A lot of people play games together.
More than 50 percent of the most frequent gamers within the United States play games with other people (Theesa.com, 2015). Australian gamers also play cooperatively with 61 percent of Australian gamers reporting to play games with children and 44 percent of gamers also claiming to play with their partners (Igea.net, 2015)). It is clear with these findings that cooperative gaming and the genre of cooperative games is a huge part of the industry. Despite this however, there is not a huge pool of cooperative game design articles and research papers. This written piece will aim to discuss the customs of cooperative game design according to the findings and observations throughout the very few articles, GDC talks and the likes that do touch on the matter.
In Keith Burgun’s book, Game Design Theory it is said that any good game designer will benefit from learning about psychology as “psychology is the study of human behaviour, and games are machines for human behaviour to attach to”, when two gamers are in the mix and are playing cooperatively a designer must make many different considerations to ensure both players are getting the intended experience from the video game. Before considering what game design choices to make in cooperative game design it must be known why any two players would cooperate in the first place. In his 2011 GDC talk on cooperative game design (Gdcvault.com, 2011) Patrick Redding discusses some of the reasonings behind why players work with one another. One of the key discussion points to unpack from the conference was the idea of Shared Intentionality. Shared intentionality is a trait that allows people to collaborate in unique ways. Shared Intentionality it is a point of differentiation in humans among other species that allows for the ability to participate and collaborate with others in activities where a goal or intention is shared (South Eastern Louisiana University, 2017). Shared intentionality reflects on the basis that “players become invested in the success of collaborative partners” (Gdcvault.com, 2011). This idea implies that “players can derive satisfaction from meaningful cooperation”, meaningful cooperation being cooperating in a way that is important or useful to the player’s success in the game and has “recognizable function in the logic of the game systems”.
Cooperative games in the early Xbox 360 days.
With the knowledge of Shared Intentionality and the consideration that players are more willing to cooperate if it is a key component of the game’s systems, it can be said that designing cooperative games extends further than simply adding a second player with an accompanying screen and adjusting opposition and resources/player’s tools to suit. The franchise Gears of War (Gearsofwar.com, 2017) is often spoken within the same breath as the term co-op, this is because unlike developers such as Bungie, Epic Games approached their cooperative campaign with cooperative gameplay in mind rather than simply slapping on a second player to the campaign, which is what occurred within Halo 3(Halowaypoint.com, 2017). It is with examples from these two core franchises and others that the elements of cooperative game design will be discussed to aid other game designers to not design a great video game, but a great cooperative video game experience where cooperative gameplay as its core focus.
A greater percentage of players show interest in Gears of War Co-op than Halo Coop.
The two games in question are incredibly similar, Halo 3 and Gears of War both released within a few years of the launch of the Xbox 360. They are both shooters, first and third person respectively and they have both earned an aggregate rating of 94 out of 100 on Metascore (Metacritic.com, 2007). However similar, it is no secret that the Halo franchise is more popular than the Gears of War franchise, proven as the Halo franchise constantly out sells the other console exclusive (Vgchartz.com, 2016). An interesting finding is that despite the disparity in popularity, interest in the coop-ability of the games is far more existent in Gears of War players than Halo players. When running a Google Trends comparison on how many times the term “Halo coop” and “Gears of War coop” have been searched, Halo only takes this win by %40. This percentage may seem significant until it is realised that Google users show just under 5 times more interest in the Halo franchise.
These findings may occur because “Co-Op play is top notch” (Co-optimus.com, 2017) and because “Co-op is a tremendous part of the Gears of War experience. (When) playing alone, it simply feels like half a game” (Cheatcc.com, 2017). In contrast, “Halo 3 is more traditional with its …co-op campaign that is fun, but not earth shattering.” (IGN, 2008). With this the conclusion can be made that out of all who play either game a far larger percentage of Gear of War players show interest in the cooperative gameplay of Gears of War than the percentage of Halo players that show interest in that respective franchise’s co-op gameplay. If the Halo franchise is so beloved, why is there so much more interest by players in playing Gears of War cooperatively? The simple answer must be in the way in which Bungie and Epic approached designing co-op play in each title.
