So the final Special Guest Star, while I complete my mental detox in a Tibetan monastery, is Douglas Wilson of the Copenhagen Game Collective. We've been in intermittent contact ever since I wrote a short bit about B.U.T.T.O.N., a game Doug co-designed, during my Eurogamer Expo 2010 write-up.
Although I cited him during the conclusion to The Aspiration, I find it difficult to write anything useful about Doug's projects as his work explores a specific social/multiplayer gaming space that I have little experience with. So, just for today, I turn Electron Dance over to Doug & friends to talk about a certain class of indie multiplayer games.
Over the last few years, I've become increasingly interested in multi-player videogames. And not just any multi-player videogames, but the raucous party variety. The kind of videogame that shows well in public exhibitions, in front of a crowd. The kind that compels you to yell at your friends, to play the fool, to perform.
From dorm room favorites like Mario Party and Super Smash Brothers to physical games like Wii Sports and Dance Dance Revolution, silly party games and multi-player games have long been a staple of the mainstream game industry. Indies, too, seem to be embracing multi-player game design with a newfound enthusiasm. Earlier this year, the Independent Game Festival's prestigious Nuovo Award was awarded to Mark Essen's addictive two-player fencing game, Nidhogg. TIGSource, inspired by the popularity of games like Nidhogg, hosted its own "Versus" compo this year, soliciting a slew of new multi-player games from the indie community. And thanks to the growing popularity of game parties like Kokoromi's GAMMA exhibitions, as well as emerging "indie arcades" like New York City's Babycastles, there are now more opportunities than ever to show multi-player indie games in public, and to run quirky installation games designed for a specific setting.
But alongside these opportunities, indie multi-player game designers also face a number of challenges - creative, commercial, and otherwise. In the hopes of addressing some of these opportunities and challenges, I've pulled aside three of my favorite indie game designers (and friends) - Martin "grapefrukt" Jonasson (Sweden), Petri Purho (Finland), and Ramiro Corbetta (New York City) - for a public conversation.
In particular, I'd like to dwell on two projects: Martin and Petri's Jesus vs. Dinosaurs, and Ramiro's Hokra. I've had the pleasure of personally curating Jesus vs Dinosaurs at two different game exhibitions this year - at the Killscreen vs Scandinavia party at GDC 2011, and at Nordic Game Indie Night 2011. Hokra, too, was publicly exhibited this year, at NYU Game Center's annual No Quarter Exhibition. Both games, if I can editorialize here, are a total blast! In the following conversation, I try to learn a little more about Martin's, Petri's, and Ramiro's experiences designing the games, and also about their future plans.
Doug: Petri and Martin, I seem to recall that you two started on Jesus vs Dinosaurs specifically with the TIGSource Versus compo in mind. Is multi-player something that you guys have been itching to do for a while, or was the Versus compo the primary motivation? If I think about some of your most well-known games (i.e. Petri's Crayon Physics and Martin's glorg), I can't help but note that they're single-player. Does Jesus vs Dinosaurs represent some kind of newfound interest in multi-player games specifically? Or did it just kind of "happen"?
Martin: We started Jesus vs Dinosaurs at the Nordic Game Jam early this year. Originally our original plan was to make a co-op versus game in the style of Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator but that quickly got very big and complicated. So we moved on to consider other ideas. Around that time a "car evolver" thing was doing the rounds on the internet and that sparked our interest. The concept of having two players somehow grow their own cars and have them do battle seemed like both a fun thing to play and amusing to program. So, the multi-player component was there all along, but the versus part came out of necessity really. It both saved us the work of doing AI and adds that social magic that only having an actual human opponent next to you can. The fact that TIGSource did have that compo also helped us decide, but it wasn't the original inspiration.
Petri: If I remember correctly the whole theme of the game got started from a joke at Nordic Game Jam. The joke was that God would travel back in time to kill all the Dinosaurs because they're not in the Bible. And we considered making a SHMUP game based on that, but then we decided to do car game and we didn't really have a theme at that point, but then we decided to go with just mashing the joke and the mechanic together. Which worked way better than we expected.
