Bird poop and Big Screens: Attempting a multiplayer world record

There's no category in the Guinness World Records for the most players in a single-screen multiplayer game. However, that's likely to change soon thanks to a group of New York University graduate students who created SPLAT, a multiplayer game designed for the 120-foot video wall installed in the lobby of the IAC building on the west side of Manhattan. The screen is a Prysm laser phosphor display and sports a whopping resolution of 11,520 x 1,080 pixels. The game was debuted at a packed showcase event last Friday night, along with the work of other students from an NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program class appropriately called Big Screens.

Music by Kevin MacLeod

"The assignment was to create a production specifically for the IAC screen to engage a live audience on the show night," said Phil Groman, one of the creators of SPLAT. "Productions could be anything from pre-rendered video, to theatre, to software."

In SPLAT, a telephone wire stretches across the screen with a traffic-filled road beneath. Each player controls a bird on the wire with the objective of trying to get their bird to... well... poop on the passing vehicles. To control the bird, the players use their smartphone's browser to connect to a web interface hosted on the game's server. The team used a Node.js instance to run the game and an HTML5 canvas to render on the screen and on the players' phones.

Each player controls a bird on the wire with the objective of trying to get their bird to... well... poop on the passing vehicles.

Early in the process of developing the project, they joked about setting a world record and contacted Guinness on the off chance that they'd be eligible to do so. Much to their delight, the team actually heard back from the world records authority.

"It would be awesome to get into the book," Phil said. "We remember owning it as kids and hoping to one day get the chance to set our own record."

But in order to establish the category and take the record, Guinness set a few requirements: 100 or more simultaneous players needed to play for at least 30 seconds, with each player scoring at least one point. To verify the results, they had four witnesses from the gaming industry on hand to observe the gameplay and review the server logs. During their first attempt on Friday evening, they maxed out the available space on the telephone wire with 115 players, but two players were unable to score a point. With 113 eligible players -- pending certification from the officials at Guinness -- that's good enough to make them the first record-holder in the newly formed category.

"We feel an immense sense of relief," said Groman. "We put a huge amount of work into this project without ever fully knowing if it was going to work with a big, live audience on cell phones. It was literally when we saw the wire filling up and the crowd loving it that we finally knew."

Bird poop and big screens Attempting a multiplayer world record

Creating content for the video wall is no easy task; simply rendering a short video for it could take all day. Another group of students used the enormous screen to create an ode to Nikola Tesla in the form of a graphical animation.

"It took about five hours for a single render of the full 3:30 piece," said Roopa Vasudevan, one of the group members. "It meant we had to be done two days before testing on the wall so we could render overnight, check it the next day, fix any mistakes and then render overnight again if necessary."

Other groups opted to use coding environments like Processing or openFrameworks for on-the-fly graphics generation, which allowed for live interaction between the screen and performers or audience members.

The team behind SPLAT was the only group to use a web browser, Google Chrome, to display content on the screen. Since they had very little rehearsal time in the space, it allowed them to make quick changes on the fly without the need to re-render the project. Another benefit to using the web technology is that it's easy to run in other environments and on screens of almost any size. According to the team's engineering lead, Federico Zannier, "it can be run on any machine without further configuration."

Creating content for the video wall is no easy task; simply rendering a short video for it could take all day.

But creating an engaging gaming experience for each player on one of the world's largest screens presented a challenge for them.

"The game had to take up the entire width of the screen without it seeming forced or odd," said Danne Woo, SPLAT's front-end developer. "The entire audience also needed to remain interested the entire time. Birds on a wire and cars below seemed like a great game idea for the screen dimensions."

Delivering detailed stats to each phone after the game and displaying the overall rankings on the screen proved to be a big hit among the players. According to Woo, "the high scorers went on to brag about their ranking for the rest of the evening."

The team must now gather all the documentation to send to Guinness, including witness statements, videos, photos and server logs. They'll find out after six weeks if the world record-keepers accept their attempt. I asked Groman how they'd feel about competitors in the category.

"We are certain that someone will inevitably beat our record -- if it gets approved," he said. "Maybe we beat it ourselves! But it will feel great to have created a new category, and we welcome new competitors in this space."

Update: We originally reported that the screen has a resolution of 11,520 x 1,080 pixels. The projects were actually rendered at that resolution and scaled up to meet the screen's resolution of 22,7201 x 1,920 pixels.

Matt Richardson is a technophile, maker and video producer. He's a Contributing Editor for MAKE Magazine, author of Getting Started with Raspberry Pi and owner of Awesome Button Studios, a technology consultancy