Designing cooperative play in cooperative games.
When a cooperative game is released successful it usually does so if cooperative gameplay is considered throughout all aspects of the games development and design. The mechanics, the game’s story and level design decisions must all been made with cooperative play in mind.
Within Gears of War the story and the mechanics not only support one another, but they also support cooperative play. Gears of War is a game in which the games characters comprise of a team called Delta Squad, the team must work together via cover-dependant tactics to overcome encounters and obstacles. The idea of cooperating is reinforced by it being an essential element within the game’s gameplay mechanics and the story surrounding it. In contrast Halo 3, like the two games before it, is a first-person shooter with Sci Fi elements, the main purpose of the game is to continue and complete the story of Master Chief, the franchises’ protagonist, unlike in Gears of War the mechanics and story of Halo revolve around one character, Master Chief. Despite encountering other characters, the focus is put on Master Chief’s story and his efforts rather than how well he works with those he teams up with.
All design decisions in a cooperative game should be made with cooperative play in mind, as one of the core elements of a game is the mechanics within it, the mechanics themselves should support cooperative gameplay. Patrick Redding discusses (Gdcvault.com, 2017) the different types of “cooperative dynamics” that should be considered when implementing and designing mechanics in a cooperative game.
Asymmetric abilities are, as the name suggests, a cooperative dynamic where players have access to different abilities. The most common way to implement this in the design of a cooperative game is through character/class selection and/or having customisation/skill trees.
Board game developer Corey Konieczka states “that having unique characters really helps players feel like individuals (). If (players) have the same strengths and capabilities, then it is difficult for (them) to identify with anything on a personal level” (Mechanics & meeples, 2013). An example of a cooperative video game where this approach is prominent and often complimented is in Payday 2 (Crimenet.info, 2017), “Payday 2’s skill trees and perk decks give players a wide range of defining a build that they can use” (Tim Klewitz, 2015).
Synergy (felix.tecnico.ulisboa.pt, 2017) between players is made possible due to asymmetric abilities as some of them may only work or will work better with one another. By designing abilities in ways where some work well and more effectively together, players will feel more inclined to cooperate in order experience the most fruitful results.
One of the dynamics which Halo 3 had subtly implemented but Gear of War had not was asymmetric abilities. Although no perks or classes are present, in the Bungie title each player in the Halo 3 campaign spawns with different weaponry that is dependent on which character they play(halo.wikia.com, 2017). Unlike this, in Gears of War, all the players are provided with the same equipment and abilities despite playing different characters. In Gears of War, asymmetric abilities are not present until players pick up weapons as they progress. Similarly, so, the abilities only differ in Halo 3 with reference to the weaponry available that is provided to players. When this occurs and players have different weapons, the effects of asymmetric abilities are in place however “the divisions between a tank, a healer, or a damage dealer -- allows players to differentiate themselves and their behaviours from others” (Mathew Kumar, 2017) in a far more effective way than simply having different weaponry.
Asymmetric abilities do not need to be a constant in cooperative game. When asymmetric abilities aren’t present all players are equally powerful, no one player is in more risk of death than another throughout gameplay. This may make players feel more unified. The strategies that tie along with cover based mechanics, such as those in Gears of War may allow for a lack of asymmetric abilities to not hinder the cooperative feel of the game as cooperative strategic play is still in place despite the similar move sets and abilities.
Asymmetric abilities and differing skills are components that aid in implementing another dynamic known as combined actions. The premise of combined actions is designing encounters that can utilise multiple skill sets and/or abilities but ultimately it is designing challenges which one player cannot tackle by themselves or challenges which cooperative play compliments. (Mathew Kumar, 2017). In these scenarios, players will have to adapt to different roles. These roles may be based off the different abilities of each player’s character or are delegated due to each player skills.
Implementing Asymmetric Abilities and Combined Actions.