I've actually been doing multi-player games every once in a while, so it's not a completely new area for me. The first multi-player game I released was Druid Soccer, which is still a pretty fun game to play.
Doug: Ramiro, I know you've mentioned in an earlier interview that you're increasingly interested in multi-player games these days, particularly in how they can bring people together in public spaces. But like Petri and Martin, you've also worked on a well-known single-player game, Glow Artisan. Do you see this shift from single-player to multi-player as just a personal preference, or do you think it also speaks to broader trends in the indie community? Like, do you think it's true that multi-player party games had been a little "overlooked," or is that a myth?
Ramiro: I don't know if I'm ready to make claims about a broad trend toward multi-player games, but I do think that there is more and more variety in the indie community, and multi-player games are part of this diversification. On a personal level, I've been extremely influenced by the indie community here in New York. Institutions like the indie arcade Babycastles, as well as No Quarter, the NYU Game Center's yearly exhibition of games that commissioned my game Hokra, have shaped how I think about games. It's not so much that I was only interested in single-player games before, but Babycastles and No Quarter give games a public venue that makes local multi-player games feel truly meaningful again.
Maybe multi-player and party games were overlooked by the indie community before, but I think that people mostly stayed away from them because it seemed hard to make a culturally relevant (let alone financially successful) multi-player indie game. Hopefully Babycastles, No Quarter, and the many others venues/events displaying games in public spaces (Kokoromi/Gamma, Hand Eye Society, Fantastic Arcade, etc.) will lead developers to explore the multi-player space on a more regular basis.
Doug: Petri and Martin, how about you? Do you two feel like indies have been giving short shrift to co-located multi-player games like Dinosaurs vs Jesus and Hokra? Do indie arcades like Babycastles and gaming exhibitions like GAMMA and No Quarter speak to some shift in indie taste? Or, as Ramiro suggests, maybe those public venues are the very forces catalyzing such a change? Or is such a narrative just plain inaccurate? Has the hunger for multi-player been there all along?
Petri: I think the public venues are part of the reason why multi-player games are rearing their ugly head. Every time I've had to design a game to be played in a public venue I almost always go the multi-player route. It's because I feel that that works best for the venues like that. The games have to be short and quick and you want them to "be social", to engage people who are at the venue, instead of isolating the player from the environment.
I don't think that's the sole reason, but I think it has opened up a place to exhibit these games. Multi-player games have the problem that they don't seem to get as much attention online as single-player games...
Doug: I'd like to dwell on that last point, Petri. You mention that multi-player games don't seem to get as much attention (at least online) as single-player games. I have to admit, I feel the same way. Martin and Ramiro, do you guys concur? If so, why do you think multi-player games struggle to get equal attention? Is it because games are still largely seen as a way to "pass the time" in those quiet in-between moments? Or is it simply harder to gather multiple players who are all in the right mood?
Ramiro: I don't think there is a general anti-multi-player feeling in the game community. I really believe that people love multi-player games, but that unless you're a college student it's quite hard to get friends together to play them.
It doesn't help that we all tend to have short attention spans. Sometimes I'll read about a game that's free and sounds interesting, but I won't check it out if it requires an install. It's surely much easier to grab someone's attention with a browser-based single-player game than with a game that requires 4 controllers and 3 friends. Especially when indiegames.com is pointing us to 5 good games a day.
Petri: And on the PC, you might need special controllers (usually Xbox 360 controllers) hooked up. Not everyone has those. Keyboard controls might work, but with the modern keyboard you can only press 2 or 3 buttons at the same time. So that's no good. Also a lot of players now have laptops and the laptop keyboard is even worse for playing multi-player games.
