Six Degrees of Cooperation

3/5/2010 at 11:48 AM

As you are reading this from a site that caters for co-operative games, it is easy to assume that you are a co-op fan. You are someone that likes to work with others towards a common goal and revel in their friendship and camaraderie. If like me, you like co-op games over any other type, then the chances are that you will fight your corner, suggesting to other people that perhaps, in the days of increasingly improving online experience, co-op is the future.

Where does co-op stop and the solo experience begin? 

Purists may suggest that there is only one type of co-op experience, the campaign co-op. This is the type of game that allows you to play through the main story with two or more players, be it Borderlands, Left 4 Dead 2, or the many other games that have graced computers and consoles over the years. I would agree that these are amongst some of the best co-op experiences, as the games are designed with the play style in mind. Maps may require the players to split up and use communication to succeed, or perhaps you will need to heal one another to make it to the end. These games are certainly the first degree of co-operation.

But what about the specific co-op experience bolted on to a single player game?   This degree of cooperation is becoming increasingly popular with publishers who find themselves with a solo campaign, but look at the increasingly lucrative co-op market with hungry eyes. Why sell one copy, when you can sell one copy to person A and his three pals? This is the Survival Mode made popular by Gears of War 2. Although Gears 2 had co-op throughout, the average co-op fan was impressed by the other co-op experience available in the box that allowed you to work together against hordes of enemy AI. It almost seems that every new game has one of these experiences onboard; Alien vs. Predator, Call of Duty 5, ODST, Army of Two: The 40th Day, Lost Planet 2, Crackdown 2, Left 4 Dead. Is having an additional co-op mode enough to call the game co-op?

As we move through the different possible degrees of co-op games we have to be increasingly generous at ignoring some of the rules. Are elements of team deathmatch not a form of co-op? In many games, team deathmatch is nothing more than a lot of people playing for themselves, who happen to be on the same team – but not in all cases. Left 4 Dead versus mode is team based co-op, where if you want to win you need to work together, even if it is against other human players. This sounds more like Competitive Co-op/true team deathmatch to me. The same can be said of online sports games such as Fifa 2010, you can play with other players and the very dynamic of team based sports is that you must work together for a common goal. True team deathmatch does not even have to be versus human opponents, games like Unreal Tournament 3 allow you to work as a human clan against the AI, and this has to be considered a form of co-op play. If a developer programs the team experience well, then surely it is a type of co-op experience? Team deathmatch can come in many guises, some co-op, others not. If you are interested in this area, see Team Rainbow Friends in the forums for Co-optimus’ own Competitive Co-op Clan and play a session or two. 

Consider pseudo co-op, a less ‘official’ type of co-op; games that are meant to be solo, but you play together. I like to play games with my partner, but she does not often like to actually pick up a controller. How does that work you ask? We play a game together by her giving me useful information (in most cases) or helpful hints (less often) to aid me in my goals; if that does not work I just get nagged to do as she says. You can often find us huddled around our laptop playing those ‘fun’ hidden object games together. You can work as one, or pass the pad to take it in turns. The game thinks that we are one person, but we like to play them together. The games we play in this fashion are numerous; The Secret of Monkey Island, Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper, Mass Effect 2. These are not games that will ever come under the co-op remit, but for me they were great experiences I had with others. Developers have noticed this trend themselves and are increasingly catering for a market that will allow one player to be assisted by a more casual ally. Super Mario Galaxy or Call of Duty 5 Wii allowed a fellow player to jump in and aid the gamer in a loose capacity. This form of game is extending the co-op market to an increasingly varied type of player. 

What about the most controversial form of co-op gaming – versus!?! I’m not a fan of going online to play against someone, but many people are. In fact, close friends will often join up online to play one another, be it on the playing fields of Pro Evolution Soccer 2010, or the mean cobbles of Street Fighter IV. If you make a concerted effort to play a friend online then this is a form of co-op as well? Split screen and single screen games can also fall into this category. Whilst some split screen games have you working together, many are designed as versus experiences that you share on the same screen. I would refute anyone who claimed that a family versus game of Mario Kart or Bomberman was not about people getting together for fun. Often sports games will allow you to play on the same side against the AI – you can make a competitive game a co-op experience if you like.

The final degree of co-operation, you ask? Well that has to be no co-op.  Games that you can only play by yourself, but how many of these truly exist? Perhaps solo games on the DS, PSP and iPhone are the closest thing – looking over someone’s shoulder to help them out is no fun! There is a place for great single player experiences such as Mass Effect 2, Bioshock or Darksiders.  The joy of immersing yourself in new worlds and discovering great set pieces. You just tell that to my partner next time she’s telling me exactly where to go. Co-op can be everywhere and nowhere in games; it is up to you to decide what degree of co-operation you want.


Community questions

Where do you draw the line when it comes to what co-op means? Does a game have to be fully co-operative throughout, or will a ‘Comp-Stomping’ style game mode suffice? Is playing a single player game with someone else a co-op experience? What about meeting online with a friend to play against one another? How could publishers and developers alike, better inform gamers about the level of co-op within a game (i.e. on the back of the box?)