely that it has changed the videogame lexicon. We must now describe playing videogames together in the same room as ‘local’ multiplayer; that qualifier implies that traditional social play has become secondary, somehow, and yet it has been fundamental to the medium’s birth and popularisation. It’s a vital part of videogame history which feels a little neglected today.
It’s an afterthought for most big studios and apparently a niche prospect for serious players, too. It doesn’t help, either, that Nintendo, once the master of fun, accessible, social games, has been in such sharp decline. Wii’s inclusive, mainstream-infiltrating success seems so long ago now – a temporary spike rather than an permanent evolution of how people play games together.
So it’s down to indies to keep local multiplayer alive, and it’s no surprise to discover a greater appetite for local multiplayer among smaller studios; this is a generation raised on Mario Kart, GoldenEye and Smash Bros, and the current crop of multiplayer indie games is recapturing the spirit of those games through the lens of the scene’s DIY aesthetic. Sportsfriends is the latest example, a compilation of multiplayer games which follows the long-awaited release of Nidhogg, a masterful, chaotic game of one-on-one combat. Towerfall, the single-screen romp that started out on Ouya but found wider recognition once it landed on PlayStation 4, continues to gain momentum; there’s also Gang Beasts, a game emerging from another flourishing scene, that of the gaming expo.
Is this new wave of games a response to the rather more hostile world of modern online play – of being repeatedly shot and screamed at in Call Of Duty? “It is for me,” Towerfall creator Matt Thorson tells us. “Which isn’t to say that all my online multiplayer experiences have been negative. I love TF2, and Dark Souls does really cool things with online interaction, but I know local multiplayer does things that online just can’t do. If we lose local play, we’re losing a whole wonderful range of game design possibilities.”
Nidhogg creator Mark Essen agrees. Though he also plays plenty of competitive online games, he prefers the immediacy and spontaneity of local play. “Playing online can feel too much like organized sports, where you wait in a queue to be matched up with another player that someone has determined is a good match for you,” he tells us. “But multiplayer games are exciting because they are such a social experience and matchmaking algorithms only match you based on your skill. There’s no opportunity for hustling. How is Billy Hoyle going to make it on Battle Net? They don’t account for your personality, past experiences with other players or willingness to lead or be led. You miss out on a lot of the power of games that way.”
There’s another force at play here, too. The communities gathering together on social networks and forums are increasingly getting together at expos and events; Gang Beasts’ reputation has snowballed since its riotous showings at EGX, Rezzed, Insomnia, Game Bridge, Play and Multiclash. ”It is the inclusiveness and friendliness of independent developer communities and gamers – and the level of access to unfinished and custom game builds – that makes attending these events so engaging and compelling for us,” says James Brown, co-founder of Gang Beasts developer Boneloaf.
Indeed, we met Sportsfriends programmer Jonathan Whiting at one such event last week, as developers and players alike descended upon east London’s Loading Bar for an informal celebration of the game’s release. It’s the kind of gathering that’s becoming increasingly popular, says Whiting. “There was a time when having an arcade in a bar wasn’t a weird thing,” he tells us. “It was a bit before my time but it definitely was something that existed, and that’s coming back in lots of ways. Local multiplayer as a ‘lounge’ sort of thing – a bunch of kids sitting around beating each other at Smash Bros – is a pretty traditional gaming experience. We’ve drifted away from that a bit with all these online consoles. Multiplayer has become a quite remote thing.”
There’s an essential streak of nostalgia behind this revival, too. Three of the four developers that make up Gang Beasts developer Boneloaf are brothers raised on multiplayer games, and it’s the same for Nidhogg creator Mark Essen, who says that he and his friends’ first experiences with videogames were social – they would play “crowded around one computer or TV, playing competitively, cooperatively or by passing the controller around.” Matt Thorson tells us that he designed Towerfall for his 12 year-old self, one raised on Smash Bros, GoldenEye and Bomberman. “I have a lot of incredible memories of that time,” he says. “But going back even further, local multiplayer has a tribal element to it that feels very basic. When you have a room full of people cheering and screaming at the TV it seems to tap into something very primitive about how humans interact socially.”
There are rather more pragmatic reasons for the revival of local play, too. Most smaller studios simply don’t have resources or skills to enable and maintain online play. Local multiplayer games are “easier to make and test since networking is a huge pain,” says Nidhogg creator Mark Essen. “[Online play is] also something that digs pretty deep into your code which makes it hard to iterate on a design quickly. Networking is its own discipline and there are relatively few people that are excited enough about it to take it on. Bigger studios have found these people and hung onto them.”
Gang Beasts studio Boneloaf says omitting online was a practical necessity. “We are frequently asked to support online multiplayer and want to support online play modes but can’t commit until the company demonstrates an income,” says co-founder James Brown, who plans to sell the game on Steam Early Access to get that funding. If it makes enough money back, the studio will work out a way of implementing online play. That’s not the case with Towerfall, however – Matt Thorson has no plans to bolt on extra online modes. “Towerfall was designed from the ground up as a local multiplayer game, so online play would require revisiting a lot of the design decisions that are fundamental to how it plays,” he tells us. “I personally have little interest in learning how to do netcode, and that naturally affects the kinds of multiplayer experiences I set out to design.”
It’s also true that bigger studios find it difficult to invest in what might be considered more niche projects, says Sportsfriends programmer Jonathan Whiting. “Indies are the people doing lots of things in spaces that aren’t otherwise provided for,” he says. “Big publishers and small publishers – maybe even moreso small publishers – just can’t take the risks that indies can. They’re so squeezed to make a huge profit on each game that they just can’t take the plunge into something they haven’t already got proven sales of.”
Be it through nostalgia, by design or through sheer pragmatism, the indies embracing local multiplayer have recaptured something vital about playing videogames. Nidhogg, Towerfall, Sportsfriends and Gang Beasts are early examples of a trend that’ll continue to gather pace, and one that’s inherently independent. The collaboration between four different game creators that led to Sportsfriends signals one possible future for these games, and Sony’s financial backing of the project suggests that bigger players are starting to not just take notice, but can actively invest in bringing them to a wider audience.
“Sony have essentially provided some financial muscle to make Sportsfriends possible,” says Whiting. “They basically paid my wage for the last year so that me and the other programmer Ed could work on it.”
So does Sportsfriends’ compilation of different multiplayer styles mark out a possible future for these smaller projects? Could more smaller studios bundle their work together into one more consumer-friendly package? “I certainly hope so,” says Whiting. “I think it’d be a really good thing and a healthy way of making and releasing things, especially if there’s a unifying theme between the games.”
The rise of self-publishing on consoles will help, too. The internet has removed some of the need for local multiplayer, yes, but it has also brought the game-playing community together like never before, inspiring an unprecedented number of real-life meet-ups and events. “Seeing this trend gives me hope that more and more people will be receptive to this kind of thing over time,” adds Towerfall creator Matt Thorson. “I think players are starting to see how much value true social gaming can add to their lives.”