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Showing Videogames In Public, Part One: Multiplayer

This post is part one of two. The second part will be much longer and deal with expo builds in general. I separated multiplayer out into its own post, because it’s a special case with many of its own unique pitfalls.

[I will put a link here when part two is published]

I’m David Hayward. I’ve been running events, hosting developers and showing other people’s games for around fourteen years now. I’ve run big stuff, small stuff, shown my own work, and shown a lot of other people’s work. At a quick estimate I’d say I’ve been responsible for showing around nine hundred games in public over the past decade alone. I tend to run things at a scale where I interact directly with developers, and often have to sort out problems myself rather than call upon a team or tech company. From massive showfloors and marquees, to cinema screens, art galleries and small corners of festivals, I’ve learned a lot about showing games in public.

Here are the best things I know about showing multiplayer stuff. Showing local mutiplayer games well is often more about people than code, and showing networked multiplayer games involves specific infrastructure problems that don’t affect expo builds in general.

 

Showing Local Multiplayer Games:

Multiplayer games have their own challenges in public settings. Even if the game is easy to pick up, you need some outgoing developers or friends to fill out the player count during quiet times and welcome people enough that they want to play. It depends largely on cultural differences, but particularly in the UK strangers will tend to be insular with each other.

Any people you have working with a multiplayer game need to have social skills, enough that they can focus more on other players rather than themselves or their friends. For instance, spotting groups of people likely to play, or spotting people who want to play but lack the social confidence to approach and join a group of strangers (they’ll watch and waver at the boundary, sometimes all they need is a friendly greeting). An ideal group of developers or helpers would be teaching people to play and making sure they have a fun time, and likewise be ready to hand their controller over to anyone new who comes along. Not: hogging their own game, trouncing everyone with their studio-honed skills, then high-fiving each other.

The best example I’ve seen of this was a person showing various two player iPad games at events: He had several confident friends with iPads, approaching people and asking them if they wanted to play. His game was constantly played, loads of people had a nice time, and by briefing his helpers he got to meet a load of journalists and publishers to boot (I deeply hate thinking of videogames in solely commercial terms, but if you are a commercial developer, having outgoing helpers can really help you with this kind of thing).

Failing that, if you can’t be there or don’t have enough people to make up the numbers for a multiplayer game, in the case of games that absolutely cannot gracefully fall back from an ideal state, as Doctor Steve Brule says:

Have an AI that controls idle players, ya dingus!

Okay okay, I know that isn’t a simple thing, but it’s an enormous asset to multiplayer games, especially co-op and especially in expo settings, if they have a way to remain playable while people drop in and drop out. The Lego games by Traveller’s Tales have always done this well, likewise the free demo build of Speedrunners does this (thank you to Sam Read for pointing it out to me): it begins with four bots, but players can take them over. Not only that, the AI takes control again if a character is left idle.

Speedrunners

If your game has AIs that could be taken over, don’t have it require a reset to add players. Observe these two hypothetical examples:

One:
MALCOLM approaches his friend DORIS who is playing COOL LOOKING VIDEOGAME by herself.
DORIS: “Oh hey Malcolm, wanna join?”
MALCOLM observes the words ‘Press A to join’ in corner of screen, picks up second controller and joins COOL LOOKING VIDEOGAME.

Two:
MALCOLM approaches his friend DORIS who is playing COOL LOOKING VIDEOGAME by herself.
DORIS: “Oh hey Malcolm, wanna join?
MALCOLM picks up second controller.
DORIS: “Just let me quit this game… lalala title screen… go away opening menu… ok lets do that game mode. What character do you want to be? Right… no you didn’t press A at the right time… …now you pressed it too soon. Untoggle ready so I can go back t… no not… fuck. Ok let’s quit and start again…”
As the game finally begins ETHEL wanders over and picks up a third controller. DORIS and MALCOLM studiously focus on the game, ignoring ETHEL partly because they are ASSHOLES but mostly because they were recently VERY FRUSTRATED.

Exaggerated, but you get it right? Some games really do have menus and sequences that terrible.

 

Showing Networked Multiplayer Games:

DON’T

Ha. Joke. Sorry. If you’re showing a networked multiplayer thing, it does have dramatically higher requirements than most games though. Inform the event organisers and negotiate everything really far in advance. Ask about internet, ask about networks, ask about hiring or bringing your own PCs and networking hardware, ask about space and power and security for that, and ask which mobile networks work best at the venue.

