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?