Local multiplayer games are incontrovertibly “in”, at least in the indie gaming world. The past few years, games like Nidhogg have been getting major play in the indie festival scene. Sony is prominently sponsoring and promoting games like Sportsfriends and Towerfall: Ascension. Smartphones and tablets have so many local multiplayer games for them that there are sites dedicated solely to keeping tabs on them.
The king of these local multiplayer games is indisputably Spaceteam.
For the uninitiated: you’re collectively trying to fly a spaceship by pressing whatever buttons and switches the game tells you to (they all have suitably technobabble-y names). The catch is that the instructions you get usually don’t correspond to the controls that are on your phone’s control panel. Instead, you must get your teammates to follow the instructions on their screens. In short, it’s a collaborative game about yelling at your friends.
Why has Spaceteam taken off so much? A large part of it is certainly the gameplay and theming — who doesn’t love shouting “REVERT THE HYPERCUBE!”? — but I think there are other interesting factors that lower the barrier to entry in a meaningful way.
Hardware costs are nonexistent. Playing a board game on your iPad requires someone to own an iPad. Playing Sportsfriends requires one person to own a console (or a PC) and four controllers. On the other hand, almost everyone who plays indie games has a smartphone. The model of “each person brings their own device” isn’t new (hell, it worked for Pokemon almost 20 years ago), but the equation is changed when everyone already has the hardware in their pocket instead of having to spend a couple hundred dollars on a dedicated device.
Downloading apps is a trained habit. Even if each of your friends owns a 3DS, playing a round of Mario Kart requires everyone to shell out $40 for a copy of the game. Newer handhelds usually have a “download play” option, but gameplay is crippled by download limitations, and it doesn’t encourage virality. On the other hand, telling your friends “go download Spaceteam for free!” is a no-brainer. Once your friends have it on their phones, there’s a good chance they’ll in turn convince their friends to download it.
Decentralization enables new experiences. Not requiring a single computer to act as the “game machine” frees you from the hardware limitations of your console/PC/tablet. This lets you do cool things that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. Without that, it would have been much harder for the creator of Spaceteam to introduce features like the experimental 8-player game mode or encourage fans to host tournaments for its Kickstarter campaign.
What I wonder is why more games aren’t copying this model. Apple makes implementing local Bluetooth multiplayer easy; this is largely a design problem rather than a technical one. But other than a few board games that all require the use of a central iPad, I can’t think of any games that use this sort of “bring your own device” approach.
Thinking more broadly, tools like tilt.js can make it possible to support massive games meant for large groups of people. Historically, these sort of games have only been shown at large indie game events. While there are many reasons for this, prohibitively expensive hardware costs are certainly one factor.
I’m not saying I want to see “Spaceteam-likes” emerge as a genre, but I’m disappointed we haven’t seen any games that appear to have learned from Spaceteam’s popularity and critical success.