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Overcooked: How To Make Co-op Cookery Fun

Just the right number of cooks

Overcooked [official site] deposited me into a frantic multiplayer kitchen desperately churning out tomato soup and attempting (unsuccessfully) to keep anything from catching fire while I was at Rezzed earlier in the year. By contrast, I watched perfect strangers strategise burgers – BURGERS! – perfectly on a galleon which rearranged the cooking surfaces every few seconds. The daft joy and urge to chat with teammates is firmly rooted in its local co-op play. You're yelling for clean plates, wondering where that onion has gone or zipping across the space to prevent a conflagration.

But how did the developers encourage that positive co-op experience? Why is the "onion moment" so important? And what's the climate like out there for local co-op PC gaming? We asked Phil Duncan, co-founder of Overcooked studio, Ghost Town Games.

Pip: What was the original idea for Overcooked? Was co-op always the core of the game or did that emerge over time?

Phil Duncan: The only thing we knew going into this (our first project) was that we wanted to make a co-op game. We didn't originally set out to make a cooking game at all, we just knew we wanted to make a game about teamwork.

We'd played a lot of co-operative games and a lot of them fell foul of what we've started calling 'first-to-fun' – that is when you and your teammates start to race against each other to be the first to kill the next enemy, or pick up items etc. We wanted to make a game where is didn't matter how good you were on your own, it was all about how you worked within a team.

Having worked as a potwash and a waiter in various restaurants when I was younger it seemed like a really obvious fit for a co-op game: a place where everyone is working together towards a common goal, there's a constant timer ticking down and everyone is shouting and swearing at each other :D

Pip: How did you balance things like the frequency of food orders that pop up, the number of tasks required to make the food and the actual physical layouts of the kitchen to help with that co-op experience?

PD: A large part of the design process for the game was about balancing the interactions for the players, we spent a lot of time early on running people through our prototype and seeing where they got frustrated or when things were slightly too easy. We playtested in pubs, local universities, even museums, anywhere we could find to get people in front of the game.

It was during this early prototype stage that we realised how important the level layouts were to the experience. Being able to change the game rules on the fly and force players to react and rethink their strategy proved really exciting for players and it was something we definitely focused on more after the initial playthroughs.

For me the key moment in the game comes really early on in the campaign: the first time players are tasked with grabbing an onion, taking it to a chopping board and then taking the chopped onions back to the pot, there's this moment where they suddenly realise it would be far quicker to pass the onion to a friend and have them chop it, rather than walk all the way round on their own. It's small but it's quintessential to the experience of the game, realising that you can't just do everything yourself and you really do need to rely on your teammates to succeed

Pip: Were there any ideas which you loved but couldn't make fun for co-op?

PD: I think there are a number of 'gotchas' you have to be careful of when designing a co-op game. For example, it's much harder to keep the attention of lots of players (if you put a group of friends in front of a local multiplayer game you'll be lucky to get even one person looking at the screen during any tutorial!) We kept having to return to the core pillar of 'co-operation' for the game: any new interaction or obstacle we created had to be one which encouraged players to co-ordinate.

We had some recipes early on which required lots of linear steps but we found players performing each step themselves rather than as a team. The recipes that worked best were always ones which players could prepare all the constituent parts separately and then bring together.

Another thing I really loved were some of the early prototype levels which completely separate 4 chefs into different sections. Sadly we couldn't keep them all as they rarely scaled well with 1, 2 or 3 players, but there is a great example towards the end of the game which we managed to make work (level 6-2 if you're curious).

Pip: Were there any elements of the game where people's reactions surprised you as they tested Overcooked - communication problems or moments you hadn't expected them to get so excited about?

PD: One of the biggest surprises for us was when we took a very early demo of the game to Norwich Games Festival (a really cool free-to-exhibit/free-to-enter convention). Given the event is free to enter it has one of the most diverse audiences you'll find at a games convention and one of our first play testers was a little girl who couldn't have been older than 7. Up to that point we had only played the game with a handful of people and all of them gamers to some extent so we were a little apprehensive when she first picked up a controller.

It was clear she wasn't really familiar with a game pad, but given the simplicity of the controls she picked it up really quickly and, more than that, she was really enjoying it. She kept coming back all day bringing friends with her. We didn't set out to make an accessible game so it was really just a happy accident to discover that people could play the game with their kids, or partners or non-gamer friends. Now when I read on Twitter about people playing Overcooked with friends who never normally play games I feel pretty good.

Pip: How did you refine the game as it progressed?

PD: We spent a lot of time finessing what players could and couldn't do with ingredients and objects. For example, originally when you made a burger you could add as many patties and as much lettuce and tomato as you liked, you could also add unchopped tomatoes or two buns if you wanted, but we found players were constantly serving the wrong food or spoiling meals and getting focused, so we added various restrictions to help guide the player and let them focus more on the fun of co-operating and trying to overcome the obstacles in a level.

We also spent a lot of time working out the best way of conveying recipes to the player, we didn't want to flood the player with text but we also needed to communicate somewhat complicated recipes to the player.

A few other things we changed as we went along: food used to spoil when left out on a counter which was sooo annoying for players, fire extinguishers could be thrown out permanently, pots didn't used to display their contents so you had to remember what was in each.... wow, part of me really wants to add all this stuff back in and make a really brutal, Dark Souls version of the game!

Pip: What do you think the climate is like for local co-op PC games right now - is it a tough sell with people expecting online multiplayer or is there a healthy ecosystem there in your experience?

PD: Every day we get emails and tweets from people saying how excited they are to play the game with their partners or their kids or at their friend's house so we know there is an audience out there who are desperate for more local multiplayer games. Certainly some of my fondest gaming memories have involved me and my friends gathered around a screen playing Mario Kart or Gang Beasts or Towerfall, and I think it's a real shame that more games don't allow people to play in the same room as their friends.

As a two-person studio with extremely limited resources we had to focus in on the experience we wanted to create. We made the decision to create the best local co-op experience we could rather than spreading ourselves too thin by trying to implement online multiplayer as well. You can't fight a battle on all fronts but I think that's one of the reasons we're seeing such interesting and diverse titles coming from independent developers these days, small studios are focusing in on what really matters and finding really resourceful and innovative ways to entertain players.

Overcooked is out today - £12.99 but with a 20% launch reduction at the moment on Steam. It's for 1-4 players so if you have no friends or want to do secret solo kitchen business you can.

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About the Author

Philippa Warr

Former Staff Writer

Pip wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun between 2014-2017, covering everything from MOBAs, hero brawlers and indie curios. She also had a keen interest in the artistry of video game creation, and was very partial to keeping us informed of the latest developments in British TV show Casualty.