A deleted scene from my interview with Doug Wilson:
At the time, I remember feeling a little facepalm. As I don't have a console, no co-located multiplayer experiences exist, QED. It was a ridiculous assertion which Doug countered with “millions of people are still playing FIFA”.
What we were actually discussing was Hokra, Ramiro Corbetta's 2v2 sports game, and the difficulty involved turning it into a commercial product which needs four controllers and a PC. My blind spot in the interview tells us something important about this problem.
From many to one
My childhood memories are composed of many different strands, none of which seem to join up properly, but these parallel narratives are all important. One of them is growing up on the Atari VCS.
Arcade machines were already being labelled a force for ill, with teenagers suspected of spending too much time pumping coins into videogames to the detriment of their social skills. But on the VCS, single player games were rare in the beginning as each one had to squeeze into a tight 4K. With little room for complicated AI code, it was easier to let another player fill the role of opponent.
We had a period in which the Atari VCS was perceived as a very social thing, something for the family. Even ostensibly single-player games, such as Space Invaders (1980), were more fun to play in co-op mode. And also being a spectator was just as exciting as being a player; the VCS was a stage for improv.
With the advent of home computer systems, single-player took off in a big way, although there was still a lot of social play. I spent many hours playing co-operative Joust with my father on the Atari 8-bit and I even wrote a few multiplayer games myself.
DOOM (1993) is responsible for the most important shift in PC multiplayer. DOOM could be played with other players over a network; as play over modem was relatively niche and expensive initially, participating in a LAN party was the best way to get involved. This meant different players were still co-located. But as the internet matured, the need for LAN evaporated. Playing multiplayer over the internet became the norm and co-located play was left behind... if you were on the PC.
My last console was the Sega Megadrive and although I often lost to my girlfriend when playing Columns (1990), that was pretty much the only two-player experience I had with the console. I had no friends who liked to game and thus only bought single-player titles. In 1998, I bought a PC to complete my PhD thesis and discovered the joy of PC gaming. At that particular moment, I felt liked I'd upgraded from cartoony, childish console games to something more adult. (This was my reaction at the time, I'm not making a grand point about console gaming.)
My gaming was devoid of multiplayer experiences aside from Half-Life Deathmatch and Team Fortress Classic. The idea of playing a game with someone else at home seemed remote, anachronistic even. And that's why I slipped up in the interview. I was really talking about gaming with the family, that's what I'd lost.
Right now, there are plenty of great co-located multiplayer games on the PC.
- Hokra (four controllers needed)
- B.U.T.T.O.N. (one controller for 2-4 players, two for 5-8 players)
- Shoot First
- At A Distance (requires two PCs)
- BaraBariBall (two controllers needed)
- Jesus Vs Dinosaurs
- A Bastard
I have two children and so family gaming will soon be back in style. But there's another problem here, other than just having bums on seats. Context.
The context of the personal computer
I want to state the obvious, because it's crucial. A PC is not a games console, it's a personal computer. It's a device without a dedicated purpose, which is why Microsoft associates itself with empty, non-specific slogans like “Where do you want to go today?” and “Your potential. Our passion.”
What do you use your PC for? A spot of word processing, perhaps. Managing bank accounts. Organising photos and home videos. Online shopping. Reading news. And yes, maybe also playing games. The point is a PC is a blank slate until a user gives it meaning.
A PC is about function. A PC is a big noisy box with a fuckton of wires stretching out like an electrified Portuguese Man O' War. Know that Electron Dance HQ is not a social place to be.
Compare it to a console which wants access to your TV, automatically placing it in the heart of the household, the living room. The PC is businesslike, wearing a tie; the console prefers to hang out with you on the couch. AJ wrote about this very issue on Arcadian Rhythms a year ago:
Most people that know me might be surprised that I get a lot of enjoyment out of the company of others in close proximity to myself, but it is true: I am a sucker for couch co-op. Any opportunity to sit down and share an experience is certainly something I treasure, be it blitzing through a splitscreen campaign or hotseating a single player game.
Of course, it's possible to locate the PC in the living room but it doesn't seem a natural place for it. The PC is not traditionally viewed as a device that people congregate around. Most PC users aren't even going to consider buying an Xbox controller. It was only when I started playing a few 2D shooters that the need became apparent... and I am a fully fledged gamer.
Normally, a PC is sent to solitary confinement and kept on a strict diet of mouse and keyboard. This is the point I made in the comments on Doug Wilson's Waking the Crowd article last year. In the battle for the hearts and minds of the living room, the PC isn't even in the running.
The Big Picture
This is all a bit depressing, so let's end on a few upbeat notes.
Valve might be coming up with their own answer to the Hokra problem. Steam's Big Picture is being trialled right now, which is Steam... on your TV. And it also encourages the use of a controller. This might not quite be the open platform of the PC in the living room, and it does worry me how big Steam is becoming, but it is obviously another route to get these co-located multiplayer PC games into a social space where they can do some good.
I also have this plan to get a "family PC" because, well, our two children need to learn how to use the technology at some point. For the early years, we want to supervise usage and manage the amount of time spent online. The need for supervision suggests to me a family PC should be in the living room.
I'm thinking this might be the way to displace the need for a console (hah, wishful thinking!) but it also strikes me as something that families might already be doing. I'd be interested to hear from anyone whose family has a PC set up this way and whether it has lead to any rounds of family gaming.
Where does your PC live?
UPDATE 08 Nov 2012: Sportfriends Kickstarter goes live. JS Joust, Barabariball, Pole Riders and Hokra.