Act 2: Nightfall (gearsofwar.wikia.com, 2017) sees the players of Gears of War experiencing both asymmetric abilities and combined actions. At the end of this act the players find themselves driving an armoured vehicle with an ultraviolet light attached to it that Kryll (bat like enemies) are vulnerable to. With one player driving and the other aiming the light at the Kryll, both players have access to different mechanics (asymmetric abilities) that must be used in unison (combined actions) to progress through the campaign (combined actions). In this sequence players must divide power between the engine and the turret, this mechanic forces players to have to communicate and cooperate as they need to both murder the Kryll to avoid being killed and progress through the level.
The final mission of the Halo 3 campaign (halo.wikia.com, 2017) finds players in a similar scenario where they must drive an armoured vehicle with a mounted weapon through a branching but linear path. The difference in this scenario is that both players can chose between the driver’s seat, passenger seat and turret, and can even separate into two vehicles if they wish. The main challenge of this segment is manoeuvring through the level, when this mission is played through separately the AI accompanying the player rarely do much and the only role the solo player can take is as the driver, in contrast when the aforementioned Gears of War mission is played through by one player, they have access to both shooting and driving as both roles are important in passing the segment. Bungies approach to this type of mission lead to an absence of mechanic forcing players to have to cooperate, one player is driving through the level choosing the most optimum path while the other simply shoots at the Flood (swarming enemies) that they pass.
The dialogue in this segment of game also enforces that the only real role here is driving. Even when playing through cooperatively, at the final jump the dialogue: “You’ve done it chief! Jump. floor it, right into the hangar” is heard. This dialogue not only addresses the 1st player’s character, Masterchief but it also shows no acknowledgment of the 2nd Players assistance or lack thereof.
Exotic challenges are implemented when the normal camera and controls have been altered or replaced with something else. Different and unique perspectives and controls allow for different types of gameplay, when implementing exotic challenges, the same risks and threats should still be applicable. If a player is by themselves they are at a greater risk of danger than they would be if they have an accompanying player to assist, protect and support them. A popular example of this kind of mechanic is in any situation where one player is immobile and undergoing a new type of scenario while their team mate/s protects their body.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Activision.com, 2017) brings the introduction to a killstreak/reward known as the predator missile/drone. When a predator drone is earned, and used the player opens a laptop, briefly loses control over their normal mechanics in favour of the ability to direct the course of a missile from a top down perspective. After sighting a position on the map, the player directs the missile heading toward the ground and ultimately at their opposition. In Modern Warfare 2 there is a mission known as Sniper Fi (callofduty.wikia.com, 2017) as a part of their Spec Ops missions which can be played cooperatively. When done so the dynamic of the predator missile is vastly different and utilises an exotic challenge where a player is safer when cooperating. When one player initiates the predator drone their body is unprotected as their current perspective is fixed on the predator drone, for the brief time they are in control of the drone the only way their body can be defended is if their partner protects them.
“Sometimes games provide players with abilities that can only be used on another player” (felix.tecnico.ulisboa.pt, 2017) these abilities fall under the cooperative dynamic known as buffing systems. Buffing systems are one of the only types of mechanics that works exclusively in cooperative gameplay, be it cooperating with other players or AI characters. Buffing Systems are mechanics implemented in gameplay where one cooperative partner makes another more powerful. Buffing systems are often voluntarily used. By having one player literally supporting another, cooperative play is not only encouraged but it provides for a greater opportunity at success.
Team Fortress 2 (Teamfortress.com, 2017) is a cooperative class and team based shooter. Players have access to a class called the Medic that’s sole purpose is to support their team mates. The Medic’s secondary weapon slot can only be filled with weapons that have zero adversarial ability but have buffing systems in place instead. The Medic’s stock secondary weapon is a Medi Gun, “Despite technically being a weapon, the Medi Gun's chief purpose is healing injured allies and boosting the total health of the target up to 150%, also called over healing or buffing” (Wiki.teamfortress.com, 2017). When a player is buffing a team mate, not only are they aiding them but they are also reliant on them for protection as they are occupied with healing rather than protecting themselves and inflicting damage to their opponents. Buffing systems are also present in multiple of the Medic’s unlockable primary weapons. The Medic’s primary weapon is the main way they can inflict damage on their enemies, however when primary weapons such as the Crusader’s Crossbow are equipped and a player shoots a team mate, their team mate is positively affected. When buffing systems are implemented cooperating teams are given a competitive advantage and cooperating is made almost a compulsory component of gameplay as a whole set of mechanics are reliant on cooperative play in order to be effective.
