When UK indie Opposable Games released Clockwork Racers in the closing months of 2012, they knew they were taking some of the first steps into a new frontier for games.
The playful racer was a multiscreen, peer-to-peer release at a time when meaningful second screen gaming was the reserve of a handful of apps, and little more than a near-future trend and favourite talking point of industry conference coffee breaks.
The studio wasn’t expecting anything like record-breaking sales as they tentatively explored what they could achieve across multiple devices. As such, the fact that over a year later Clockwork Racers is still being played by relatively high numbers has given Opposable reason to be optimistic that there is a future in second screen game design.
As it stands today, second screen remains a fledgling gaming form, yet to inch its way past any significant tipping point. A few triple-A games have, of course, made some headway with polished companion apps, but for now, if there is to be a revolution where true master-to-client-based second screen games prosper, it is presently a movement without a leader.
THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED TWICE
Opposable Games might not be positioning themselves as figureheads of a industry transformation, but the team are forging a reputation as champions of the second screen, and they certainly seem keen to take other developers along with them.
“There hasn’t been a game yet that has ultimately proved the worth of second screen, and that needs to happen for more people to be interested, both in terms of players and developers,” says Opposable MD Ben Trewhella.
For Opposable, that game isn’t Clockwork Racers, but Salvaged; a squad-based action-RTS still undergoing much prototyping and experimentation. Although little is set in stone, the game sees players control a top-down RTS on devices like tablets, which dictates the action in a 3D first-person battle on a larger mother screen. Salvaged’s setting is within core sci-fi, with players working for a futuristic corporation racing to claim black boxes from the wrecks of fallen battle cruisers.
And it’s own story really starts with the IC Tomorrow Digital Innovation development contest in 2013, where the prototype game and Opposable’s own OneTouchConnect technology beat 100 other titles to win the SCEE-backed second screen category. The triumph secured the game’s budget a £25,000 boon, and the team input from mentors, as well as promotional and testing support.
That win has given Opposable a significant position on the starting grid in the race for second screen, but they are not a company looking to monopolise the market.
OneTouchConnect is available as a Unity Asset Store extension, and Opposable hopes the tool, which can be used for peer-to-peer or master-to-client multi-device, multi-OS games, can contribute to building an ecosystem of second screen developers.
They are also open to ideas such as hosting second screen game jams at their Bristol Games Hub home, and recognise that making the form matter will require more than one developer, out on its own to claim the riches,
if it is generate interest.
Of course, the real challenge isn’t the technology or the market, but making a game that is entertaining on – and more importantly warrants – a second screen setup. This is the issue Opposable is out to answer with the design on Salvaged.
“A huge part of it comes down to a continual testing process,” offers Trewhella.
“To a degree, it is the same as the development process of a normal single-screen game. There’s always a certain amount of information the player needs, and it’s always important to get the amount and presentation right. When a player needs what information is a very important consideration.”
DESIGNING FOR TWO
The challenge in the opportunity of second screen is how you present that information
to the player, continues Trewhella.
“You have to keep asking how you make a virtue of the fact that a player has to keep changing viewpoint between screens to access that information. Or you can focus on the challenge to the player that they have to change screens. It’s hard to get right, so we’ve had to give it a lot of attention.”
Opposable’s design director James Parker adds: “With my background being code I’m concerned about how we pull the metrics from our players and testers, and better understand what they are doing in our game and how we can improve things.
In the next few months we’re going through a process of finding out what is unique about our game, what works, and what players actually enjoy; that will lead what the game becomes on a broad spectrum, where at one end it’s an RTS and at the other it’s a squad-based shooter or something like Cannon Fodder. We have to find where a second screen game fits best on that spectrum, so we’re doing things carefully.”
What’s more, there’s a challenge in communicating what Salvaged actually is to players, and potentially trouble bestowing the game with those foundations of success, immediacy and accessibility.
Fortunately, a glance at a YouTube video or a few moments with the game in your hands, and it is fairly apparent how Salvaged works. In part, that’s because of it’s current melding of two well-known genres; the FPS and the RTS. Which begs the question; why put it on more than a single screen at all?
“While we can sell it on being this awesome new way of playing games, we do want it to be popular because it is a good game regardless of how many screens there are,” explains Trewhella. “Second screen shouldn’t be the reason a game exists; it’s a way it can exist. The game needs to be compelling regardless. We just have to make sure the nature of the interface makes it more immersive, and that’s why we’re doing so much work at this stage. We want to deliver a game that needs to be second screen.”
There’s also the matter of the reality of the market out there. It easy, when employed in a field like the games industry, to assume everybody has at least one laptop, tablet and smartphone when they leave the house. But is that really the case for the swathes of consumers out there for whom games aren’t a way to pay the rent?
“When we first started doing this two years ago, and we put up Clockwork Racers, the number of screens in homes was a concern, but it still did better than we expected,” says Trewhella.
“And now times have changed, and most homes have multiple screens. That means we have to make our game work on as many different platforms as possible. That’s really important for letting us make the audience as wide as possible. There’s more than one screen in most homes now; to take advantage of that we need to support all the platforms we can.”
SCREENING THE AUDIENCE
On that note, Opposable must return to their work; currently exploring how best to monitor and read players’ eye movements to see how Salavaged is played. But they do have some advice for other studios embarking on second screen projects.
“Focus management is really important,” suggests Trewhella. “You have to think very carefully about where the player will focus, and how that focus will move between screens. A player needs time to move between the two screens; that’s incredibly important to consider as you design your game.”
Parker concludes: “And be sure you’re not involved in second screen as a box ticking exercise. Be really sure you know why you’re going for second screen. If you want your game to be successful, you need to know why you’ve gone with taking it beyond one screen. And be sure to think about combining the best bits of each platform, rather than the worst.”