In a games
industry obsessed with direct competition, co-operative play is generally
overlooked. Despite the odd high profile game featuring co-operative modes or
elements, (Halo and San Andreas spring to mind), co-operation is
at best seen as an optional extra in game design. At a time when we are hurting
for alternative game evangelists; for new ways to drive awareness and interest
in new games, is co-operative play more valuable than the industry recognises?
for this piece was twofold. Firstly, showing my wife Shadow of the Colossus
this weekend lead to us starting a two player game of Ico (my wife
was unsurprisingly not enamoured of a game whose play is essentially crippling
giant animals, no matter how beautifully rendered). I doubt we’ll play much of it, because the pace of play in Ico
is extremely slow, but it was interesting to explore the co-op mode briefly. Secondly,
we finally made the time to complete Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil, a game
with a highly unusual asymmetric co-op mode.
What is a co-op mode, or a co-operative game? Basically, these terms are generally used to refer to any game situation in which the primary relationship between the players is supportive rather than antagonistic. The players generally work together to achieve goals and competitive elements (if any) are minimised.
basic form of this kind of play is the team game. A typical team game is
based around each player having the same capabilities; in essence, the game
provides multiple avatars, one for each player. One of the first games to
support this style of play was Gauntlet, which back in 1985 re-energised
arcade revenues with its canny re-imagining of the basic tabletop role-playing
clichés in a game which was one of the first ‘pump and play’ games (requiring
players to feed it coins to keep playing).
Mostly, we see two player team games which we could term partner games - like the co-op mode in Halo, the two player rampages in San Andreas, or the old school style of games like Contra (recently revived in Alien Hominid). In a partner game, it is usually possible for the players to play independently, co-operating only when a particularly difficult problem blocks their path. This makes these games easy to play, but it also means that the co-operative elements tend to be sidelined. The players are essentially still playing an agonistic game – they just happen to have an ally.
partner games take this further, usually by exploiting some measure of
asymmetry to define separate roles. One example is the explicitly co-operative
play of Kuri Kuri Mix which can only be played two players working
together (or by a single player with exceptional skills!) The two avatars have
identical capabilities, but the game world is bifurcated into two parallel
paths – each player works down their own path. Switches and puzzles in each single
path allow the player in the other path to advance. The game is entertaining
and different, but suffered greatly because it could only be enjoyed
with two players. (There are in general terms many more players playing alone
than playing together, so games which require two players to be played tend to
Ico also works as a partner game, and is asymmetric. Here, the asymmetry is in the avatar abilities: Ico is the more capable character, being capable of fighting, climbing, falling and carrying. Yorda, by comparison, is only capable of climbing and carrying. Sadly, the game camera is intolerably unworkable. Whomever plays Yorda faces an exceptionally bumpy ride in terms of frequently not being able to see their avatar on screen.
in general tend to exploit asymmetry in avatar abilities. Gauntlet has
its classic roles of warrior, wizard, valkyrie and elf (archer in more recent
versions), for instance. Project Eden, which is structured more like a
puzzle-driven adventure, has four characters with radically different abilities
as the basis of its play. (Given that the adventure style of play seems to be a
good fit to introverted play, the four player co-operative mode for this game
has seen little use, which is a shame as it is where the game comes into its
own). The Conflict games offer similar play but with gameplay based
around simple tactical scenarios, and largely devoid of puzzles.
Also, team games have a tendency to include competitive elements, perhaps because the development team didn’t know how to design a game any other way. In Gauntlet, competition over food is common, and the ‘It’ levels devolve into direct competition. Similarly, The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords has the players competing for rankings at the end of each level. Presumably, there are some players for whom this is a spur to play – it is doubtful that a co-operative game genuinely benefits from being tied so directly to competition.
unusual forms of co-operative play can be found. In Klonoa 2, the main
player controls Klonoa, who has the usual range of abilities for a 2D platform
game. The second player controls Popka, and has one and only one ability: they
can rocket Klonoa high up in the air. (After doing so, Popka takes a while to
recover). This style of play could be considered support play. The main
player does all the work, but the second player has the potential to contribute
support to the main play. What is especially interesting about the play of this
game is that puzzles and challenges which are very tricky to achieve as a
single player become easier in support play. Not to mention that the supporting
player can quite frequently save the main player from certain death through
careful use of their ability.
Of course, many game-literate players might be bored by having so little direct influence on play but there are many benefits. The complexity of control for the supporting player has been reduced to a single control – this is simple enough that anyone could do it. Since the main player can call for help out loud, this allows a second player to contribute to play even if they lack any conventional gaming skills. Additionally, the development cost of adding the second player in this way is extremely minimal. In the case of myself and my wife, we switched off pads quite frequently throughout the game because we both had sufficient gaming skills to play either role, but I believe there is potential for the very young or the very inexperienced to contribute to play through some kind of support play.
particular example also opens the door to another kind of play, one which is
rarely exploited: tutor play. It is often the case when a player comes
to a game for the first time that they will be taught to play be a second
player. In boardgames, this element of play is practically assumed; Magic:
The Gathering expects that its rules will be learned in this way, and
explicitly references this in the rulebook. In videogames, the tutorial is
still provided as a static single player experience. Consider the benefits of including
a two-player tutor mode in which one player demonstrates game actions, and the
other player mimics those actions. There can be no doubt that a human player is
a better teacher than any static tutorial could ever be.
Tutor modes could also be designed based around support play. Consider that a driving instructor has a full set of controls, but usually lets the student drive. In case of emergency, the driving instructor can seize control and save the day. Something similar can be implemented in a game context, either directly or indirectly. Consider a platform game in which the tutor player controls a jetpack or bird character who can rescue the main player avatar by the press of a button, or a similar mechanic. In this context, the support play of Klonoa 2 and the Yorda role in Ico could be seen as tutor modes – although this is not how they are presented, they can be used in this way.
I’ve been thinking about ways to leverage the tutor-pupil interaction in game design since Katherine Isbister’s presentation on extraverted play at last year’s GDC. There is even an emotion associated with the success of a student (or offspring) – Ekman refers to it as naches – which can be a highly enjoyable emotional payoff. There is surely more to discover in this corner of play, but we will need new game designs to explore it fully.
It is not
yet clear how valuable co-operative play is to a game in commercial terms.
There is little doubt that it can contribute to a game’s success (Halo
in particular is believed to have supported sales of the original Xbox by
attracting new players who first experienced the console’s only killer ap by
playing co-op with an existing Xbox owner). It is clear, however, that
extraverted play (which includes but extends far beyond co-operative play) can
drive sales. The success of the console versions of Dance Dance Revolution
which were not predicted to have a significant market demonstrates that meeting new play
needs can create new niche markets.
I believe that mass market products will have an increasing duty to support co-operative play in interesting ways. As budgets in the upper market rise to insane degrees, the cost of developing additional modes and features such as co-operative play become trivial next to the total development and marketing budget – and since these games need to pull every trick in the book to court a large enough audience to make back their costs, no such game can afford to exclude some element of co-operative play that could expand the appeal of the game to a wider audience, provide a mechanism to introduce new players to the game, and potentially drive awareness of the game to a much wider audience.