I love co-operative multiplayer games. The notion of working together with another player, rather than just be at the mercy of their skills (or vice-versa) is a far more pleasing prospect, and one that I believe my colleague on the right will agree with. We regularly play a range of co-op games, and are always on the hunt for something new.
The allure of co-op gaming for me stems from the ability to work as a group to achieve a goal: be it pulling off a successful heist in Payday to crawling through Torchlight II’s dungeons, there is a palpable sense of achievement when obstacles are tackled with the input of other, human players. Natural team and leadership dynamics are also able to flourish, giving even the most simplest of co-op experiences an appeal beyond the original design of the game.
However, the advantages of having real, human players together in a game environment is not one that is utilised to any great effect. Co-op, for the most part, is designed around the notion that more players in a game simply increases the brute force, which only necessitates an increase in difficulty to compensate. Most of these experiences are virtually identical to the experience of playing the single player version of it: games like Borderlands, Torchlight II, Dead Island, Left 4 Dead, amongst others, don’t have any significant difference in their co-op experiences compared to the single player experience beyond the increase in difficulty, and the ability to share loot and experience.
The only co-op game that springs to mind that bucks this trend is Portal 2. The co-op gameplay in Portal 2 not only fostered an environment where both players had to think about solving the puzzles, but actually required players to work together to carry out the solutions. What’s more, the puzzles in the co-op segment were far more complex and ultimately more satisfying as the mechanics of having two, consciously thinking humans participating at all times was wonderfully exploited.
Personally, I dream of a co-op game where players are given wholly distinct roles to carry out in a scenario. These would not be roles that essentially blend into each other, but ones that carry different gameplay mechanics that all serve to further the group’s progress. In Battlefield 3, for instance, there are various classes that the player can choose, but they all ultimately result in the player having to shoot opposing players; in an ideal co-op experience, roles would fundamentally alter what players need to do.
Furthermore, co-op absolutely needs to thrive in collaborative thinking. Co-op games need to have multiple methods of accomplishing a single task, with the best method decided upon with input from all players based on what they feel they are best skilled with. This collaborative component is not something that can replicated in a single player experience, and it’s a vastly under-utilised, if completely missing, portion of co-op gaming.
There is nothing wrong with bringing more players into what is essentially a single player experience. They are perfectly entertaining, and can sometimes make an otherwise dull game more pleasing (Borderlands, Dead Island, etc). It is a deep shame that developers don’t seem to see the opportunities that designing around multiple players can bring. There is a huge, untapped well of deep, complex gameplay mechanics waiting to be discovered and experimented with.
Multiplayer is massive in the general gaming community these days – just look at games like Call of Duty or DOTA, which are incredibly popular all around the world. However if you consider all the other games that have multiplayer that nobody ever played, you can see a whole lot of wasted development time. Yes, I’m talking about tacked-on multiplayer (again).
Easy examples are games like Dead Space 2, Crysis 2, Bioshock 2, and FEAR. These are all games that had a main focus on the single player campaign, but had a significant part of development focused on creating the multiplayer portion of the game. If you’ve ever played (or tried to play) the multiplayer in these games or others like these, you will have noticed how empty they are.
The reason for this is that the multiplayer in these games is competitive in nature – meaning that the goal is to do better than all the other players in the game. To sustain this, there needs to be a very large player base and a large number of populated servers to ensure that there’s always some variety and availability in the people you play against. These types of games rely on playing on public servers, that is, you’re usually playing against people you don’t know. This makes it very difficult to organise a game with just friends – getting 16 or so people to play at the same time is quite difficult!
This makes these types of games difficult to enjoy for two reasons. First, unless you’re playing Call of Duty or another heavyweight multiplayer title, you’re going to have a lot of trouble finding opponents to play against. Second, if you are in one of the popular games, the skill variation will usually be extremely high. Players with a lot of experience will dominate, making it hard for new players to participate. The poisonous and overly-aggressive attitude surrounding the community of these games makes it even worse.
But all of these issues dry up if the multiplayer is co-operative instead of competitive. Co-op multiplayer focuses on the game progression rather than the competitive nature of the game. Inexperienced players can safely join and play as the difficulty can be turned down, or the more skilled players can help them out. Unlike competitive multiplayer, there’s not really a concept of a "noob" in a co-op game.
Because of the reduced player requirements, co-op games are much easier to organise, as well. Most of the time you only need one other person to start playing a co-op game, and four is usually the maximum number you’ll get. This makes it easy to play with people you know, and you don’t have to rely on the game being popular to play it. You simply need one other person who wants to play.
The tacked-on multiplayer issue can also be avoided with co-op, too. Because single player campaigns can easily be used for the co-op component as well, it saves a lot of development time and cost to integrate the multiplayer component into a single player game. Co-op lets you experience the best of both worlds: the story of a single player game, plus the fun of a multiplayer game with friends.
Co-op multiplayer campaigns have been common outside of the AAA industry for a while, but the larger publishers are starting to realise the benefits of it as well. Slowly, single-player-focused games are moving from having tacked-on multiplayer to integrated co-op campaigns. Just look at Dead Space 3, Resident Evil 6, Portal 2, and many others. Slowly the industry is improving its habits and responding to consumer demand.