Tuesday 3 March 2015

Design Lessons from Multiplayer Installations - Part 1

2014 was a good year for Tap Happy Sabotage! The game went to Brighton and Birmingham, Bristol and Berlin. I demoed it at Gamescom, talked on-stage about it with one of my design heroes at the JOIN Summit, and played it with massive crowds at EGX. It spent a weekend at Bletchley Park, home to Colossus, the world’s first programmable computer, and got played on an 88-inch display at Microsoft’s HQ in Reading.

Yep, it's certainly been an exciting!

Playtesting Tap Happy Sabotage on a 27-inch screen
In October I turned it into Dash & Bash, a room-filling multiplayer installation. It was praised as one of the highlights of GameCity 9 and, from the end of March, will be a fixture at the National Videogame Arcade. Off the back of that I’m now working on Button Bash, a portable wireless button kit and a suite of buttons to take to exhibitions and events.

Dash & Bash at GameCity 9

I wanted to write up some of the lessons I’ve learnt from my multiplayer installations. I'll be referring to Tap Happy Sabotage as an installation because, despite being downloadable as a Windows Store app, its natural home really is in public spaces.

This first article will talk about creating social situations through play. The second will discuss the challenges of UI design in installation games, about player expectations and the way we process information.

So without further ado, the most important lesson from multiplayer installations:

My job as a designer is not to create elegant systems.
It is to engineer interesting social situations.

The Axioms of Physical Multiplayer

If you've read this blog before you may already be familiar with my thoughts on local multiplayer, both on big screens and small screens. For the unfamiliar, here's a brief recap of my design philosophy.

The most beautiful games live outside the screen. I’m talking about the ones that get you interacting with the world around you. Games that get you to close your eyes, games that force you into awkward conversations, games that ask you to make use of what’s on your worktop. My personal obsession: getting people to make physical contact with each other. I love getting them to manoeuvre around each other as obstacles, to grab each other’s arms and to cheat.

Players enjoy cheating. Cheating allows us to show mastery over our technology and explore its limits. Cheating allows us to express ourselves, to show our selfish sides in a safe space, and to make each other laugh.

Tap Happy Sabotage being played by a crowd at GameCamp
If you want to get a feel for what I mean by this, have a look at the trailers for Tap Happy Sabotage and Slamjet Stadium!

Creating Interesting Social Situations

I love using games to make people do things they wouldn’t normally do. Games have a power to make us come out of our shells. But you can’t just give people an unusual thing to do and expect them to do it.

If you tell people your game is about pushing each other around not everyone will want to do it. Even those who do won’t get anything new from the experience of playing your game if it’s just about rough-housing. You may as well give them a couple of sumo suits and tell them to go nuts.

Instead multiplayer installations should coax players who are not usually boisterous into enjoying physical space. In Tap Happy Sabotage I did this by creating situations where players would be unwittingly forced into each other's space. Once they've accidentally pushed someone out of they way it becomes okay to do it intentionally. Rather than openly encouraging the player to cheat, I tried to engineer situations where cheating is her own idea.

I try to make ample opportunities for creative cheating available, and then gently prod players into stumbling upon them by accident.

I want players to use physical space in novel ways, rather than simply testing who is toughest. Barging around in Dash & Bash is not about being the toughest; it’s about being the silliest. Using this space that is defined by the people in it, we can make games where the other people in the game really matter. Cheating is such a powerful tool because it is an entirely social concept.

Most of all I want players to come away with a story to tell.

A good story has a beginning, middle and end. It has heroes and villains, and shocking twists where goodies become baddies. To create this story pacing is incredibly important. It's one of the achievements I’m proudest of in Tap Happy Sabotage and Dash & Bash.

Getting Everyone Involved

I watch players’ expressions very closely when I playtest. In Slamjet Stadium, most players showed a wave of excitement and energy when they scored their first goal, even if it was completely accidental. This enthusiasm usually remained, whether they were winning or losing. This was a big contrast to Greedy Bankers vs The World where there was no sense of success until you won the game. Losing bankers often had little motivation for a rematch.

It’s important to give players a feeling of success and mastery as early as possible. 

In Tap Happy Sabotage I added a balancing mechanic so that if a player had never scored a point they would see huge numbers of their cards at once. Even though they knew the game was weighted towards them they still felt motivated by getting that point, and would stick with the game right to its conclusion.
The hedgehog player has not found their card yet, so many hedgehogs appear
As a result 7-player matches stayed 7-player until the end, compared to earlier builds where losing players tended to drop out.

