Thursday, September 14, 2006

Uneven Co-op

Hopefully, I can spit this out quick enough that I'll get some sleep tonight. =P

Mark Terrano proposed an awesome concept at the AGC last week. He suggested developers (I think he was actually focusing on writers, since it was the writers conference) can design games for spectators, in addition to the players. A lot of us would love to have a spouse, child, or another relative or friend there by our side as we're playing a game and have them able to be caught up in our own enthusiasm.

Well, this blog isn't exactly about that. =P It's about the vast middle ground of possibilities between spectatorship and cooperative gameplay as it has been traditionally known.

Most, if not all, single-player games with a co-op feature that I've played have made the co-player(s) character equal in power and complexity to the first player's character. It doesn't have to be that way. How many people do you know who you'd love to game with, but they tell you they can't handle that the same experience? Instead, the friend or relative says something like "oh, that's nice" (translation: "sorry, I don't get it") and walks away.

They miss the days of the original Nintendo and old arcades with their simple A button, B button and joystick. Or maybe they're people like my dad, who has no video game experience at all aside from Space Invaders, Pacman, solitaire and chess. These people haven't spent a lot of time developing eye-hand coordination, as it applies to a controller and screen. Some of these people move a mouse with such care that I think they're half expecting it to slip from under their grip at any moment ("ok, there's the Start steps..").

Why not create cooperative gameplay that allows secondary players a simpler game experience?

It doesn't have to be to the exclusion of equal secondary-player roles, of course. A game could allow the secondary player(s) to choose between a variety of possible support roles, ranging from the very demanding to the more spectatorial.

Really, the biggest challenge, I think, is not so much coming up with the roles for the secondary players to fill as much as it is coming up with a satisfactory incorporation of the support player's actions into the screen and UI (so that player's involvement doesn't mean they need half of the screen). Not only does a split screen irritate many gamers because of loss of visibility, but it can also hinder immersion in the game world (which has just been made more arcade). So the trick is to include the second player onto the main player's screen in a non-intrusive way.

How can that be done? Well, here's one way: What you see in that screenshot from The Darkness is beings other than the player on the screen and in support of the player. Now, the primary player controls those monsters, but what if he could release control to a support player? The support player (SP) could not move his creature off the primary's screen (though the game would have to allow for the continued existence of the creature...within a very limited range... should the main player turn abruptly, until they could be rejoined by one or the other's character movement).

But imagine the SP's creature attacking one NPC while the primary player (PP) fires his gun at another. Or imagine the SP guiding his creature into that far corner of the screenshot, checking to see if any enemies are hiding back there, while the PP watches and waits expectantly (meaning there's tension, so it's not just waiting). If there are enemies, the SP is probably screaming and trying to maneuver his frail creature the hell out of there while the PP hurries to his aid.

This is definitely not the sort of feature that lends itself well to every game, but it might be a viable avenue to inviting new people into games.

Also, in regards to adversary roles (the secondary player against the primary).

They tried it in Perfect Dark and it sucked, but it sucked mainly because the co-op players were sitting side-by-side in front of a shared console and shared screen. One could see what the other was doing. Moved into an online confrontation, pseudo-PvE scenarios could be truly successful.
The only game I've played with anything like this was Neverwinter Nights with its DM function. A DM is more powerful than most possible co-op roles would be though and not, I think, really representative of the possibilities.

Don't let a concept's poor implementation fool you into believing the concept is bad. That's another good bit of advice I heard at the AGC. Adversary "co-op" was a good idea, but the medium and context must be appropriate.

Adversary, pseudo-PvE roles also lend themselves to the involvement of less skilled and more casual players. As a starting point, think of the ability to play as a raptor in Turok 2 (i think it was the second one, anyway).

One last thought... I once read that an Asian country (Indonesia?) had Starcraft tournaments on national television. What makes this viable there?

If that's possible, perhaps it's possible to create a spectator feature to internet-connected games (not necessarily games with online gameplay modes), using advertisements surrounding the spectator screen to generate revenue. The spectator might be a pure spectator, with no control over what he or she is seeing, or might have some level of camera control and other switching off the UI in his or her version of the player's screen, or adding statistical counters and such to the screen corner.

I think this was tried before with an Xbox 360 racing game. But, if memory serves, the player had to invite specific people to be spectators or upload a video that wasn't real-time. What I'm talking about is real-time video available to anyone on the internet. Assuming there's no security risks involved (which I might be ignorant of), the spectator wouldn't even have to be a member of a gaming community. It would be something like a YouTube Live for games. It might turn out to be good advertising to non-gamers; and even if it doesn't sell people on the game, you're still making the advertisement revenue. The only feature that would require user permission is allowing the spectator to contact and comment on the player's game in a chat box.

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