PCG: Co-op? Sling your hook.

When I was last in the Gamer office, they caught me in a – Dwarf Fortress Mode on – fey mood. Guiding me towards a keyboard, it ended in another rant where I continue the last seven-days theme of asking the entire internet outside, as I think they spilt my pint. It’s about how the current wave of co-op games isn’t exactly the unvarnished joy which its been painted at. I end up saying things like…

There’s nothing wrong with co-op, per se. The problem is when it spreads cancerously in a great singleplayer game, twisting it, perverting it, sickening it, preparing it for death. That’s one thing I won’t co-operate with.

But on the way there, there’s something that may pass for an argument. You tell me.


  1. Junior says:

    Nope, you’re right.

    I love co-op, some games are only fun for me because of their co-op, like both dungeon sieges. But co-op poorly implemented ruins the single player in halo 3 as you’ve mentioned and I’ve no doubt other fine (pc?) titles too, I likewise had the cut scene problem with guildwars. Lacking a party of people new to the game to play with, I’d hook up with whoever was going on my mission, when everyone votes to skip the cut scene I’ve never seen before, and it’s hard not to click that button too, especially when you’re new and don’t know the etiquette for the game. Yeah, I could have taken some bots and done it alone, but seriously, what kind of mmo would I be playing?

    But, conversely, there aren’t enough GOOD co-op games, looking across my games shelf I can see hmmm, two games with a proper co-op. The two I’ve mentioned. Yes we can gang up on an ai in skirmish mode, sure we can fight bots in my shooters, but real proper co-op? All I want for christmas is another epic romp I can enjoy with my girlfriend, rpg, strategy, heck I think if it was properly done, I could drag her into co-op Stalker.

    So, In conclusion? Death to co-op, long live multiplayer campaigns?

  2. po says:

    BF2 (and BF2142) manages to be a good coop game, but that’s due mainly to it not having a story.

    The last good Coop game I played with (what passed for) a story was Quake.

    While HL2 episodes may have been coop friendly with Alyx as a 2nd player, it’s a good job it wasn’t done, as all the extra work would have reduced the quality of the single player, and the game would never have been as good as it is.

  3. Dr.Gash says:

    I didn’t have such a violent reaction towards Halo 3’s co-op, but then I was largely apathetic towards Halo 3 in general.
    Your assertion that co-op is somehow subverting the single player portions of some games seems a little melodramatic. Do you have any other examples which you think exemplify this subersion? I empathise with your point about shared stories failing, but thats dependant far more on the people you play with having a different attitude to yourself and the game, surely?

  4. Kieron Gillen says:

    Just to stress the point: The article’s for the Devil’s Advocate column.


  5. The_B says:

    You know, eventually that column is going to have to have a disclaimer attached to it at this rate…

    But nonetheless, I thought it raises some interesting points. For example, is Gears of War only half as good in Singleplayer? And if so, why should it be that a game is only better if we play it how the developers intended, and to that end surely the only way for that to truly happen is by running games on the exact same setup they were developed on, hardware and all.

  6. Dr.Gash says:

    I’m a touch confused. Have I missed the point of the Devil’s Advocate columns? Is there a higher concept at work here that I’m missing?

  7. Janek says:

    I think the best game(s) I’ve played co-op is SWAT 3/4. Presumably because it’s functionally exactly the same as single player, except with real people instead of AI.

    Nothing like a bit of collective tasering of uncooperative old ladies.

  8. Kieron Gillen says:

    Gash: Just that the argument phrased may be a little stronger than we actually believe for the purpose of fermenting debate. I was picking up on the “melodramatic” bit of it.


  9. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    Wikipaedia saves us all, again.

  10. Lu-Tze says:

    As regards Gears of War… the thing that annoys me most about that (and Mass Effect I might add) is that it’s fine for all 3 members of your squad to be bleeding out of the ears on the ground, but the second you cop it it’s Game Over. At least give me the option (and possibly a nice viewpoint of the action) of waiting around to see if the AI is capable of not dying for the time it takes to run at me. Or give me control over people left alive. Whatever.

    The “revive a dead team-mate” balance never works between Co-Op and Single Player. It either makes the game too easy in Co-Op mode, or too hard in the other.

    Increasingly we are going to see games fulfil a niche market. An FPS seems to have to provide a compelling Single Player Storyline, which can be played through Co-Op, and online with Deathmatch and Team Based Objective game modes.

    Look at the recent titles that have focused on one aspect of that. Team Fortress 2. Bioshock. Arguably some of the greatest games of the year. Way back when the UT vs Q3 war broke out, it was because they both aimed at the same niche market by limiting themselves to online play.