There's going on here than maintaining an even playing field. Why was a solitary point enough to see a player stick with the game right to the finish? It's because the rules of the game are almost trivially simple.

Most of the stages in Tap Happy Sabotage revolve around a simple objective: spot your card, then tap it. Multiplayer games really can be that simple. The real gameplay happens outside the screen, and your biggest obstacle is other human beings.

Because of this simplicity, scoring one point is all you need to convince yourself you know what you’re doing. Every player who scores a point gets the sense that they’ve mastered the game. After all, what other skill do they have to learn? With mastery comes a the sensation not just that they could win, but that they should win.


If a physical game is simply a test of who’s the strongest, it’s not going to create interesting stories. It also creates an atmosphere where one player is expected to always win. The same is true if the game is all about who has the fastest reflexes, or who’s best at spotting something in a crowd.

Remember: to keep players invested every player must feel like they should win.

Variation is critical. To keep all players involved want rounds for the strongest player, rounds for the fastest, and rounds for the most observant. If we shuffle them up we also get to challenge the player who’s best at switching between mindsets. This is very much the spirit of Chessboxing, a sport where competitors must alternate between a high-adrenaline, physical and reactive mindset (boxing) and a rational, logical, long-term-planning mindset (chess). The theory is that those competitors who are best at switching between mindsets are best-equipped to win.

In fast motion: A Dash & Bash round challenging reactions
This was one of the elements that Jordan Erica Webber commented on when she interviewed me about Dash & Bash for the Guardian. Dash & Bash alternated between rounds where your card would be in a really obvious place, rewarding quick reactions, and those where your card would be hidden in a sea of decoys, rewarding eagle-eyes and deduction.

In this round players were looking for the one screen where their card was upside-down
My favourite round is the one where you had to find your card 16 times in quick succession. Not just because it's funny watching everyone dash around the room like maniacs, but because afterwards they're always exhausted. Being observant and reactive when exhausted is another skill we rarely see challenged in gaming.

Frequent variation lets us involve as many players as possible, and it is also a fantastic way to create surprise. Shared surprises make people laugh.

Great stories are told as a series of key events. Surprises create those key events.

Surprise isn’t as simple as making crazy stuff happen all the time. To create a good surprise you need to give players just long enough to feel like they’ve mastered what’s going on, then pull the rug out from under them. Between 1 and 2 minutes always seemed to be the best length of time between rule-changes in Tap Happy Sabotage.

It is also important to give players a safe space after each surprise, to feel like they’re back in control. In Tap Happy Sabotage every second round is the basic vanilla rule-set: the safe space which every player has the measure of. Before this change players tended to lose track of all the new skills they had to learn. The surprising moments would be lost in a sea of chaos.

Heroes and Villains

Every good story has peaks and troughs. Every good story has heroes and villains.

There’s nothing wrong with a game being imbalanced, as long as players have the means to correct that imbalance themselves. In Tap Happy Sabotage demos I’d often get great moments where one player was nearly winning and the rest of the players would gang up on them.

“Remember that time when Elaine was one point away from winning and we all went for her bad cards to stop her?” is one story. “Or the time we held Steve’s arms behind his back to stop him from getting to the screen, and then he started trying to press the screen with his nose?” Stopping the player who’s become the villain calls on our teamwork and our ability to use physical space imaginatively. A shared villain is a focal point for the story.

Players getting physical at GamesCom
Remember, your game is not important. Your game is just shared a facilitator for social interaction. The most important interaction in the game is players interacting with each other.

As such it’s essential to allow players to chat at all times during play. Most of their social interactions will involve looking at each other. You can’t expect them to be looking at the screen all the time, and you don’t want them to do so either.

This is why Tap Happy Sabotage keeps the rules of the current round visible at all times. In early builds the rules of the next round were only shown between rounds: during the moments for catching breath. But this was when players stopped to chat, to taunt, to regroup.

These moments are crucial, so we should never force players away from these moments.

In the next article…

Enabling great stories to be created is only one piece of the multiplayer installation puzzle. We also have to convey how to play in a space that is not usually used for gaming.

In tackling that we learn a lot about how we process information as players. Those are the lessons I will explore in my next article.

Tap Happy Sabotage on an 80-inch screen at University of Birmingham.
Always end an article with an awesome photo.