On the (Non) Resurgence of Couch Co-op Gaming
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
In recent years, I've often heard mention that couch co-op (i.e. local multiplayer, on a single machine) is seeing a resurgence. This is usually due to the proliferation of smaller download-only games that focus on local multiplayer, particularly those offering 2D arena battlers for four players. Sometimes, it seems that not a week goes by without a handful of such games appearing on the PS4, say, so I can see where that claim is coming from. But from my point of view, couch co-op never went away, it had simply faded from view for a while, is all.
The period between 2008 and 2013 was so transformative in terms of the shift toward online gaming, that couch co-op lost most of its headline value. The Wii quickly declined in the wake of its whopping 2008 peak, while the other consoles were recalibrating around online services as the core pillar of their offering. The PC was further deepening its already-fulsome march into connected gaming, with League Of Legends being a shining example of that period. Mobile devices and social networks were host to huge influxes of players who were all connected, but largely only obliquely and remotely so.
Where I was sitting, couch co-op never went away. It was still a fundamental part of my gaming diet, and was still glorious. Between 2008 and 2013, my personal life was largely offline. I was living in a series of disused buildings in and around the centre of London, acting as a property 'guardian' - someone who helps caretake disused buildings, in return for extremely cheap 'rent'. It's an odd but engrossing way of living, if you can deal with the unpredictable nature of it all.
For example, I spent 2009 living in a former arthritis hospital, paying an absurd £200 a month (all bills included), just a minute's walk away from Oxford Street. My room was a consultancy office, a large space with X-ray banks on the walls, and examination curtains bisecting the room. As bizarre as it all sounds, it's equally surreal how quickly it all starts feeling like home, once you've got a bed, couch and TV in place. Ditto many of the other places I lived: police stations, ballrooms, Victorian canteens, pubs, libraries, and so on. Unconventional spaces with the kind of build quality and character that's absent from so much modern housing.
Living in disused buildings is strange, I can't contest that, but it's one of the best decisions I ever made. Felt like I was taking advantage of London, rather than living at the mercy of it. I cleared all my debt, and became plenty social in a city where people can easily feel dangerously overwhelmed or isolated - and couch co-op gaming played a pivotal role in that
One building was a former university science lab - on Friday nights, I'd drag a giant beanbag, projector, Xbox 360 and surround-sound system down to the lecture theatre at the far end of the corridor where I lived. There I'd play Borderlands on a makeshift screen the size of a cinema display, at preposterous volume, in maximum comfort. Other people from the building would often join in, because even split-screen modes offered the kind visual acuity that makes a modern flatscreen shrivel with envy.
It was a very specific kind of bliss, but also a necessity: Online wasn't really an option. The buildings I'd live in would never have any functioning internet remaining in place. Around that time, mobile internet was available, but feeble and pricey - I'd pay £15 a month for 1GB of glacial access, to check emails and news across the evening and weekends. I'd have to visit friends every few weeks with a PS3 or Xbox 360 in tow, to hog their connections for a few hours, topping up on demos and download games
And that's why couch co-op never left my life. I played through Halo: Reach multiple times with a man who made adverts for Lego, who barely played any video games but for whatever reason fell completely in love with Reach. I saw a bitter rivalry emerge between two young-gun bankers-in-training, via Streetfighter 2 Turbo on the Super NES, a Ken vs Ryu feud that would last up to 50 matches at a time, and fill entire Sunday afternoons. Endless Guitar Hero sessions, and pass-the-pad freakouts concerning the hardest stages on Trials HD. A Portuguese metalhead and a Scottish pro-mixologist bonding over NBA Jam. Some of the hardest laughs I've ever had, in Splinter Cell's Deniable Ops mode. Castle Crashers. Schizoid. Ikaruga. Dungeon Siege 3. Earth Defence Force 2017. Rainbow Six Vegas 2. Lego Batman. Portal 2. Rayman Origins. And so on. And so on.
Schizoid was a great little co-op experience for Xbox 360, where each player controls a coloured ship that can destroy enemies of a similar colour by crashing into them - but is destroyed instantly if touched by enemies of a different colour. Super high-pressure teamwork, with little room for error.
The list is huge, and I'd propose that the proportion of games with local co-op modes released for console was much higher than people would typically perceive of that era. One reason is, as mentioned, due to the fundamental emphasis being placed upon online gaming. But, there's something else worth noting here:
There was a whole generation of people - my generation - who'd grown up experiencing a golden vein of couch co-op via the SNES, N64, PS1, etc. across their childhood, teenage and student years, who would move on to marriages and mortgages in their late twenties and early thirties. A lot of them remained gamers thanks to Steam, PSN, Xbox Live and other such social layers keeping them dialled into their game-centric friendships. The stereotype is that people 'grow' out of video games once they hit the marriage/mortgage stage, but that hasn't happened with many of my friends, likely thanks to the convenience of well-integrated digital socialising. And more recently, as their kids grew old enough to embrace gaming, so they now seem to be falling back in love with local co-op, all over again.
So, a generational shift, plus a broader transformation in connectivity, meant that couch co-op may have fallen out off the radar for a short while, but it may not ever do so again. For some of us, it never went away, even.
It actually got bigger and louder, if you were sat anywhere near me.