As games like Journey blend singleplayer and cooperative gaming, more opportunities open for different types of gameplay. Of course, opening up whole game worlds for cooperative play also means some – like Dark Souls – enable occasional cooperative partners to fight back.
PATRICK STAFFORD partners up with himself to explore how co-op is changing everything
Gaming is never solitary. While the industry has split games into two distinct categories – multiplayer and singleplayer – this has never, truly, been a one-person-job.
The golden age of arcades encouraged comradery – it was a social experience, after all - and in the home the experience was shared. Pong was competitive, yes, but it was played together.
Only in the past few years have games started to take that shared, cooperative and collaborative experience and formalise it in mainstream play.
Portal 2, one of the most anticipated and critically acclaimed titles of 2011, surprised most when Valve announced the game’s fully-formed cooperative campaign. This is a mainstream trend – the Call of Duty, Splinter Cell and Gears of War franchises all feature standalone cooperative campaigns.
This trend has evolved further as developers are trying to imagine how they can combine cooperative efforts into narrative campaigns. Journey and Dark Souls, with their always-on functionality, are blurring the lines between single and cooperative play even further.
Science backs up the move. Research shows gamers who cooperate are actually more likely to cooperate in non-game activities as well – so much for gaming causing aggression.
“Across genres, we see people helping each other out a lot,” says David Ewoldsen, a professor at the University of Ohio who authored a study on cooperative play.
“It doesn’t matter what the content of the game is, but how you play.”
A brief history… >>
Gaming may have always been cooperative in the sense games are shared, but the formal notion of cooperative, team-based play took slightly longer to develop.
Many arcade and console games featured co-op, such as Bubble Bobble, Smash TV, River City Ransom or Toe Jam & Earl. Beat-‘em up cooperative play was popular, due to the lack of resources required on part of the developer.
As the first-person shooter developed, so did co-op. Many don’t realise Doom actually featured the ability to play through the campaign with other players connected through a network.
In the 1990s, co-op play was mostly ignored by major releases. As Jeep Barnett from Valve explains, when early player-controlled 3D viewpoints became common, “the technical limitations left co-op behind”. Instead, developers focused on getting the basics of single-player gaming right.
If competitive videogaming owes its success to both the arcades of the 1980s and the birth of home consoles, then surely cooperative play owes its widespread popularity to the internet. Diablo would not have been as big a success had it only depended on LAN play, and while the game certainly wasn’t the catalyst for online cooperative play, it definitely popularised the act.
For many gamers, titles like Diablo were the first time they could actually play as a team. It’s a simple formula. Jim Brown, lead level designer at Epic, explains it’s the engagement of the game itself, coupled with the investment of close friends, which make the cooperative experience so memorable.
“When you can share the gaming experience, it’s completely different. It becomes so much bigger by nature of having someone to bounce ideas with, to laugh with.”
“Gaming just doesn’t have to be a solitary experience anymore.”
As Barnett points out, there’s an added element of personal discovery. “You’ll never truly know your friends until you play a co-op game with them.”
With developers mostly having experimented with the form of successful single player campaigns, and multiplayer titles now mostly surrendered to a few yearly behemoths, cooperative gaming is where titles can deliver value.
Portal 2, Gears of War, Mass Effect 3 – they all include co-op of some kind - Battlefield 3, Operation Flashpoint, Halo 4, Borderlands (both 1 and 2), even Nintendo’s New Super Mario Brothers Wii. It’s becoming rare for games released in the mainstream to ship without at least some type of co-op feature.
This development has reached a new point, however. Co-op games are becoming more sophisticated. Instead of a horde mode, in which players attempt to survive against multiple ways of enemies, or short, vignette-like mission or puzzle campaigns, games are beginning to weave cooperative gaming into the tapestry of the main, narrative-driven campaigns.
Dead Space 3 took a huge leap earlier this year when it allowed a second player to play out the campaign. Producer Steve Papoutsis says he feels it was a step forward in how players, and developers, can see how technically advanced a cooperative game can be.
