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.

The Invasion of the Arcadians story from Load Runner issue #3 (1983; source)

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.

Duel (1995, published New Atari User #78)

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)
  • Nidhogg
  • Jesus Vs Dinosaurs
  • Kompendium
  • 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.

Cramped corner of room with seat, monitor and keyboard
Electron Dance HQ

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.

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31 thoughts on “The Hokra Problem

  1. I think for me, part of the reason I find it totally reasonable to play (and make) local multiplayer PC games is that my nomadic lifestyle has left the desktop far behind. I *only* use a laptop, and I’ll take it everywhere; it’s totally reasonable to be using it on the couch, in bed, or out in a train/bus/pub/university/wherever. From that position it’s no trouble whatsoever to start up a game with the person sitting next to you, whereas if you’re doing the whole classical desktop thing it’s much less convenient. Your office chair only comfortably takes one person; maybe some people you’re happy to have sit on your lap but that’s not a general solution.

    Who’s still using a desktop in 2012, seriously?

    Tablets are a step further in this direction. I have had no regrets about buying an ipad, and I love being able to instantly start a game with anyone, anywhere. Ubiquitous play. And it’s pretty clear that PCs and tablets are merging smoothly into each other.

  2. Hi Michael. But as I think we’ve commented before, an iPad is not a PC, it doesn’t offer the same open architecture (although, HELLO WINDOWS 8) so it’s not equivalent. That’s why Steam is not the perfect solution either, because it’s another authoritarian garden. Good luck getting a two-player sex game on iOS or Steam.

    I admit that the need for fully-fledged desktops are dying particularly as people are getting their internet usage out of a tablets and mobiles. But who is still using a desktop?

    *Hand up*

    Am I alone? I know BeamSplashX said in a comment on last week’s article he just got a new laptop.

  3. Yeah, ipads are a bit silly – but we have open alternatives with the so-called androids, and tablet PCs until windows closes up completely (hopefully forcing me to finally get over my linux aversion).

    Two-player sex game on ios? Fingle, almost.

  4. Adamant desktop user here. *raises hand*

    You can’t really pack monster functionality into a laptop, no matter what the adverts say. Aside from that, they are far too pricey compared to their more sturdy brethren. Fuck mobility, I say. Then again, I don’t live a nomadic existence, so I can allow myself to fuck mobility.

    I do love having a laptop for work. I would also love having a tablet purely for reading/browsing (can’t really take the laptop to the loo). So them small uns do have their perks.

  5. Off the main topic here, but – were you a Load Runner fan?
    Back on topic: Text adventures are the best colocated multiplayer I’ve experienced. The thinking is the important bit of playing, so it doesn’t matter much which of you does the actual typing, and lateral thinking puzzles work best collectively.

  6. @Michael: I hear Androids have their own problems regarding standardization… but sounds like you’re sure the monolithic desktop of the home is going to be a thing of the past and that mobile varieties will take over. I should get with the times. Wait – are you calling me an old man?!?

    @Ketchua: I… hope you wash your tablet. Hmm, maybe tablet multiplayer is responsible for spreading viruses and bacteria? GLITCH TANK: THE HIDDEN MENACE. I knew I could blame Michael for something.

    I’m a desktop freak because I simply don’t like taking lots of “personal data” around with me, plus I like my laptop light; not so much of a gamer on the move. My laptop (when I rarely use it) is for “work” and I find games a distraction.

    If you follow this argument, you’ll wonder whether my desktop is full of distractions and you’d be right! I used to have separate game/work partitions so I could switch my head between modes, and prevent all the cruft from game installs (Starforce anyone?) infecting my work partition. It turned out that games were usually cleaner installs than major apps. It was so hard convincing Windows that I wanted separate partitions (with separate activations) that in the end I gave up, plus I found myself needing Steam chat on my work partition occasionally.

    And now I live a life of desktop distractions. I have something like 2TB storage total inside my desktop, mostly dedicated to video storage.

