Editorial | 11/21/2011 at 9:00 AM

Is Couch Co-Op Gaming Dying?

Exploring the myths, culture, benefits and downfalls of couch co-op.

Ever since the days of the Atari and other home gaming consoles long past, there's been co-operative gaming. It's one of the aspects of gaming's history that almost every modern gamer shares, be they an old hand or a fresh little spratling in the world of video gaming. While now, the majority of co-op game play happens online, there was a time where 'going to play some games with friends meant actually physically leaving your house, and going to that friend's place, or going to the arcade. Since the advent of the current generation of consoles, we've seen the prevalence of online games skyrocket, and the need for couch co-op is no longer as dire as it once was. This has created a sort of myth around couch co-op that it's slowly dying out, or becoming obsolete. We'll show you that that's simply not the case, and explore some things couch co-op does better than online can -- and vice versa. Because while co-op gaming will never die, it has changed in some pretty exciting ways.

To begin with, we'll discuss the pervasive myth that couch co-op is dying out. And before we go asking about what source the myth comes from, don't bother. It's not something that really exists in print, or as something you see many websites or other publications talking about. It's more of a shared myth between gamers and within gaming culture. As online co-op gaming has become more and more advanced and widespread, it's become the primary way most of us enjoy co-op. This diminishment of use has resulted in a perceived diminishment of availability of couch co-op games. This is a myth we can easily disprove. A little digging into the Co-Optimus database quickly provided us with simple numerical proof that couch co-op is not dying:

In fact, there are more games with couch co-op within the last few years than there are without. But if there's simply no truth to the myth, then why does it exist in the first place?

Part of this is most likely owed to a parallel myth, the one about the profitability of online co-op. Basically, there's a second assumption made by some gamers that online co-op is more profitable, and hence would create a scarcity of sorts of couch co-op games, because a lot of companies make decisions due to their bottom line. After all, if two people each buy a copy of a game to play it online, that's two copies sold, and double the profits - right? The problem is that that math only really checks out if you assume the following: it takes exactly as much time, money, and effort to produce a good online engine as it does to code couch co-op, and that running a server is free and any support staff you have for the online portion doesn't get paid. But that's not the case.

Yeah, don't count on talking to her if you call in because of "server problems."

The creation, testing, and base implementation of a good online engine is very expensive. Maintaining the servers for people to play on is very expensive. Hiring a full online support staff including engineers, in-game moderators, and support staff for THAT support staff (Human resources, janitors, and rent/utilities wherever they may be staying) is very VERY expensive. Implementing co-op on a single system is comparably much easier and less demanding of resources. Not only that, simply creating online co-op doesn’t automatically mean two or more sales. So the myth of inherent profitability falls on it's face. But we can nevertheless deny that online co-op is growing immensely in popularity, whereas couch co-op has reached a sort of stasis in the last few years. Before we can discuss whether that's good or bad, however, we'll need a brief overview of multiplayer gaming from its earlier days to now.

For me, couch co-op when I was young could be summed up in two words: Ninja Turtles. I can vividly recall entire days -- weeks, even -- spent playing the SNES classic Turtles in Time with friends. We'd have groups of so many guys waiting to play, all because the only guy around with a SNES and Turtles in Time was Jamie. This demonstrable market for multiplayer gaming helped contribute to the N64's awesome 4 controller setup. The PS2 released their multitap, too, so you could get as many people on the console as the processors could easily allow. One of the first home consoles to use an internet connection for full co-op gameplay, however was the Sega Dreamcast, and Phantasy Star Online was born. The dreamcast was technically ambitious, for certain, beating Microsoft, Sony and nintendo to the online party by a decent margin Now, the wrench in the gears of this progress was the fact that the Dreamcast failed - badly. For a multitude of reasons that have been discussed widely enough that We don't need to get into them here. But the dreamcast left at least one legacy - Now that a console had been made that could play over the internet, anything without that capability would seem lacking - even if the dreamcast itself failed hard enough to get Sega downsized to third party.

The Dreamcast Modem.  Oh yeah.