    No-one complains that TF2 forces them to play online in a team, and if a game outright says “I am meant to be played Co-Op, this is what I am” then we shouldn’t deride it for not catering to gamer who prefers a story driven solo experience.

  11. Rook says:

    I can’t help but feel if the role was reversed and Masterchief was gunning, whilst the Arbiter was driving then the section would be lamented as “another on rails shooter segment” that people are sick and tired of.

    Also, you appear to need to find better friends if they’re all bugging you to skip cutscenes in Guild Wars. Afterall, I think it’s a bit unfair to blame co-op games if you can only find idiots to play them with.

  12. James says:

    So, co-op for the sake of co-op’s sake is bad?

    A game can’t have two masters.

    That’s a dangerous statement. When I partake in a Company of Heroes skirmish, the players are equal partners in the game — no one man is greater — and the conclusion of the game is irrelevant, since the enjoyment is in the playing (unlike the Halo example).

    The problems you discuss with MMORPG’s are largely due to the culture and risk-reward nature of the games. When I play Rainbox Six with a chum we’re not rushing to grab the best submachine gun the goons drop, and we’re enjoying the narrative as equal partners in the experience. The brotherhood and partnership is more reward than being the lone victor against the odds.

    But yeah, co-op for the sake of co-op is bad.

    Having said all of that, you have the “Devil’s Advocate” get-out clause so I don’t expect you to approach any of this.

  13. Dr.Gash says:

    Surely, if the time budgets for singleplayer/multiplayer/coop are decided upon at the early stages of a game’s development then it’s not causing the exclusion of some unknown, amazing content in the SP portion because, well, that stuff didn’t exist in the first place.

    If a developer is shoehorning co-op in at the last minute, at the expense of another area of development then shoot the fucker and be done with it.

  14. drunkymonkey says:

    “Also, you appear to need to find better friends if they’re all bugging you to skip cutscenes in Guild Wars. Afterall, I think it’s a bit unfair to blame co-op games if you can only find idiots to play them with.”

    Then designers need to accommodate the idiots.

    Or, to put it a better way: most of the people I dungeon with in WoW are a few nails short of a coffin. It’s impractical to suggest that you can find four other like-minded people that wish to watch cut-scenes or delve into the narrative of the dungeon you’re questing in.

  15. roBurky says:

    See, and I’m always arguing that developers should stop with the perverted single player kind of co-op, and give us some proper levels/campaigns designed around multiple players.

    Halo was rarely for playing single player in my house. My biggest wish after the release of original Halo was for some 8-player co-op missions for it, for instance.

  16. Jack Monahan says:

    I Can’t Leave Without My Buddy Superfly!

    Make fun of Romero all you want, except:
    1.) the man gave us the majority of Knee Deep in the Dead, which still plays better than most FPS level sets today, and
    2.) he was actually ahead of the curve with Daikatana’s sidekick characters.
    Mikiko and Superfly ate up a lot of development time and were generally pretty one dimensional, but that game’s model–single player with supporting character(s) that transitions well to co-op mode–really pointed the way forward.

    What I mean is that the increased emphasis on co-op has gone hand in hand with the small but significant ante that’s been upped as regards to storytelling/gameplay conventions. Across the board in the big action titles–Halo 3, HL2+Episodes, Gears of War–you’re no longer quite the traditional one man army of old, you’re generally at least an Army of Two (this paragraph sponsored by EA).
    No, really–even eschewing the traditional silent protagonist, you still need to reliably have at least one other character around fairly consistently in order to build anything of a story. Master Chief gets that alien fellow, Marcus has Dom, Gordon has Alyx/Barney, Kane has Lynch. The big titles have at least someone around a good part of the time so that we see the hero in context, that we might begin to deliver story in our medium, not just dumb aping of film conventions, big black letterboxing closing in over the scene.

    One of the stumbling blocks for getting co-op into an otherwise traditional SP experience is thereby removed–dealing with two or more heroes instead of one. Instead of weirdly cloning out the hero, building the game such that the second player takes over for one of the supporting characters we’re getting used to having around (and who are already in the cutscenes) makes good sense. And it helps bolster the small, but significant gains we’ve made in storytelling by making sure those supporting characters are in place, not just cop-out generic NPCs.

    HL2 spoiled us on this–we want Barney, the character, not Barney the generic security guard clone that we only hang out with for five minutes at a time and then leave because he can’t climb ladders. Valve shrewdly noted the considerable attachment players built up for even primitive friendly NPCs in Half-Life, and they went forward from there. And while the HL2 arc doesn’t include any co-op, I’d argue their work is foundational to the current popularity of co-operative play.