Here’s Doctor Steve Brule again with the best tip though:

Just make sure it falls back gracefully into an offline state.

Thanks Steve.

Making sure your game can run well without the internet is the best fallback. If you can do this, great, it will maximise the number of events your game could potentially be at. If not, try to do something to make sure players don’t end up just staring at a screen that says “SERVER ERROR”. An early build of Stellar Impact showed that message if it didn’t have internet.

Stellar Impact

We solved the problem by getting a router, a couple of ethernet cables, and the developers implementing two player battles. Luckily, the show already had an allocation of two PCs per game, but no spares or space we could use to expand the LAN. It’s never a given that an event or venue will have extra equipment to hand.

If you are lucky enough to have a fast, reliable internet connection at a venue, having developers online back at the studio is a great way to make sure any one person who walks up at the show gets to play. The same things apply as with local multiplayer above: Make sure those people at the studio are there to give players a fun or interesting experience, not to be a bunch of egotistical assholes who enjoy dominating newbies.

Internet at venues has become slightly less expensive over the years, with more venues investing in appropriate infrastructure, but many still only have wifi suitable for a small number of devices, and it will fall over as soon as a crowd turns up. Big events are increasingly able to install wired internet to stands, but this tends to be more suited to giant empty box type venues rather than venues that are all bricks and basements. Even in easily worked venues, running ethernet cable and getting enough bandwidth, for just a few days, can be extraordinarily expensive. It involves a heap of staff and possibly equipment like cherry pickers. Venues often lock in clients with approved supplier lists and do not make additional services cheap. As you might imagine, many shows won’t do it, and will just provide power. Smaller venues might not even have a usable internet connection, and few venues or events teams have people with the expertise to install anything more than a domestic router.

You can roll your own internet connection, but it will be limited. EMF Camp are the only event I’ve known to successfully put in an (it turned out!) excessive amount of bandwidth for five hundred or so people. In a field. With wifi as well as ethernet and mains power to everyone’s tent. Read about that here. This kind of infrastructure is beyond the reach of most venues, let alone event teams.

For much smaller applications though, 4G is often fast and reliable enough in many UK cities now, and a 4G modem plus compatible router can be a great way to provide internet. I’ve even done this to run a stage and classroom in a rural location that happened to have good 4G reception.

Mobile internet setup

My setup is pictured above. I have a Huawei E5776, and a TP-Link TL-MR3420, which only provides a wireless N rather than AC connection, but that’s fine for the uses I’m putting it to, and thanks to a kind friend, I knew before buying that those two specific bits of hardware would work together via USB (some combinations of router and 4G modem don’t work together at all). These things are easy to throw in a bag, and work fine for small events with speakers and workshops. Speakers will most often have modest needs when doing last minute tweaks to their talks. When you open it up to workshops, you’ll likely run out of data because, even when asked not to, one out of a dozen people with their own laptops will always forget they have Dropbox or other remote backup software running. For workshop, expo or festival type events, I rely on venue internet wherever possible rather than paying for mobile data.

Another developer I know sometimes takes a Netgear Nighthawk to events, a router which is overkill for most domestic uses, but really handy if you want to make an internet connection available to twenty or so friends. While good internet is not evenly distributed even in large cities, it’s often the router the venue have put in that’s the weakest link.

If rolling your own wifi, keep the number of people who know the password small, and be ready to change it. Everyone who gets the password and is told not to tell anyone else will in fact tell just one other person and tell them not to tell anyone else, and so on, until your router can’t cope. Or, someone will accidentally display the wifi details on a projector, or have a conversation about the wifi password near a live microphone (*cough*). This is why smart event producers running small internet setups segment networks where possible, and change wifi passwords at least daily.

Whatever works for your game and a given event, just make sure to pin your options and contingencies down well in advance of the show. When some developers turn up carrying half a dozen PCs and ask “Can we have some extra space please? And power? And internet? And some extra passes?” an hour before the show opens, that’s not good and won’t go well for anyone.

—–

Part 2 of this will talk about general expo builds. If you’d like to contact me, try hello [at] feral-vector [dot] com, or david [dot] hayward [at] ympt [dot] co [dot] uk

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