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5 problems with co-op game design (and possible solutions)
5 problems with co-op game design (and possible solutions)
November 14, 2012 | By Mathew Kumar

November 14, 2012 | By Mathew Kumar
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design

If you're making a co-op video game and it feels like an overwhelming task, don't worry -- it's not just you who feels this way.

"Designing for co-op is basically designing in hard mode," said Tanya Short, senior gameplay designer at Funcom, speaking at the Montreal International Game Summit this week. "Your players will not only complain about your game, they'll start complaining about each other."

But she argued that the benefits of co-op play far outweigh the negatives -- as long as the co-op is integral to the game design.

"Right now there is a lot of parallel play," she said. "Developers think that they can get the benefit of co-op games without actually letting players work together. It's more that you should give players the tools to allow them start caring about each other in a story they create together."

Her first warning was to disavow any thoughts that co-operative mechanics should exclude considering the competitive implications.

"It's very difficult to [keep players from] competing, unless you do not reward the players for anything they do," she said. "Any time you introduce two players or more working together, they will also be competing for any resources you offer."

Short identified what she saw as the five main problems facing co-operative game designers, drawing on her experience working on games such as Funcom's The Secret World, Age of Conan and Facebook game Fashion Week Live:

Problem 1: Knowledge Mismatch

"Maybe you are making a strategic game, where players must think and solve a problem together," Short hypothesized. "Well, if one player knows a lot more than the other, this becomes less fun than playing alone."

Short considered some commonly-used solutions, such as having the solution require real-time co-operation.

"You can give the orders," she said, "but each player still has to do it themselves."

She also offered some more unusual solutions, praising Thatgamecompany's online game Journey for having a "more social" solution that requires players to lead by example.

"If people could type in 'jump to the top of the rock, you moron' it wouldn't be as co-operative."

She also drew the concept of "secret information" from board games.

"I have yet to see this used very well, but a common tactic in board games is to encourage or require players to keep some information back," she said. "Players can't give each other orders because they don't definitively know the correct solution based on the widely available information. This can also lead to distrust of each other; I would love to see more co-op games based on Werewolf or other secret information games."

Problem 2: Skill Mismatch

"When someone is better than you in skill, that is even less fun," said Short. "Everyone on the team resents this, the stronger players and the 'weak link.'"

Common solutions Short saw included removing failure states ("No failure, only lack of success") and removing skill from the win state entirely ("This is common in board games -- let players play together, but whoever wins wins; or if the game is just about making a painting and the win state is 'you made a painting,' what difference does it matter if you are a better artist than me?")

Short particularly praised any concepts that allow the newest or least-skilled players to still contribute and be useful in a way that also allows more experienced players to benefit. She called on an example from her time on Age of Conan, where the requirement was to create a reward for guilds that would encourage player retention. The team implemented the concept of "guild levels," where individual actions within the guild would work to increase the guild's level and reward all the members of the guild.

However, a problem remained: balancing this between hardcore and casual players.

"The solution that rewarded both groups was two tiers of rewards. Leaderboards for the hardcore that every week would reward the top crafting guild, top PVE, and so on. On the other side was the progression levels which took casual guilds a long time to get through."

Problem 3: Public Humilation

"Some people genuinely don't want to play with others. They just want to be left alone because they find the idea of making mistakes in front of others embarrassing," Short said.

Common solutions for this include offering a private tutorial at the start of the game, and offering a help channel for newbies (Short warned, however, that a lot of players would rather quit than actively ask for help).

For the players who genuinely want to play alone, Short admitted that a single-player mode could serve a purpose, but asked developers to consider what the goal of their game design actually is. "A single player mode is extremely expensive; if your goal is truly to create player co-operation you will have to limit it," she argued.

In Fashion Week Live, a game in which players can create and share fashions they have designed Short's team were told they must encourage player interaction and collaboration by allowing players to "rate" each other's fashions. If players were allowed to leave anonymous ratings, they could easily attempt to tear down other players, and players could be discouraged from creating fashions. If ratings revealed profiles, then players could also reciprocally hand out negative (or positive) ratings and again attempt to game the system.

"What we ended up doing was somewhere in between," Short said. People could see who left them a rating and visit their profile, and see their overall rating, but it was a secret what each individual rating was.

"We also made sure there was a minimum rating so no matter what, you wouldn't be too discouraged; two stars out of four is the minimum."

Problem 4: No Protagonist

"You're not the protagonist anymore. At best you and your friend are the protagonists, at worst you are one of many. What do you do about this?" asked Short.

"It's most popular to give the player creative expression," Short said, such as character customization. However, "a lot of developers don't consider other forms of customization," she continued, such as customizing a home space, offering unique behaviors and animations.

