When Ramiro Corbetta was growing up in Brazil, his family shared a passion for soccer, and the stadium was something like a family church. Though he moved to the U.S. at the age of 12, he brought his passion for the rituals of community play and public spaces with him -- and into his work in game design.
Corbetta's best known for Hokra, a four-player multiplayer sports game designed with public events in mind. Designed for and debuting at NYU's popular No Quarter exhibition last year, it's gotten quite popular with indie fans. It plays particularly well here in New York, where our indie scene shares space with music, art and other do-it-yourself events that crowd friends into raucous spaces.
By focusing on community-oriented sports games, Corbetta's been able to capture and share a bit of the spirit and community his family enjoys around soccer. "The way in which it brings people together is beautiful," Corbetta reflects. Rather than toe the historical divide between sports fans and the generally more bookish world of games, he's focused on closing that gap.
Corbetta is far from alone in being interested in the universality of play, and how video games can play a larger role in the way people come together. Earlier this month he was joined by Doug Wilson, Noah Sasso and Bennet Foddy, along with the New School Game Club, in organizing a free community event appropriately titled the Sportsfriends Quadrathlon, where attendees could compete in teams at Hokra and the others' respective J.S. Joust, BaraBari Ball and Pole Riders.
Attendance was much broader than anyone predicted: Over 100 people and some 40 teams participated in four different tournaments, overwhelming to accommodate and moderate. "It was a madhouse, in terms of things going on all the time," Corbetta explains: In other words, an excellent success.
Organizers were especially pleased that the event was just as much fun for those that just came to watch. People gathered around for the finals, which were "super exciting... there was a crowd of dozens of people yelling about the games."
The first seeds for community-focused sports games came for Corbetta when people pointed out to him that for every group of four playing Hokra at No Quarter, ten more would be gathered round to watch. After that, he began to focus the game's design specifically on being appealing to spectators.
"I focused on making the game very readable - like adding trails behind the players so that the motion becomes more clear," he says. "I also tried to make the score more readable, and tried to keep the rules of the game very minimal and clear. I think it's a game that someone watching for the first time understands pretty much right away."
Making individual sessions short -- Corbetta estimates one game of Hokra only lasts about three minutes -- helps people get engaged very quickly and encourages onlookers to jump in, because they don't have to wait particularly long.
"Lately I've been focused a lot on making games that bring people together," says Corbetta. He was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic regular visitors to New York City's Babycastles events, which invite the wider community to play exhibitions of indie games as part of accessible, friendly local art and music parties. He says participating in that collective has been a major influence.
"When I was shifting from being a game designer at a company [Powerhead Games] to programming my own games, I was hanging out at Babycastles a lot," he recalls, reflecting on times when he could share and play prototypes with other indies on laptops over beers, while locals got an early look at Messhof's Nidhogg beneath the thrum and press of music and dancing upstairs. "By default, I started making games that were aimed at the public space."
He loved the excitement and energy of the Babycastles scene, and noticed one interesting inequity: "There are always more people than controllers," he says. "So you start thinking of ways to entertain the people who are not holding controllers."
Generally, Corbetta sees the very idea of a single-player game as something of a "historical aberration." Play has always been a locus of social behavior for people, and many of the most enduring not-video games are about interactions between people.
Most would rather toss a ball with a friend than alone. Even today, many people play card games and board games just as much as a way to be together with fellow hobbyists as to enjoy the game itself.
"Don't get me wrong, I play solo games a lot," he adds. "But they are weird. You sit there alone; it's a very different kind of thig, and suddenly games are about doing something by yourself. Which is sometiems great, you can enter alternative words and be these alternative characters... but I'm so much more excited by humans and how they relate to each other."
At the end of the Sportsfriends Quadrathlon, some 15 or 20 friends went to a bar. "Everybody was talking, and interacting, and hugging," Corbetta says. "Okay, not everybody was hugging." But you know.