Ramiro: One multiplayer game that I was able to play by just quickly gathering random friends around my laptop is Martin's No More Sweden game ¡Muchacho! When you (and Jonas and Per) were making the game, did you plan on having a super simple, one-button multi-player game, or did that just come along while you were making the game? When I was working on Hokra I was trying very hard to keep it as straight-forward as possible. I did that partially because of my belief in minimalist design, but also because I knew I would be showing it at a public space (the No Quarter exhibition) where people who don't normally play games would be trying it out. Was your process for ¡Muchacho! at all similar to that, or was the "approachability" of the game something that just happened naturally?
Martin: One of our first ideas was the tap-to-run concept, we wanted something that would mimic the way you mess up when trying to do something too fast. Making the game relatively easy to control when things are going smoothly and then collapse in a big mess when things get stressful. We also knew that with that many players we couldn't very well have a full set of directional keys for each player. As luck would have it, it turned out that turning with the same button worked great. I'm not sure if this makes the controls more or less approachable, many new players have a hard time discovering the tap-to-run without some help. So in that sense it might even be a harder control scheme to grasp than a regular Directions+Action setup.
I certainly agree that the two major obstacles for local multi-player games are controls and the need for people to play them with. And even though PC-gaming is so popular, I'd say that very few people have a proper controller hooked up to their computer, let alone multiple ones. So, if your game doesn't work well with keyboard input (or possibly mouse) you're drastically cutting down your potential audience.
There isn't much you can do about the need for a friend (or friends) to play with other than to keep making games like these. I feel that as more quick-and-dirty versus games are made, the more accepted they can become in a party setting. Ever since Guitar Hero came out I've been a bit down on games in a party setting. There's something about those games that turn the audience into a gaping staring crowd of zombies instead of making them actively participate in what's happening. I hope that games that are quicker to play and easier to pick up can make everyone a part of the fun, while not completely taking over things.
Doug: Yeah, I sometimes feel that same way about Guitar Hero. However, thinking about your own Jesus vs Dinosaurs, I do feel like that game worked tremendously well at the Killscreen vs Scandinavia party I curated this past March. Does that suggest a different between public "exhibition" settings and more private "party" settings? Also, Martin, I'm not convinced that "being quicker to play" is a sufficient fix. Petri and Ramiro, what do you think? What other factors might we designers need to consider when designing games for those more private party contexts?
Martin: I'll stand by the game duration thing, but the more I think about it the more I'm becoming convinced that it's about encouraging an "I could do that" feeling in the audience. Making the game so that you can get a grasp of how to control it and even form some kind of strategy without ever touching the controls. Both Hokra and also Nidhogg have this very quality.
Another thing to consider is that during a game session there will very likely be more time spent watching the game than playing. Say you have a game of Nidhogg with two players and an audience of four. For every minute that passes the game is "played" for two man-minutes and watched four. So, I think getting the viewers in on the excitement is critical.
Ramiro: I definitely designed for the audience when I was making Hokra. While playtesting the game at the NYU Game Center, many of the people there, especially Charles Pratt, encouraged me to pay attention to the experience of the spectators. There were lots of small additions, many of them visual, such as the player/ball trails and the screen shake when a player gets hit, that I made so that an onlooker could better understand the game. I think that while making Hokra I came to understand how incredibly important it is to design for the audience when you're making a game for the public space, where, even more than at home, there can be lots of onlookers. At No Quarter there were sometimes 15 or 20 people watching a game that was being played by 4 people.
About Guitar Hero/Rock Band - I actually have some great memories of playing those games with friends, but the more I think about what Martin said, the more I realize how true it is. The level of true cooperation/competition in those games is just not very high - there are a few interesting aspects, like the coordination of Star Power (making sure everyone uses them at the same time), which really requires some serious multitasking from one person on the team, but overall it's just too distant. I actually quite like cooperative sports game, such as FIFA (which I play a lot these days, and which was the reason why I started making Hokra - I wanted to prototype a simple passing mechanic), because they are based on activities that are very cooperative in real life. In FIFA you play much, much better if you communicate with your teammates. As cooperative as playing real music can be, Guitar Hero/Rock Band tend to lose that social aspect because of the rigidity of the music in the games. By the way, despite all my criticism, I still think that Harmonix did a very good job with those games.
