Is the future of comedy interactive? Learn how the team behind 'WiFi Wars' and TV's 'Go 8 Bit' have managed to make chaotic multiplayer mobile gaming work on a huge scale...
It’s not often when booking tickets to a comedy gig that you’re encouraged to come with a full phone battery. But then, WiFi Wars isn’t your usual comedy gig. Part game show, part video game competition, it asks all-comers to switch on their phones, head to a unique URL, and game together like never before.
Fans of Dara O’Briain might also recognise the tech from Dave TV’s Go 8 Bit, which pits celeb against celeb in a raft of mini-games. But how does it work? And what’s the future of mobile tech in live entertainment? We’ve caught up with WiFi Wars co-creator and tech guru, Rob Sedgebeer, to find out…
A game 20 years in the making
“I’ve been into computers since I was five,” says Rob, “But I started properly programming when I was doing my A-levels – instead of just playing video games I started experimenting with making them. Then, when I went to university in 1994, I started getting into what was, at the time, the mysterious dark art of web development.
“The web was only a few years old at that point,” he explains, “and I remember everyone was complaining that the internet was slowing because it was daring to send images and not just text!”
It’s safe to say we’ve come a long way since. But how do you go from computer programming, to making programmes on TV? Well, it all began thanks to Rob’s love for comedy…
“I approached the comedians Stewart Lee and Richard Herring,” he says, “who were among the first to have their own website – that was the first time that sort of thing had been done. But, much like the iPlayer now, when their TV series was over everything was being deleted, so I emailed them asking if I could put a copy of their site up on my uni pages. Richard Herring emailed back with a load of other videos that the BBC wouldn’t put up, so I started running this website for them. That’s how I got involved in comedy.”
“From that point on I ran comedy websites, which took me all the way to 2013, when McNeil and Pamphilon started doing their ‘Go 8-Bit’ show. I’d been developing a version of Pong that could be played live with lots of players at once on phones,” he explains, “and after I went along to see a Go 8 Bit show, I told the hosts about it and they soon ended up trying it out at one of their gigs.
“It didn’t really work well,” Rob says, laughing, “but a month later we tried a new version, which went down really well with about 60 people – they really loved it. From then on, we just wanted to keep evolving the tech.”
World record gaming
From those early days, both WiFi Wars and Go 8 Bit have come on leaps and bounds. Upon entering the show, audience members sign up with a comedy username, form two separate teams, and compete in a huge array of video games against the other side of the room by bashing on-screen buttons, twisting and tilting their phones, or selecting from multiple choice answers.
“We have a version of Pong, BlockBusters, Bomberman, Track & Field… There are loads of games,” Rob says, “and a system that lets people cast a vote with their phone.”
It’s anarchic, frenzied fun, and it all runs seamlessly from your mobile browser thanks to Rob’s clever backstage tech. But, as you’d expect, it’s taken a long time to get to this point, and each show is still peppered with warnings that something might break:
“It all took quite a while to get right,” Rob tells us. “But if you can get a game working in a browser, we can get it working in a show. Obviously the bigger the game, the more files need to be downloaded, and the slower it goes – so the real hard part is the network capacity.”
That challenge hasn’t stopped Rob and Steve McNeil wanting to go take WiFi Wars to new heights, though:
“Originally it would work brilliantly on about 80-90 people,” he says, ‘but we always wanted to go bigger. We’ve got residency at the Royal Institute, which has one of the earliest and grandest lecture theatres in the world. It predates microphones, so the room is designed to amplify voices from the middle naturally – just via the architecture itself.”
And it’s here that the WiFi Wars team smashed a world record in gaming:
The room is great for speeches, but it can cause problems for WiFi,” Rob explains. “Even so, we managed to break the Pong world record there : the most number of players playing Pong simultaneously – we managed 280.”
And that record’s probably safe for a while: “We’re pretty sure nobody else is doing the exact same thing we’re doing,” Rob tells us, “because it is really a lot of work to get right.”
But, with a world record and some of the most pioneering multiplayer mobile tech under the sun, where do you go next? And what’s the future of tech in entertainment?
The changing face of tech
“We’ve been doing WiFi Wars for a couple of years,” Rob says, “And now we have the TV show, Go 8-Bit, but we’re always looking for the next big thing. So we’ve made first person shooters playable from smartphones at a massive scale, we’ve done VR… We’re beginning to look at other new tech avenues like Twitch and game streaming.”
Problem is – as Rob explains – looking for new avenues in tech is often pretty difficult:
“My entire working career has been spent working on tech that didn’t exist just a few years prior. When I started working on the web, the web was only just a thing. Today, we’re asking people to use their smartphones, which only came about a few years ago. So a lot can change, and a lot does change; there could well be a ground-breaking development around the corner which we’re not yet aware of.
“But,” he adds, “in terms of existing tech? We know that people really enjoy what we’re doing. It’s quite unusual in terms of live shows to have something where the whole family can take part; we’ve had people of all ages come up and thank us for being able to play together with their family members – across the generations. So I’d like to aid more of that.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to have an entire room full of kids screaming their heads off at a game of Pong,” Rob says. “When you go from a developer who’s locked in a cupboard for years and years, to being on stage and experiencing that… It’s a very thrilling thing.”
You can find out loads more about WiFi Wars and Go 8 Bit, and get tickets, at wifiwars.co.uk
Find out how to get started in coding… With these amazing apps that let you teach yourself.