Second Screens, Asymmetric Gaming and the New Multiplayer

The Second Screen concept has been with us for a while but interestingly the idea still seems to be largely associated with TV. And largely as a means of adding a social dimension to the on-screen events. But there are many ways in which a second screen could potentially enrich other forms of media. Whether its via a smart phone or a tablet, people at home or in an audience often have a internet enabled device at hand that could be used in some interesting ways.

For example at conferences it might be useful to deliver additional supplementary content to a presentation. While synchronizing the on-screen slides to the devices is an obvious step, it would be a natural way to supplement live audio and video streams allowing others to more easily participate remotely. There are other useful bits of information that could be delivered on devices, including speaker bios, references to websites, books (“buy this now”), demos, quick polls, etc.

Second screen apps for films (at home, rather than in cinema) wouldn’t be that dissimilar to TV apps. But while TV apps are typically synchronized to the live broadcast and favour social features, a film app would deliver actor, location or other information cued to the film. Given that many media players are now web enabled, synchronizing the device and playback wouldn’t be that hard.

In fact, with a move towards streaming distribution for films, we can expect that typical DVD and Bluray features are likely to move to online distribution too. A second screen provides more interesting ways to deliver that content. Arguably Rian Johnson’s in-theatre commentary for Looper is the first example of “second screen” use for films.

Second Screen Gaming

But I think the most interesting area for exploration is in gaming. There’s been some work in this area already, notably XBox Smart Glass and the new Wii U with its tablet controller. More on that in a moment.

I realised recently that both my son and are already using second-screens. He’s obsessed by Minecraft and Terraria and has taken to having a iPod Touch to hand whilst playing to access their respective wikis, avoiding switching away from the game itself. I’ve also been using a phone or laptop to access game wikis: in my case for Dark Souls, Fallout 3/New Vegas, etc.

I know we’re not the only gamers who do this. The additional content, although crowd-sourced and not formally part of the game, is becoming an integral part to the game play. It’s not cheating, its a collaborative way to expand the gaming experience. (Although the infamously hard Dark Souls ships with a link to the community wiki on the back of the box: you’re going to need that help!)

There are many more ways that a second screen could be used as part of game playing over and above delivering documentation and guidance. It opens up some interesting new ways to play.

For example resource collection games like Minecraft have separate inventory management and crafting interfaces. These could just as easily be delivered using a second screen app linked to the game. An embedded web server would provide an easy way to hook this kind of extra interface into a game, opening up any web-enabled device as a separate controller.

Asymmetric Game-play

The concept of asymmetric game-play isn’t new, but the idea has seen some attention this year with the impending launch of the WiiU. Asymmetric gaming is where the players don’t all have exactly the same gaming experience. The differences in game play might be small or large.

At one end you might be playing as different characters and character types, basically you can do different things in the game but essentially are experiencing the game in the same way. Most multi-player games that use character classes (e.g. Team Fortress) can be said to offer this kind of limited form of asymmetric game play.

The “Co-Star Mode” of Super Mario Galaxy offers a more advanced style of asymmetric gaming. One player controls Mario while the other uses a pointer in a supporting role: their on-screen presence and forms of interaction are more limited. This style is particularly great when you have players of different abilities, e.g. older and younger siblings.

Continuing down this road its not hard to see how you could end up with some very different experiences, particularly for multi-player games. This is the angle that is being promoted with the WiiU. The Gamepad controller has an integrated screen, allowing one player to potentially have a very different experience to others. Access to a separate screen (e.g. for secret information) creates possibilities for new types of game play. Nintendo have said they want to focus on exploring adversarial challenges where one player is pitted against a number of others, playing the game in different ways.

Even without multi-player the controller offers lots of interesting possibilities, some of which can be seen in the split-screen action included in ZombiU. This trailer has a nice demo: warning zombies. As I noted above, this same functionality could be offered in many games by modding them to expose a web interface that provided additional controls, viewpoints and interactivity.

Arguably the classic example of asymmetric game-play is the classic paper and dice based RPG. One player is the game master, the others the adventurers. The Dungeon Masters screen delineates the space between the GM and the other players similarly to a second screen. The GM has different knowledge of the game world and plays in a radically different way to the other players.

It would be interesting to see this translated more fully into a video game environment. A separate screen could support that kind of mechanics when you’re in the same room, but there are plenty of options to explore asymmetric gaming in an on-line multi-player environment.

New Forms of Multi-player

Traditionally games are designed to fit well-defined genres; RPGs, FPS or RTS to choose just three. The different genres each have their own conventions around interfaces, game play but their common limitation is the AI: designing good artificial intelligence is hard, which is why its so much more fun to play against people. Unfortunately in many cases multi-player is often limited to co-op or deathmatch (head-to-head) game modes with variations on rules and objectives.

But what if I could play a game, offering an RTS style interface whilst others are experiencing it from an FPS perspective? Why not replace the Left 4 Dead Director, for example, with a real human opponent? The “Play, Create, Share” idea needn’t be limited to crafting a LittleBigPlanet level for others to play independently, why not put the game designer into the action, with the means to affect it, just like an old school GM? Why can’t I take control over an entire region in a game like World of Warcraft and shape it as I want?

The upcoming game Dust 514 offers an interesting form of asymmetric game play that provides an neat twist on conventional multi-player  The game is an FPS that takes place on a planet in the Eve Online universe. Actions in one game can have effects in the other. The games offer different game play experiences, on different hardware, but in the same universe. I’ll be interested to see how that pans out in practice.

Experiments in multi-player gaming might also give us some insight into creating more nuanced, or at least more varied forms of social interaction in other on-line applications and tools. If you’re going to embrace gamification in your application then take it further than just badges and achievements, and let “players” pit themselves against each other or set each other challenges.

Dark Souls has a number of interesting multi-player innovations that come from applying constraints to how players can interact with one another, eschewing conventional friend lists and multi-player options. It’s very difficult to team up with a specific player and communication options are very limited. The primary mechanism is essentially a form of in-game graffiti. You can leave messages for other players, either to help or hinder. The messages are limited, but add an interesting dimension and often humour to the game. You can also catch glimpses of other players in the form of ghosts in your game world.

What if we extended this kind of idea to the web? For example a way to indicate how many other people are also reading the same page, what is their collective impression? It’s not quite a Like or a +1 but neither would it be a conventional comment.

Overall I think we’re at a really interesting stage in the development of gaming in general and multi-player gaming specifically. We have a lot of new highly connected devices, more connectivity and, soon, a new generation of consoles.

A lot of people spend a great deal of time in these Third Places now. In virtual environments we’re no longer limited to existing forms of communication. We can explore a lot of new territory. Unfortunately many of the existing forms of online communications are prone to abuse, spam and trolling. Perhaps some of these newer multi-player ideas might offer ways to create sense of community and sharing that avoids these issues. And if not, well, there’s still a lot of interesting games on the horizon.