In September 2016 I had the opportunity as part of my job at the Media Engineering Institute to work on a unique interactive video mapping experience. As a research Institute we pretty much received a free pass to create some projection mapping project for the Numerik Games festival, a festival promoting the digital world and video games. Our plan was to adapt a previous game we made called Wallogram. It was a web-based multiplayer platformer in which you had one screen showing the game and through the use of mobile phones and tablets anyone could control a little avatar. It was made using native browser technologies, this meant that anyone with a computer and a smartphone could launch the game and play with their friends without installing anything particular.

At first the idea of adapting this game to make it work at this event sounded easy enough. We just had to improve the stability and create a few levels adapted to the building however, very quickly we realized it wasn’t going to be that easy. Wallogram was made for a few simultaneous players in mind. As nice that it was being able to play on any computer and smartphone, it also meant these technologies are not adapted to developing video games. Numerik Games was an opportunity to have hundreds if not thousands of potential players and letting them play five at a time was not that exciting. This is why we decided to change the game engine. We went for Unity, a platform optimized to create games. This along with a much more powerful server to host the game, and a good low latency WIFI connection as back up to the unpredictable 4G would be enough to support hundreds of players, or at least so we thought.

On the performance front it turns out we happen to be right, but the one thing we struggled with was gameplay. While we were developing the game, some questions came up. How are the players gonna differentiate themselves and how are we going to make a fun simple game with hundreds of players on one screen?

On Wallogram we used colors to differentiate players and that was fine for 10 people, but 100? There is no way you can find 100 unique colors, so after multiple tests our solution was to simplify the avatar and keep 7 easily identifiable colors and add a letter in the center of it, filtering out the letter that looked too similar. We had to downgrade the number of colors because unlike the previous game, we were projecting on a temple surrounded with environment light and if you’ve ever used a projector with the light on, you’ll probably have noticed colors don’t show up as well as on your TV. There are many other ways to differentiate characters, such as patterns, animation, shape and size, but with our specific need and deadline this was the solution we went with.

Photo by Mélanie Da Cunha - HEIG-VD
Photo by Mélanie Da Cunha – HEIG-VD

One big limiting factor of these single screen multiplayer game is the play area. Once again a simple race to the end platformer worked great for 10 people. You’d have short 1-2 minute races depending on the difficulty and one of you would be a winner. Applying that to 100 people was not an easy task, as a matter of fact any type of platformer game with gravity pulling everyone to the ground was pretty chaotic. Projecting on a temple which was quite vertically shaped was not helping. The first night we launched this became very apparent. All our game modes with gravity ended up with dozens or more players stuck under others trying to reach the next platform and avoiding one that made it further up only to fall to their doom. Luckily, while developing our game we thought of a backup plan. As we were not in a position with time or resources to get 100 people beta testing our game, we chose to multiply our chances. We made five different game types with the idea that we won’t be able to figure out all the potential issues, but there’s bound to be at least one mode that will work. It ended up paying off, as we had to retire 2 of the game types during the peak hours with 3 top-down mini games remaining, a shooter, a racer, and a cleanup game.

There are many other questions we faced developing that game. Maybe another game type would have been more adapted to these constraints, but we were dealing with a passing crowd. The players would come and go, leaving not much time to learn the rules and frankly, platformer type games are easy to catch on. I initially wanted to have some amazing 3D illusions mixed in with the game but that was a whole other demand in performance,  development time, and honestly, my abilities.

All in all it was an amazing experience. I discovered Unity, learned so much about game development and more importantly, discovered a new passion for making games. This year at Numerik Games we are going create another multiplayer interactive experience. For now that is all I will say about this part of the projection mapping section of the festival, but I would like let you know about our call for projects. We aren’t looking for anything interactive as time is pressing, but if you are an illustrator, a designer, or an animator of some kind, we would love to see your work projected on that very same building we displayed our game on. We have made assets available on the website to help you create your projection mapping project. All the information you need is on the page and as I am part of the team organizing this call for projects I will gladly answer any of your questions.

So maybe, see you or your work at Numerik games 2017!