Gaming was in many ways a social endeavor, something that continued as we bought consoles like the Atari 2600 and Nintendo NES. There were two controllers, which let us play with a friend. Then came the Nintendo 64 in 1996, giving us four standard controller ports. It ushered in a new era of offline social gaming; most designers included four-player modes in their N64 games. GoldenEye 007 became a new religion, and its devotees moved on to the Xbox and Halo, which let us link four consoles for epic 16-player matches.
But just as soon as these social gatherings were becoming the next big thing, game consoles adopted an innovation that would all but kill them: Internet play. Suddenly we were playing together alone.
“It was just easier to monetize online games,” said game designer Douglas Wilson. “You could be alone — you didn’t have to bring a bunch of people over to enjoy it. Companies were getting bigger, and they had to be more conservative.”
As netplay increased in popularity, IRL gamer nights died. Wilson wants to bring them back. He’s the co-founder of Die Gute Fabrik, an indie game studio in Copenhagen that recently released the Kickstarter-funded game Sportsfriends. It’s a collection of offline multiplayer games for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Windows, Mac, and Linux.
“A lot of my best gaming memories are all on the couch with friends, or playing in front of a big crowd at a party, and cheering and all that stuff,” said Wilson. “It’s about the whole social context around the occasion — the ritual of play.”
The collection’s flagship title is Johann Sebastian Joust, developed by Wilson. Its design gets players to interact with each other, not the screen. It pits as many as seven players in a dance-like competition of balance, movement, and reflexes. Each player holds a PlayStation motion controller with extreme delicacy, like an egg balanced on a spoon. The objective: Jostle your opponents’ controllers while keeping yours steady. Last one standing wins.