A while back I wrote an article explaining why board and card games are doing just fine in the videogame era—the short version is that they’re great for socializing. A recent Wired article by Bo Moore investigates indie game designers learning that lesson and leading a resurgence of games focused on local multiplayer. Some are party games, popular at Wild Rumpus’ game night parties held in cities around the world as a sort of one-night return to the arcades of old (but with new, creative indie games). Players roll around in sleeping bags or joust with each other as they try to protect PlayStation Move controllers as if they’re tottering eggs. As the Move-based game suggests, many of these games mean to revive local co-op in your home. I think this is great. I also think these designers face steep—but surmountable—challenges.
Think about when you played the most local multiplayer. Were you younger than 20? I was. Part of this is my generation, which grew up on Atari and Nintendo (and the last years of arcades), but part of it is simply adulthood. As a kid, I had all the time in the world to gather with a group of friends in someone’s living room or basement and play Super Mario Bros. or Excitebike or Street Fighter II (which I argue was good for me). In high school and college, I always found time for a round of Goldeneye 007. But I also remember a day in maybe Fall 2000 when, walking through the lobby of my college dorm, I came across a local-network Counterstrike tournament that had been set up and thought to myself, “This is too much work for me.” I didn’t mean Counterstrike, of course—I meant rounding up dozens of computers in one place for a tournament. Maybe once or twice, maybe in college, but I knew that I wasn’t the kind of gamer to put in that much logistical effort on a regular basis to get some local multiplayer going. And sure enough, fourteen years on, I’m not.
But I did buy a Wii in 2007, when I still had to sit in line outside a Best Buy to get one the day they came in stock, because it was a system my wife, a casual gamer, was excited about too, and we’ve had friends over on many occasions to play that system (and the Wii U we recently bought to replace it when it died. I’ve probably logged as much time with Mariokart Wii over the last six years as I did with Goldeneye 007 in the 3-4 years after its release, and the majority of that time has been local multiplayer.
These are the challenges and the opportunities that I see facing the new local multiplayer game developers. Gamers in general have skewed older as videogames have been acknowledged as not just for kids anymore, and the schedules of older gamers allow less time for organizing local multiplayer get-togethers. On the other hand, the Wii massively primed the general gaming community for a resurgence of local multiplayer at all ages, so the concept is not foreign and most gamers have, I imagine taken part in at least one local multiplayer session with a Wii. The Wii benefited from having the design and marketing muscle of Nintendo behind it, and that full-court press of advertising was assisted by the novelty of the Wii’s casual multiplayer experience and intense word-of-mouth buzz. None of these is likely to be repeated for the benefit of the new indie games.
Ultimately, though, the new local multiplayer games don’t need a Wii-like phenomenon to succeed because their business model is independent. If they can get the word out to a small-to-moderate audience, they can find enough receptive players to succeed. Because while I don’t play local multiplayer all the time, as an adult gamer with limited time I do tend to prefer local to online multiplayer. When I go onto multiplayer servers for Call of Duty or Halo, I know from the outset that I’m going to be outmatched because there’s zero chance I’ll put in the kind of time to get to the level of so many of the other online players. Because most online matchmaking services only have limited success at accounting for this, I tend to try out the online multiplayer for shooters and other competitive games without delving too deeply—there’s rarely enough incentive for me to invest the time needed to compete well online.
So I, for one, am intrigued by the potential for a local multiplayer revival. I enjoy Wii/Wii U-style local multiplayer, and I like local co-op and competitive shooter gameplay, but I’m excited to see the indie scene direct its creativity toward new kinds of local play. Indie developers can experiment in ways the larger developers avoid as financially risky. So what kind of indie local play can we expect to see? The games represented in Moore’s Wired article give us a taste, but I suspect that’s just the tip of the iceberg. What kinds of local multiplayer experiences would you like to see revived? What new kinds of local play do you think would be cool? Do you think local multiplayer can resurge, or did the Wii mark its last heydey?
Written By Brandon Perton