Flashback: it’s September 1999. Sega has just launched the Dreamcast in North America, less than a year after its Japanese debut. With its four controller ports and arcade-perfect versions of games such as Power Stone 2 and Virtua Tennis, plus original titles like ChuChu Rocket, the Dreamcast became a favourite for local multiplayer fun.
While 1996’s Nintendo 64 also had four controller ports, the Dreamcast arrived at a technological tipping point, poised to exploit the burgeoning internet through its blazing fast 56kbits/s modem (or a sluggish 33.6kbit/s in Japan and PAL territories) and deliver viable console-based online multiplayer gaming for the first time. Since then, and in line with increasing connection speeds, online multiplayer has become de rigueur for gaming, with a competitive and lucrative esports boom launching in its wake. Some franchises, such as Call of Duty or FIFA, are now predominantly focussed on their online aspects over even the single-player experience.
Yet recent years have seen an interesting trend emerge – a pushback against online multiplayer, and a rise in games returning to that cosier Dreamcast or N64 experience of playing in the same room as a group of friends. Even EA – publisher of FIFA and a host of other sports games, plus multiplayer shooters such as Apex Legends – has picked up on the shift, publishing games such as 2018’s Unravel Two, which featured local co-op, and the recent It Takes Two, which demands two players co-operate, in either local split screen or online play.
One of the biggest success stories for local multiplayer has been Overcooked, developed by Ghost Town Games. A chaotic co-op cooking game where players scramble around deliriously unsafe kitchens to produce outlandish dishes, all while avoiding hazards including moving traffic and active volcanoes. When the first game in the series was published by Team17 in 2016, it was a rarity: it featured no online multiplayer at all, instead pushing an entirely local play experience.
“When we were pitching Overcooked, we were told there wasn’t an audience for local multiplayer,” says Phil Duncan, co-founder of developer Ghost Town Games. “It wasn’t until we actually created the game and released it that we could prove that wasn’t the case.”
“It was seen as risky by most publishers we took the game to,” Duncan continues. “We weren’t being defiant, we weren’t saying ‘we know better, this game is going to succeed without online play’ – we could understand where publishers were coming from, we just hoped they were wrong! We made the kind of game we wanted to play and were lucky enough to find an audience who felt the same.”
Overcooked wasn’t the first game to spot a demand for more local multiplayer experiences – earlier indies such as TowerFall accurately predicted a then-nascent trend, while industry titans such as Nintendo’s Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros, or fighting games including Tekken and Street Fighter never abandoned local play. Overcooked’s success did, however, seem to help players rediscover how much fun playing in the same room can be.
“Physical contact like high fives, pushing the other person, or even grabbing their controller are some of the best gaming moments I’ve had,” says Ashley Ringrose, CEO of SMG Studio, the Australian developer of Moving Out, a 2020 game where players co-operate to load up a moving van while battling exaggerated physics. “There’s also the party atmosphere where people are hot swapping controllers and taking turns while eating and drinking. All of this is natural when local [but] online becomes much more ridged and stale.”
It’s not just video games that have benefitted from a return to more social, in-person play. The tabletop gaming industry has been growing for years, with the UK sector’s value rising by more than £100m between 2014 and 2018. Board games in particular are cool again – some might argue for the first time – and board game cafes are now common sights in most cities.
Pen-and-paper role playing games have also enjoyed an increase in popularity that would have seemed unlikely just a few years ago. Notably, Dungeons & Dragons has seen a huge surge, spurred on by its spotlight in Netflix’s horror-cum-80s-nostalgiafest Stranger Things, and the hit online web series Critical Role, both of which highlight the social aspect of the game. In 2019, the classic RPG saw a 300 per cent rise, year-on-year, in its starter sets – its sixth consecutive year of growth. You’re now more likely to be considered uncool for not playing D&D, a far cry from the nerdy kids in Stranger Things.
Although the Covid crisis has understandably seen an even greater surge in local gaming as families and housemates are forced to find new ways to stay entertained, lockdowns alone don’t account for a years-long upward trend in both video games and tabletop. Instead, a large driver is more likely a matter of shifting demographics, with players who grew up playing games gathered around the TV wanting to replicate that experience with their own families.
“When I was a kid in the ‘80s, I played games all by myself. My parents didn’t have any interest and the Sega Mega Drive was in my room,” adds Ringrose. “Now, I’m the one dragging the kids to the console and suggesting games, and we play in the lounge room or on a beanbag with the Switch.”
“A lot of the drive for us to create Overcooked was to capture some of the magic of co-operative games we enjoyed in the past with friends/relatives, so I imagine that’s true of players too,” says Duncan. “I like to think we’re starting to see a broader audience coming to games that are hungry to try new experiences rather than just what the AAA studios and publishers are perhaps telling them they should be playing.”
Another factor that may explain a return to couch co-op is that online multiplayer has simply become too toxic an experience for many players. A 2020 poll by the Anti-Defamation League found that 68 per cent of American gamers experienced “severe” harassment when playing online. LGBTQ+ players and women are even more likely to experience abuse.
“There are games where I’ll never turn on the player audio, which is a shame because often that can be a big part of the experience,” says Duncan. “Personally, I’d love to see co-operative games become as prevalent as competitive online games, Games which encourage and reward players for working together can only be a good thing in my opinion, particularly as so much of society is aimed at pitting people against one another.”
“I think for many it’s about playing solely within a close circle of friends for regular sessions, versus playing with [online] randoms,” adds Ringrose. “Especially for games that are co-op, you need to trust and work with that person. It’s much harder to do that when they are random.”
Although the lockdown spike in local play can’t be ignored entirely – the makers of the Jackbox Party Pack games, rapid-fire ‘game night’ titles that can be played locally or remotely, doubled their player base to 200m in the year up to November 2020 – Ringrose says that playing together is “a Pandora’s Box – you can’t close it so people will continue to do that [after COVID]. It’s quite cost-effective as a form of entertainment compared to going to the cinemas or a theme park.”
“I don’t think the lifting of Covid restrictions will see people turning away from video games completely,” says Duncan. “There will definitely be some people who want to spend as little time as possible looking at screens from now on, but for a lot of people I imagine it will have kindled a newfound passion for games, particularly those they can share with their loved ones.”
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