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CO OP Mechanics and Design pt. 2

In a previous post, I categorized, defined, and ranked the different types of co-op mechanics/design. Unlike some of the other rankings I've done on this blog, the higher ranking types don't necessarily represent well designed gameplay co-op or otherwise. For this post, we'll investigate how to analyze co-op elements within the context of the larger game/core design, and I'll give some examples of interesting and unique games for each type.

In all the various types of co-op design (except level 1) the quality of cooperative play is directly dependant on the quality of the core design of the game. Even for a game that features organic cooperation, if the visuals are cluttered, the mechanics aren't dynamic, the controls are unreliable, and the experience is filled with static space, this game wouldn't support high quality co-op or normal gameplay. Likewise, there are games that have alternating turns coop play (level 2) that have a surprising amount of dynamics and coop interplay (more on that later).

In the same way that we look at the push and pull (interplay) between the player, enemies, levels, and/or any other element of contrary motion, we can analyze the depth of co-op gameplay by the push and pull that exists between the cooperating players as a unit and how that relationship relates to the rest of the game.

A good example of co-op interplay is the Warthog from Halo 3.  Up to three players can jump on board this armored vehicle. For the purposes of this example we'll only consider the interplay between the driver and the gunner. When both players enter the warthog, they temporarily sacrifice most of their core mechanics: MELEE, JUMP, GRENADE, MOVE, and CROUCH. To make up for this loss the driver can drive the vehicle, which is significantly faster than traveling on foot. Additionally, the gunner has access to the turret which has infinite ammunition without reloading. By sacrificing the abilities of two players, by cooperating through this vehicle, the two players become one super soldier. The driver controls all the movement and is responsible for maneuvering the Warthog into range of enemies while staying mobile so the gunner isn't an easy target. The gunner is responsible for using the powerful turret to pick off all hostile targets. They depend on each other in this way. Furthermore, the movement of the Warthog is directly tied to how the gunner aims and where he/she can aim. When the driver pushes, the gunner is pulled. When the gunner is threatened, the driver is pushed to reposition. Such is co-op interplay.


Work Together To Win.


Now for some interesting examples.


1) Over the Shoulder/Backseat Playing

  • In Donkey Kong Jungle Beat players use the plastic bongo controller to platform around. Hitting the left bongo moves DK left, and the right bongo moves DK to the right. By clapping one's hands together the mic built into the controller detects the sound causing DK to perform a Hulk like shockwave clap. In one section in a later part of the game, DK is encapsulated in a large water bubble. While floating gently along, players must maneuver through a hazardous obstacle course. At any time, if the player claps, DK bursts the bubble and falls back to the beginning of the course. When playing this level with a bunch of friends, I noticed that the noise level from our background  conversation was enough to set off the mic sensor causing DK to burst the bubble prematurely. When I brought this to our attention, we all hushed in cooperation fighting the urge to laugh and blow the whole operation. Finally when it was time to burst the bubble and move on, without exchanging a word, we all simultaneously erupted in a blast of noise. This example somewhat pushes the definition of a backseat player. After all, by using sound everyone in the room had control over a part of the game controller. Still, I consider everyone but me a spectator in this case. 
  • Another similar example is from Wario Ware Touched and Twisted. In Touched, there is a micro game that requires the player to not make a sound. In a populated room, this simple task cab become quite difficult. Getting a room full of people to hush without taking the time to clue them in on what's going on inside the DS can yield hilarious results. For Twisted, there's a similar micro game that requires players to hold still. When playing as a passenger in a moving vehicle, the truly dedicated go as far as to delay the driver from taking a turn or driving over a speed bump in an ironic reversal of roles: the player turning into a backseat driver and the driver turning into a backseat player. 


2) Alternating Turns

  • In one of the multiplayer modes in Boom Blox, players take turns throwing balls at a tower to try and knock over the most point bricks. As the turn is switching between one player and the next, the tower can continue to sway back and forth as it settles in real time. With the proper aim and timing, a player can use the momentum of the swaying tower to positively affect their next play. It's possible that the push you make in one turn can be carried into your next.
  • In Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong traverse the land in order to recover their hoard of stolen bananas. Though only one monkey/player can play at a time, either player can relinquish control and switch positions with the other monkey/player. Unlike in the Mario platforming games were turns are alternated between levels, in Donkey Kong Country player naturally alternate many times within a single level. If one player is better at jumps, then switch things over to them at the jumping sections. If you're the best at the bonus games, then take over at each bonus round. Beyond this tag team like design there exists a code called the "bad buddy code." This code gives both players the ability to switch out their character with their partner at any time. With this code, instead of giving up your spot, it can be snatched away. Or, what's even more devious, one player can throw themselves into harms way and switch before impact to injure their partner. Like I said, bad buddy code. 

