Press Start to play: The end of splitscreen gaming

Did online kill local multiplayer? Or is it just resting?
Press Start to play: The end of splitscreen gaming
Press Start to play: The end of splitscreen gaming © Red Bull
By Damien McFerran

In these days of super-fast broadband and world-wide connectivity, it's possible to go toe-to-toe with someone on the other side of the globe on Titanfall, or trade paint in GRID 2 with a team of speed-freaks from multiple countries at the same time. It's amazing to think how far we've come since the dawn of the medium; not so long ago, multiplayer gaming was all about convincing friends or family to huddle around a single TV set, and making sure you had enough controllers to keep all participants involved. But are we really better off?

You might assume that there's little point in casting a backwards glance to the past - online gaming has solved the logistical issues which impacted multiplayer sessions in the past, and means you're never, ever short of an opponent - no matter what time of day you choose to play. However, while playing over the web with a person thousands of miles away might be an amazing technical achievement, those who are old enough to recall the thrill of an intensely competitive game of Super Mario Kart or a winner-stays-on contest on Street Fighter II will attest that it's not quite as simple as the past being the past.

"It’s an entirely social experience to play games with people in the same room," says Lee Musgrave, a former developer at legendary studio Rare who worked on Mario Kart-beater Diddy Kong Racing for the N64, a game that let you race karts, hovercraft and planes against each other from the comfort of your couch. He has a pretty clear idea of the differences between online and local multiplayer. "The game almost becomes a secondary part to the general fun you get with people playing together. Online, the focus is on the game, the kill count, the driving skill you can demonstrate – in the same room, it’s about how you’re making the other guys feel and visibly react."

Super Mario Kart
Super Mario Kart © Nintendo

Steve Ellis, another former Rare man, shares this viewpoint. "Split screen gaming is a much more social experience than online gaming," he tells Red Bull. "You're getting together with a group of friends or family to enjoy a shared experience. With online gaming you're probably playing mostly against people who you don't know. Even though it's still a multiplayer game, it's feels more like a singular activity. You're less engaged."

Part of that all-important engagement is related to the way in which you interact with your fellow players when you're in close proximity. "Taunting a friend to their face is far more enjoyable than being abused at by an anonymous internet player," says Nick Burcombe, who created the PlayStation racer Wipeout - one of the most fondly remember splitscreen PSX games - and now works on mobile titles at his new studio, PlayRise Digital. "It's the banter that makes it work. You also get the same effect on arcade machines too, shared or split screen; it's the fact you are facing your competitor that makes it more compelling."

© Nintendo

Split or same-screen gaming didn't come about intentionally, of course - it was born out of necessity. Back in the early days of the industry, the only option for multiplayer was to have the action take place on the same display, as the concept of hooking together two consoles was something which didn't become possible until the mid-'90s - and even then, it was prohibitively expensive.

"I remember coming across a four player Gauntlet arcade machine whilst away on a school trip when I was aged about 13, probably when we were supposed to be looking at rock formations or coastal erosion patterns or some such," Musgrave recalls with a laugh. "It just blew me away. Four of us pumped all of our spending money for the whole trip into that machine – we went back to find it the next day and we all stuck to the same characters we’d played from the start." It's this kind of magical social aspect which gives gaming a whole new dimension, making it about who you're playing with and where, rather than just the game itself.

Gauntlet © Atari

Surprisingly, fellow Rare alumni Ellis also references Atari's Gauntlet as the game which sold him on the concept of shared-screen gaming. "It was instantly obvious that getting a small group of people together playing the same game was a big step forward," he says. Such was the game's impact that Ellis has invested in his own very unit, which still gets attention despite being three decades old. "I have a Gauntlet machine at home now, and it's still as playable as it ever was," he explains.

The experience Ellis had with this early multiplayer classic arguably stood him in good stead when it came to adding the same social component to a Rare title which - amazingly - wasn't originally conceived with multiplayer in mind. "My first development experience was on the GoldenEye team, painstakingly retrofitting split screen play to a codebase that had been written without any concept of having multiple players," he explains, his grimace indicating how tricky this task must have been.

"Once it was up and running we played it in the office every evening in order to tweak and balance the setup and gameplay, and it was immediately obvious that we had something fun." To many, GoldenEye remains the quintessential split screen gaming experience, and is one of the Nintendo 64's best-selling titles. It took first person shooters - previously a PC gamer only affair - into the console mainstream, creating its own informal rules of sporting behavior gamers remember to this day (You chose Oddjob in a Licence to Kill, pistols, Stack match? You’re no gentleman). If it wasn’t for GoldenEye multiplayer, we wouldn’t have Call of Duty multiplayer splitscreen, and then Xbox Live, and then where would be?

