With millions of people stuck in their homes due to coronavirus isolation, video conferencing services like Skype and Zoom have become hugely popular this month.
But, while these apps were born in the boardroom as a way for staff in remote offices to hold virtual meetings, there's one that adds some fun and games into the mix.
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That app is called Houseparty. Free and available for iOS, Android and as a Google Chrome plugin, Houseparty lets you video chat with friends and play games together at the same time.
Houseparty launched back in 2016, and while popular at first it never truly broke into the mainstream. But it certainly showed potential, as proven by its acquisition by Epic Games (makers of Fortnite) in 2019.
The games offered by Houseparty include Heads Up (also known elsewhere as The Name Game), Trivia, and Quick Draw. Up to eight people can join a video chat at once, and anyone can take control of the virtual room to cue up a new game, or pick the next category of trivia questions.
Being stuck in my London flat for at least the next three weeks, I installed Houseparty to try it out with some friends. Here's how I got along.
Houseparty works best on a big-screen tablet like the iPadEpic Games
Houseparty useful tips and tricks
Firstly, a tip. If you have a tablet, you are best installing Houseparty on that, as the bigger screens make it much easier to see everyone. Tablets like iPads are also easier to prop up against something, so you're not forced to hold your phone in an outstretched hand all evening.
A useful feature is how, if you have installed Houseparty on two devices (like an iPhone and an iPad), you can easily switch from one to the other while in a video chat. Just open Houseparty on another device, and the app asks if you want to switch. Tap yes and the video chat is transferred from one to the other without losing connection.
You'll also want to sort out Houseparty's notification system before going much further. Somewhat annoyingly, the app by default will notify all of your friends every time you open it, with a notification saying you "have entered the house."
To switch this off you need to 'ghost' all of your Houseparty friends, which isn't as drastic as it sounds. To do this, follow these instructions:
- Open the Houseparty app
- Swipe down on the launch menu to dismiss it
- Tap on the face icon in the top-left corner
- Tap on Manage Notifications
- Tap the toggle switches for both options
Now you won't be pestered when someone opens the app (and your friends won't be told when you open it either), but you'll still receive notifications when friends want you to join their party.
Also frustrating is how the app asks for access to your contacts list to help you find friends to play with. You can refuse, but if you say yes it will start notifying you every time anyone in your phone book installs Houseparty. Yes, ex-partners included.
One final housekeeping note is that the video of yourself comes directly from the camera of your device, so looks much sharper than the feeds of everyone else, which are of course coming over the web.
Houseparty smartphone appEpic Games
How to play on the Houseparty app
Once you have navigated around these minor annoyances, it's time to host your first virtual house party. To begin, tap the + icon in the top-right corner, then tap on the friends you want to add to the party. As they join, the app starts to look like every other video conferencing platform.
You can use it for exactly that, if you like, and it works well. My friends and I held a party for about four hours without any major problems. The sound and video glitched occasionally, but given the current global situation, and the fact it was the evening so probably at its busiest period, the app did a decent job of keeping everyone connected. I used Wi-Fi, but might try switching to the 4G connection of my phone next time (but please only do this if you also have an unlimited data plan).
On to the games, and it's a bit of a mixed bag. Trivia is quite good, with a strong range of categories and questions to work through, a simple scoring system, and fast gameplay that makes it all feel fun.
Quick Draw also works well, where one person is given the name of something to draw and everyone else has to guess what it is. Naturally, player skill will depend how much you all enjoy this one…
Word association game Chips and Guac is arguably the weakest of the bunch. The game works a lot like Cards Against Humanity, where players are all presented with the same word or phrase, then asked to match it with whichever of their hand of cards they think is the funniest. One player is assigned as the judge for each round, and the winner is whoever the judge thinks gave the best answer.
The thing is, Cards Against Humanity works because it is very much an adult game, with answers designed to make you laugh, blush, or be utterly shocked at your friends' sense of humor. Chips and Guac fails here because its child-friendly answers comply with Houseparty's 12+ age rating. That said, if you have children this could still be fun to play.
Overall, Houseparty is a fun app that brings friends and family together virtually - something we can all benefit from during this difficult time. What's more, I found the games acted more as a good icebreaker for the evening, rather than the main event; after a few rounds of Trivia and Quick Draw (and a few drinks, admittedly), we closed the gaming menu and chatted for the next couple of hours, just as we do in person.
An important thing to point out, especially for anyone wishing for more features and video stability: Houseparty was last updated eight months ago, so hasn't yet been updated to cope with the massive extra demand placed on its servers. Hopefully, even though its developers are likely working from home too, we will see some form of update soon to help give the app a bit of a refresh, and make performance a little smoother.