She also contended that being able to specialize -- such as the divisions between a tank, a healer, or a damage dealer -- allows players to differentiate themselves and their behaviors from others.

Problem 5: Jerks

"There's an instant problem in putting even two people together," Short admitted. "They're not always nice to each other, even when you want them to be.

"It's most popular to limit what happens to a player when they lose. But if someone really screws another player over and they lose everything, I am sorry, that sucks, but I don't think making it less possible to lose is a solution," she said. "Without the ability to trust someone else with everything, you won't truly cooperate."

Short's most recommended solution was to offer "self-selected risk."

"You can choose who to trust; if they choose to grief you, that was your mistake."

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Eric Geer
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"It's very difficult to [keep players from] competing, unless you do not reward the players for anything they do," she said. "Any time you introduce two players or more working together, they will also be competing for any resources you offer."

The one game where this bothers the hell out of me is Borderlands--1 or 2. You constantly have to run to get ahead of whoever get's to the chest first. And if you are playing with an a-hole they will generally take everything--then sort through the best and toss the rest. It's one of the most frustrating things about the game that could easily be fixed by each person receiving a different set of random guns/equip on their own screen.

Another thing I dislike in 4 player coop games is that one person is usually running the show--I generally like to find out the story for the missions(Borderlands/Dead Island) but all of it starts moving too fast or disoriented when you join up with a group that my be on different missions than you.

warren blyth
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maybe a game like borderlands could identify if one play keeps opening all the chests first, and make it so another player has to open? (just to slow them down).
Or could spawn more of those mini loot bastards who attack you when you open a chest? (maybe they already do?)

I've never had a problem with first-to-loot in the 2 borderlands because I've only played with pals. Somehow we adopted a "don't ask me if I want it. if you get there first it's yours" approach. But we also seem to hang back and let others in from time to time. (and somehow we've organically all chosen to focus on different weapons. so there's often a "ugh, pistols. anyone else want these?" situation).

but Borderlands 2 does have a lot of quests where you are directly rewarded with one of two items, and you get to choose which you go with (regardless of what other players choose. i believe). so maybe this is the way they address that? from a reward perspective? ... plus they also offer the golden keys solution.

Luis Guimaraes
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The inventory slot limit kind of fix that issue at some point. But I've seen insane rush for stuff between players.

I was never part of it because I only went online to grind a couple levels up after I ended up stuck on lvl-20 missions while still on lvl-14, so doing grinding alone would be boring. So my weapons were always the best ones in the party anyway (actually OP for the missions). But I saw people doing all kinds of stuff like running around for fun ignoring missions and dueling for load outs.

They seemed to be having fun.

Michael Rooney
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I think shared chests work really well in GW2. A single chest spawns, but its contents are generated for each player separately.

One thing I'd like is if more games rewarded people for being support players. The closest example I can think of is the way halo weights assists to encourage team play. Doing something similar seems like it would work in coop. I think just recognizing the differences in the roles people play is the most important step.

Ardney Carter
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Given her background it's understandable that she approaches the design from this viewpoint but I find a lot of these problems disappear if you approach approach the game with the idea that the people taking advantage of the co-op experience already know each other.

Hooking up with random people on the internet to co-op through a game should largely be viewed as a sub-optimal scenario rather than the original goal, IMO.

Trent Tait
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This is exactly what I was thinking while reading the article. If you hook up with randoms you already know to expect the worse. If you're playing with friends, then you will cooperate, because it's not in your best interest not to, nor theirs. Guild in MMO's often can be classed as friends working together. Pugs are always random.

warren blyth
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I'm fascinated by this... dilemma?

I have several friends who will ONLY play co-op with other friends. But they also tire quickly of various co-op games. I used to assume they'd move on so quickly because all 4 people need to remain interested in it, or nobody could play the game (weep?). I wondered if they just had ADD, and couldn't play one game for more than a week.
But now I think they're missing out on all the ways that playing with strangers could make the game much more fun (in a way they aren't considering?)

For example: I really enjoyed playing L4D with strangers. I was quick to leave servers with jerks, racists, griefers. But I found a strange small reward in refusing to rage quit, always, and seeing how dynamics would change between the team that started a campaign, and the team that finished it. Found it fun to experiment with trying to lead the team, or trying to sit back. Found it fun to pick one person and just make sure they had a good time (this almost seems to be an established way to start any game that has a medic character. just join and follow one person around healing them == fun for them, and good way to learn the ropes).
It was also delightful to hear newbies screaming in horror/panic over certain events that long time players had become bored with. hmmf.