“What’s important is the fact players are able to experience that story with someone they enjoy. The online component of the game is just an extension of the social interaction we already had.”
Keeping the quality high >>
It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes cooperative games work, but developers repeatedly point to two traits: communication and agency.
A good cooperative game must make the player feel not only they are in control, but also actively contributing to the end solution of the game. Whether it’s slipping past guards, or solving a puzzle, each player must feel as if they’ve done something individually which contributed to the shared outcome.
Jeep Barnett says Valve realised this once someone using the Teaching With Portals program provided the company with an informal study: Portal 2 wasn’t so much cooperative as it was collaborative.
“This means that both players are actively working on solving the same problem together rather than completing separate tasks for mutual benefits,” he says.
This is also why the cooperative campaigns in games like Call of Duty are popular – the gamers are focused on the same task, but in different roles.
However, as Jim Brown says, just because you and a partner are doing the same thing doesn’t mean the experience has been enhanced. Performing the same task is counter-intuitive to good cooperative play.
“We specifically designed our survival mode so that everyone isn’t just running around randomly. They have things to do, as opposed to just giving everyone a rifle.”
For that to occur there needs to be ample opportunity for communication, but as Gears of War explains, that communication doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of speech.
“We have ways of communication where the players don’t even have to talk. I can mark an enemy, and the other player can see that and respond without ever hearing my voice.”
Portal 2 follows a similar routine, allowing players to mark areas on a map for puzzle-solving.
“Knocking down communication barriers is one of the most important things to improve that type of experience,” says Barnett.
That is not to say communication is always necessary. Journey is arguably bettered by cooperative play, and yet the game doesn’t provide you with anything more than a tone to shriek at your companion.
Dead Space 3 doesn’t have use any sort of communication tools, either, but as Steve Papoutsis explains, the game is attempting to accomplish something far different – a seamless integration of cooperative play into the main storyline.
Of course, this approach requires something much more nuanced than adding a second character on the screen. The technical challenges are overwhelming.
As Splinter Cell Blacklist lead game designer Richard Carrillo says, “building a game for more than one player is basically allowing for anarchy (in a really great way)”.
“The best co-op embraces that anarchy and tries to guide it rather than control it.”
Steve Papoutsis says the idea to integrate two characters within the game’s campaign was a decision made right from the start. Abandoning the second game’s multiplayer option means no matter what, players are exposed to the option of cooperative play.
“This was a conscious decision from that start, and we had to make sure it was integrated into the experience. It requires a tonne of work,” he says.
Alternatively, developers have chosen to eschew cooperative play out of the main campaign and into its own category. Splinter Cell Blacklist Richard Carrillo says the team wanted to focus the main campaign on Fisher and his story – adding another player could lessen the story’s impact.
“Adding another player meant sharing the screen time and losing some depth to the story we wanted to tell about Sam - so we decided to keep our co-op focused on a set of distinct missions that complimented the solo campaign in a really compelling way.”
Dead Space dev Steve Papoutis says adding another character to the mix simply adds extra narrative complications.
“Then on the tech side, there are a ton of problems as well. It just makes everything more complicated.”
The technicalities of teamplay >>
It’s worth pointing out cooperative functionality is very much a rich man’s game. For independent developers, making fully formed cooperative features – while certainly not impossible – is a hurdle.
A Valley Without Wind, an independent sidescroller made by Arcen Games that blends a number of genres, featured cooperative functionality, but founder Chris Park says the inclusion was a struggle. For many smaller companies, more complicated features like cooperative play are just out of the question.
“A lot of independent developers making these sorts of quirky little titles are running into this problem,” Park says. “They have to change their designs.
“As soon as you get networked cooperative modes, then you have a different challenge. I know a lot of indies that don’t want to touch networking with a 10-foot-pole, because it can be kind of a nightmare.”
It’s untrue to suggest all independent developers are in the same boat. Alien Swarm, developed by Black Cat Games and released by Valve, was built entirely on cooperative play, but such comprehensive development among indies is rare.
“With cooperative play, the way the data is transferred back and forth is slightly more complicated than just competitive multiplayer,” says Park. “Especially if you’re in something like a dedicated campaign, your game has to constantly sync a save point with the other player.”
