Last year I wrote an article series on co-op mechanics and design detailing the different kinds of design decisions one can implement into a game that shape how players work together cooperatively. Recently I covered gamplay dynamics or the factors at the root of emergence. One such dynamic is the human dynamic, which mainly applies to multiplayer and co-op games. Combine these two concepts and we get closer to a part of gameplay and game design that we all greatly respect, yet fail to understand and articulate clearly. That concept is player choice.
Concepts like player choice, winning, and losing are only possible when there's a degree of freedom for the player. Because the player has some level of control, for every interactive opportunity there are divergent and possibly emergent outcomes. Some choices bring you closer to winning. Others closer to losing. And others for no purpose other than player expression. Needless to say, freedom is important in making player choice substantive.
Before I tackle player choice in more detail, I wanted to talk about a key element of co-op design. In the same way that the freedom to lose makes winning more significant, having the freedom to work against a group in a co-op situation makes successful cooperation more meaningful. This is the basic concept behind co-utner-op design; elements of design in a co-op game that shape how a player can work against the group.
The term is a combination co-op and counter-op, two modes in the N64 FPS Perfect Dark. In the co-op missions, players can work together or not. Because the mission objectives are the key to winning, if one player sabotages the mission, both lose. Likewise, counter-op is a mode where one player plays the main character and the other takes control of an NPC to counter the main character. When the counter player dies, they take control of another NPC. In this counter-op mode, it is possible for the counter operative player to help the main player by killing other NPCs or by not fighting back. In both modes, the player choices can determine if the gameplay will be cooperative (towards a single goal) or not.
In the same way that we have co-op mechanics and level design, we also have co-unter-op design.
Now for some examples.
- Bad Buddy Code (DK Country): Normally, when playing co-op one player controls DK and the other controls Diddy. With the touch of a button, the active player can switch control over to the passive player. With the Bad Buddy Code, the passive player can take control from the active player at any time. This mechanic can easily create a struggle for power. And if one player is feeling particularly crass, he/she can run head long into danger and switch just before being hurt thus killing the partner before they have a chance to defend themselves.
- If one player gets hurt, the other player can skip picking up the barrel with their partner trapped inside.
- GRAB and BACKHAND (LBP): In LBP one Sackperson can GRAB onto another Sack person. Holding on makes the 2 Sackperson unit heavier and less maneuverable. This mechanic can give player the ability to pull friends up over ledges or out of danger. GRAB can also be used to drag players to their doom. To shake a GRAB, you can BACKHAND the GRABbing player. Interestingly, you can BACKHAND Sackpeople at any time. Knocking players into pits or other hazards can quickly turn a cooperating party into a vindictive brawl.
- Team Attack/Friendly Fire (Smash Brothers, Halo 3, Left4Dead): This one is pretty self explanatory. When playing on a team your attacks affect allies and enemies alike. I've heard stories of L4D players going rogue at the end of a game by killing all of their teammates. And I've booted my fair share of betrayers in Halo3.
- Horseplay (Zelda: Four Swords): Like friendly fire, the attacks in Four Swords affect teammates. The main difference is, aside from the bombs, the attacks don't do any damage to players. In other words, you can still be stunned and knocked around, but you can't be hurt directly. Like the GRAB in LBP, you can pick up other players and throw them into hazards. All of this is not to mention simply not cooperating when all 4 players must work together.
- Give Me Some Pikmin (Pikmin 2 challenge mode): In challenge mode players can work together by taking control of two characters at once. Because players share the same Pikmin, it's possible for one player to take all of the Pikmin preventing the other player from doing anything useful. The selfish player may not be able to use the Pikmin without the other player standing by ready to scoop up some, but it's the uncooperative thought that counts.
- Don't eat up the all the lives (Halo ODST: fire fight, Bionic Commando Rearmed, LBP): Some cooperative games give players a shared pool of lives to work with. Every time a player dies, everyone losses a little. This naturally puts pressure on the weakest link of the group. If someone was so inclined, they could kill off all the lives left in the pool. Doing this is more like stabbing your teammates in the back rather than expressing your desire not to cooperate.
- Shared fate! (Gears of War sections, Neo*RPG, Halo ODST legendary campaign): Like the previously described co-ounter-op design element, if one person dies all of the remaining players are forced to reset the challenge to the last level or checkpoint. Also, for Gears and Halo, if one player pushes ahead and reaches a checkpoint, the other player is abruptly teleported along to catch him/her up.
- The chore of the Chalice (FF:CC): In this game, a caustic mist fills the world. To survive the denizens keep the mist back with magical crystals. In the multiplayer game, players just carry around a portable crystal chalice to keep from dying. Normally, players put down the chalice to do battle. However, if one player decides to pick up the chalice and run for it, the others will undoubtedly suffer.
- Don't Touch That! (Bangai-O Spirits, Sonic 2/3/& Knuckles): Sometimes there are player activated switches that when triggered too early, failure ensues. When playing cooperatively as Tails, there are sections in various Sonic games that can delay and possibly endanger Sonic by triggering events too soon. It's the same in multiplayer Bangai-O Spirits.
Including the right amount of co-op design to co-unter-op design is a balancing act. In a few days, I'll get my hands on New Super Mario Bros. Wii. This game will probably teach us all valuable lessons about co-op game design like The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords did. Expect more articles.
Until then, be a team player.