    @Phlebas: I did read Load Runner. I have all the issues buried somewhere in my parents’ house. It didn’t go the distance, of course, died fairly quick. It was a weird concoction (stories all based around video games?) but it appealed to me.

    We also did text adventures as a family, several Scott Adams adventures and also the original Adventure (never finished). I think that was stressful in some ways, because the lack of progress at times was a bit tough on my young brain. But maybe it was character forming? Who knows?

  7. I got all the issues of Load Runner too! Though I assumed for years that I hadn’t, since it was cancelled without saying so and most of the stories didn’t end in the final issue. They ended up somewhat mutilated as I used to clip out the program listings for the BBC Micro to give to a friend who had one. I don’t know that I still have any of them – they probably went out with the various Spectrum magazines – but I did love the comic. Trumbull’s World was my favourite – adventure-game themed and a bit scary. Maybe my tastes haven’t changed so much over the years.

  8. I’m another desktop user. For me as with others who’ve already commented it’s a question of raw power versus cost at heart. But also storage – I think I’ve got about 3.75TB inside my desktop – and upgradeability. I also prefer full-sized keyboards and screens that are detached from the computer itself. Sure, you can plug peripherals into modern laptops, but then why not just buy a more powerful desktop for the same amount of cash?

    The advantages of laptops are portability and, I imagine, they’re perceived as a simpler, unified consumer product by those not accustomed to building their own PCs (no slight on those that prefer laptops intended – I am thinking here of people like my gf who are competent PC users but would be lost at sea when it came to buying and swapping out a RAM module).

    I have a Windows netbook which I use for gaming and writing on the move – it’s lightweight and powerful enough to run a good selection of games. I also have an Android tablet with USB keyboard, which is a fun alternative but it’s not as easy to use as the netbook (it did cost under a third the price, however). Unfortunately a lot of Android apps aren’t compatible with it, in contrast to my phone. Caveat emptor – the tablet is a Chinese Ainol product. I’m happy with it on the whole, though, no pun intended.

    As for controllers… well, I only started using one with my PC recently. I’ve owned consoles for many years now but in my adult life they’ve mostly been located in the bedroom – a habit formed of cheap shared housing with no living room to speak of. In my current flat, however, the consoles have migrated to a common area. 🙂

  9. Oh yeah, and I’m with HM on the data issue – I like it all to be at home, safe, on my “central” device. Though with cloud storage becoming more and more of a thing I suspect that’s an attitude that is going to slowly fade.

  10. @Shaun, there’s a good chance that a console will make enter my life again as the children get older. Whether than means I’ll post about the odd console experience I don’t know, assuming I’m still writing for Electron Dance at that time and haven’t sold the site for $$$$$. Perhaps I will play Shadow of the Colossus at last. Or Ico.

    I know what you mean about PCs vs laptops. Even if you are a savvy PC user it doesn’t mean you have any talent at the hardware side of things. It took me years and years before I felt comfortable with self-building. Even then I wasted so much time on weird glitches…

  11. @Phlebas, it’s possible all my issues are in terrible condition now. I haven’t seen them for such a long time. I have a lot of Eagle comics too from the relaunch in the 80s. I liked Trumbull’s World too which was extremely gamey, one of the few series which actually finished! Shame we never got the touted followup Simian’s World…

  12. One day I might have the strength of will to share the story of the faulty motherboard bundle I bought*, and the three months of running diagnostics and discussing the issue with Novatech’s support guy before his bosses finally accepted that there was an obscure fault that was leading to random bluescreens. I learned a lot over those three months.

    Novatech’s support guy, by the way, did not like Steam. I think he recommended, erm, GameTap and Gamer’s Gate as I recall. Heard it here first.

    * Actually thinking about it, I think I published the story in MicroMart and got paid fifty quid.

  13. With my household, video games are treated as, uh, not good. Or, rather, my nephew and I are the only ones who don’t find it an annoyance.