In any cooperative mode, keeping at least one player sucked into the narrative is a challenge. As Richard Carrillo explains, co-op games have to go one step further – keep all the players entertained and “allow players to entertain each other”.
As Jim Brown argues, there are any number of technical challenges which present themselves.
“Co-op affects framerates, and networking, and all those under the hood things. But it can often be even simpler than that.”
“If you have human players, they’re always going to be better than artificial intelligence. So situations come up with your friend running too far ahead, and you get stuck behind. Your friend may trigger an event and you miss out.”
“When you have loads of people having different experiences, it can ruin the game.”
Such technical limitations, and the lack of money among independent developers to overcome them, are a shame. Because the way we game has changed, and is changing, to not only become more experimental but also inclusive.
“Now I’m 30 years old, and I have a son, and I can’t just sit down and play games as often anymore,” says Chris Park.
“But if I have the choice of him watching me, or vice versa, we’d really like to play cooperatively. It can be fun to play together, especially with spouses if one is in to gaming and the other isn’t.”
The sociology of gaming with friends >>
The joy of playing a cooperative game with another friend isn’t just a fleeting emotion. Science has a lot to say about the sociological benefits we reap from playing with a common goal.
A recent study from Ohio State University showed players in co-op games actually displayed friendlier behaviour outside the game. The study saw groups of players take part in either the co-op or competitive modes of Halo, Call of Duty and Unreal Tournament.
After playing in either competitive or cooperative modes in the first-person shooters, the participants took part in another test. The participants from the cooperative games were more likely to work together with others even after the game had finished.
Professor David Ewoldsen, who co-authored the study with John Velez, told Hyper, “the content of the game didn’t matter so much as how it was being played”.
“A lot of the debate around videogames is centred around aggression, saying they increase aggressive behaviour. Others say it doesn’t, and there is no link,” says Velez.
“We’re saying cooperative play can lead to these positive outcomes outside the game. It’s a different perspective”
These games are similar to reality, the pair argue. Think of an emergency situation, like a fire. People come together and figure out a solution that benefits all parties – a game echoes those types of emergencies.
“The data is clear that playing games cooperatively leads to a pro-social outcome,” says Ewoldsen.
“Across genres, we see people helping each other out a lot. They want to help because it makes them feel like a better person. But also because there’s a simple relationship between the game content and the outcome.”
“It doesn’t matter what the content is. Cooperatively play can lead to positive outcomes.”
The future of cooperative play >>
Developers have perfected the form, if not the execution, of popular genres such as the first-person shooter or third-person action adventure. The last possible area for experimentation is in cooperative play – and it is slowly taking over established forms of gaming.
Journey, one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2012, toyed with the notion of co-op by hiding the fact it was a cooperative game at all. Only at the end, when the game displays the PlayStation tags of the people you met along the way, do you realise the cooperative nature of the game.
Both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls have toyed with this method as well, allowing players to walk in and out of your game as they wish, either challenging you to duels or helping you along your way.
Just this year, Halo creators Bungie showed off their idea for the new kind of FPS – a game which is always connected to the internet, like a giant MMO. There is no distinction between the multi and single player – a “shared world”, they called it.
As Chris Park explains, “the days of young men sitting alone and playing in their dark rooms…that’s clearly not the only core demographic we’re talking about anymore”.
Cooperative gaming does more than just create a space for people to spend a few hours beating a game. It creates something more. A tangible, shared experienced that is remembered by two or more players. It informs their relationship, and sometimes, will live on to be a part of their gaming memory. It doesn’t just make the experience better - it creates a memory.
Jeep Barnett describes a situation which encapsulates this feeling perfectly. During playtesting for Portal 2, a father and daughter were playing through the game.
“She was constantly running ahead of her father and getting in to danger. After a few deaths the father told her to come and stand by his character.”
“He reminded her that ‘looking both ways’ is for both streets and test chambers, and then gave her a hug.”
“You can’t plan for those kinds of moments in a single player game.”