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CO OP Mechanics and Design

I have been playing video games cooperatively since my first video game console the NES. Because I always had an older brother to play with, gaming to me has always been about sharing experiences. I'm probably heavily influenced by my first two video games; Super Mario Brothers 3 and Karate Babies. Each of these games feature 2 player simultaneous and alternating gameplay. So gaming together just made sense to me. Mario always had Luigi and the martial arts babies came in a pair.

Back in the day, it took all the neighborhood kids gathered around a single small TV to take on the juggernaut known as Mega Man 3. Between us we had enough of the game memorized and enough hand eye coordination to win. While waiting for my turn to play I discovered the value of watching others play video games. My extra eyes on the game were free to gather and process data the active player was too busy to think about. By giving that perfect bit of advice, I found that cooperative play extended beyond manipulating a controller.

It's good to play together

Since then, the vast majority of my gaming has been cooperative. I've played single player handheld games on a poorly lit gameboy color screen by passing the system around and looking over a shoulder when necessary. My brother and I even switched off playing specific characters in Marvel Vs. Capcom 2. In this fighter, each player picks 3 characters to fight with in a tag team fashion. When we played, we would give control of one character to each other. Not only did this "expert switch up" drastically change our fighting styles, but the way we switched positions at the arcade machine actually confounded several of our opponents. We play together. We fight together.

Now, the games industry has pushed the boundaries of coop gameplay. 64 player first person shooter matches and MMOs are a testament to that fact. Although there are a lot of players playing in the same world or map, are they really playing together to achieve a goal? And if they are, how they play cooperative is important.

It's time that we examine the different types of coop mechanics and design so we can better understand what it means to play together.

 The following list ranks the different types of cooperative play/mechanics/design from the worst to the best.

  • 1) Over the Shoulder/Backseat Playing. This type of cooperative play involves only one person playing the video game. The other player simply points out things, cautions the player, and cheers on the "team." Technically both people are engaging with the game and working together. But, because only one person is interacting with the game, this type of co op play makes up the bottom of the strata. 
  • 2) Alternating Turns. This type of coop play consists of both players taking turns. Whether the game is structured in alternating turns or the players simply pass around the controller, both players are working together to achieve the same game goal. Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World support this alternating style of co op design.
  • 3) Separate But Equal, But Still Together. Both players play in the same level at the same time in this type of cooperative play (Together). Usually, each player's character has identical abilities. Think Mario and Luigi (Equal). Unfortunately, in this type, both players have little to no significant interaction with each other, meaning the players can't interact with their primary mechanics.  Essentially, both players are playing two single player games on the same screen. Although both players need to reach the end goal to progress, there's little else they can do to help each other (Separate). As I've commented on before, the majority of the multiplayer gameplay in Pixel Junk Eden's cooperative mode consist of playing much in the same way as one would solo. Aside from having to stay on the same screen and the co op mechanic of catching players while swinging, players hardly play together actively reacting and working together. 
  • 4) Forced Cooperation. When both players have to hit the two different switches at the same time to open the door, they are forced to play together. If the only way around an obstacle is through cooperative play, even the selfish players working only for their own benefit will play cooperatively at such a case because they have too. It's better to design a level so that the cooperation isn't necessary or so apparent. When specific co op obstacles aren't necessary for progression or reaching the goal, then the coop gameplay is that much more genuine. In Gears of War's single player campaign, there are specific parts where players are forced to separate and move through dangerous zones before meeting back up. During these sections, when one player goes down, the mission is reset back to the beginning. The design here takes a step back from what Gears has to offer because it removes the ability for players to work together as well as preventing players from reviving downed comrades. Because of the forced physical separation, the cooperative abilities were severely reduced.
  • 5) Mechanics Boost Incentive. Instead of designing specific co op areas, some games simply give two players boosted abilities for working together. The level design in such games is usually the same for the single and multiplayer modes. However, by using the boosted abilities, new strategies and paths open up for cooperative players. In Super Mario Galaxy's Co-Star mode, a second player can take control of a pointer and help the primary player collect starbits. Additionally, by pointing at Mario and with synchronized timing, the supporting player can give Mario a boosted jump. With a little cooperation, players can forge new paths through the 3D environments.
  • 6) Organic Cooperation. With this type of co op game design there are no artificial boosts in abilities for working cooperatively or obstacles that force/encourage coop play. All mechanics affect the environment, enemies, and allies according to the same rules. This kind of design is commonly referred to as team attack or friendly fire. When you think about it, a bullet can't magically distinguish between an ally and an enemy and decide to hurt one and not the other. Features like team attack not only create cleaner  gameplay, but they at the same time yield deeper, more dynamic gameplay by expanding the context of a mechanic. When a single attack can affect an enemy, destroy parts of the level, as well as hurt/protect allies, that single move can do more. In this way the contrary motion and interplay that exists expands the single player depth by at least 2 layers. Team play in Super Smash Brothers with team attack on achieves this highest level of cooperative gameplay.  