Of course, both local and online play come with their own difficulties from a development perspective. "There are tradeoffs to be made in both scenarios," says Ellis. "A networked game has to compensate for network latency and handle all kinds of issues where one player can cause problems and delays for everyone else. Neither of these are easy, and a split screen game doesn't have to deal with them - there is no network latency if everyone is on the same device, and you can rely on peer pressure to deal with problems like players wandering off when they need to do something.”

“However, split screen games have a different set of problems. If everyone is sharing the same device, that device's resources - CPU, memory, screen space - need to be divided amongst the players. Since no player has the full resources of the device, sacrifices must be made. With a four-way split you only have a quarter of the resources per player, so the frame rate might be lower, the game world or textures might have less detail, the UI might need to be less complex to fit into a smaller space."

Micro Machines
Micro Machines © Codemasters

Split screen may result in a drop in performance, but there is another alternative: the same-screen multiplayer made famous by the likes of Gauntlet. "Still multiplayer, still social, but rendered once," explains Burcombe. "The trick is keeping all the players on one screen - like four-player Micro Machines. This type of gaming is really good competitive fun."

Micro Machines is also lauded as a social gaming classic, released by UK studio Codemasters on the Nintendo Entertainment System way back in 1991. The 16-bit Sega Genesis Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament even came with two additional controller ports physically built into the cartridge itself, allowing four people to play without the need for a multi-tab peripheral. Back in the days when two-player gaming was the most people could hope for, it was something of a revelation - it’s no coincidence that Burcombe’s latest mobile game, Table Top Racing, is something of a spiritual successor to the series.

Before online gaming came about, same-system gaming was simply the only way to get a social hit with interactive entertainment. Despite the additional cost and lack of flexibility, gamers of a certain age will have fond memories of crowding around a single screen surrounded by various controllers and multi-tap accessories. Are younger players who missed out on this spectacle poorer as a result, or was split screen gaming just a product of the limitations of tech at the time?

"Huddling around a four-player Bomberman multi-tap with your mates is something that online play doesn’t really get close to in terms of out and out fun", says Musgrave. "It’s not as spontaneous and in that way, yes, I guess we were lucky to have hit gaming during its golden era."

Ironically, after pumping millions of dollars into their respective online networks over the course of a decade, moves by the three main console makers into the field of "second screen" gameplay could kickstart a resurgence in local multiplayer.

"Some of the most fun I've had playing this type of game has been in the past three months, playing Nintendo Land and Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U with my kids," says Ellis. "That's an experience that can't be replaced by online play." Indeed, the former Rare man - who now runs mobile studio CrashLab, along with Musgrave - believes that there's a real future for this approach.

"The tablet versions of Minecraft have already had some traction in this area. My kids regularly play Minecraft together on their iPads. I'd love to see this become more widespread, but it requires time, resources and expertise that aren't available to many mobile developers. The budgets for most mobile games at the moment are simply too low to allow it. However, budgets are rising and local multiplayer gaming could be a good point of differentiation for developers who are looking to draw attention in the hugely crowded mobile space."

Sega Saturn
Sega Saturn © Damien McFerran

Burcombe is in agreement. "I think you’ll see innovations this year that let people use their TV and mobile device in very interesting ways," he says. "It doesn’t even need to be complex to recapture that social aspect – it just needs to involve more than one person in the same room. ‘Second Screen’ gaming could be multiplayer-based for sure, but it can also be used for new gameplay mechanics in single player too. I could easily imagine it in our iOS and Android title Table Top Racing, like having a range of ‘second screen only weapons’ added to the mix of random weapons. So perhaps you collect a pick up in the normal fashion and because you’re using a second screen as an overhead - view like a strategic map - you can tap on the screen where you want to land an AirStrike. You could also use it for multiplayer aspects too; in an FPS, one friend could be in a supporting role in a helicopter gunship, taking out bad guys on the battlefield to allow you on the ground to make progress. I think over the course of the next couple of years we’ll see some great new innovations in gameplay that bring back both social, competitive and cooperative gameplay styles."

© Matt Thorson

You only have to look at the success of indie hit TowerFall, a low-res arrow slinging deathmatch to see where we’re headed - or returning. A break-out hit on the Ouya micro console, it gained a cult following and earlier this year was released on PC and PS4 as TowerFall: Ascension to reviews that can only be described as gleeful.

Online may have sent the concept of traditional split or shared screen gaming into hiding, but the future could see a shift back to the close-quarters social aspect of multiplayer - certainly on mobile devices, where connections can be forged quickly using Bluetooth or local Wi-Fi. Time will tell if console titles will ever embrace the format again, but we've always got our dusty N64 consoles to remind us of why four people, four pads and one screen can equal one of the most rewarding and enjoyable gameplay experiences known to man. Just please, don’t choose Oddjob.

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