3) Separate But Equal, But Still Together

  • Geometry Wars, Bangai-O Spirits, PixelJunkEden, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and to a very large extent RPGs and MMOs. Whether you're twin stick shooting, swinging, rocking, or attack-attack-healing, the co-op gameplay for these games largely consists of playing much like you would on your own. Because you can't significantly affect each other (team attack off) and the objectives/obstacles are usually the same as when playing alone, there's not much room for co-op interplay. With such games, the work load can be divided up creating cooperative roles, or the main cooperative strategy becomes something as simple as "just don't die." Sure, you can save your partner by taking out the enemies aiming for him/her. But chances are, without your partner they would have been aiming for you and you would have shot them anyway. Furthermore, such cooperative interactions are indirect because the player must change the gaming environment to change their partner's state.

4) Forced Cooperation

  • The bosses in Bionic Commando: Rearmed's cooperative mode are specially designed so that both players must worth together or else stand a great chance of dying together. With one boss players have to trick it out as it tries to cover up its exposed weak spot while inevitably revealing another weak spot. With another boss, players have to lure the the giant orange construction vehicle close to some raise platforms where the other player is ready to pull the machine apart. Still others required both players to block incoming attacks. Miss one and both players get hurt. Compared to the single player boss strategies and patterns, the coop bosses are more maneuverable, clever, and evasive. Such a change really accents the power of 2 versus 1.
  • The 2x cooperative zones in LittleBigPlanet are excellent examples of forced cooperation. To reach the goal in these sections, players must work together usually by manipulating the level and operating switches from two different locations. Some zones simply require basic cooperative effort, while others put one character through a hazard obstacle course so that if either player falters someone pays for the mistake with their sackboy/girl life. Throughout the game the quality of design for these sections steadily increases. I can only imagine what the 4x sections are like.

5) Mechanics Boost Incentive

  • The exhilarating technique known as the Double Dash is only possible in Mario Kart: Double Dash and only when two players team up cooperatively in a single racing kart. It's basically the common start up boost technique times 2. When both players time their starting acceleration together, the boost they receive is... well... doubled. Beyond this technique, MK:DD is packed with co-op gameplay mechanics designed to create roles and reward players for coordinating. The driver focuses on the road by staying on course, avoiding hazards, and drifting around corners to preserve speed. The passenger riding in the back focuses on the opponents by punching nearby karts, shooting items, and rocking the kart back and forth to generate the colored sparks necessary for a mini turbo boost. The punching mechanic has the ability to steal items from other karts and is only available to co-op karts. The result is a unique racing experience where every move each player makes affects the way both players play. Punching can push the kart off track, into danger, or out of danger. Throwing an item ahead without coordinating with the driver can cause one's offense to backfire. Likewise, the driver affects the passenger's aim which is similar to the co-op Warthog in Halo 3. The best part is, like in alternating play, at any time both player can switch positions with the timed coordination of Z button.
  • In Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles each individual player can charge up and release a magical attack on an enemy. When more than one magical spell is release on a single target, the strength can be increase or decreased. Depending on the timing, element of the magical spell, and the number of spells release on a single spot, the combined spell can create dazzling new spells and effects. Though the execution is as simple as holding and releasing a button, organizing the elemental types and the timing required a copious amount of verbal communication. 


I'm purposely skipping level 6 of co-op design because I've already mentioned Halo and Smash Brothers as examples. In the next CO OP post, I'll unveil the game that is the single best example of cooperative design, mechanics, and gameplay and why. In the meantime, stay tuned and stick together.

« CO OP Mechanics and Design pt. 3 | Main | DW Lesson 4.1: Pushing Bangai-O »

Reader Comments (2)

I find it interesting you didn't mention the carrying of the chalace in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicals. Though that falls more under the forced cooperation, it does still add an element to the co-op experience. I suppose this indicates games can have a combination of co-op levels. Since it seems you've broken down these levels down into their most simple forms, I would not see any reason that any one game couldn't inlcude 3 or 4 levels. Games like FF:CC I would think involve levels 3, 4, and 5, almost simultaniously at some points. Do you think that this adds to cooperative play as a whole, or does it create combating clutter during play? I'm interested to see if you write an article later in this series about interconnective cooperative play levels.

October 31, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

I'm glad you made the comment that you did. I'm actually in the middle of the third and probably last article in the series. Part. 3 is all about analyzing a single game that contains all the different levels of co-op design.

You were right on the mark keying in on the co-op combinations.

Stay sharp.

October 31, 2008 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

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