Cooperative games should be designed with cooperative play in mind. This contention is one that is strongly applicable to the area of mechanics, as the mechanics directly outline what cooperative play takes place. No less important are the spaces and areas that these mechanics are used, implemented and introduced in. In cooperative play, multiple players are moving throughout the level. The paths they take, enemies they encounter and resources they have access to must be designed to accommodate this. Level design decisions must also be made with cooperative play in mind. The job of a level designer is a “highly collaborative job (that) demands the designer work in sync with combat systems designers, mission designers” (Getinmedia.com, 2017) and all other aspects of the games development to ensure unison in the overall product of the game. It is key that the importance of cooperative play is at the forefront of all decisions, including the decisions of level designers.
Cédric Hauteville defines gating as “a level design technique that consists in confining the player to a small area and/or blocking the access to another area, until the player completes a given objective or makes a specific action” (technicalgamedesign.blogspot.com.au, 2011). In a cooperative campaign, unlike a solo or single player one, two or more player controlled characters are interacting with the level and progressing through it. Each player with differing skills, different play styles and paces. Gating or tethering can be used as a method of ensuring that players do not separate too much. Gating can achieve this by introducing situations where one player cannot advance without the other player being present. No one player can proceed unless all players can proceed.
In Halo 3, when the leading player reaches a new checkpoint or loading zone in the cooperative campaign, the other players that are far away from them are teleported there without warning or hesitation. Although this may bring players physically closer together, with this method pieces of gameplay can be skipped completely by those being jumped forward. In addition, this mechanic only supports players with the quickest pace/play style.
“In Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory () and Splinter Cell: Double Agent (), dual actions enable players to do a variety of moves such as boosting or launching the other player across a large gap” (splintercell.wikia.com, 2017). Implementing the previously listed as well as situations where both players must be present at exotic doors in order to open them (Gdcvault.com, 2017) ensures that one player cannot advance through the level by themselves and that no player misses any of the gameplay or level. Progressing through the level is impossible without players playing cooperatively. When two players must work together to progress through a level, cooperatively play is ensured and supported. When one player is being skipped forward to the leading player such as in Halo, one player not only misses on some of the experience but only the quickest play style is supported.
In some situations, it may be advantageous to separate cooperating players to enhance cooperative gameplay. One type of Challenge that should be considered when designing levels and missions in cooperative games are Physical challenges “These challenges involve real-life physical effort. These can be used to promote cooperative play by making the challenges involve physical effort that can’t be done by a single player” (felix.tecnico.ulisboa.pt, 2017).
The first time this type of level dynamic is introduced in Gears of War is in the aptly named level Fork In The Road (gearsofwar.wikia.com, 2017). In this mission players reach a point in the level with multiple routes, they have free choice over which route they take although they cannot choose the same one. In this mission, the split paths provide opportunities that enable players to access to angles where they can flank enemies that are preventing their team mate from progressing. If the Delta Squad didn’t separate this segment wouldn’t have been possible to pass as the path needed to be taken to unlock the doors was blocked by enemies with an advantageous view that needed to be flanked by those who took the opposing route. Both pathways were equally crucial in this segment, whether it was to flank enemies blocking the unlock button for the doors, or simply those who did unlock the doors once the enemies were flanked.
Another way to enforce cooperative play when designing levels is via the inclusion of traps. Traps are devices or situations that “harm” or disable the player that triggered the trap. The way traps can be utilised in cooperative games is by ensuring that when one player is effected by the trap and ultimately becomes trapped they become immobile and/or defenceless. When this occurs, it will then have to be made the accompanying players responsibility and priority to help aid them and restore the trapped player’s full move set, normally this must be done so within a limited amount of time otherwise penalties, most commonly death will take effect.
