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The Co-op Conundrum

Posted on December 8, 2011 AT 03:16pm

Why do you keep calling this co-op? I do not thinkita means what you thinkita means.

Many a gamer’s had the unfortunate experience of being pushed around by the local bully. I, on the other hand, had the distinct pleasure of growing up under the same roof with one. Yes, my older brother was that a**hole—and, as a result, I spent many a summer’s day as a reluctant guinea pig for his ambitious attempts at perfecting moves like the headlock, the Dutch rub, and, of course, the ever-popular wedgie.

But one thing managed to distract him long enough to put the brakes on his latest “wrestling demonstration”: firing up the NES and going postal on the latest 2-player action game until the wheels fell off.

Ya see, despite his questionable mentoring methodologies, some of my fondest memories (and most epic fistfights) stemmed from the countless days spent with my brother Jay as we conquered the latest digital frontier with a controller and a smile. Whether we were dishing out spread-gun pain in Contra, whaling on generic thugs in Double Dragon, or fighting over who got to drive the tank in Ikari Warriors, gaming was the one thing that brought us together.

It was no accident, then, that ever since the Xbox shipped with out-of-the-box broadband, I’ve dreamed of the day when modern design would catch up to the pixelated glory days of early interactive entertainment, and thankfully, a few games have taken up the call. Titles like Gears of War, Castle Crashers, Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, and Borderlands have taken the technology in front of them and crafted experiences that make the thousands of miles between me and my oldest rival seem like a few feet of fabric on the family couch, and God bless ’em for it.

That said, not everyone’s stepping up to the plate on this obvious extension of modern technology. What’s worse, they’re getting halfway there out of competitive obligation, calling it co-op, and annoyingly expecting me to pat them on the back—and, frankly, I’m kind of tired of designers failing to capitalize on the opportunities in front of them. I’m speaking, of course, of the rising trend of single-player games slapping “co-op” missions and survival modes onto the side of the actual adventure and calling it a day. Whether it’s Mass Effect, Call of Duty, or Rage, the Who’s Who in this business are spending time and money checking off the “co-op” box on marketing’s laundry list, but for some reason, they stop short of delivering one of the key things gaming needs to move forward: developing continuous, immersive experiences that take storytelling to the next level because of their multiplayer components instead of opting to build glorified re-creations of Asteroids and Duck Hunt and calling it a day.

Not to be a greedy gamer, but is that really the best we can do?

Sure, the development risks and design challenges involved in a latent cooperative experience are significant, and most big-budget game devs aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire on the innovation front this generation anyway, but that doesn’t do much to dispel the feeling that if we’re going to start seeing new experiences, we need the Todd Howards and Ken Levines of the world to start testing the waters. And not in the instanced, rail-based Left 4 Dead sense of the word, either. We need to start seeing the likes of David Cage, Hideo Kojima, and Amy Hennig tackling games that focus on things like teamwork and betrayal and conflict in a way that genuinely illicit emotion in the end user.

Call me crazy, but I want to play a digital version of Clue. I want to survive The Most Dangerous Game. I want to hunt a virtual Predator with a polygonal Ahhnald and Jesse “The Body” Ventura. And, for the love of Dave Jaffe, I wanna play an open-world, multiplayer Mad Max that isn’t just about guns and grinding. I want to fight for precious resources, use my mind to outwit someone instead using ammo to outgun them, and one of these days, I want someone to make a fool of me and my presuppositions and have me smile at the memory of it.

It may sound like a tall order, but I think we can get there, and I think it starts with the approach taken by games like Aliens: Colonial Marines and Halo: Anniversary. Once their basic philosophy stops being a rare exception and finally becomes the rule, expansion into more elaborate integration of cooperative play will just make sense. Is it too much to ask for us to ditch the pathetic attempts at placation so we can get there a little faster? Anyone? Didn’t think so.

Brandon Justice, Executive Editor
Brandon Justice spent the last 17 years in the game industry wearing hats as an annoying retail weasel, an overly opinionated journalist, and game-development ninja—until he got tired of the all the caviar and groupies, returning to the ring as a rowdy, rambling writer in 2010 for EGM Media. Follow him on Twitter @jokeontheworldMeet the rest of the crew.

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