I think the whole point is hooking up with random people on the internet offers rewards you can't get from playing with your safe "known quantity" friends.

Ardney Carter
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"I think the whole point is hooking up with random people on the internet offers rewards you can't get from playing with your safe "known quantity" friends."

I don't disagree with this, but at the same time it's a risk/reward thing. The amount of negative experiences (and by "negative" I mean anything less than a good time, for whatever reason) with the random gamer community at large has far outweighed the positive ones in my personal experience and the older I get, the less inclined I am to gamble my time on the chance that I'll meet up with good people when I already have access to great people in my existing circle of friends. I'm sure I'm not alone in this.

Brian Pace
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I like the was Saints Row does Co-op. Each of you are always the Protagonist for the story the other play doesn't exist in the cutscenes.

Maybe I'm old school but I look at co-op as something friends/family get together and play. Most of the points you make are from grouping with strangers. I couldn't even imagine playing co-op with a stranger.

Josh Stratton
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Totally agree. I don't usually associate MMOs with coop games for some reason, which may not make sense. I guess I associate the term coop with story-driven games like Saints Row or Borderlands 2 where I may play through but with a friend. In those situations, I'd never be playing and feel like I want some random stranger to join who can control the pacing of the experience.

Ardney Carter
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@Josh: Nah, it makes perfect sense to me and pretty much sums up my perspective on it.

@Brian: Agree with the latter half of your comment but as regards the 1st part I will say that I appreciate it when devs go the extra mile and make room for each player in the narrative. It's not required for enjoyment certainly, but if it can reasonably be done it should (IMO).

As an example, I didn't mind playing as 2 Master Chiefs in the co-op for the 1st Halo but felt the overall experience was improved by the addition of the Arbiter as the role for the 2nd player in the sequel.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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Yeah, in Halo 4 they remove that, and you both play as Chief again. My brother and I made it into its own game-whichever one of us interacted with an object/objective that took us into a cutscene or solitary FPS view (like climbing up the inside of the opening level), that person got to be Master Chief for the rest of the level, and the other had to play as Blaster Chief. If there was a dramatic cutscene at the end of the level that depicted Chief surviving a spot of trouble, his partner was considered dead, and a new one was christened for the next level.

(and it improved the quality of the writing tremendously...)

Ardney Carter
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That is hilarious and awesome.

I wondered how they would handle co-op in the new one as far as that goes and it's interesting (and mildly disappointing) that they do the 2 Chiefs thing again. Still, it's understandable given what they're doing with the narrative I guess.

Adriaan de Jongh
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Cooperation doesn't need a protagonist or antagonist. People can be themselves.

One of the amazing advantages of cooperative multiplayer is that there is a whole social layer involved that goes far beyond the screen. Jerks in the game would, just like in real life, be filtered out anyway.

Luis Guimaraes
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I'm of this same idea.
You can be Marter Chief, I'm myself, let's see who's better.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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6. Forcing Co-Op squares in a Single Player circle.

Devs really, really need to get over jamming co-op into horror titles (RE, Dead Space), and horror moments into co-op titles (Gears). While it's possible to still create a tense/thriller atmosphere, games still haven't cracked the code for allowing you to be scared with someone else at your back.

This extends to any sort of franchise built around a narrative-I've seen tons of threads imagining how to force a co-op partner into the Mass Effect games (and other RPGs of that ilk), and I honestly can't imagine a way that doesn't ruin the game, or leave the co-op partner more or less stranded between combat scenarios.

As bad as the games are, I really liked the concept of Army of Two, as it was concepted around the structure of a partnership (you could argue the Gears games are in the same boat, but you could pretty much remove your squadmates from the game and it would barely create a ripple in the gameplay).

Luis Guimaraes
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Coop in horror games (and most games) is very possible. Just needs to be done right.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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Yep, you're not disagreeing with me.

Maria Jayne
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"Any time you introduce two players or more working together, they will also be competing for any resources you offer."

It strikes me, this is always an easy fix, you allocate resources to the individuals..

DDO has a system where you are rewarded individualy at the end of a quest, you have your own loot, you get your own share of the xp that is cooperative. Needing to "fastest finger first" on everything isn't cooperative, it never ceases to amaze me how many game devs fail to see the conflict they create in cooperative play.

Jeremie Sinic
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One thing I really liked about Diablo 3 is the fact that each player sees different loot and nobody can pick yours (although you can choose to share it afterwards by dropping it on the ground).
It really helps to keep things focused when playing and avoid doing stupid things just to get that rare item that just dropped.
I never played Diablo 3 game with jerks (only with friends I know) but would there be some, this system would mitigate their negative impact greatly.