I love a lot of local multiplayer games, but I'm rarely in the same room as the friends I want to play them with. Steam's new Remote Play Together feature, which is available in the beta client, looks to solve that enduring problem by jury-rigging online multiplayer into games which don't support it. And it works, somewhat amazingly.
Only the host needs to own the game, and after they launch it, they can invite friends through the Steam friends list (just right click a friend's name and select 'Remote Play Together'). Once a remote player joins, the game is streamed to them in a fullscreen window. The difference between Remote Play Together and a regular broadcast is, of course, that it also gives viewers mouse and keyboard control, or recognizes their controller as one connected to the host's PC.
It's remote access to a PC, which is nothing new, but limited to the game window. I tried to see if input could leak into the desktop environment by sharing a windowed game, but the best I could do is get a remote player to move my cursor out of the window. You can't troll your friends by pressing Alt-F4 remotely to close the game or anything like that—it'll just close your own window.
You also can't fancy yourself a small-time Google Stadia competitor by inviting friends to play singleplayer games on your PC. I tried using the feature with Slay the Spire and Disco Elysium, but the Remote Play option wasn't available. Right now, 4,254 games are supported, and you can find the list of them here.
Above: Rayman Origins on my screen, with Wes hosting.
The test results
Our testing confirmed the obvious: the quality of your experience will vary with the quality of the host's internet connection.
We started with so-so conditions. I hosted TowerFall Ascension for Wes on a notoriously inconsistent Comcast connection with 8-to-10 Mbps upload speed. I ran it on an ultrawide, 2560×1080 monitor, which meant the black bars at the sides of my screen were being streamed to his 1440p, 16:9 display. Wes said it looked like garbage.
We then switched places, with Wes hosting on his 100 Mbps fiber connection, running the game at 1440p. It looked great on my end, and I was surprised to find that I didn't feel like I was at a disadvantage as we fired arrows at one another. Of course there had to be some latency, but I couldn't sense it.
In both TowerFall Ascension and Spelunky, my Xbox One controller was detected instantly. When Wes tried to host a game of Rayman Origins, however, I had to use the keyboard. I might've been able to get it to detect my controller by fiddling with Steam Big Picture settings, but I sense that some games are just going to be stubborn.
In those first two games, though, everything worked perfectly. All I had to do was accept Wes' invite, and a few seconds later I was looking at the game, able to interact with the menu as player two. In TowerFall especially, once we were past character selection, it genuinely felt like I was playing a built-in online multiplayer mode.
Above: TowerFall Ascension on my screen, with Wes hosting.
Later, I tested Enter the Gungeon and TowerFall Ascension with a friend who lives in the Midwest. I'm in California. We had trouble getting it to work initially, but both games were playable despite our distance. (Note that the host's stream passes through a Steam server before making its way to the other players, so the location of that server adds a variable.)
With him hosting Enter the Gungeon, I noticed a bit of input lag, but was able to adapt. The real problem was how artifacted it looked at times. In a fast, busy game like that, you need to see the enemies crisply and I couldn't. Now and then it would hitch for a good second. It was technically playable, but I'd never want to play that game at that quality.
This time when I hosted TowerFall, however, he said it looked fine on his end, and though he noticed some input delay, we went toe-to-toe for a match. Network conditions are fickle. The only advice I can give is to have the person with the fastest internet connection host the game you're trying to play, and to ask the stars for advice as to when their upload speed will be at its peak.
Above: Enter the Gungeon with non-ideal network conditions.
Image quality and latency won't be a big deal for all games. Part of the reason I picked TowerFall for testing is that it requires precise timing, but turn-based games will obviously be ideal for the feature. It's too bad hot seat local multiplayer has gone out of fashion over the past couple decades.
Acknowledging that Remote Play won't always work perfectly, as nothing reliant on network conditions can, I'm excited by the opportunity to crack open games I haven't played in ages with people who I've moved away from in the process of relocating a couple of times.
It's also heartening to see Steam iterating on these experimental features. The past couple years of Valve history haven't been the most exciting. It's announced some VR games, but we haven't seen them. The world bounced off Artifact so hard there's a new crater somewhere in Washington. Until the recent library redesign, the news about Steam has typically involved equivocating statements about what it will and won't sell (the line seems to be drawn at 'whatever people get really mad about').
But this new feature is playful and generous. Depending on how well it works in the long run, it could improve sales of local multiplayer games by broadening their audience. For those who already have a collection of local multiplayer games, it's a way to get more out of the games they own. Everybody wins, as far as I can tell.
Steam is already the best game launcher, but the past few months have reinforced the idea that Valve isn't resting on its success. I haven't tried streaming services like Parsec to see how they stack up to Remote Play Together, but it's certainly the most convenient way to solve the problem of never being in the same room as the people you play games with.