Sunday, March 18

Cooperative Gameplay, The Return Of

Cooperative gameplay has been around for a long time. From Ikari Warriors to Sonic and Tails to Resident Evil: Outbreak-- feature, not to mention central element. It is exciting, ergo, that coop is finally coming into full bloom. Lately, coop is garnering a healthy dose of attention from the entire gaming industry: the media, developers, and even publishers. The reasons? There are several, but a huge beneficiary, I'd argue, is the advent of fully-functional online gameplay offered (originally by the PC, PS2 and Xbox) by the 360 and soon to be from the PS3. Online cannot take credit for the entire meal though, for it is by and large a gateway. Xbox Live, along with its recent crop of supporting games, has shown the industry that cooperative gameplay offers the best of bothcoop has certainly proven its rightful place in games. However, up until now, cooperative gameplay has mostly been more of a cursory option then a full-fledged single and multi-player: the potential for a fun interactive story now experienced and shared with a friend.

Two of the most lauded holiday titles are testament to coop's newfound appreciation, Gears of War and Crackdown. Both games offer a two-player coop campaign over Xbox Live. Both games also feature a “hop-in/hop-out” play structure. Players can jump in and out of a game at any time in any place. In Crackdown the visiting player takes control if his or her superagent; in Gears of War the visitor takes control of Dom. This free-form coop creates a welcoming environment for players with few frightening restrictions or commitments. Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski once said, “For me theres a huge delta between casual and hardcore gamers, and coop is one of the ways we can bridge that gap.” Essentially, Xbox Live has created a fantastic opportunity for cooperative play-and the other systems are sure to follow suit soon enough. Online functionality bypasses the limitations of split-screen and ad-hoc cooperative gameplay; and in the end creates a more welcoming environment, allowing developers more freedom to explore its design.

This is how we work together

Lets talk about coop game design. Specifically, coop is a duo or small group of people that must work as a team to achieve a goal. This often comes in a campaign setting, where two people will play through a story together. The exact definition is blurry, though. What about Counter-Strike? What about Spies vs. Mercs of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Double Agent? I'd certainly classify these as cooperative. This cooperative model, which we'll call “team-based,” is relatively new territory for developers, and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic's Arkane Studios is venturing further than any developer yet. A new mechanism they're calling “CrossPlay” is set to redefine the team-based model and will be the primary feature of their newest PC game, The Crossing. You can read all about The Crossing in 1up's lengthy interview, but I will summarize it here. CrossPlay fuses single and multiplayer; it allows players to take the place of AI NPCs inside of a story campaign. The Crossing does have normal skirmish servers for all players, but it also has a story that is played out with other players. Those playing the story-arc are the Elites, they will have to cooperatively achieve certain goals within each level. At the same time, the Elite's enemies will be controlled by human opponents, who must play their best to prevent the Elites from completing their objectives. The story is interwoven throughout and in-between levels. Arkane's goal is to combine a rich story, normally played in single-player, with the competition of multiplayer (Recognize that?). Every player will have a unique gameplay experience while also witnessing the same supposedly great story. However, we have to remember that games are interactive. Story is not just what comes out of a cut-scene; it is the personal experience afforded through gameplay. And in this, CrossPlay will have all else beat.
CrossPlay at work

More traditional definitions of coop are from games like Contra, Doom, and Golden Axe. These games allow two or more players to fight together, and, pound each other on the way. It is rare, though, that games require TRULY cooperative gameplay to finish; that is, where players are reliant on one-another. We shall call this model “player-reliant.” I want to discuss two games pushing the boundaries of the player-reliant model: Schizoid and Army of Two. Army of Two is being developed by EA Montreal for the 360 and PS3, and is designed to be played with a friend. Players are not just coaxed into working as a team, they need to. Going solo is not an option. Army of Two offers plenty of ways for allies to interact. Players can share ammo, boost each other over ledges, and use the other as a shield or for cover-fire, among other interactions. Player-reliant is the best coop has to offer. It allows two people to share an experience whole-heartedly. Furthermore, when implemented correctly, players will have a more emotional investment in the game and characters. Sharing is unique--players have to learn how to work together to win; and in the end will be closer to their partner through cooperation and the memory of an awesome experience.
"Its a camera! Pose quick, shoot stuff!"

The final game today is Schizoid. Developed by Torpex for Xbox Live, Schizoid has been described by Torpex president Bill Dugan as “the most co-op game ever.” Schizoid is a two-player cooperative shooter in the vein of Geometry Wars. But like another shooter, Ikaruga, Schizoid has two enemy types to complement two fire types—represented by opposite colors. Each player controls a ship, one is blue the other red. Every enemy in the game is also either blue or red, but unlike the players, the enemies can hurt both ships. The players meanwhile can only shoot down enemies matching their ship color. Already we can see a very basic but solid gameplay design. Red must protect blue from red enemies, blue must protect red from blue enemies. If one player fails to protect the other, eventually both players will die. This is the purest form of coop I can think of, and the very definition of the player-reliant model.
Schizoid-Coop at its most surreal

A slew of online articles discuss various cooperative games:
Gamespot-Top Ten Coop Games
Gamespot-The Crossing Trailer
1up-The Crossing Preview
IGN-Army of Two
IGN-The Death of Split-Screen
-A fantastic article on online's prominence over split-screen, and the pitfalls arising from this.

Lets Cooperate!
Why is cooperative gameplay cool? Why is it fun?
What advantages does coop have over single-player, and visa/versa?
Something I didn't mention: LittleBigPlanet.
How does this coop game differs from others?
What does LittleBigPlanet do successfully as a coop game?
In cooperative game design, what are the most important properties or elements to consider?

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