    A while ago, we tried putting the wii in the living room. But, t.v. is the only true form of entertainment, so whenever someone else walked into the room the screen switched to Nancy Grace or that Kardashian show.

    Barbarians, one and all.

    Of course, this also leads to a good division of gaming and not-gaming time. The nephew is allowed in my room once a week, twice if good, none if bad.

    The thing about laptops is that modern iGPU’s are enough for most ‘simple’ games. Minecraft, online games, Youtube, Defcon, World of Goo, my HD 4000 conquers them all, max frames-per-second and all. Good especially for a Linux, since you can’t count on any AAA shooters to run. So, you can easily make a ‘kinda-gaming’ laptop, and that at a non-extortionate price.

    Personally, I love the idea of a Raspbery pi (pizzabox) laptop. It can run word processors, simple games, and connnect to the internet (all I really want in a portable box, since, conversely, ‘serious’ gaming is meant, often enough, to be played alone, without distractions, with headphones, and with the light delicately adjusted for the perfect balance between picture quality and eye-survival).

  14. Err, let me retcon a bit here: I do not suggest ‘making’ a laptop, ever. Probably a contributing factor to the situation, laptops are always cheaper made by big brands, while home computers are often cheaper made by hand.

  15. Laptop only, here. I would *die* if I were dependent on a desktop — someone is napping or asleep often enough that I can’t listen to music on my stereo most of my time, so for something that lets me listen quietly enough to avoid waking everyone but that also follows me around I need the laptop, though it’s a shame I can’t play my vinyl more without headphones.

  16. @mwm, I’ve used Unix and Linux for nearly twenty years – from beavering away at water wave simulations for my PhD and to present day development in the financial field. None of that has proved particularly useful for getting the hang of a Linux desktop – I’ve tried a couple of times over the years, Ubuntu being the most successful but I was still plagued with sound card problems at that time, but I’ve always bounced back to Windows where all my applications are. (Saying that, I use Open Office at home.) I’ve never spent enough time understanding how Linux works because I don’t manage such systems at work. It’s a big black hole that still bugs me.

    I think this also allows to revisit the fear of being a non-technical PC user. I can remember getting my first PC and finding it totally overwhelming. Despite all the talk about “you can’t really break your computer”, I did manage to break Windows after a few months with my tampering.

    @matt, You obviously need to get a bigger place or move out. Your laptop is clearly a crutch for a defective lifestyle. =)

  17. @Michael Brough: Fingle! That was the game I was trying to remember while describing it to someone (much to their amusement).

    My girlfriend and I have a PC each (one in the ‘home theatre’ room ie. my ‘man cave’, and one in the living room which she uses) and a netbook we have in the kitchen for music, recipes, videos, web surfing etc. (better than a DABs radio! It’s also portable). As Joel knows, my setup upstairs isn’t a desktop setup. I have a TV stand with a HDTV, AV receiver and separate 5.1 surround system all hooked up to my PC, PS3, PS2 and until recently the Wii. I use the mouse and keyboard on a cheap shelf I got from IKEA across the chair I sit in. Before we got our actual living room sorted it was the living room for a year or so, we used to watch and play everything in there. In fact, I haven’t had a proper desktop PC setup in years and kind of miss that cock-pit feel of strapping myself in, up close to my screen with headphones on. The living room setup is similar although there’s no board/shelf to put the mouse or keyboard on and they’re wireless. My girlfriend likes it.

    Here’s a pic I dug out of my emails: http://i.imgur.com/LOEEw.jpg

    I personally wouldn’t say that desktop setups aren’t a natural fit for co-located gaming, after all, my brother and I grew up with Spectrums and Amigas on desks in our bedrooms (as well as Mega Drives, SNESs and Playstations) and we played with many friends for hours and hours. We even used to get my mum on adventure games with us. The problem is a lot more complicated in my opinion. It’s down to how most of us can’t/don’t visit each other to play games together these days. My brother and some of my friends only live round the corner but getting them to pop round for a single short evening is no easy task. When we were younger and we had emptier schedules it was much easier, not to mention, I knew more people who played games in person back then who have since grown out of the hobby. I fondly recall the LAN parties we used to have, hold and cherish. I think that was the beginning of the end for sustained local play.

