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Public play: 5 lessons learned from taking games out and about

Full Indie UK's Alistair Aitcheson reveals all
Public play: 5 lessons learned from taking games out and about

Just a few weeks ago I took my latest project to Full Indie UK’s first games showcase event, hosted by the Bristol Games Hub. The game, Tap Happy Sabotage, is a party game designed for large-scale touch-screen monitors on Windows 8.

This isn’t the first touchscreen party game I’ve taken on the road. Tap Happy Sabotage follows Slamjet Stadium and Greedy Bankers vs The World in allowing players to physically collide, and encouraging them to cheat. They’ve all benefited from being tried out by excitable groups of friends.

The process teaches me a lot about what goes into social play. When do players get buzzed and competitive? Where do they get lost and confused, and why? Which sections are the most photogenic, which ones draw a crowd, and what do people go away talking about?

#1: Be a good host

I tend to take on the role of compère at demos, providing enough explanation to get people started, but dropping out as quickly as is feasible. Ideally players should work things out for themselves - anything I need to step in and explain I take note of, so I can convey it better in the UI.

But as compère I also build the spirit and tone of play. Noting what I need to do to build this spirit helps me design the UI to do this job for me in the final release.

For example, cheating, pushing and shoving are central to much of my work. But for many players, they won’t start doing this unless prompted - by being told they can do it, or seeing another player cheat, it becomes socially acceptable.

In Slamjet Stadium, I use the loading screens to suggest ways people could cheat, so that before they even play the game they know that cheating is intended. In Greedy Bankers, stealing gems is rewarded with a points bonus - if the mechanics encourage you to do it, it must be in the spirit of the game!

#2: Keep it competitive

Simply watching players’ expressions and body language will tell you when players have “got” the game. When trialling the beta of Slamjet Stadium, players would immediately become hotly competitive when they scored their first goal.

Even if it was just dumb luck, they felt a sense of mastery and were usually keen to rub this in their opponent’s face by scoring some more.

While testing seven-player Tap Happy Sabotage at the games hub, a fellow designer noticed that some players gave up if they could not score a point in the opening rounds.

In the latest build I now weight the game so that no-one can win the first round until everyone has scored a point. By making everyone feel like they can score keeps all players positive and involved.

#3: Let people play dirty

You’ll be surprised at just how physical players become when you let them break the rules. Even complete strangers end up grabbing each other’s arms to win - increasingly so with large groups.

In Greedy Bankers vs The World, the centre of the board is the most valuable part of the board to control, as moving a gem from your opponent’s side to your own doubles its value. In some demos the game would devolve into a wrestling match as both players tried to dominate this space. While very funny to watch, it also was a flow-breaking stalemate, and a risk of injury.

There’s a lesson here: never have a focal point in the same place for too long. In Tap Happy Sabotage I made sure players’ cards are distributed all over the screen, so that even if players get tangled up reaching for them, it never turns into a bundle over the same point.

#4: Bring it outside the screen

When seven players share a single control space you should not expect nuanced control, and often you’ll want to keep the screen clear of hands so that everyone can see what’s going on. The most successful mechanics of the games I’ve road tested are not in control and strategy, but in real-world abilities.

Observation plays a key role in Tap Happy Sabotage, as points often go to those who spot their card first. So does reaction speed, and the imagination to mess up your opponents in entertaining ways.

These skills are universally accessible regardless of your familiarity with the hardware. Even if you’ve never played the game before you can watch others and understand it quickly. At public events this makes it easier to coax people into joining in.

#5: Pay attention

Playtesting your games is probably core to your design process already, but there are important lessons in bringing your game out of a controlled environment and into a public space. There is so much to be learned from watching when people’s eyes light up, who gets involved quickest, and what causes them to invite friends to join in.

The lessons of physical multiplayer games are applicable to other games too. The initial sense of positivity and success is key to casual behemoths from Angry Birds to Candy Crush Saga.

Gameplay that is readable to those who don’t understand the systems is necessary to make a game successful in Let’s Play videos: today’s cultural barometer of core gaming.

So take your game out into the world, and test how well it gets players motivated. The lessons you’ll learn will be invaluable.