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Imagine you’re delving into a dark labyrinth. You’re exploring the endless hallways, looking for a path leading deeper into the ruin when you’re ambushed by a dozen demons both ahead and behind. You’re certain this is the end… but then you realize your partner was trailing a ways behind you, and by now she should blasting her way through the enemies attacking from the rear. Thus assured, you unsheath your sword and charge on ahead… This is the magic of cooperative gaming.

I find it hard to get into any competitive game (with the exception of Smash Bros). The idea of playing against other people just isn’t as fun as playing alongside them. I tend to find cooperative games much more enjoyable, but it’s a much under-appreciated genre. Before the release of Half-Life, Valve promised cooperative play in the game but never delivered, instead creating only an online deathmatch mode. Now, Sven Co-op, a fan-made mod created for the express purpose of adding that feature is one of the more popular Half-Life mods out there.

“So does this mean the stains on our underwear are identical, too?”

Even in the NES days, good cooperative games were at a premium; most multiplayer games were turn-based. River City Ransom was the only simultaneous cooperative game with any appreciable depth. I still wonder why cooperative isn’t a more common genre, though it’s certainly less rare these days. Dynasty Warriors is one example of a very successful cooperative series, while the hugely popular Halo games also have high-quality cooperative play. That said, there hasn’t been a lot of progress in some genres. While Secret of Mana is considered one of the best games on the SNES – largely because of cooperative play – no especially good ARPGs have come out in quite a while. A sad state of affairs for a coop junkie, though Dragon Quest IX should be enjoyable.

The question, of course, is “Why is cooperative gaming so much fun?” The answer may be a bit tricky. It’s fun to share the experience of a game with others, but there’s a fuzzy feeling that’s lost if you’re playing against them. Cooperation builds a sense of camaraderie, while competition can remove that feeling and replace it with tension.

Take the example of one of the better coop selections around: The Halo games. Co-op is fun because there are all kinds of interesting situations and you can devise strategies together; “You distract the enemies and I’ll snipe them from behind”. At the same time, you know that if you happen to die, you can (generally) rely on the other player to help you get back on your feet. Meanwhile, I just can’t enjoy Halo competitive games, because there’s none of the good-natured feeling of cooperation.

Cooperative play is possible in several different genres. Gameplay-wise, action games are the simplest – your ally will probably be covering your back, and you will cover his, with little strategy involved. Action RPG games which allow you to pursue different characters will allow you to plan out strategies; this is particularly evident in PC games like Diablo II – I have had friends make characters incapable of defending themselves that became essential to the party. Strategy games are probably the best for deep-think mode; in a game like Civilization or Alpha Centauri, you can plan out research or expansion well ahead of time, while in an RTS you can pick complementary strategies.

“Here’s the plan, we all attack Miriam and see if Jesus saves her.”

The standard RPG is one of the few genres where this play style seems impossible. I tried Final Fantasy 3/6 cooperatively, and it was terrible. I think the main reason for this is that one person still has control in most situations, so the other player is likely to get bored quickly. One possible solution to this is to have simultaneous mobility in towns a la the Ninja Boy games. Alternatively, split-screen could be an option. A simultaneous-entry ATB style system would streamline battles and keep the game interesting as well. It hasn’t been done yet… but it’s certainly possible.

“But,” you say, “there are MMORPGs with thousands of people you can play alongside!” While these games are enjoyable (usually only if you know other people playing), I would not consider these of the same caliber as normal cooperative games. You just don’t know most of the people you quest with well enough. An exception to this might be guild play, but it’s apparently fairly rare to see a guild that cohesive.

Cooperative play will also make particularly scary games more palatable. Take System Shock 2. I’ve only played the game multiplayer, because its atmosphere and style are on the frightening side. I just was never able to muster the willpower to play it alone. In multiplayer, however, the game becomes a lot more fun – you can still experience the atmosphere as the PDA recordings unfold the plot, but since you aren’t alone, they aren’t as utterly frightening when combined with the bizarre and varied enemies. Exploration is easier, but combat is still intense.

Meanwhile, in a competitive team game like Counter-Strike, you’re playing on a team. I love the cooperative elements – planning out a strategy, picking out complementary weaponry, et cetera – but when it comes to the competition aspect, there is a lot to be desired. Humans are better opponents than computers, but a lot of people have a rough time admitting when they’re beaten, usually leading to complaints of lag or “cheap” strategies. Arguments tend to flare up pretty often as well, generally leading to ill feeling all around. On a lot of servers, it isn’t too long before everyone is hurling more insults than grenades.

Cooperative play is comparatively more serene. Everyone’s working toward the same goal, and in the end everyone wants to work together to beat the crud out of whatever baddie is thrown your way. Even in a game like Crystal Chronicles where each player also has their own goal, the general atmosphere is positive and light-hearted.