Maybe the direction in which Doug has been going with his games lately is where we will all end up going. He has been weakening the role of the machine, sometimes removing the screen and forcing player to look at each other and interact with each other more than with the game. That's an interesting direction to take multi-player digital games. Erik Svedäng also does a good job with that in his awesome iPad game Shot Shot Shoot - he makes players face each other while they play, which makes the experience much more interesting. He's not the only developer doing that with multi-player iPad games, but Shot Shot Shoot also happens to be an amazing game. And obviously it's important to note that non-digital games have been asking people to sit around a table and look each other for centuries.
Petri: I have to add that the taking spectators into account is important in party games (to a degree). But if you're designing a multi-player game, that's not a party game (there are those as well) I'm not so sure that taking spectators into account is that important. I think it's important to do the best game you can. And if it's a good enough game spectators will emerge. Like think of StarCraft. Blizzard wasn't designing a multi-player game with spectators in mind, but the they were trying to do the best game they could. The game turned out to be so good that people would be interested in seeing it as a spectator sport. Which is a pretty impressive achievement. Same I think is true of chess. So if you just end up making a really good game, the spectators will come to see it because it's interesting to them.
Doug: I definitely agree with you guys about designing for spectators. On that issue, I've increasingly been wondering how we, as game developers, can also influence the contexts that surround the games themselves. Petri and Martin, I can't help but think back to to that Killscreen vs Scandinavia party earlier this year. You two graciously agreed to dress up like Jesus and a dinosaur. Man, those costumes were great! I felt like they took Jesus vs Dinosaurs to a whole new level. Or at least, those costumes helped set a playful mood and entertain the audience. Do you two agree? Are those elements of theatricality and "live" performance something that any of you are interested in pursuing? Or do you guys see it as too gimmicky or limited? Obviously, those types of performances make the most sense in public settings, but I personally feel that there's a lot of space to explore in that strange territory between theater and traditional multi-player computer gameplay.
Petri: Jesus vs. Dinosaurs was a bit of silly game to start with. So I think dressing up for it was very much in the mood of the game.
I have considered the link between games and performing arts before. It's an interesting and difficult field to deal with, but it's not as new as we might easily think. There have been a lot of "small games" that have been performed in front of an audience. Lot of the improvisational theatre exercises are basically games. Like Word At A Time.
Also a show like Whose Line Is It Anyway? is basically a game. Those are just games without the digital media. Also you could say that roleplaying games are a form of performance art. Live action roleplaying games definitely fit the category of performance art. So I don't think it's too gimmicky or limited. It's just that we don't really see games outside the computer as games. And if you're doing a game for a computer it's easily played on the computer, instead of being played outside the computer.
Doug: Final question! So, we've talked a little bit about why it can be difficult to sell and distribute multi-player games, especially those games that work best when played together in person. Is there anything we indies can do to change that reality? Are there any clever ways we can make those games more commercially viable? What are you guys planning to do with Jesus vs Dinosaurs and Hokra? Is there any future for those games, or have you guys already moved on?
Petri: We have no real plans for Jesus vs. Dinosaurs. I think the best thing we can do for multi-player games is to release a lot of them. That way people might find out that you can play party games on the PC.
Ramiro: I wish I knew exactly what to do with Hokra. As you said, this goes back to the beginning of our discussion - is there much demand for small local multi-player games? How many people have four controllers and three friends at their place? I'm in a tough position because I've made a game that I think is good, but it's a game for a fairly small audience. At least I think so.
I will release it in some form sooner or later, but I'm still unsure how. I like the idea you once had of selling a few indie local multi-player games for the PC as a set. Maybe with 3 or 4 games we can reach more people in the small set of local multi-player PC gamers.
I don't know... it would be great if I knew what to do. For now, all I can say is that I'm undecided.