Danish developers want to take over cinemas with a new game platform: “It will be like a LAN party”

Mark Olsen from Bolverk Games will help program the games for the new cinema game tournaments. Illustration: Bolverk Games

The coronavirus pandemic hit cinemas hard. Months of cinema closures were one thing, but streaming services, which had already come roaring into the entertainment market, snatching premieres from right under the noses of the hard-pressed cinema owners was another.

But now, two Danish companies—Cinemataztic and Bolverk Games—have launched a new project to save cinemas’ ailing audience numbers. “CineClash”, as they call it, are large computer game tournaments with up to 100 players that take place in cinemas.

“It will be kind of like a LAN party, but it will all take place on a big screen, and people will play using their mobile phones,” says Anders Emil Hansen, developer at Cinemataztic.

Cinemataztic already has the platform for making games for the big screen. Many will probably be familiar with their game, which is played before screenings in many Danish cinemas and has also been sold to cinemas in countries such as Germany, Spain, and Australia. These are often simple quiz games, but in order to get people together for tournaments, the games need to be a little more advanced. That is why they have teamed up with Bolverk Games, a game studio that is used to making games for more atypical platforms—such as the voice-controlled courtroom game “Voice Attorney”.

The two companies have received approximately DKK 5.4 million in EU cultural support funds to develop games and frameworks for these game tournaments. They are currently coming up with fun ideas for game design, while at the same time working on making the technology ready for use.

Not a first-person shooter

When Cinemataztic’s games are played in cinemas today, the communication between smartphones and the screen happens over the cloud. But to minimize layers, the developers will encourage cinemas to invest in a local network. At the same time, the developers expect that the Wi-Fi 6 technology can help create a smooth gaming experience for the many players they hope to gather in the cinemas.

At Bolverk Games, they had already tested how much input lag—the delay between a command from a controller to the visual representation on the screen—they could handle in a game that also had to have some real-time action. But once they had Cinemataztic’s platform in their hands, they were pleasantly surprised.

“It turned out that the lag wasn’t as bad as I had feared,” says Mark Olsen, programmer at Bolverk Games.

“I expect our game to be real-time, and even if it becomes a challenge with the network latency, there are many ways to mask that in a game. But it’s also an advantage that this project is actually more like making a game for people who sit on the sofa together and play on the same screen than it is like making a big multiplayer game.”

However, the number of players alone means that the game developers from Bolverk Games cannot count on delivering gameplay that depends on quick reactions.

“It won’t be a first-person shooter with the setup we have today,” Anders Emil Hansen says.

“But that just means that we have to take that into account when making the games we design for the platform,” Mark Olsen says.

Although Bolverk Games will make the first games for the concept, the plan is to have the SDK (software development kit) for CineClash publicly available and well documented, so that other game companies are eventually able to make new games and make money by getting a share of the cinema ticket price.

Learning about visual communication

It is not only the network that will be under load due to having so many players. The amount of information that can be shown to the players is limited—even on a large cinema screen.

“The biggest challenge is how to give the players the feeling of having agency and a way to stay oriented,” Mark Olsen says.

“We’re working on testing that now. How many characters can we actually get on the screen before you start to lose track of where you are”.

Cinemataztic’s machines are equipped with Nvidia GTX 1050 graphics cards, and although they are not best in class, they deliver quite excellent results, according to the developers. But that does not change the fact that it will be a challenge to keep the screen parsable for the players.

“We’ll need to learn more about visual communication,” Anders Emil Hansen says.

“How do you create uniform communication for so many participants?”

According to Mark Olsen, the solution is to keep visual communication to a minimum.

“The conclusion from our initial tests has been that we can’t have all players on the screen with unique characters all the time,” Mark Olsen says.

“So we’re looking at how we can make something asynchronous or something where several players help each other control the same thing. For example, it could be six players who have to control a tank, but the players take on different roles. One is responsible for turning left, another one controls the cannon, and so on.”

The first game tests for CineClash will already take place this year, while CineClash in its finished form is planned to hit the market in 2024.