When game design students at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts create new ideas for video games, they usually test paper mockups, then the games themselves, on potential players.
The tests are an important way to see whether players actually behave as game designers expect, but it’s also a challenge now that courses have moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic. One solution faculty and students have hit upon is using Zoom, the popular videoconferencing platform, to prototype and play-test their new creations. And that, in turn, led to an ongoing open competition organized by Jeff Watson, an assistant professor in the school’s Interactive Media and Games Division, calling for designs for games specifically designed to be played over Zoom.
So far, among dozens of entries, the results have included “Astronauts in Trouble,” where players mime how to MacGyver a solution to a space station problem with a nearby household object, and “I Have Never Met Someone That…,” where one player gives a sentence beginning with the game’s title and others search for a friend to invite who meets that description. Other games are more conceptual, such as “Kitty, You’re a Star,” a game that can be played during other Zoom calls by following the simple rule that participants drop what they’re otherwise doing to talk about their cats (or other pets) whenever the animals enter the frame.
The ZoomJam, as it’s called, is a fun challenge for amateur and professional game designers and a way to encourage them to think creatively about the opportunities and challenges of remote play. But it’s also a way to get people thinking about possibilities for face-to-face socialization in a time when millions of people are separated from their friends and families thanks to social distancing rules.
Jeff Watson, USC
The show must go on—we must find ways to play with each other.”
ZoomJam participants are far from the only ones looking to use Zoom and its rival videoconferencing platforms for gaming. People who traditionally play in-person games—from Dungeons & Dragons to pub trivia—have migrated their gaming nights online, sometimes with the help of specialized software and sometimes with just a webcam. Business colleagues and family groups looking for social activities beyond simply making conversation are exploring new options for Zoom-based play. They’ve adapted features built into Zoom for gaming purposes, such as using screen sharing to display scoreboards, harnessing a virtual whiteboard for Pictionary-style drawing games, and making sure to mute their mics for private discussions between teammates in the same room.
“The show must go on—we must find ways to play with each other,” Watson says. “It’s so nourishing for our souls.”
Moving offline gaming sessions to the net
Some in-person elements of gaming culture have certainly suffered since the pandemic hit. QuizRunners, an Ottawa company that offers packages of trivia questions and scoring spreadsheets to people running quiz nights at bars and for charity, has seen its subscription business decline, says CEO Kevin Evoy. While some bars are hosting online trivia nights as a way to stay in touch with regulars, many have unsurprisingly stopped running the events. But one-off purchases of questions have gone “way up,” Evoy says, as charities run fundraisers and people set up friendly competitions for their employees or friends and family.
“I run them myself as well,” says Evoy. “It’s a really great way to connect and makes things a little more normal on Friday night or Saturday night.”
Kevin Evoy, QuizRunners
It’s a really great way to connect and makes things a little more normal on Friday night or Saturday night.”
Some gaming systems that lend themselves to videoconferencing play have seen a dramatic increase in use: Jackson Owens, a New York software developer who built an online game-board generator for the team word-guessing game Codenames, says unique visitor counts have jumped about 3,000% in the past month.
“A lot of the work I’ve done recently has been helping it scale, because originally it was only intended for me and my friends,” says Owens, who is keeping the game free with an optional donation link.
And Jackbox Games, which makes party video games such as the Apples to Apples-esque Quiplash, has seen a boost in sales and “quite an uptick in traffic,” says CEO Mike Bilder. That’s despite the fact that Jackbox’s games weren’t primarily meant for remote play. “Our games are primarily party games,” Bilder says. “They’re built around people getting together and playing in the same room.”
Now that the room is more likely to be a virtual one, the company recently published a guide to streaming its games to multiple players. Depending on what equipment players have handy, this can be done using features on various video gaming systems or simply by aiming a laptop’s webcam at a TV.
Just a camera and your imagination
Fans of elaborate tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons are also migrating to digital play. Some are using tools such as Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, specialized software designed for managing role-playing sessions and keeping track of data such as character statistics, dice rolls, and world maps. SmiteWorks, the company behind Fantasy Grounds, has seen a 10-fold increase in usage and plans to hire new staff to keep up with demand, says owner Doug Davison. The software is designed for in-person gaming sessions as well, but it’s currently being used in conjunction with Zoom and similar software that lets people see and hear their role-playing partners.
“You really need to be also able to see the video of the person you’re talking with,” says Davison. “There’s nuances when you see someone’s face.”
Some role-players prefer to build their own systems: Carl Schnurr, a game designer who teaches in the USC games program, had already been regularly playing the fantasy role-playing game 13th Age remotely with a group of friends when the pandemic arrived. “The one big change with the plague is that we now get to play every week as opposed to once a month,” he says.
Carl Schnurr, USC
The one big change with the plague is that we now get to play every week as opposed to once a month.”
Rather than use specialized gaming software, the group connects with Zoom and uses Google Slides and Google Docs as a kind of virtual tabletop. Schnurr, who manages the gaming sessions, can position virtual tokens on a Slides presentation to show player characters and the monsters they’re fighting. In one recent session, players tangled with a “filth hydra” in an underground sewage pit, with the monster’s many heads represented as draggable images in the document. In another scenario, characters attended a magical masquerade ball, with players sending Schnurr slides ahead of time showing off their outfits. Author Mark Anthony, one of the players, typically takes notes during the gaming sessions and writes them up in a style like one of his fantasy novels, Schnurr says.
While the prep sessions for his games are intense—about six hours to design maps and scenarios per session, he estimates—Schnurr says there’s no reason people can’t move other popular games online as well. After all, even people who might not regularly play board games might find them to be a good way to pass the time during Zoom calls with family members, just as Monopoly or Scrabble boards might be dusted off during holiday get-togethers. For games where all information is out in the open—trivia games, or board games with no hidden hands of cards or tokens—all you need is a webcam aimed at a board, while other games might be better suited to using specialized software.
“You could totally set up a Monopoly board—just aim your camera at it,” says Schnurr. “For Scrabble or poker, I would just play online Scrabble or poker, because those exist already.”
When restrictions ease, it’s likely that many games will move back into the physical world. Bars will reopen and host trivia nights, Dungeons & Dragons groups will head back into living rooms, and many players of Jackbox’s party games won’t need to aim their webcams at their television screens any longer. But it’s quite possible that now that people have realized it’s possible to play games remotely with family and friends, they’ll continue to do so as a way to stay in touch. Jackbox may take steps to remind its new fans that they can play in person as well as online, Bilder says.
“Online digital gaming is not the solitary experience that people in 2020 might be tempted to think of it as,” says Richard Lemarchand, an associate professor in the USC games program who is a judge for the ZoomJam. “My feeling is that while I know that we’re also bursting to get back into the world, people are going to remember and still want to play together online as well as play together in real life.”