Local multiplayer games have become a big thing in the past year or so.
A genre which increasingly seems to have disappeared from console gaming seems to have exploded on tablet and PC. However, there is a problem. They aren't making any money.
There is nothing better than playing together. Indeed it's an essential factor when we look at play as a general principle. There is no better bonding experience as games provide a healthy channel for our frustrations, challenges and triumphs to be played out without the risk of harming our relationships - indeed they (usually) enhance them.
Growing with friends
Despite our civil society, we still have animal instincts to seek out positions of status and to test ourselves against others to determine the pecking order.
Jobs, cars and houses are an obvious way to do that; but games allow us to break from the pressures of normal life and feel that we can excel at least in something.
No wonder we get great joy from being in the safe company of friends testing each other within the rules of a game like Alistair Aitcheson's Slamjet Stadium or the fabulous Gang Beasts from Boneloaf.
These games seem to share a balance between anarchic random behaviour and individual skill allowing people of any ability to feel that they are competing on a level playing field and yet still have the ability to improve and strive for more; countered of course as we all improve together.
Making an appointment
The delight of the gameplay isn't just down the pixels of course - it's as much about the personal interaction and physical presence of others.
The taunts and jests, even wrestling for control of the devices we are using to play. I am guilty of wrestling my friends when trying to play SpinWars or Greedy Bankers Vs. The World on my iPad.
So if they are so good, why aren't they rocking the top ranking games charts?
Unlike single players games, local multiplayer games need a group of people all ready, willing and in a position to play - at the same time. This doesn't happen all the time. It's a rare occurrence that all the stars will align allowing us to play together.
Even when the game does have a single player mode - or even more rarely that the single player mode is as good as other single player games - we always know that they are best played with others.
The money bit
Is it any surprise that we don't create habits of play?
Local multiplayer games tend to focus on the core mechanic; with multiple variations of course. That's important as we need to support new players as readily as expert regulars. However, it means that there is rarely any sense of purpose or progression - again limiting the potential scope for long term engagement.
Local multiplayer games tend to focus on the core mechanic.
Of course it's not impossible to add something to track individual players but unless the identification of each player is instant and flawless this can be counterproductive.
Then of course comes the revenue model.
These games tend to be paid at least by the person who initiates play; usually others can share their device to play along too. This means that there is inevitably a barrier to access.
We depend on informed players to introduce our games to others and hope that their experience playing leads to their friends downloading and playing too.
The free-to-play model tends to be seen as problematic. If the game is about a balance of skill and random chance then buying goods to provide improvements to play seems contradictory to the purpose of play.
Although the idea of unlocking new content can seem appealing, it's harder to pull off unless all of the players participate.
The answer I believe comes from understanding the real value of the game to players and building a model that supports that.
Local multiplayer games aren't the same as dip-in-and-out games like Candy Crush and Clash of Clans so we shouldn't expect to measure their success in the same criteria.
Nor are these games like the console games which also supported co-op or split screen play. Those games have a separate purpose behind their purchase and sales are driven by the single player or online multiplayer experiences.
Local multiplayer in those games is more of a bonus experience.
There is a closer match to these experiences. Games which are considered to be a core part of a social event for many families and groups of friends, but perhaps less commonly than in the past.
Local multiplayer games share a lot of common qualities with board games. What makes board games work is that we usually have to create an appointment to play. We plan a deliberate gathering with the purpose of playing together; but often without us knowing which specific game we will play and perhaps playing more than one in the evening.
Just like boardgames there is the inevitable set-up process whether that's just the download or clearing space to gather round the PC or tablet; it's all part of the sense of ceremony.
As well as board games there is another model we can use for comparison. For me Singstar is one of the ultimate designs for a local multiplayer game.
Of course it's a karaoke experience but more than that, it understands its role within a gathering or party. Sometimes performing badly is more fun that doing well and that being in the audience is as much a part of playing the game as playing.
It allows us to record our experiences and share that later, it encourages us to discover new content continuously and we are happy to purchase new tracks instantly.
This takes me back to my main question, If local multiplayer is so good, why aren't these games rocking the top ranking charts?
I think that too few developers are thinking beyond the design of their game mechanic.
For success we have to understand how this mechanic creates a reason for us to play again. We need to create a sense of purpose and progression to keep players coming back; leaving them with a sense of unfinished business.
But more than that we need to understand how the game is affected by the real-world; what I call the metagame. How do the real-world conditions of play influence the design, acquisition, retention and monetisation of your game.
Playing with a shared screen affects who pays; how can other contribute? How can they (if at all) bring their own progression and purchases along into this play session?
Most importantly why should your players choose to use your game to create an appointment to play with their friends?
We need to think about the flow of the experience. What kinds of goods can we sell inside the game without damaging the experience? Too often all we think of is simple improvements to performance or ability. Why not think about goods which increase our ability in one area, but at a cost in another?
Perhaps players would even be willing to pay for a starting handicap?
Perhaps even unlocking new abilities which otherwise would be inaccessible, but that unlock new strategies of play. These are all things we can test out and unlike new content don't require us to imagine the extra value they bring.
I always remember the Quake mod which removed access to the higher power weapons from the highest performing players. The idea of handicapping the best players in order to retain some level of balance in play is an ideal model for local multiplayer games.
Given the right design perhaps players would even be willing to pay for a starting handicap - maybe?
Whatever the monetisation choices you make, they should be appropriate for the game and how players will experience the game.
The power of together
What about the other players? Can we use QR codes or Bluetooth to recognise other players from their own devices or is there another way they can bring their own purchases into a shared game?
Singstar demonstrates for me that it's not inevitable for local multiplayer games to be paid upfront; but equally the standard energy-based free-to-play is completely inappropriate. (Indeed I am increasingly against using it in standard F2P games too.)
Instead we should innovate by finding ways that help players create appointments to play with their friends and which remind them that your game is entertaining and worth bringing out again. Then consider ways for all the players to contribute.
Of course each game will be different and in a short article like this it's hard to give actionable advice that will apply to all games.
However, I hope I have encouraged you to think differently about these games and more widely why it's essential to consider how game design has to change in response to the real-world conditions of play.
This matters because games tap into a fundamental desire in us all to share as we play and I for one think that deserves serious attention. We don't make games only because of the revenue potential; but without that potential we can't keep making them.
When is your next local multiplayer game night?
Oscar Clark is a consultant and evangelist for Everyplay, the free SDK that records and shares your favourite moments of play. Everyplay was acquired by Unity Technologies in March 2014.
Find out more at developer.everyplay.com
He is also author of "Games As A Service: How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games" published by Focal Press is now available on Amazon as well as Kindle, iBooks and Kobo.
To follow Oscar on Twitter, check out @Athanateus