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Can local multiplayer translate to online VR?

The last few years have seen an uptick in success stories for local multiplayer games, with titles like Towerfall and Nidhogg underscoring that some games are still best enjoyed when played face-to-face with friends (or enemies, for that matter). Gang Beasts from Sheffield, UK-based Boneloaf has been another indie local multiplayer success story, with the Early Access multiplayer party game providing a light-hearted take on the fighting genre with procedurally animated characters stumbling their way through a variety of absurd and often hazardous arenas.

While the studio is set up explicitly to produce "experimental multiplayer party games," Boneloaf developers Michael and James Brown spoke with GamesIndustry.biz and dismissed any notion that it was a calculated move to capitalize on a resurgent trend in gaming.

"I don't think we're that clever," Michael said.

"There's no obvious business intelligence in Boneloaf," James agreed, adding, "We're kind of a stretch company to be doing game development, really, because we have pretty limited skills or experience. Four out of the five people that have worked on the game from Boneloaf are all trained in fine art or illustration. We're not trained in game design or development. Michael's the only one who's trained on that, and he's a recent graduate."

James said he, Michael, and fellow brother (and Boneloafer) Jon Brown grew up playing local multiplayer games and always wanted to make their own versions of those games. When they started participating in game jams, those were naturally the games they gravitated toward. But for all the positive feedback Gang Beasts has received since it launched into Early Access in August of 2014, its lack of online play has been a constant sore spot for users.

"Any kind of negative reviews we get are generally about people buying it and expecting online because the audience for games has gotten used to expecting that," James said.

While Boneloaf had shown itself to be proficient at prototyping a fun game, it had still never shipped a game, much less one with an online component. They knew they'd need experienced help to make it happen.

"Online is effectively the fourth time we've rebuilt the game, because it has that much of an impact on how the game works at a system level," James said. "So it was really important to work with somebody that already knew the game and was familiar with what was fun about the game and what the annoyances in the game are currently."

However, online multiplayer wasn't the only feature they needed help with. They also wanted to introduce a virtual reality mode to the game, as Michael explained, because it fit with the game's concept of dueling vinyl toys, and would make levels feel more like action figure playsets than digital arenas. They found a partner in Sunderland, UK's Coatsink to help bring both features to life.

"It's not work for hire. It's more collaborative than that," James said, "The reason we wanted to partner with Coatsink on the VR stuff was partly because they have history and considerable experience working with VR, but also we know they know the game, that they play the game and enjoy the game. They also know the structure of our company, how new our company is in terms of dealing with business. And the significant rollout of online is going to take us a little while to get our heads around certain aspects of it, and we needed them to have the patience to work with us on some of that stuff."

Of course, the social aspect of local multiplayer gaming could be altered by both the move to online as well as the experience of playing with a headset on. But Coatsink COO Simon Launder insisted that hasn't been the case, saying, "I think VR adds to the experience a bit. As long as you've got things like voice chat so you're still interacting with people. Especially with online multiplayer, you tend not to be in the same room as someone anyway, so I think the headset adds to [the social experience]."

James said he wasn't worried about the game's qualities being lost in translation, and so far, the results have backed that up. The team has really only tested remote play once, at last month's EGX Rezzed in London. And even with multiple banks of people in Oculus headsets playing the game, he still heard the standard trash talk and chatting between players.

"Even people who weren't [talking to other players] were still laughing, and that gave us a clear indication that the VR and online or remote play experience can be very similar to the local experience," James said. "We're trying to make them as similar as possible."

Even if Gang Beasts is adopting online multiplayer, Boneloaf doesn't think it has fully explored the game's local multiplayer potential just yet.

"We've had Gang Beasts played on IMAX cinemas, on big screens at events, even projected on the bottom of an empty swimming pool," James said. "We've had it in so many different contexts and people have sent us so many images of them playing it all around the world, we definitely think that sort of event gaming is becoming more and more significant. And we do have plans to kind of bypass the limitations of current domestic technology so we can get some supped-up computers to go out to events to have a 30-player Royal Rumble battle royale Gang Beasts mode, or a 22-player Gang Beasts football mode, that kind of thing."

Gang Beasts is expected to launch on the PlayStation 4 later this year, followed by a full release outside of Early Access. Features like the VR mode and a full story mode are also planned for post-launch updates. Regardless of what happens with the game from this point, whether it finds its audience clustered around couches or spread across servers, Boneloaf is confident its projects will always begin as same-room experiences.

"Local multiplayer will always be our first priority, I think," James said. "And it probably will still ultimately be the most fun way to play the game because you're directly there with your friends. But the online and VR modes add something different that we think is just as compelling; it's just a slightly different experience."

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