Levels 5 and 6 are the types of co op design we should all shoot for when designing our own multiplayer stages. The quality of co op gameplay for these levels depends on the quality of the level design and the core mechanics. Naturally, the more dynamic the mechanics, the more dynamic the co op. The more dynamic ways the reach a goal, the more unique paths cooperating players can take.

In the end, you have to ask yourself if you're really playing together with someone else. Are you reacting to their moves? Is the situation changing because of how both of you are playing? Are you coordinating your strategies and attacks? Or are you simply filling out a pre-made role because that's how the game makes you play? Are you working together, or just working side by side?


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Reader Comments (10)

Aren't the levels of coop organized by levels of interactivity rather than an arbitrary best to worst? That just seems a bit more clear.

The Mario Galaxy example is especially interesting because it seems to reduce interactivity for the second player with the game while increasing it with the first player. I'm sure you can have your cake and eat it too, but that relationship is interesting.

I think that team attack is so common that it needs its own level, and that another 7th level should be created for even more organic modes of cooperation. I'm suggesting abilities that affect the primary mechanics, such as movement and shooting. Super Smash Brothers Brawl definitely does this with the footstool jump and all the ways friendly fire can help as well as hurt the team.

Many games, including Halo, allow one player to control movement of a vehicle while another controls the gun. There tends to be less interplay for the gun character in this mode though, so the improvement isn't as notable.

I would be interested in mechanics that combine attacks for different effects and do so organically so it might affect the movement of the attack. I would also be interested in jump techniques using team effort or other movement using team effort , such as leapfrogging or a three legged race.

I'd like to see more design ideas (perhaps a design challenge too) for levels 5 and 6.

October 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Rosander

These levels of coop organized by type. Determining "levels of interactivity" is a much more complicated endeavor. In each of these cases I can provide examples where the interactivity is quite unique and sometimes deep. Interactivity takes into account the game genres and core design making it harder to compare, analyze, and judge. I think the difference between the levels I've outlines are as clear as it gets.

As for the Mario Galaxy example, remember that coop is about working together to achieve the same goal (or at least so that each can achieve their individual goals). Without Co-star more, the 2nd player wouldn't be able to do anything. Grabbing star bits, freezing enemies, and helping Mario super jump is challenging in different ways that controlling Mario. Still, both players have to pay attention and work on the same "wave length."

Team attack is just one kind of organic co op. How can you get more organic than organic? Still, level 6 includes organically affecting all the player's mechanics, techniques, and possibilities. There's no need for level 7.

You're on to something with your Halo comment. It's true, once you establish the co op play, you can start looking at the interplay, variation, and counterpoint of the "co op mechanics." As for Halo, think of it this way. One player drives which includes steering and positioning the vehicle to shoot others and not be shot. The other player shoots targets to eliminate threats. The shooter is more visible and therefore vulnerable because he's standing up on the turret. By shooting and driving, both players can support each other in unique ways that dynamically change depending on the environment and enemies forces. That's a lot of interplay.

It seems that I'll have to post a follow up article with interesting examples of co op for each level.

I'll probably start back up the design challenges. Now, I can probably accept entries through LittleBigPlanet. This hands on approach would be very effective.

Thanks for posting.

October 27, 2008 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

My idea of defining the different levels by interactivity was meant to be interactivity between the players, not with the game. I thought the descriptions moved from more abstract levels of interactivity (verbal) to very concrete. I really thought that's what you already did.

My point about friendly fire is that it is usually about preventing the primary mechanics of the game from interfering with each other. In most cases, friendly fire won't have any benefit, so it should just be avoided. I guess you could do team rocket jumps in some of these games, which might help in a rare case.

I think this is a lower level of interactivity than where primary mechanics from each player combine to create new strategies. You used Smash Bros as an example where players can rescue each other, charge special abilities (Mr. Game and Watch), footstool jump each other, and more. This is definitely the highest level of interactivity, but most friendly fire I see doesn't get here.

In Halo, interactivity and interplay between players in a vehicle is fine. However, the gun player loses almost all of their options in dealing with the enemy, including choosing which gun to use, melee attacks, grenades, and tactical movement. The only remaining activities they have is target selection and the actual mechanics of aiming and shooting. That's balanced for difficulty, but most of the interesting decisions are gone.

October 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Rosander

It sounds like you're taking issue with the design of Shooters rather than the concept of friendly fire.

Because guns don't have a lot of gunplay (interplay with guns), and the destructive nature of bullets doesn't leave a lot of room for dynamic interactions, there's inherently a strain on the co op design for shooters.

Try not to confuse the topic though. With every decision in a game like Halo there's risk and reward not to mention a trade off between increasing and decreasing abilities. Swap any gun and you're automatically losing some ability from gun #1 but gaining abilities for gun #2. Deciding to team up in a warthog is just another option that comes with new abilities, drawbacks, and risks. It's really no different in this way.

