What Games Are: Here Come “Local” Mobile Games

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

When we talk about “social” in the context of gaming, we mean one of two ideas. The first is using social networks to distribute games, connect players and provide server-hosted fun over the long term. These kinds of game are often better described as “parallel,” as they are essentially single-player roleplaying games that sometimes connect to other players out of necessity.

The other kind of social is when you gather with people in a physical play area, enjoying each others’ company as much as the play of the game itself. Sports, board games, card games and tabletop roleplaying games are social games in this sense. A similar experience can be had by playing a console game like Halo with four joypads, Wii party games, or local-area-network (LAN) games. To distinguish that experience from the Zynga-esque social game, I label these kinds of activity “local” games.

Unlike social games, local games are usually multiplayer. Your local Bridge club, pub quiz, football team or Dungeons and Dragons group gathers together to play together, and their games have a high degree of interplay. In addition to social benefits (i.e. having a reason to meet people), the fun of local games is all about coordination, team psychology, and the dynamic that plays out there. This can lead to some of the most delightful or emotional game experiences that are possible to have.

Local multiplayer is also different to online multiplayer gaming. In a local game of Halo, for example, players yell for help, shout out the most-feared player’s location and haze each other. However in the online game you’ll get called all manner of names, insulted for your perceived race, gender, or sexuality. You’ll also encounter zero sense of spirit, shameless cheating, and more goading. Absent the stares of others and the social moderation that that brings about, people can be amazingly childish. This is why many gamers prefer to play on a LAN or with friends on a couple of consoles rather than online.

However local games have been slow to adapt to a more mobile computing landscape. Traditionally this is because they have often been constrained by equipment as well as geography. In order to play a LAN game you need a bunch of PCs, a router, and so on. These are not impossible to attain, but are more of an impediment than a game that you might play with a smartphone. So local games have often been seen as a more dedicated form of gaming than others, more of a niche for the passionate.

For a while some of us thought that location games (i.e. Foursquare) might solve that problem, but that hasn’t worked out. Location turned out to be a different kind of problem, one which so far has proved a damp squib from a gaming perspective (they will probably find their place once augmented reality matures a little further).

Similarly, turn-based games seemed to be the way forward, but while you can play a turn-based game of Carcasonne on your iPad with a friend in the pub, it’s a bit forced. It’s better to play the actual board game version, much like playing a board game version of Scrabble is always going to be a better experience than a digital one. There’s something about the tangible quality of cards and pieces that adds to those games in a way that digital versions never match.

The native experience that video games provide is more fluid than most board games, more active like sports, more dynamic. The gap for local mobile games is about providing that active engagement, much like playing Mario Kart but in the pub or cafe rather than on your couch, and at a cost of almost nothing to players. With smartphone and tablet technology getting better all the time, delivering powerful computing to users’ pockets for less, I reasoned 18 months ago that we would eventually see real local games start to emerge.

Last week I encountered the first game that I think really fits that bill: Spaceteam.

Spaceteam is an iOS game for 2-4 players. The setup is that each player is a member of a spaceship crew and – in cod-Star-Trek fashion – has a bunch of ship controls in front of them. The objective is to survive a continuous series of increasingly difficult rounds by responding to instructions issued by the game to set controls correctly before time runs out. But (and this is the clever bit) the instructions you see on your screen are generally for the other player to action. So you have to rapidly communicate with one another, much like a Trek crew yelling orders during a tense space combat.

The game elaborates on that theme further by making the names of the actions intentionally humorous (“Enable Holobib! Set Moontwig to 4!”), which players have to say to one another. It also uses the gyroscopic features of the devices for asteroid attacks or wormholes, so players have to shake them back and forth or flip them in unison. The overall experience is frantic and hilarious (and also free).

Spaceteam is an example of what I call a “founderwork.” Founderworks define new territory in the games industry, proving that there is a new avenue to explore or a new way of looking at play. Sure, the game is geeky, and likely only appeals to a certain subset of players. It is also a little thin. Like Draw Something or Wii Sports, Spaceteam is very delightful for a short period of time, but then you’re kind of done with it.

However the same was true of early browser RPGs, and they went on to form the basis of the social game revolution. Ditto the original Bejeweled and the casual game revolution. The seeds of the next big thing are often located in the barely-noticed game that turns a few heads with a neat idea, and then other developers expand upon it and fix its problems. I think Spaceteam may turn out to be one of those games, but local-mobile is not quite there yet.

The biggest problem that remains is coordinating people. As an old-school Dungeons and Dragons game-master, I know how hard it is to get people together to play a game – especially as they grow older. Where sports and big game clubs (as in for Bridge or Poker) solve this probem with dedicated venues, digital gamers often want their games to be available on their schedule. Spaceteam works great if you get your friends to install it on their devices, but you have to actually tell them about it first. This makes adoption a problem.

What would be game-changing is if a platform holder like Apple got involved. iOS 6 devices all have Game Center and Find My Friends functionality built in, so how hard would it be to close the loop for local games in iOS 7? Perhaps a “Find A Game” function that scans your local area and finds players of the local games you like. A service that matches players of the same game together by location as well as scores, maybe even offering a way to meet up. The ability for players of a game like Spaceteam to self-organise in the gaming equivalent of flash mobs.

Maybe not exactly as I’ve described, but there’s something to an entire field of players discovering other players and finding it easy to meet and play which feels not too far away. Like a gaming version of dating apps, helping people come together in social settings to play digitally… That could be a real revolution.