THE MORE THE MERRIER
LOAD UP ON THE JOYSTICKS—COMPUTER FUN IS A FAMILY AFFAIR
A giant lizard named Lizzy scaled a high-rise and devoured a SWAT officer whom she plucked from an open window. Then she turned her attention to George, a huge gorilla busy punching holes in a nearby building. Lizzy took a swipe at him, nearly knocking him to the ground.
"Hey! What did you do that for?" the teenage girl asked the woman sitting next to her at the computer. Her mother didn't answer. She just smiled and concentrated on the giant lizard she controlled with her joystick. (The girl controlled George.) After Lizzy reduced one building to rubble, she turned to help George pound another high-rise into dust. Despite machine-gun fire from attacking helicopters and heavily-armed police SWAT teams, Jackie Bean and her daughter, Ashley—with a little help from Lizzy and George—destroyed Peoria, then set their sights on Chicago.
This North Carolina family was spending an evening with Rampage, an arcade-style game from Activision that permits as many as three players simultaneously to lay waste to 147 different cities. The Windy City was saved from destruction when Ashley suddenly remembered a biology paper that was due the next day.
Changes in the Environment
"We always look at the two-player option when we are designing because we like to play the games with each other in the office," says Kelly Flock, product development manager at Activision. "For example, most of our games have allowed two-player participation, but usually sequentially as opposed to two players on the keyboard or joystick at the same time. Some of that comes from the MS-DOS environment where you don't typically have two joysticks."
Early multiplayer games tended to be the you-beat-my-high-score variety. What is interesting now, especially in games like Rampage, is that players work together. Up to three players can take the role of a huge gorilla, lizard, or wolf whose objective is to demolish cities Godzilla-style while avoiding helicopters and snipers.
"The objective was not to beat up the other guy," Flock says, "but to share the tasks. You go over and get that building, I get this building, but watch out for that helicopter, and then go down and get that police car." The game awards points for punching buildings, cars, helicopters, and for making between-meal snacks of the police. One person can play alone, but when two or more players get together, it makes it that much more fun.
"Despite its trash-and-smash theme," Flock says, "Rampage was created in an environment that was much more social, because you compete and cooperate with other live players."
The Human Touch
Traditional games are a form of entertainment played and enjoyed by several people, but, with a computer, you don't need a human opponent. Social interaction is still important, though. "People still prefer to play with other people," says Activision's Kelly Flock, "but there's a difficulty in getting them together, what with the timing or where the computer's located."
Shelly Safir, manager of product development at Accolade, echoes Flock's sentiment. "Computing can be a relatively isolating experience. The difficulty that we've found as an industry is that the computer is not normally in a place where the family gathers. It's a little difficult for people to get together unless they cram into one room."
A Gaggle of Group Games
Jack Nicholas' Greatest 18 Holes of Major Championship Golf
Hole-in-One Miniature Golf
John Madden Football
Lakers vs. Celtics
Tongue of the FatMan
As the personal computer moves out of an isolated corner and into the home's entertainment area, there's more opportunity for the family to gather around it—especially as the graphics capabilities pick up and the computer becomes more familiar. "Initially, there were members of the family who were afraid to touch it," Safir says. "As computers become more of an everyday item in the home, people are getting more accustomed to them and feel much more comfortable about playing with them."
A computer's input device also influences participation. A joystick or mouse is much more appealing than a keyboard for many game players. Two joysticks make it easier to attract two players. "I think I saw a lot more multiplayer gaming in the Commodore environment initially," Flock says, "but now I'm seeing players make that same transition in the MS-DOS market. Now people are starting to buy the joysticks, the sound boards, and the graphics boards that are allowing games to reach a level where they can really show off the machine. Owners want to invite people over to play."
If computer owners want to share their electronic fun with other people, software developers are all for it. "Two-player games are ideal for us," Flock says. "If everybody played two-player games, we could do away with the whole concept of computer A/I [Artificial Intelligence]. In developing games, that's often the hardest part to do. It's hard to make a computer opponent that's fun to play when you don't have a set of rules to follow."
Multiplayer games haven't done well financially. "But they are the kinds of games that all our developers like to do and we like to play," Flock says, "and that's why you continue to see them coming out. Around the office we have a bunch of game players who want to take on each other. Multiplayer games are the games of the future, but how soon they come is the big question."
Activision's new release, Tongue of the FatMan, emphasizes competition. Mondu-the-Fat is the undefeated champion and host of the intergalactic Fight Palace. You and a friend control bizarre creatures who pit their skills and weapons against each other. If you feel lucky, take on the FatMan himself. Just watch out for Mondu's special weapon; in this arena, tongue-lashing takes on a whole new meaning.
Play five-on-five basketball in Electronic Arts' Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs.
If you're looking for more down-to-earth action, sports games and simulations frequently allow two or more players to compete simultaneously. In GameStar's hockey game, Face Off, two players can play against each other in a league game or in an arcade version. It also lets two players team up against the computer. "That should be an interesting feature," Flock says, "because I don't know of any product that allows users to do that."
Baseball fans may want to consider Accolade's Hardball II. It provides an enhanced two-player option that lets you manage your team and make tactical decisions. Players can manage two teams in head-to-head competition.
Electronic Arts has several new sports releases designed for multiple players as well as the conventional human-vs.-computer mode. John Madden Football lets two players control full 11-men teams for each kickoff, return, scrimmage, pass, punt, touchdown, and point-after attempt. The game designers modeled player performance after real-life ratings on as many as 11 key variables, including speed, durability, coverage, and rushing.
Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs is five-on-five basketball action from Electronic Arts. Players can select any of ten NBA playoff teams from the 1988-89 season, complete with stats. You can recognize the computer players. Different heights, hair styles, colors, numbers, and moves add up to realistic on-court action. Check out Kareem's skyhook, Bird's three-pointer, and Jordan's double-pump reverse-slam.
Accolade's Safir produced Jack Nicholas' Greatest 18 Holes in Major Championship Golf, a popular golf game with an option for up to four players, but this summer he released a different kind of multiplayer game, called Mental Blocks. "It's the type of game, even in its single-player option, where people will stand around behind you and give you suggestions what to do," he says.
Mental Blocks offers three challenges in one package, and two of them have two-player options. Players compete against each other and the clock. "It provides a competitive mode that I think increases game enjoyment for a longer term," Safir says. "I also think that aspect encourages a lot more communication between the people playing, whether it be competitive or cooperative."
In MB's Mental Detector, the problem is the same for both players. The top and two sides of a cube are shown, and each side has a color and perhaps an arrow pointing in a particular direction. Below the cube are four panels that may or may not represent the unfolded cube. The first player to identify which panel is the unfolded cube wins that round.
Shapes Happen is Mental Blocks' other two-player game, and it's similar to some IQ tests. You look at three figures that have some relationship, and then you select the fourth figure in the series from four choices. Mental Blocks also offers a game that can best be described as a three-dimensional version of Tetris. You rotate falling shapes so that they fit into the pieces that had tumbled down before. Instead of completing a line, you fill in a two-dimensional surface.
Invite a Friend into the Dungeon
Take a party of warriors, thieves, or magicians into monster-infested mazes and dungeons in search of riches and adventure. Instead of juggling each character's actions yourself in a role-playing adventure, consider the fun of having friends controlling each team member. It can produce some unexpected results.
"With everybody yelling commands at each other, it's really kind of funny. It's a totally different kind of gaming when you're playing at a computer with a whole bunch of people," says Joe Sislow, a teenage game tester for Mindscape. Sislow and several friends got together to test Gauntlet II. Thor, Thyra, Questor, and Merlin are back with more than 100 mazes to explore. Old enemies, ghosts, grunts, demons, lobbers, and sorcerers return, too, plus some new villains.
"We sometimes do nutty things," Sislow confesses. "One time on Gauntlet, we decided to rush four guys on this dragon that you are not supposed to attack hand-to-hand. We decided to anyway because we watch a lot of hack-'em-up movies, and we figured it would be a silly thing to do. The actual funny thing was, it worked. My friends and I were laughing hysterically. I don't think it would have been nearly as much fun had just one of us done it. It expanded the game so much by having people there to share it."
On certain levels of Gauntlet, your weapons can hurt other members of your party. Friends have been known to take mischievous shots at each other during lulls in the action. "That can turn into a silly romp," Sislow says, "but it's kind of fun. People go around shooting each other, getting off one shot just to irritate the other person, and they end up chasing each other."
Multiplayer games once employed split screens with players isolated from one another, but now the computer sets the stage and lets players interact any way they wish. Four human players can control four characters, doing whatever they want. They can work together or work against each other. "It sets up some interesting scenarios for being able to do some things that you can't do in a normal game," Sislow says. "Cooperating can make it a lot easier to finish a game, and competition can make it more fun."
There are times, however, when competition is not of prime importance and completing the game is only a secondary consideration. There are occasions when it's enough for family members to spend time together, sharing an activity.
Steve Hudson lives with his wife and daughter in Alpharetta, Georgia. He was playing DigiTek's Hole-in-One Miniature Golf one evening when his daughter, Kathryn, 6, took an interest in the game. "Kathryn watched me for a while and then she wanted to try it," Hudson said. She climbed into her father's lap and, after a few lessons on how to putt with the mouse, the two started to play. It wasn't long before Kathryn was doing better than her father. "It would take me four or five shots to get into the hole," Hudson says, "and she would have a sense for lining up shots to drop them in, one hole-in-one after another."
Cooperation is the key to success and survival in the dungeons of Mindscape's Gauntlet II.
When Hudson returned from work each day, Kathryn would ask to play. If he already had the game running, she'd want to be included. "As she was crawling into my lap she'd say, 'Daddy, can I play?' I don't know what it was about the game that grabbed her so much, maybe it was the color or the sound or the interaction with the mouse, but she loved it. And she always beat me."
Remember your billiards skills when trying bank putts in Hole-in-One Miniature Golf.
Kathryn is starting to share her father's enthusiasm for computers. Often when the two of them start a computer game or activity, Kathryn gets so involved with it she takes over. Hudson doesn't mind. He enjoys the time spent with his daughter. "It pulls us together in a world that's tending to pull us apart," he says. "As she grows and her interests change, she'd often rather do things with her friends. I took her to a concert the other night. She liked that, but I could already see her when she's 15, at a concert, not even thinking about Daddy."
Despite all the activities competing for a child's attention, at the age of 6 Kathryn still sees her dad as a computer whiz, and Hudson appreciates the opportunities computer games provide for bringing his daughter and him closer. "When the two of us are playing, my wife, Anne, will just let us do it. She maybe sees what's going on.
"It's kind of neat," he says of the togetherness brought about by the computer. "It's a very unexpected result."
Tom Netsel is an assistant features editor with COMPUTE! Publications. He can never find anyone to play with him, he says, because he cheats.