When you said that the player loses abilities like melee attacks, grenades, and tactical movement when in a vehicle like the Warthog, this really isn't too different from normal play. In normal play you have all those options available, but you can still (for the most part) only do one at a time. Switching between these options takes time. For example. when throwing a grenade, you have to wait for a bit for your gun to come back up so you can shoot. So how is this waiting time any different from the time it takes a player in the warthog to hop out and start shooting/ throwing grenades/ etc.?

I get what you're saying. But the issues that are bothering you aren't a matter of co op design but the core game design itself (for shooters in particular). It's important to separate the different types/fields of design as to avoid confusing the source of the issue.

October 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

I think I confused you with the Halo point. I think Halo vehicle coop play would still be in highest level of interaction category because it combines the primary game mechanics for both players, moving for one, and shooting for the other. I really meant that to be a different topic.

My problem with most FPS friendly fire is that I think it should have its own category because it is designed to prevent combining of primary game mechanics. This is a distinctly lower level of interactivity than games where primary game mechanics can be combined for harm or good.

To get away from the "Friendly Fire" term, I'll use racing in Mario Kart Wii as an example.
If people are playing teams, they could theoretically bump each other to improve handling around difficult turns or increase the speed of the slower player. I don't know if this strategy is viable, but the potential is there. This would meet the criteria for Organic Cooperation.

Now, imagine the same team trying the strategy, but instead of the bumping mechanic in Mario Kart, any time the karts touch each other, they spin out of control, fall off a ledge, or lose the race immediately. This game would discourage interaction of that primary game mechanic, but still fall within your criteria for Organic Cooperation.

I think that this distinction of interference vs. interaction would be enough to add another level of cooperation which would be less then Organic Cooperation and maybe even less than Mechanic Boost.

October 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Rosander

The problem with the way you're looking at Halo and Mario Kart in your example is that you're limited by your experience and understanding of each game. You said "I don't know if this strategy is viable, but the potential is there." Basically, even when you couldn't see if a strategy or possibility is practical/viable, you were willing to put Mario Kart in the Organic Cooperation category.

When you tried to make the analogy from Mario Kart to Halo, you arbitrarily chose not to give shooting in Halo as much of a chance. Just because you can't think of a practical/viable way to use shooting cooperatively, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I can think of a dozen examples in Halo where shooting at or around teammates can be used to help instead of hurt.

Beyond that, the best part of organic cooperation is how it expands the definition of the games mechanics. Like with smash, moves can help and hurt depending on the context. This is expands the definition of the core moves. Being able to shoot and "accidentally" kill your teammate still expands the range of effects for the shooting mechanic.

It's all about having a more open view of what coop is. Though you may not be able to shoot to save your teammate, the danger of injuring them causes the players to move, communicate, and aim in new ways.

October 29, 2008 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

There was no connection between Mario Kart and Halo or shooters and Halo. Also, I need to work on creating better analogies.

I'm curious, how would shooting at teammates help in Halo? I'm not trying to be disagreeable here.

I can see someone trying to get a jump with the grenade, which might work better trying to jump a Warthog.
I can see two people attacking the same target, which has more cooperation in Halo then other games because of shields, reloading times, special weapon effects, and how the game's AI / level design combine.
I can kill my teammates so they come back with full health and more ammo.

My distinction between combination / interference of primary game mechanics seems to have been resolved with some of the examples in Four Swords. The combining game mechanics fit under coop level 5 while a more organic version might be a combination of 5 and 6.

November 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBryan Rosander

To answer your question, in Halo the overshield fills up a players shield with an additional layer of protection. Whether the player has full shield or no shield, the over shield will fill up to its maximum capacity. During this time the player is temporarily invincible (at least from most attacks).

A neat strategy is to battle around the overshield until weakened and then grab it so that the fill time is longer extending your invincible time. By extension, It is possible and beneficial for a teammate to lower another teammates shields before they grab the overshield to extend their invincibility.

It's also possible to swing the hammer so that it boosts teammates' jumps or pushes them out of the way of danger of other enemies, grenades, rockets, and even incoming vehicles.

It's possible to correct tipsy team vehicles by using grenades, rockets, or other attacks.

It's definitely harder to come up with examples for how shooting teamates can help in Halo than team attacks in other games.

Don't worry about sounding disagreeable. By digging into this issue we both learned more about co-op mechanics and design.


November 3, 2008 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

With this quote: " Are you reacting to their moves? Is the situation changing because of how both of you are playing? Are you coordinating your strategies and attacks?" Could cooperative/co-unter-op design be considered interplay?

February 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Johnathan

@Steve Johnathan

Cooperative and co-unter-op design is a way of looking at other design elements such as mechanics, balance, interplay, or level design to determine the style and quality of the meaningful interactions between human players.

It's another layer or angle to understand a games design. It isn't something so specific that we could call it interplay. It's not so narrow a thing to think of it as a counter of any kind.

February 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

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