The big three saw the merit to online play, and so the Gamecube, PS2 and Xbox all came with internet connectivity options. Granted, the Xbox had it built in, whereas the other two required use of a separately purchased modem, but the option was there. Phantasy Star Online even got remade for the Gamecube, which sold about as well as it had on the dreamcast. The stage was now set for the current generation of home consoles, and the networking behemoths we know as Xbox Live and PlayStation Network. The Wii has online connectivity, but I think I can reasonably state that Microsoft and sony's online experience is far more robust. Much as I love my Wii, I don't turn it on when I'm planning on playing with other people. Which brings us to co-op gaming today.

It seems to me that the current generation contains a type of game that was in limbo for years : those designed specifically with co-op in mind. Back in the SNES/Genesis days, there was an abundance of games like Turtles in Time and Streets of Rage. These games were not only at their best when you played them co-operatively - they kind of sucked if you didn't. Trying to clear Streets of Rage by yourself was an exercise in frustration, as the AI was programmed to punch you in the back whenever you started a combo up. Having a partner to watch your back made it not only much easier to beat, it made it a lot more fun. But in the in-between years, the big draw for multiplayer wasn't co-op gaming, it was the Versus mode.

Versus was easily as responsible for the creation of current console networking standards as co-op play. I can also recall many evenings spent playing goldeneye and Mario Kart 64, along with many fighters on the playstation. TimeSplitters, Mario Party, Marvel Vs. Capcom -- so many of the AAA titles of those days focused on the versus aspect. But now, we've got titles like Gears of War, Left 4 Dead, and Killzone 3 which are tailor-made for co-op gaming. They all have single-player modes, but having an AI as your teammate isn't the optimal way to play, as more often than not the programmers see fit to have extra redundancy on the "stupid" factor for your partner, meaning their only job is to give your behind a slap when you get low on health, and resume doing all the work.

That’s okay guys, I got it -- you relax.

Which may sound irritating, but it's just fine and dandy by me. Playing co-operatively in a game specifically designed around co-op is an awesome experience. But is online co-op the best way to go, or do we lose something to the experience.

Co-op gaming - both online and same-couch - is obviously great. But these two types of co-op aren't made equal. Couch co-op does some things better than online co-op, and vice versa.

Advantages of couch co-op:

Couch co-op is more cost efficient for individual gamers. If you and a pal play a co-op game only with each other, then you either both put in for the game, or one of you's eating for free. That's something you don't get with online co-op, where you pay for the game itself, and in the case of the 360, the additional Xbox Live Gold subscription. For lack of an existing phrase, I'm going to call it "The proximity factor." That special something that gets added to the gaming experience by having your buddy in the room. That overly-energetic, palm-stinging high five when You finally get through a particularly tough wave of enemies in Gears of War. Seeing the sudden fright in a friend's eyes when a rocket slams into their temple in some Halo. And of course, seeing the murder in their eyes when you assassinate them and steal one of their towns in Dokapon Kingdom (I have a friend who to this day refuses to play that game with me). There's an intangible benefit when you play a game in the same physical space as other people. It's one of the reasons gamers still go to arcades, when most of us own the games at home anyways.

On the other side of the coin, however, there are some things that online co-op brings to the table that couch co-op just can't.


Availability to other players. While couch co-op is great, getting two people together to play can be pretty tricky, and if both those people are adults with full-time jobs, it becomes a logistical nightmare. I like gaming with my roommate whenever possible, but we're around the apartment at very different hours. We practically never get to game together -- and we live in the same apartment. Trying to play with other friends is an exercise in futility a lot of days. But if you're looking to play some co-op online? You have a Murtaugh to your Riggs 24/7, no waiting necessary. Less taxing on system resources. Running two separate viewpoints, control schemes, and characters can sometimes tax a system's capabilities to the point where it reduces enjoyment. For instance, Left 4 Dead's frame rate when in split-screen co-op was significantly reduced than if you played it alone. This was combined with the fact that you only had half the screen to yourself. The game was still playable, but to purists and the obsessive compulsive (like myself) it was galling enough to make the co-op endeavour worthwhile. Conversely, playing online co-op means your system has less input and output to process, and your frame rates remain unscathed. Online co-op is less demanding on your couch space too - and sometimes, you just wanna sprawl.


