Three of the most basic labels for a video game are single player, multiplayer (or versus), and co-op. In this post I will explore the evolution of cooperative gameplay through my own experiences. As a result the majority of the information will be focused on console gaming. To be clear, I am only referring to video games where two or more players take on AI opponents and challenges. Examples range from old school brawlers like Double Dragon, to sports games, to modern day first-person shooters like Left 4 Dead.
A unique human experience is produced when friends, or even strangers, work together to accomplish a common goal. Single player modes attempt to replicate the sensation with AI teammates. Rarely do these computer comrades generate the sensation mentioned above. Perhaps AI will eventually improve to the point where players can’t tell the difference, but currently this is not the case. Versus game modes often have teams, and can produce many of the same sensations as co-op. There is, however, something different when a team takes on human intelligence, and this is not the focus of the post.
During the 1980’s side scrollers were everywhere, and many of them supported two or more players. In the arcades, games like The Simpsons, X-Men, Metal Slug, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles drained my allowance each week. I would usually go to the local mall or 7-11 with my younger brother. We had fun playing fighters, racers, and other solo/versus games. Yet we always spent more on the games we could play together. Today those titles are the ones we reminiscent about. Playing as a team was more fun, and competing against enemy AI often allowed us to experience more of the game. This last point is crucial to understanding why cooperative gaming is so popular. The learning curve of a title is significantly diminished when there are two individuals instead of one, and the games opponents are not humans with greater experience/skill. This promotes accessibility, which among other things introduces unlikely or new individuals to video games.
The Sterns brothers gaming preferences swayed little when we got our first console—the Sega Genesis. Streets of Rage 2, Double Dragon, and more Ninja Turtles filled hundreds of hours with good times. Even Sonic 2 had an odd form of co-op, where the second player controls Tails. Although my brother found this situation less then ideal we often took advantage of the feature. Sonic 2 also illustrates another important factor in creating an engaging co-op experience. Each player has to feel needed. Tails had no camera control, and would frequently die if the player failed to keep up with Sonic. This is not an ideal situation in co-op gameplay.
The next few generations of consoles saw improvements to single player and versus game modes, but little innovation for co-op. From what I understand this was a result of technological limitations. I’ve seen the difficulties of a co-op mode in development while testing Mercenaries 2: World in Flames. The number of scenarios two humans can create within a game world is mind boggling. Combine this with the increased system demands of 3D games, and it’s easy to understand why late 1990’s and early 2000’s had few co-op titles.
Of course there are exceptions to every trend. Sports games have featured co-op gameplay for as long as I can remember. Of the top of my head the only team sports title I’ve played not supporting co-op was USSR v USA Hockey on the Commodore 64. It’s sadly ironic that I love co-op yet dislike the majority of sports games. PC also enjoyed some co-op action unknown to the console world. Diablo II featured some of the best social gaming the industry had to offer. I’m sure there were other co-op PC titles, but I was not fortunate enough to have a gaming PC at that point in history. So please leave a comment about your favorite co-op experience from a PC or sports game.
Console systems did not catch up to PC’s and sports titles until the release of Halo. Finally a console game that supports co-op, and it wasn’t a side scrolling brawler! It was a first person shooter. Play through after play through my brother and I marched our Spartans through waves of Covenant and Flood. Friends would come over to experience the sensation first hand, and most importantly fun was had by all. The game empowered both players, and encourage team work through a variety of scenarios. My favorite moments were driving the Warthog as my brother blasted away hostiles with the vehicles turret. Halo had other qualities that cemented its place in history, but co-op was the feature that extended its replay value—especially with no Xbox Live versus. After the release of Halo, the FPS genre became the kings of action co-op. The occasional exception pushed through, like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory or X-men Legends, but for the most part console co-op was synonymous with FPS.
Chaos Theory deserves special recognition for it's revolutionary addition to the co-op genre. The stealth experience is unique and ridiculously fun. The fantastic level design demanded team work, and the vast array of gameplay mechanics increased the replay value significantly. My brother and I could go "balls to the walls" racking up four alarms and numerous kills in a matter of minutes. On the flip side we could be "sneaky," using stealth in a more defensive manner. I can't wait to play the latest addition to this game mode when Splinter Cell: Conviction is released.
The birth of a new console generation has led to a greater diversity in cooperative gameplay. Fable II is a non D&D RPG with co-op. I was utterly disappointed by its execution, but it did have the feature. The New Super Mario Bros Wii, and to a lesser extent The Simpsons Game, both feature platforming co-op. NSBW is a blast, and it's accessibility has drawn in a plethora of new gamers. Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 will release with a two player mode. I’m very jealous of all those PS3 owners who get to experience the modern day take on the old school brawler. I do, however, have Castle Crashers. The Xbox Arcade game is an excellent tribute to the older arcade sensations that captured the essence of the co-op brawler. Even previously exclusive PC genres have made their impact on consoles. Borderlands is a Diablo II like party/loot RPG/FPS (woooh lots of slashes), and Army of Two borrows agro mechanics seen in MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft.
First-person shooters are still top dog of the co-op genre. Games like Halo 3/ODST, Modern Warfare 2, World at War, and Left 4 Dead continue to produce excellent co-op experiences. Left 4 Dead is especially important because it is a successful game that heavily focused on cooperative play. Nipping at the heels of FPS'ers are third person shooters. Gears of War 1 & 2, Mercenaries 2, and the upcoming Lost Planet sequel illustrate the lucrative vitality of co-op gaming.
As technology continues to improve cooperative gameplay will expand into previously unexplored territory. Four player, or more, shooters will become the standard not the exception. Brawlers will hopefully make a comeback—Batman and Robin: Arkham Asylum anyone—and sports/PC games will continue their consistent roles in cooperative gameplay. PC’s will undoubtedly be the most innovative especially with the growth of social games on networks like Facebook. All in all the future looks bright for one of the Sterns brothers favorite past times.
This post is a Featured Blog on Gamasutra.