Couch-op is the best-op
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
The couch is the best place to play games.
We make games because we legitimately believe they can make lives better. Even games without a moving narrative like Towerfall, Samurai Gunn, or BOSSES FOREVER 2.BRO can have a positive impact on one’s life. These games require a situation in which you are physically next to other people. The games provide a common denominator; you don’t need to know how to socialize, you just need to know the game’s rules. But sooner or later, there will be a particularly close match. Some ridiculous feat will be pulled off by one of the players. You’ll hear that song you love one more time. And then you talk about it. That person right next to you, even if you have no social skills at all, has a very good chance of becoming your friend if you keep playing.
I know, because that’s how I made all my friends in middle school, before I learned how to talk to people.
I would guess that the recent revolution of local multiplayer has happened because online multiplayer is not a trivial feature. It’s often one of the most difficult aspects of making a game. With the lowering barrier of game development, the hardest to implement features will be left aside in order to complete the game or polish it. There are many great reasons to have online play. Unfortunately, like a long distance relationship, it’s just hard to make it work. But, like a relationship, I would argue that nearly every competitive multiplayer game (and most cooperative) have the ultimate goal of becoming a couch-op experience.
I love playing games with other people. Sometimes, it’s running through a terrible single player game where a friend helps me out by making fun of the game. At gaming conventions like PAX, tournaments have their own rooms, and get filled up year after year. I’m not a LoL player, and I could watch the regionals online at my convenience, but I don’t. Instead, I’ll shuffle my way into the overcrowded arena at PAX to watch those players on stage duking it out. When the crowd cheers, I’m yelling with them. When a player makes a bad call, I tell the person next to me just before that player receives punishment. I get to watch the victors walk out of that room and become surrounded by fans. Just as going to a concert is better than the album in your room, or why watching football in a stadium is more exciting than the match in HD on your massive tv, multiplayer games are better when we’re surrounded by people.
I got really into Twitch Plays Pokemon. But really, my friends and I got into TPP. There were many nights where we all hung out to watch the game together, in the same place. Drinks in hand we would yell at the screen when the battle would be won with any move besides Sand Attack for the fifteenth time. We would have it on in the background as we played card games or hung out, but we gathered so we could ‘watch TPP.’ Of course, I’ll never forget the final battle. As soon as Blue’s Pidgeot went down, we woke up a friend who fell asleep because we had a feeling this was the match. It was around 1:30 AM, but that didn’t stop us from cheering when we saw Blue defeated. We actually saw it. We were there. That’s now an important memory for me. It would have been something neat had I watched it on my own. But that night the game of Pokemon brought me closer to my friends.
I don’t know the psychological reason why we like being with other people. I know that humans are social creatures and (usually) stand better chances of survival with other humans. It’s probably somewhere in there that makes us excited when we are around other people, showing interest in the same thing. Games are designed to be inherently interesting. They try to capture your imagination through mechanics, visuals, and challenges. It’s similar to the misattribution of arousal. When a person walks over a suspension bridge that person is more attracted to someone on the other side of the bridge because the excitement of the bridge is associated with this person. Having a person right next to you when you’re really into a game could provide a misattribution of friendship. It happened to me over the weekend. I played Towerfall till 3AM with some new friends. I feel I connected with them more in that hour than I did with all the other people I actively talked to the entire party. Games are basically friend making machines.
As far as making a call on local multiplayer, or any multiplayer at all, you need to consider the design of your game. For Sportsball, our focus has always been local multiplayer. It’s the reason why the game was made in the first place. My first two showings of the prototype cemented the game’s experience. After putting only 9 hours of work into the prototype, a group of friends sat on the couch and played it for an hour and a half straight. That’s a very good play time to dev time ratio. The next time, I was with friends and we wanted to both play games and get food. So I setup my laptop as we ordered food. The six of us stayed there for two and half hours playing. I’ve never spent so much time in a McDonald’s. Sportsball is about having a massive group of people all together. It’s as fun to watch as it is to play. It’s a game where you can never have too many people, as the crowd is just as important as the players. With a game like this, couch-op will always take priority over online play. This is why we favor features like an announcer mode, that amps your voice through the display’s speakers. It’s why we spent weeks getting replays to work, so you can see exactly when she pulled off that ‘ridiculous’ move. It’s why having logos for the teams matters: so you can become part of a community.
If your game relies on excitement from interacting with other people, then I’d urge you to find ways to encourage those people play in the same place. Preferably on the couch, as it’s a pretty comfy place to play games.