    So I’m going to have to go with the opposite take on this. Co-op doesn’t take away from the quality of our fine single player games, it enhances them. By building them so that it always makes sense for that supporting character to be around for the demands of co-op, the immersion and consistency of the single player game’s portrayal of a hero-in-context, even the single player version of the game is that much better.
    There’s still a valid criticism about divided resources and certain compromises relative to building a “pure” single player experience versus a co-op game, but done properly such elements are synergistic, not subtractive.

  17. Ferrous Buller says:

    I didn’t find Halo 3’s single-player game to be qualitatively any worse than the first two Halos, regardless of the Arbiter’s presence. So if co-op play has somehow undermined its SP game, it’s a franchise weakness, not simply H3’s, IMHO.

    Guild Wars, OTOH, does point out the difficulty of trying to bring SP conventions (like narrative cutscenes) to a MP-centric RPG. The old Infinity Engine RPGs had similar problems, IIRC: e.g., dialogs halting play for everyone, having to gather your party to move to the next area.

  18. Nick says:

    Kieron, if you ever want someone to play GW with who doesn’t skip cutscenes and couldn’t care less what build you take, let me know, I only really play alone or with one person (whom I’ve played with through several mmos over 8 or so years) as I can’t stand the majority of the idiots who sadly ihabit the game.

    That said you’ve probably seen them all by now anyway.

    Anyway, co op is my favourite multiplayer mode, or at the very least team vs team, I can’t abide deathmatch anymore, I just find it so dull and have done since the days of quake 2.

  19. Ging says:

    B: Yes, Gears is only half as good in SP – AI Dom is rubbish, he’s great at being fodder and not a lot else. Co-op Dom (dependent on partner) is useful, opening up tactics impossible to use in SP.

    Lu-Tze: I agree, having the player character be the only character in the “party” that dies is a poor show. I think more developers should look towards Republic Commando as a method of fixing that, where you can either order your team mates to revive you or to finish the fight and then come get you. This also syncs in nicely with Co-op play, where this is what tends to happen (though in some cases, the dead player has to wait until the living is in a safer area before being spawned back in – Halo 3 and R6:Vegas spring to mind).

  20. JP says:

    An effective bit of devil’s advocacy, no doubt.

    The reason that many modern games go the “Solo is Co-op minus one player” route is that it’s the best way to make sure the investment in co-op is actually worthwhile. I have only a few direct experiences to cite but I’m guessing that usually it’s way tougher to graft co-op onto a single player design than vice versa.

    The question every game should ask itself is if the co-op really is worth all the pain and suffering and yes, fraying of focus from the solo campaign. There’s a line of reasoning among developers that goes something like “multiplayer sells games / extends their lifespan”, “co-op is easier to get people into than DM as you’re not getting your ass handed to you for the first 10 hours of play”, “co-op leverages most of the solo play assets and design”, “let’s do co-op”.

    All of which is reasonable, but you really have to weigh the value of that checkbox versus its impact on everything else. With Gears I’d argue it was well worth it, they planned it from the start (well, after the countless reboots eg “Unreal Warfare”, “Cogs of War” etc) and the co-op really did kind of transform the experience for the better.

    Haven’t played Kane & Lynch and the rest of the recent “plague” of co-op games though, so I can easily believe we are witnessing the concept’s shark-jump.

  21. malkav11 says:

    “Plague of co-op games”? C’mon. The only genre where cooperative play is anywhere near the norm even now is the RPG, and that mostly because the RPG genre is now being dominated by largely generic MMOs.

    On the other hand, competitive multiplayer (which I have no use for whatsoever, except for Team Fortress 2, because…damnit, it’s just that good), that’s considered part and parcel of the package and if you don’t have it, in most genres, you get dinged for the lack. So, meh. Start bitching about cooperative play when it’s expected by default in that way.

    A couple of other things – sure, Guild Wars players “skipskipskip” bullshit is annoying, much like the “gogogogogogogo” freaks on Battle.net, but when your playerbase is apparently possessed of seven varieties of ADHD all at once, that’s how it goes. At least Guild Wars only skips cutscenes if everyone votes for it. And you can (I am) play through them solo, in which case there’s no problem.

    And story doesn’t work very well in any persistent multiplayer space regardless of which end of the multiplayer experience it’s focused on. It’s really hard to provide a decent, immersive narrative when all the components have to continue to exist for the next player(s). It’s not a problem that’s made any different by cooperative play.

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