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TrendWatch: Couch-op

You can’t dev in a bubble. Looking at what others are doing both inspires you and gives insight into what people(consumers) are actually looking for. Here I examine the resurgence of local multiplayer, from my viewpoint, as a relative outsider to game

You can’t dev in a bubble. A lesson I've learned over the past year, as I threw myself headlong back into videogames and gamer "culture". There is something to be said about that. You have to be able to look at what other people are doing and see what the trends are…. And the trends are interesting.

At the moment, with local multiplayer, there are lots of different options out there for people. Sportsball will be released soon, but right now games like Towerfall: Ascension, Samurai Gunn and Sportsfriends are getting a lot of press and acclaim. It’s surprising, when you look at it, couch-op games are so popular and keep getting made – isn’t the genre “full”? Isn’t always online the future? But the answer is simple, obvious really. People want it. Just look at #IDARB – a game that isn’t finished, is in open “crowd”-sourced development, being covered by sites like Giant Bomb and tweeted about by the head of [email protected] What did the crowd build with the red box? A multiplayer game. A local, multiplayer game. It’s the trend.

Competition/Community

I watched one of the LoL tournaments recently and listened to the crowd and the commentators. I also watched some Smash tourney play and listened to the crowds and commentators. And while they talked about competitors skills, and explained the high level play to the uninitiated, they also humanized the teams and players. They made them more than just “dragoSmash886” – they named and placed them, dramatized and brought them to a level of digestibility to the mass gamer. They brought the digital into the physical. Even in the team based games, like LoL, it was this humanity that made people cheer and chant for their teams and players; they were all connected.

More than having the Mario-party option, more than the co-op Borderlands option, more than the narrative twists and turns of well-crafted stories like The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite, The Walking Dead and others it is these games that make you laugh, that make you crave the company of others, make you exult and moan in sorrow. They are the community makers.

Playing with real people generally is different from online play. Insults are made in jest, are self-deprecating or forgotten in moments, passed over in the eagerness for a rematch and the fun of the game. The open-ness of local play lends itself to players and watchers both. It’s like Twitch – the fun is the players as much as the game. Local play leads to community; communities lead to stories.

Stories become Legends

Imagine watching a player dominate everyone so thoroughly that the color she chooses becomes emblematic of victory. Soon the rotating players are calling “Green too strong” or “Green OP”. When she’s finally de-throned, it’s because she went blue against green. Can’t beat green.

Imagine being in a tight-knit community playing a game and all of a sudden a young punk wants to play. You’re all top class and don’t know him – should be easy. But he wins. But he only beat the worst of the best right? No, he keeps winning, and the crowd, at first ignoring him or writing him off, now starts backing the dark horse. The longer his run goes, the more into it the crowd gets. The losers of the match, who know his skill, validate it by cheering for him. The culmination of a friendly tournament, against the local champ, is fraught with tension and excitement. The dark horse loses – but everyone talks about it the next day.

These are the stories that emerge with couch-op. This is how the crowd can watch a game between two people, their every move analyzed and watched. It reminds me of an article I read some time ago, about a miraculous looking comeback in an EVO tournament where perfect timing and knowledge of one player allowed him to pull a 180 degree turnabout on round three. Watching the video accompanying the article, I’m right there– it’s not just the execution, it’s the crowd losing it, the yelling and screaming, and the fact that an article needed to be written to explain it. That’s the trend – that’s what people want. Connection and stories.

The Ties that Bind

This is something I think games have been lacking and it’s something that I think couch-op solves – or at least, does a better job than only online or only solo games do. We started working on Sportsball because we wanted a game that we could play with our friends, at a party we hold every year. So we made a basic game and we brought it and showed everyone. They loved it. And the more we played, the more we showed it, the more people got into it, the more we realized two things: this is the future, and this is the best part of gaming. The first time a player stepped forward to announce the match as if this was a highly publicized sports events, needing color commentary and analysis (or perhaps the highly scripted drama of professional wrestling) it became more than just the game, more than pixels on a screen moving to the sound of buttons pressing and cheesy techno blaring, it became more than a piece of craftsmanship into something entirely different. Something amazing.

And we had this amazing experience. And we had it with other gamers and non-gamers, people who like to play phenomenal couch-op games like Artemis: Bridge Simulator or Monaco, or who don’t “like” gaming, or who would never touch a game like Thief (or who loved Thief), or some who like board games exclusively – it was this experience that we brought them, an experience Auston and I hold as intrinsic to our beings, an experience that transcended our game and our community and one that I’ve seen echoed time and time again with local multiplayer games. It’s a trend. It’s what the people want.

This is what we want people to experience with our game, the joy where waiting is almost as fun as playing, where we communicate how we feel in the most elemental form about games and gaming – that it is an experience worth having, and worth having again and again.

Couch Masterpiece Theatre

I look at the trends.

I look at the crop of local multiplayer games, and I strategically pick out our competition, analyze their moves so we can be better. It’s cynical. It’s calculated.  It’s my job.

But at the same time I can’t help but go “Yes! Das ist gut!”

Because it is. Because, to me (and Auston), this is how we make the world a better place. One community, one story, at a time. 

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