[In this exclusive Gamasutra postmortem, Torpex Games co-founder Jamie Fristrom (Spider-Man 2) presents a fascinating post-release analysis of the XNA-utilizing Xbox Live Arcade co-op title, which debuted in July 2008.]
While waiting for a lecture to start at GameFest a couple of years back, I was thinking about Geometry Wars and how the dual stick analog controller was what made it possible. Is there any other kind of game mechanic that would be just as suitable? I wondered. What if you control two ships at the same time? I scribbled a note to myself on the GameFest stationery.
At the time, Bill Dugan and I were trying to get our startup, Torpex Games, off the ground. We were going the standard route: pitching ourselves to publishers and asking if they had any licenses or ports they needed done.
Despite our long track records with the industry, we weren't getting much traction, and I had some free time, so I decided to make a game, really quick, just for fun, using XNA Game Studio, which had just recently become available.
What I had was just a quirky experiment in controlling two color-coded ships at once, but after showing it to our friends Richard Garfield and Skaff Elias of Magic: The Gathering fame, who suggested we make it cooperative, and agreed to help us, we discovered how addictive it was -- we couldn't stop playing.
Although we kept the quirky experiment in controlling two things at once (now called "Uberschizoid" mode, which is a unique hardcore challenge for those up to it) we realized that Schizoid truly shone as the ultimate teamwork game
Things snowballed from there -- we found ourselves becoming an indie developer (or a small publisher, depending on how you look at it) and doing something more satisfying than turning out a licensed game for a big publisher: we were creating our own game on our own terms, and it would go on to be one of the winners of Penny Arcade's PAX 10.
In the spirit of candor, "What Went Wrong" is going first, rather than "What Went Right".
1. The Single Player Problem
I can't think of a game that needs teamwork as much as Schizoid. The obvious question is "What do you do about single-player?" Originally, we didn't even want to have a single player mode, but decided to include one for two reasons: one was because Xbox Live Arcade games, up to this point, haven't been allowed to have Xbox Live in the trial. Another reason was because we knew that gaming is still predominantly a single-player hobby, and we were afraid that if we didn't have a single-player mode at all, it would be commercial suicide.
So we experimented with a bot wingman, knowing that it wouldn't be as fun as the co-op: either the wingman would be too good, ruining the fun for you, or not good enough, becoming a frustrating liability -- and that's what we found. On easy levels the wingman bot practically wins for you (in the level Scorpio Dawn, for example, you don't even have to touch the stick) but on the harder levels, where strategy matters, the bot -- who is, after all, just a bot -- does some boneheaded things.
Although we kind of enjoyed those later bot levels -- it became a game of figuring out how to win despite the bot -- the comparative weakness of the single-player mode was confirmed in focus tests, where they would give the co-op game four or five stars but the single-player game only three, or fewer if they were frustrated.
But we didn't know what to do about it -- although improving the bot AI (which we did do a little, believe it or not) made the game easier, it didn't make it more fun. What we decided to do, ultimately, was try to put in very strong messaging that it was intended to be a co-op game: we called the single-player mode "Training Mode"; we repeatedly put "Most Co-Op Game Ever" in much of the text; and we put in nag screens saying "Be Sure To Try Co-Op!"
With all that, it's not clear that the message got through. Most of our reviewers, for example, while giving us great testimonials about our co-op mode, seem to be doing some sort of mental review algebra where they say, "Hmm, co-op's a 9, but single-player's a 5... let's split the difference and give them a 7." (The exeception is one French website that explicitly split it out, giving us one rating for co-op and a different rating for single-player.)