    There’s also the issue of fewer games in general being offering local multiplayer, forcing people to play at a distance (no not that At A Distance). Like AJ, I love playing games with other people. Like, really, really love playing with others (online or locally, perhaps more so locally) but it’s one of the hardest things to co-ordinate these days I find. My setup is primed and ready to go (I’ve even got a sizable list of stuff to play), but in all honesty nobody I know is, that’s the issue; they’re all getting married, having kids, chasing their careers and settling into ‘grown up’ life. I know for one Joel, and this goes for the rest of you as well, if I lived within walking distance of you, I’d be pulling a desk chair up and asking: “So, what we playing?”. Provided you let me into your house. And had time to.

  18. Oh my goodness laptops are too expensive for gaming. I’m lucky enough to have received a little one for notes and such, but while it’s inconvenient to rely on a desktop in a dorm being shared with someone I’m embarrassed to game in front of, it’s still the better option monetary wise in the long and short term.

    For local multiplayer, well, you find a way. The DS, once fan translation patches started coming out, became surprisingly good, though having different screens takes out some of the charm. Console-wise, I think multiplayer is the key to the “Tales of” series’ popularity, and whenever I take the time to look, I always find new games that somehow slipped under the radar to try (Project Eden for the Ps2 most recently; good fun). ‘course it really depends on the person, one of my best remembered playthroughs is a murder mystery visual novel despite that being 15 hours of reading over someone’s shoulder between arguments , but… there’s something special about having everyone involved in a way the game itself recognizes. I’m phrasing it badly, but the experience is too meta otherwise; no sense of being part of the game’s story so much as messing around with a friend. Equally happy experiences, but the latter feels like you’re making something together, somehow, and it’s precious for it.

  19. @Gregg

    Gregg, your man cave was on my mind when I wrote this. I love your man cave but it felt like an outlier, I couldn’t see that many people dedicating a separate room in that way. One of my goals since coming back to the UK was to have a room that was “dedicated” to PC and technology and we sorta wound up with that… but I never gave a second thought to a PC-centric room layout. It’s all about maximising utility.

    You know, Gregg, I just don’t have people over very much – game players or no – and when they do, it’s all about having fun with the children.

    I sent your GF a tweet recently and it was basically “what are you doing”. I don’t want that to be read the wrong way like I was asking what she was doing that evening, whether she was free. Right.


    Hi Emily. Interesting you say laptops are too expensive for gaming, not something I’d even thought of as I haven’t bought a new PC or laptop for several years. My gaming desktop crush is down to playing AAA games with top-end quality… which used to be a constant battle of upgrade attrition until the last few years.

    Reading your comment, I think some of us are struggling, just like Gregg, with not having people “around” to pull into gaming. It should be a no-brainer to play something with Mrs. HM as she is the queen of Thief and used to blow my head open with a shotgun in 1v1 Half-Life deathmatch, but it seems so distant to her life at the moment. Parenthood has changed some things; I still believe these changes are temporary. That is a different conversation, though, so I will stop there.

    I wonder sometimes whether I should think of myself more as an ambassador for gaming. If I think games are important enough to write about, why am I not talking them up in real life with people I know?
    I guess it’s that natural setting, of having a console under the TV which encourages the discussion and encourages play. We don’t have that and so the conversation never starts.

  20. I knew it would be Joel, you can take people out of my den, but you can’t take my den out of them.

    While that room is certainly an outlier, the living room that now houses Hailey’s rig is steadily becoming a hot spot for showing off various games and talking about them. Over the weekend we had some guests over and we showed them all sorts: Portal and Portal 2 (including the Men of Science vid), played the first chapter of The Dream Machine with them (they wanted to play more when it was over), Machinarium, Tiny Bang Story, QWOP and CLOP. Hell, at one point they ventured upstairs and watched me on Natural Selection 2. That was unexpected. They weren’t gamers, and in all fairness a lot of the folk we have in our living room aren’t, but my zeal tends to spill over and I end up loading things up and talking about them non-stop. I very much like to think of myself as an ambassador or crusader!

