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Couch-op is the best-op
by Auston Montville on 05/15/14 03:57:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
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.

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David Canela
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Many of my best gaming experiences have been in local 4-player multiplayer. I wish consoles would feature backward compatibility with their last generation's controllers, imho that would be far more useful than backward compatibility for games libraries. The prices of newest generation controllers are rather prohibitive. As a developer, I would feel very apprehensive about making a local multiplayer game for that low install base reason, as much as I would love to. With the PS4 you can at least use the Vita as a controller, but why not allow for the ds3?!

Johan Basberg
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As a comment to David, at least a controller is harder to emulate as it interfaces directly with the human. A missing button, lightbar or sensor is hard to work around. Furthermore, a software environment is - or at least should be possible to emulate on more powerful hardware.

The loss of an entire game library is sad. All those years work lost. Particularly on consoles, cutting down the lifespan of a game like that, is tragic. Nintendo is doing a good job in this department: the Wii could play GC games, and the WiiU can play Wii games. That is great for players and developers alike.

David Canela
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I don't quite agree; for me as a gamer, my game library can easily live on. On its original console, problem solved. Controllers, on the other hand, haven't changed significantly between xbox 360, xbone, ps3, ps4. A little used touchpad here, some more detailed rumble feedback there. Afaik they still use bluetooth. Personally, I just think that as a gamer I'd be a lot happier to use my old ds3 to play towerfall with friends rather than the convenience of playing old games on my new console (and not having to plug in my old one for that).

it's not an either/or thing, of course havingk both would be best, but as a fan of local multiplayer it baffles me how much attention the software backward compatibility gets (at the time of a new console's release) and how little the hardware does, when the former is very easily solved at the cost of a little convenience, whereas the latter is only solveable at significant financial cost.

but I realise personal preferences play a role, if I were an avid retrogamer with no room under my tv I might feel more strongly about software compatibility..

Jennis Kartens
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Yeah, local MP with friends is always the most fun. It's sad that only a bunch of games nowadays support that... goes beyond consoles and right into the lack of LAN support for a variety of PC games as well. Dual- or tripple-monitor with dynamic splitscreen can be the most fun. Together, but each his own display. Most awesome.

Bart Stewart
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I enjoyed reading this, as it comes from a perspective on existence that is utterly alien to my own.

I'm not an extrovert, so it's fascinating to try to imagine being one -- being certain that the only right way to experience life, including playing computer games, is with other people around. That's radically different from my own appreciation for being able to concentrate deeply on system-building, which is virtually impossible to do well with other people around demanding one's attention.

Not everybody is good at personal interaction. Not everybody is good at focused introspection. Both can have value, and both are things that can be rewarded and enjoyed through play.

So why describe only one of these as though it's the Only True Way of experiencing the human condition?

Of course social games can be fun. There's nothing like playing with other people. It is a Good Thing that there are lots of such games, computer and otherwise.

But encouraging the development of social games is one thing. Declaring the equivalent of saying that all "real" games are social, that any play experience designed without social interaction is defective, that the only right way to play is sitting next to other people... that's a very, very different assertion.

"Games are inherently social" is a claim that numerous people have made, from experienced gamers to respected developers like Raph Koster (
pdf). I disagree. Being with other people is an important part of fully experiencing life as a human being... and so is having the opportunity to think and feel deeply without interruption, to reflect on your own personal experiences as an individual human being. As games are reflections of human life, they would be as diminished by being purely social as they would be by being purely solitary.

Sometimes it's fun to compete against or cooperate with other players. Sometimes it's fun to understand and manipulate systems. Would excluding one of those kinds of fun really make games more satisfying to more actual people?

I fully endorse the creation of more computer games that get people having fun together in a room, even though I'll never be an extrovert.

Why shouldn't extroverts likewise support the development of some games designed to satisfy our equally human need to individually comprehend and master dynamic systems?

Extroverts are awesome. How about a little love for us introverts, too? ;)