Finding the Fun
The office buzzed with activity as my three coworkers and I labored intensely to bring about one another’s demise. We squabbled for territory, cursed the ineffectiveness of our weapons, and heralded our victories. An hour beyond what should have been the end of our daily playtesting session, we halted and came together. The team was all smiles. Our game, Retrovirus, was starting to develop that magical "it."
Our team’s roots are firmly planted in the fertile soil of LAN multiplayer gaming. We all grew up lugging CRT monitors around in the back of our parents’ cars and fragging the night away. Our first game, Sol Survivor, was the product of those LAN parties. It was our attempt to bring all of our favorite elements of Warcraft III tower defense maps into one package, and to give it our own twist. By our own measure we succeeded, and we gained a trove of knowledge and a modest war chest with which to produce a second title.
Sol Survivor taught us a lot about the interplay between single player, co-op, and competitive multiplayer. One of our most critical lessons was on the subjectivity of fun. Gamers are not all motivated by the same desires. For Retrovirus, it was clear we had to find a way to cater to casual, explorer- and socializer-type players while still offering challenging content for our competitive gladiators and our achievement seekers.
Jump forward nearly a year and a half from the release of Sol Survivor to late 2011. Retrovirus is starting to feel like a few slivers of a game. On one side, we were nurturing a single player that was only just starting to express some of the game’s story. On the other, we were casually toying with small-group competitive multiplayer. For a third-party demo deadline, we scraped together co-op functionality, creating a third sliver. Though all three parts are underdeveloped individually, each one informs the other, creating feedback loops which quickly highlight problems and successes alike. In forcing ourselves to think about our core game mechanics from different angles, we force ourselves to get to the core of what makes our game fun in general.
Retrovirus will contain all three of the game components we find necessary to appeal to the different types of fun seekers. We will have a single player mode, for players to explore and achieve. We will have competitive modes, allowing players to achieve and dominate. Finally, and certainly critical for this venue, we will have co-op, allowing players to achieve, explore and socialize. As these modes unfold together, they improve one another, bringing up the overall standard of the game as it builds toward a finished product.
Explosive Potential, or How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love Co-Op
If you’re reading this, the chances are good that you sing the praises of co-op gaming without need of encouragement. Interestingly, for us at Cadenza, Sol Survivor was a wake up call. Co-op was less a core decision as it was a logical possibility that wasn’t difficult to include. We were oh so satisfyingly wrong.
Co-op isn’t just casual multiplayer gaming. Good co-op enables players to share in their achievements. Players who might ordinarily give up when a level causes them stress can be encouraged by the presence of a friend. They might learn strategies from the presence of a more experienced player, or even ride on their shoulders a bit to explore the game’s story. We found groups of players who bought Sol Survivor in packs of four for the sole purpose of playing our hardest Survival levels in co-op.
Good co-op also allows players to express themselves through their play style to their friends. In Sol Survivor, we found players enjoyed defeating difficult levels in co-op just as much as they enjoyed the process of selecting their weapon loadouts and customizing their approach. Though the possibility space was somewhat limited, players felt able to express themselves through game mechanics. (For the record, I’m a missile silo guy myself, in Sol Survivor.)
All of these lessons from Sol Survivor are consistent with the experiences we at Cadenza have shared as gamers. Our epic nights of Borderlands gave us all a challenge while letting us express ourselves socially within the framework of the game. It was fascinating to watch one of our programmers explode into melee aggression while another took up arms from the rear, healing and shielding the team as we needed it. We weren’t just playing the Borderlands single player with more people around for better loot, we were creating a cohesive team that played on real-life social dynamics.
Indie Devs and Co-Op Sittin’ in a Tree...
Indie developers like to groan. We gripe about having to eat instant ramen. We whine about our lack of manpower and funding compared to big studios. Yet, we don’t often stop and think about what strengths there are in being small. Independent studios are, by their nature, risky business. There’s freedom to be had in embracing that fact. Indie games can risk small amounts of money (relative to the industry juggernauts) to explore niches in gaming that might have some fertile ground hidden within.
Indie studios can harness this more exploratory culture to pursue all sorts of things. In the opinion of this designer, the best indie success stories have come from games which give players robust choices. Choices lead to experimentation and emergent play as players express themselves within the limits of the game. Co-op gaming can make choices more interesting, when the choices players make result in true interactivity.
The instinct gamers have to express themselves digitally has driven many indie games into the spotlight. Magicka exploded because of the emergent properties of its spellcasting in co-op. Part of Minecraft’s success is in giving players an easily understood set of rules and letting the players define their world. Big studios can do co-op too, but indie studios are well positioned to explore co-op’s experimental side. The entire games industry is about innovation, but indies thrive or die by it.
Innovation helps give a game presence. Gaming culture is quickly jaded, and novelty is the surest way to create a good game. Sharing novel experiences via co-op helps to magnify levels of interest surrounding a game. If a game adds something to the general gaming conversation, success is bound to follow. The conversation surrounding co-op gaming isn’t loud enough yet. Developers with the time and freedom to explore it might find themselves as pleasantly surprised as we were with Sol Survivor.
Designing for Co-Op
Harnessing the presence of a second player involves more than just scaling encounter difficulty. Sure, many games get by with a few more enemies, but is that truly co-operative play? Portal 2 showed the world what was possible when an experience was designed from the ground up for co-op. Every switch was placed, and every portal surface tiled with the complexity of a partner factored in. This forces players to rely on their partner, not just as another gun on target, but as an extension of themselves.
Not every game needs to accomplish this aim with such rigidity. Borderlands accomplished it by character customization, allowing the perks that each player grew into to drive reliance. The introduction of new play styles and classes fundamentally changed the tools available to the group when placed under stress. In addition to allowing players to express their identity in their social group through a play style, the play styles themselves helped to cover weaknesses in teammates as new skills were acquired. The formula for Borderlands’ co-op seems to be something like diversity plus stress equals cooperation.
We will have the aim of player co-dependence with Retrovirus’ co-op mode. Our single player campaign will be reworked to include new puzzles in places where adding a second player demands a separate set of challenges. For now, we’re looking at up to four friends being able to play through the campaign together. Each player will be able to customize their roles to accentuate the group’s capabilities and cover for the deficiencies of their friends. Our weapons system lets players set up combinations of triggered effects together, creating team synergy.
We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we are convinced of co-op’s value. From the start of Retrovirus’ development, we were committed to developing multiplayer beyond just the basic competitive flavors.
Where Are We Going?
Retrovirus is still under development, but we’re starting to open up our studio to the world. We like having people give us feedback, and sharing our work early helps too, as we’re forced to regularly reassess our work.
We’ve been doing a livestream weekly on Wednesday nights (6:00pm US pacific time). The stream is focused on level design and live playtesting. Sometimes the stream’s final product is a bit raw, but we’ve found it fun and valuable to talk directly with new fans. Come join us in the stream chat if you want to talk co-op! We also have a blog on our site, and we’ll be putting up more edited video content in the months to come. Retrovirus is already starting to feel like a solid game, and we’d love to have you join us as we sand away the rough edges and search on for what’s going to make this game fun.
- Dylan Barker, Game Designer for Cadenza Interactive
Are you an indie developer with a co-op game and would like to share your own development story? Let us know by dropping a line to firstname.lastname@example.org!