Traps are a form of punitive system (Gdcvault.com, 2017) that enforce cooperation by making it a necessity for success, punitive systems are also implemented when a player is downed but not out, such as in Gears of War. The player who is trapped (or downed) is being punished for getting trapped by losing access to mechanics, their team mate is punished if they do not aid the trapped player as this usually results in failure or will have negative effects on a team’s score. By making cooperation a priority and punishing the team as a unit, communication and cooperation become key components to ensure a maximum chance at success.
Although also a mechanical implementation, it was a Level Designer’s role to dictate where Smokers would be placed in the game Left 4 Dead (Valvesoftware.com, 2017). “Left 4 Dead is a single player and multiplayer cooperative survival horror FPS game” (leftfordead.wikia.com, 2017) with many enemy types. Smokers (leftfordead.wikia.com, 2017) are a type of Special infected, a greater variant of the main opposition in the game. Smokers are essentially AI with a trap-like ability. When a smoker grabs a player, the player loses access to many of their abilities and is slowly pulled toward the smoker to be either clawed at or choked to death unless they can escape its grip. When a player is caught by a smoker the quickest and most successful way the player can be freed from the smoker’s grip is by having a team mate kill the smoker or destroy the tongue, freeing the player.
The missions that take place within a game must be designed and implemented collaboratively with the designer of the levels that the mission takes place in. Some of the common types of missions that exist are protect and escort missions. Protect missions normally entail players holding down and protecting an area or the area surrounding a key object while waves of enemies attack their position. The design and implementation of missions and the types of missions in cooperative games must be done so with cooperative play in mind.
In protect missions, one approach designers can take to encourage players “to cooperate together is by making players defend either a location, a character or even an item” (felix.tecnico.ulisboa.pt, 2017). When an area needs to be guarded from waves of enemies, having multiple players allows for multiple skills sets, at times different abilities (depending on the game) and most commonly different perspectives. In protect missions, if levels are designed where enemies enter form different routes, cooperation becomes an important component in increasing player’s chances at success. One player can only attack what is in their field of view, having two players increases the angle players have on opposition. If a player becomes overwhelmed communication becomes a key component in ensuring survival.
Escort missions are another type of mission that can be carefully implemented to enforce cooperative play. Escort missions involve players escorting an AI character or an item across from one place to another. When items or characters are being escorted they are usually key victory conditions of the game or specific missions. The Escort archetype often coincides as a type of punitive system because often the player escorting a character or item is defenceless and therefore is reliant on their team mates for protection.
Protect against those Escorting
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege (Ubisoft.com, 2017) is a cooperative multiplayer first person shooter where two teams (attackers and defenders) must perform one another. One of the PVP game modes is Hostage (rainbowsix.wikia.com, 2017), in this game mode the defenders play a Protect type mission while the Attackers play a Hostage one. The Defenders have the hostage at ransom and obtain a victory if the hostage is not killed or extracted and at least one team member is alive before time runs out. The Attacker’s main objective is to extract the hostage and escort them to the extraction zone before time runs out.
The Defending teams must cooperate in covering different angles, using different abilities and traps to outsmart their opposition. The Attackers must work together tactically as funnelling into the protected room one by one will often yield poor results. Further, when a player is escorting the hostage their movement speed is lower and they only have access to their secondary weapon, because of this they are often reliant on their team mates to protect them as they escort the hostage to safety to obtain a victory.
The main factor that differentiates a cooperative game from others is its inclusions of cooperative gameplay. Because of this, when designing a cooperative game such as halo 3 or Gears of War, cooperative gameplay should be at the forefront of the game designers mind. The mechanics of the game should be implemented and adjusted to support cooperative play and the levels these mechanics are used within need to be designed with the knowledge that multiple players will be cooperating within them. The type of missions that take place in these levels need to also support the fact that multiple players will have to work together to play through them. When designing game that will be played through cooperatively with co-op gameplay in mind, it is the gameplay that will thrive and benefit. When players seek out a co-op game their focus is on cooperative gameplay, if a large amount of focus has been placed on it then the game too will be more highly regarded. When designing a cooperative game, cooperative gameplay needs to be a considered when making all decisions.
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