Ed, will you quit messing with those guys and get over here!?

So, currently, there's kind of a stalemate between couch co-op and online. The two are evenly tied in that they each do things the other can't. For my money, couch co-op is infinitely more enjoyable, when I can get it. But when I can't, then I'm very glad I have a good wireless connection.

But what does the future hold for couch co-op? Well, we can't say for sure what will come to pass, but we do have some hopes for what we'd like to see. The advent of 3D televisions is very exciting, because it presents a unique opportunity for couch co-op. In times past, as we've discussed, couch co-op has always been presented on the same screen in one of two ways: The classic split-screen play, in which the screen is split either horizontally, or in some cases, vertically and each player is given their own individual screen within the television that they use to play,, and the same-screen co-op in games such as Fable, in which two players share the same screen and the camera angle zooms and moves away so that both character models can be accommodated. Each of these methods have their downfalls, however; split-screen ends up decreasing the player's field of vision or otherwise distorting the image in unpleasant ways, which can decrease the ease of play significantly. Same-screen co-op can be troublesome in that if the two players get far away from one another, the screen zooms too far out. Some games combat this with limiting player movement to a certain distance within each other, constraining their mobility in the interest of keeping the players close. I know I for one have had to tell a friends many times to hustle up and get to my part of the screen so that we could go to the next room, already.

Where 3D televisions come in is in their method of presenting the third dimension. In order to present a full 3D image to the player, the television actually has two screens, working in close tandem to present two images which are parallax to one another. This false parallax then tricks the eye into perceiving real depth, which gives us the 3D image. So what we have is, in essence, two full-frame presentations of the same game happening one one screen. Alternately, some TVs use a different sort of tech implementing special glasses - the same kind that costs you an extra three dollars at the multiplex. These glasses look now like 2 identical sheets of plastic, but they are actually two separate filters. The left lens filters out images that are presented in one wavelength on the screen, while the right filters out another - which again, creates a false parallax and bamboozles your optic nerve into seeing depth where there is none. These glasses used to be in Red and blue when I was young (which I know is dating myself a bit), but now the images are clear, as are the glasses, allowing for a full, vivid colour spectrum.

This is all very technical, but what this means for gamers is that applying this technology, a special screen or special series of glasses can be made so that either you sitting at the proper angle will filter out the other player's image entirely, or wearing glasses with only one set of lenses will filter out the other player's screen. Meaning you can theoretically have two full-screen images on a television which are entirely independent of one another. You and a friend can play some games one one TV and not have your vision limited or your movement restrained. There's still the problem of shared audio, but two separate sound output channels and some headphones can mitigate that. In fact, This technology has been put to use by Sony, who released a TV with a technololgy they call “SimulView” technology (which is essentially the technique we discussed using glasses. LG is also planning to release a TV with a simlilar technology. We can only hope more developers make use of the idea.

Sorry, Mitch.

Another hope that can be addressed with current (read: non-imaginary) methods is that of mutual benefit to couch co-op gaming. Some games, such as the Fable series (which I must say is taking it's rightful pounding in this article) only measure real progress for one player. In Fable 2, co-op was available, but not widely used. This is because the second player could receive no achievements, gear, or story progress in their own, making it about as stimulating and sought-after as a sphincter on your elbow. So for both players to play through the game together and get all relevant weapons and cheevos, you had to do all the work. TWICE. This is impractical because (as I can tell you from personal experience) Once one player has reaped the benefits of co-op play, their incentive to help their friend can disappear, and someone gets left hanging to the tune of several hundred gamer points.

This is the sort of thing that developers have the power to change. It's as simple as implementing a server-side memory for game progress and item drops. A server-side tally of gamerscore exists, but that requires account recovery on someone else's Xbox, which even now takes a startlingly long time.

But as it goes, I'm very happy with the current state if co-op gaming. It's in no risk of going anywhere, because everywhere there are gamers with friends, there will be gaming with friends. Whether you play online or on the same couch, you gotta love owning some chumps with your pal as the co-pilot on your magical journey of killing dudes.