Mediatonic’s Joanna Haslam urges devs to trust their players, work backwards and to not fear failure

Five indispensable rules for designing local multiplayer games

Building a game with a local multiplayer mode is completely different to developing with online connectivity in mind – and devs should be fully aware of the steps they need to take.

That’s the advice from Joanna Haslam, formerly of Buzz studio Relentless and now at Mediatonic, who spoke on the unique benefits and requirements of social and couch multiplayer at this year’s Develop: Brighton conference.

“Couch multiplayer isn’t a genre of games, it’s a way of playing games,” she said, giving The Last of Us as an unconventional example of a game where people played together despite it being a single-player title.

She added that “social and couch multiplayer games quite different from other types of gaming; rules from other types of games don’t apply to couch and social”.

Haslam outlined five key rules that devs should follow in order to maximise their player’s enjoyment of local multiplayer:

Trust your audience to follow the system: “This isn’t something we normally get to do when designing games,” Haslam observed, saying that time and effort is normally spent preventing cheating in single-player experiences: “We spent a lot of time closing off these loopholes and making sure players cannot cheat.

“When we’re making games for a social audience we don’t need to do this,” she continued, explaining that the physical proximity of players in the same room led to “self-policing”.

“When they’re with other people, they want to conform – if they ruin the experience they let down the people they’re with,” she elaborated.

In addition, Haslam said that unlike single-player titles, where facing off against an AI opponent can led to complaints over difficulty or seemingly ‘broken’ game design, “it’s okay to get players to be the judge” in local multiplayer games.

“Players blame each other when something goes wrong, not the game,” she explained. “If the tech fails, players will blame the game – if the tech is unreliable, choose the method that’s best for the game.

“Sometimes it’s better to think of something that works that’s best for the game, and that’s not always the tech.”

Let the players be the creative ones: Praising the benefits of user-generated content, Haslam urged her audience to “put players at the centre of the game mechanic.”

“Getting the players to do it makes our lives so much easier,” she said, adding: “Creativity instantly makes a game feel more personal so it resonates better with you. People like things best when they feel like they were made for them.”

Another positive side effect, she pointed out, is that allowing users to create their own game content for a local setting allows them to automatically balance the game for the broadest audience.

Look at what’s happening beyond the game world: “When you’re designing single-player games the idea of the people not looking at the screen and designing beyond that is weird, it’s scary, it’s difficult to accept because we’re trying to draw the user in and pay attention to the screen,” Haslam said of conventional game design logic.

But with social games: “The game facilitates the fun. Is everybody in the room having fun? The game has to create social iteration however it needs to do that.”

“Sometimes games might need to take a step back and let players take the floor,” she continued, presenting the example of Act It Out!, a game that uses the screen as little more than a timer and cue card for charades. “Think about what everyone in the room is doing – give players the time and space to interact.”

When it comes to perfecting the social experience, Haslam told creators to: “Play the game as a player, not as a developer.

“Don’t play it like it’s work,” she insisted. “Don’t make notes, don’t talk about bugs – you’ll know if it’s working.”

Work backwards: Haslam said that key to encouraging an enjoyable local multiplayer experience is the need to “start with the social mechanic you already know is fun and build a game mechanic out of it”.

She explained that popular mobile hit Spaceteam was originally designed like a board game, in order to foster social iteration and ‘banter’, before being translated into its virtual form.

“If you’ve got a mechanic in mind that you know is fun you’ve done the hard bit,” Haslam encouraged developers. “Having that mechanic is like holding the holy grail – it’s what you want.”

Inspiration for an innovative mechanic can come from even mundane aspects of life, she said, asking devs to think: “Any situation where you’ve had fun, is there a way you can gamify it?”

There are no bad ideas: “It’s really easy to get stuck and dismiss something as a bad idea,” Haslam acknowledged, but assured those feeling lost that: “It’s worth giving it a shot.

“If you’ve got something you know is fun, persevere with it and give it a shot,” she pressed. “That’s how you innovate, you go against the grain.

“A lot of design is about brute force, trial and error, mapping out every possible way you could do something – give things a chance.”

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