Every couple of Fridays, we have Jackbox games on the chill-out TV in the middle of our office. Anyone that wants to play brings their phone to tap answers in Quiplash and maybe draw one or two things in Bidiots. It's simple and fun, for an hour or maybe two. It brings people together.
Sony's PlayLink does exactly that, but with more depth — like serious, long games like Hidden Agenda (from the team that made Until Dawn) as well as party games like Knowledge is Power and That's You! If you've got a PS4 and some friends or family or maybe strangers to play with, it's a tempting proposition.
PlayLink comes at the right time for Sony and for PlayStation, the right time during the console's now three year lifespan. Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios senior vice president Michael Denny explains: "It's been an interesting journey in that we've got to a stage in Playstation 4 where, you know, we've had our most successful console ever — hitting all the right notes with our audience, all the great exclusive titles coming through.
"We were thinking: does there become a time where it'd be great to have an experience that both core gamers, and their friends and family — who may be casual gamers or non-gamers — can have together, to use your PlayStation in an inclusive way.
"We thought back to the PlayStation 2, at a similar time in the life cycle we introduced games like Buzz and Singstar and EyeToy, and we definitely got success. So that was the thinking behind it."
PlayLink is pretty straightforward — there are five games coming out for digital download on the PS4 soon, and four are on show at the moment at E3 this year. You load the game on your PS4, then launch the app for each individual game on each individual phone (so yes, you'll have to download an app for each one you play).
The advantage of an app rather than a browser-based system like Jackbox's is that each phone connects directly to the PS4, rather than using the 'net — advantageous in avoiding mid-game drop-outs like I've experienced before. Because of that, PlayLink lends itself better to a regular group of friends than some ring-in strangers or afternoon office drinking buddies.
Denny again: "We took it to that next stage where we were deciding, 'what could those games be?' We decided it had to be group play, it had to be accessible — and then smartphones became the obvious choice for a universal controller.
"Everybody knows how to use a smartphone, and casual gamers know how to use it for gaming as well, so it felt like the natural choice. And each game can use it as well in their own specific way, in terms of using the capabilities of giving you information: drawing, using the touchscreen, the gyros for something like Frantics."
That's You! and Knowledge is Power are traditional party games, in that they're fun and knowledge- or guess based — in KiP, you vote to pick a category (mob rules), harass your opponents with in-game impediments and try to win. In That's You! you're trying to forecast what your friends or family might pick and piggyback their answers.
Hidden Agenda, though, is a Heavy Rain-style, Until Dawn-esque crime drama adventure that requires five players to vote (again, majority rules) on the player character's actions in an entirely serious setting. It feels at odds with a group atmosphere at first, but each player has their own agenda — and one player's is to upset the apple cart entirely.
Michael Denny wants to stress that point, too. "It's not just party games that we're showing with PlayLink; the breadth of experience, and these are just the first titles we're announcing, shows the different experiences. That's You! is irreverent, Knowledge is Power is a traditional quiz game but with twists on it — both of those encourage banter and interaction, but then you look at Hidden Agenda — it's like an interactive movie night."
"It encourages different conversation, different people will play different ways. There's a story mode, where people will want to play through and make the choices, we have a competitive mode where you're given hidden agendas and you're playing for points. You're encouraged to pause the game and discuss it and convince your friends that this is the right way to go..."
Replayability is a concern for me — and rightly so, especially if you're the player that's already invested over $40 on the latest Jackbox Party Pack through the PS Store. PlayLink has tough competition. But, it's a technology platform rather than a game, so other devs can jump on board and expand its appeal with new titles.
Not all of those games will need to use the camera or mic or gyroscope, though: "That's not where we're coming from at all. Our idea was only to lower the barrier for entry and make it more accessible. Everybody has one, everybody knows how to use it."
That's You! will launch on July 4, with other games coming out after that. It'll be free to PlayStation Plus members, or will be $US19.99 for non-members. Will more titles, familiar titles, be on the way soon? Denny mentioned Buzz earlier, so I press him again: "We have a rich heritage, and so many great IPs out there, but at the start of PlayLink we wanted to introduce new titles that weren't what we'd done before, but certainly you can see a lot of crossover to a game like Buzz — so who knows what we're doing in the future.
My one minor concern about PlayLink is that it requires each new player download an app to play each game. That's a small ask, but it might be enough to turn off the casual office-drinks player. Your friends around your TV at home, the crew that you'll be playing the more relationship-driven That's You! and Hidden Agenda with — they'll be happy to make that leap with you. Denny's response: "I think most people who own smartphones know how to install an app."
Gizmodo travelled to E3 as a guest of Xbox.