    With regards to Hailey: Right.

  21. I was somewhat interested in getting a desktop, but among the reasons I got a laptop was because that’s what I was replacing. My current laptop’s actually a used one- I wouldn’t spring for a cutting-edge one practically ever (winning the lottery notwithstanding). Also, I don’t really have the space with my current living situation.

    If I was to settle down for real, I’d probably get a desktop for any entertainment purposes.

    I got my girlfriend behind the idea of buying one of those new Commodore products, since everything’s in the keyboard and you can plug them directly into a TV, but the affordable models are missing absurd amounts of basic features.

  22. @BeamSplashX: How is your new laptop faring with the latest 3D releases?

    Funnily enough, after writing all this – I’m actually thinking about getting a more powerful laptop for our living room right now, simply as a means of hooking up internet-based programming to the television. There’s actually a serious motivation for this, we’re looking at getting Japanese TV piped in to progress things for the Little Harbour Master and the Little Harbour Mistress in a bilingual direction.

  23. There are actually dedicated computers that do that nowadays, and they can be pretty durn’ cheap. I’ve struggled, slightly, googling it, but the Apple TV box is a nice example of this for 100$. Though, that seems like a dedicated Netflix platform rather than a computer, or, indeed, a machine capable of disobeying Netflix. Alternatively, I do recall stories of people making a similar machine from Raspberry Pi’s, which comes with its own can-o-gummy-worms.

    Oh god, the ‘Apple HDMI to HDMI converter’ is a thing. Screw Apple.

  24. Oh, and I don’t know how the conversation sidestepped it, but what about the OUYA? 99$ price tag, small size, moderate power, open-source. It ‘should’ make the perfect living room appliance.

  25. Squeeze this in quickly – I have to go to bed! Important update just added to the article. Kickstarter just went up for Sportsfriends containing Joust, Hokra, Barabariball and Pole Riders.

  26. @mwm: I’m still suspicious of machines devices that are neutered PCs; I had previously browsed through dedicated boxes and all I could think was – but what if I want to do this other thing? Or this? Or this? It’s all the rage these days to offer technology to consumers that funnels them through an experience with lead-insulated concrete walls…

    So I began settling on the idea of a laptop which is tech I know. I’m still a PC man, so I doubt I would be interested heading into another open environment (Android) at this point, but you’re right. It’s a possibility.

  27. That’s exactly how I look at a lot of these devices: but will it do this? Or that? Granted, said device might never need to do those things, but if it’s an option then it’s not a restriction in the future. That’s why we got a netbook for the kitchen rather than a DABS radio/ MP3/CD Player. That decision paid off, well, the netbook only cost £170 anyway.

    @HM: A laptop sounds like a good idea to me just because it’s portable and ‘open’ to different uses. The biggest problem with the netbook (which we anticipated) is the the screen size, low resolution and it’s low specs — it’s not cut out for a lot of gaming as a result, but we didn’t expect to use it for such things. Most low-fi games it could probably handle though (I was surprised how well it ran At A Distance). The other thing is, the small screen size means you tend to bump the font sizes up across the OS which causes all sorts of issues with certain windows and menus, as well as web pages.

  28. My laptop can’t play the latest 3D releases. So, terribly. I really ought to play Half-Life 2 after all these years, now that I have zero excuses.

    In terms of portable computing, I know Asus makes compact computers geared towards media (one even has a remote with it) that are made to be plugged into TVs. They’re about netbook-priced, I think.

  29. Thanks for the update Beam. We’ve had an Asus eeePC for a couple of years for Skype but I’m not sure that’s powerful enough for HDTV output, so I’m going to start looking around for something new.

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