Martin Lawrence is hard to forget.

Generally, a game played with a friend becomes easier. Even tough games are much simpler when you have someone else covering your back. It’s not very often that cooperative gameplay makes the game a joke, though. It may not be as intense as it normally is, but at the same time you don’t have to be on your toes as much. It makes a game more relaxing and, to me, more fun – in that games are meant to be enjoyed and not just thoroughly beaten.

Despite the increase in cooperative games, there are still myriad untapped genres. What’s holding back cooperative Zelda (though I hear Four Swords was good, 3-d would be even better)? Imagine how much more interesting puzzles could be in even a 2-player system, particularly if each player could explore different areas of a dungeon. How about cooperative Trauma Center or Resident Evil? Control complexity and screen real estate are an issue, but they’re not impossible to overcome, particularly with the emergence of good online play. Even the Action RPG genre hasn’t had any really good cooperative games since Secret of Mana, even though it’s been heralded as one of the best games of the SNES era, in large part because of its excellent coop play.

Cooperative gameplay and the relaxed, laid back feelings of camaraderie that stem from it, have come a long way, but there is still some work left to do. Can’t we all just get along?

6 Comments

  1. tony said on January 22, 2007:

    Some other great co-op games are the X-Men: Legends series, the Baldur’s Gate series, the Gauntlet series and the Dungeons and Dragons series.  All of them are up to four-player action RPGs that are surprisingly fun to play alone, also.  As far as FPS games, Doom3 had a great co-op story, as does Rainbow Six: Vegas and the Splinter Cell games.  One game I recently stumbled upon was Blazing Angels, the WWII flight combat game, which actually has up to 8 player co-op in which you form a squadron of friends and recreate historical air/sea battles … awesome!

  2. christian said on January 22, 2007:

    I certainly agree that I enjoy co-op much more than competition, for all the points listed above.  I also believe that competition this day and age is ruined by huge learning curves.  Go onto a public Counterstrike server, or against good Halo 2 players.  You will be crushed, unless you can muster hours of practice and humiliation until you get good.  That’s just not possible time wise for a lot of us.  Or take fighting games.  Playing against a friend who doesn’t know the moves gets boring.  But even if you found skilled, tournament worthy players, now the shoe is on the other foot.  Point is, competition is so fierce these days that you just can’t get any fun or victory out of most games unless your heart and soul is devoted to it.  Back when we were kids, you could just mash on Street Fighter 2 with kids your age, or play NBA Jam with your brothers and you always had fun.  Nowadays I take a first time CS player onto a server that says "be nice to n00bs" and watch him get banned because he didn’t know the map.   Also, as Chris mentioned, coop is generally with a good friend.  You know what to expect from them, thus there’s no shock about them running around like a moron at an important juncture (like often happens in Counterstrike).  I like that kind of assurance.

  3. Matt said on January 22, 2007:

    Funny story (not really). I started playing Halo 2 online last night for the first time in about a year  and a half. I thought I was going to be dead in the water, but because I had a new gamertag, it started me off in the lower ranks first. I was at level 1, and fought only level 1-4 gamers. With Xbox’s matching algorithm, I had matches with people just like me. And the huge learning curve was gone for me. Also, you don’t always have to be in 1st to say you are good. I think that that’s something people get upset about. It’s either first or last for them, but that’s being too hard on themselves. I got an average of 4th place last night, and it was great. But for Counter Strike, yeah, you’re basically fucked there. There’s no convenient newbie server or anything. You would have to find personal friends for that. As for co-op, I am dying to play Gears of War with it. It’s always in the back of my head, telling to stop playing solo and hop in with a friend. Anyone care to join me?

  4. golden jew said on January 24, 2007:

    Matt, me and my roommate attempt Gears every so often.  Usually we’re stomped on, because in unranked mode there’s no matching like Halo.  Unfourtunately, you can’t split screen in ranked mode, so we’re forced to endure the online ass-rape.  Still, if you’d like to join the mexican gangbang (we’re the catchers, not pitchers), drop me a line.  To the topic at hand– LOVE coop play.  I think it plays into my thoughts of every game ultimately being online/multiplayer.  With the mass placement of broadband, I think it makes more and more sense for developers to push coop play, since it’s easier to "find a friend" and you’re less reliant on split-screen, which is a neccessary evil but not something anyone really loves.  What still confuses me is why games like Guitar Hero 2 don’t have coop career band play– just coop play for coop’s sake.  Stuff like that drives me nuts.  

  5. Gideao said on April 19, 2009:

    does anyone know any co-op games i can play online with my friend besides bomberman and boxhead 2 play

  6. Cunzy1 1 said on April 20, 2009:

    Mario Kart but one has to play as a guest. Also….

    /Animal Crossing let’s go to the city if you are into that, yeah. Yeah?

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