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Ready player two! Co op is a new big thing?

by Andrii Honcharuk on 08/07/17 09:42:00 am   Featured Blogs

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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.


Instead of intro

Hello my name is Andrii Goncharuk, but you can call me Andy, I'm a game designer working in Ubisoft, and to be honest... I’m really lonely right now...

I’m not very good at competitive games, don’t have much of a free time to develop proper skills, but maybe there is an answer for my prayers? Surely there is, it’s co op games!

---   *disclaimer*   ---

Co op will be a new, must have thing, for a mid core audience. Hardcore audience already occupied with pure competitive and team competitive games, and it’s really hard to compete on that market, so next step is tackling a mid core audience. This article is not a guideline for a perfect co op game but more or less a doorway, a direction to understanding co op game design patterns what types of them exist and how they are applied.

---   *end of disclaimer*   ---

What is co op games or co op mode?

As wiki says: cooperative gameplay is a feature in video games that allows players to work together as teammates, usually against one or more AI opponents. It is distinct from other multiplayer modes, such as competitive multiplayer modes like player versus player or deathmatch. Playing simultaneously allows players to assist one another in many ways: passing weapons or items, healing, providing covering fire in a firefight, and performing cooperative maneuvers such as boosting a teammate up and over obstacles.

“Understanding and Evaluating Cooperative Games” scientific research(document in references, I HIGHLY recommend to study it!) done on co op games by this kind fellows:

  • Magy Seif El-Nasr,
  • Bardia Aghabeigi,
  • David Milam,
  • Mona Erfani,
  • Beth Lameman,
  • Hamid Maygoli
  • Sang Mah

In document they outlined next commonly used game design co op patterns:

  • Complementarity is one of the most commonly used patterns in cooperative games. It implies that players play different character roles to complement each other's’ activities within the game.

  • Synergies between abilities allows one character type to assist or change the abilities of another. For example, in World of Warcraft, a Shadow Priest can cause an enemy to become vulnerable to shadow damage, which also results in an increase in the damage that Warlocks (another character type) can cause.

  • Abilities that can only be used on another player an example can be seen in Team Fortress 2, where Medics can heal other players.

  • Shared goals is a pattern used to force players to work together, such as in World of Warcraft, where a group of players are given a single quest with a shared goal.

  • Synergies between goals is a pattern that forces players to cooperate together through synchronized goals. For example, the achievement system developed for the Pyro and Medic character classes within Team Fortress 2 gives Pyros the goal of killing three enemies while ubercharged (being made invulnerable by a Medic). The Medic, on the other hand, has a different goal, which is to ubercharge a Pyro while he/she burns enemies.

  • Special rules denote rules that are used to enforce cooperation within teams. For example, designers can encode rules to denote specific effects to actions within the game when performed on a friendly player. The idea behind these differences is to promote and facilitate cooperation. A good example is the rule in FPS games that prevents damage when players accidently shoot other players on the same team, known as Friendly Fire modes.

  • Camera Setting there are three design choices for developing a successful camera in a shared screen co op games—split screen horizontally or vertically, one character in focus, all characters are in focus (the screen doesn’t move unless all characters are near each other).

  • Interacting with the same object providing interactive objects that can be manipulated by characters’ abilities. In Beautiful Katamari, players share a ball. Similarly, in Little Big Planet, both players can push or grab one object together.

  • Shared Puzzles this pattern is a general category for all cooperative design puzzles, also discussed in. This pattern was observed in games such as Lego Star Wars and Little Big Planet, where both players encounter a shared challenge or obstacle.

  • Shared Characters providing a shared NPC (Non-Player Character) equipped with special abilities that players can assume. This pattern can be seen in Lego Star Wars, where both players have the ability to assume a special character, but only one can. This enables discussions among players concerning how to share the character.

  • Special characters targeting lone wolf this pattern focuses on the design of NPC characters that target players who are working alone. In Left4Dead, the Hunter and Smoker are good examples of this pattern.

  • Vocalization are patterns that embed automatic vocal expressions on player characters that alert players of different challenging events. It, thus, encourages players to play close together and support each other.

  • Limited resources is concerned with providing a limited number of resources, and thus encourages players to share or exchange resources to research the same goal. Resident Evil 5 uses this technique; many examples of this pattern can be seen in board games.

This is a really good study done by them, they have charts like “total number of Laughter and Excitement Together” or “Patterns that caused Laughter events”, I mean, how more precisely, one can go? You have to read it you won’t regret it!

Co op will soon become a trend.

I felt a great disturbance in the game design field, as if millions of stakeholders suddenly cried out: “We need more co op in our games!”. And online devs screamed in terror and were suddenly silenced, by managers. I fear something wonderful has happened, co op is trending in AAA games…

One may not notice that clearly right now, but soon it will be more visible, that co op is starting to trend a lot in big titles, it were present there before but not it will grow further. It’s all about all the big data and stats that are finally available and can be mined, and no surprise that it’s showing that players who played co op mode have much more play hours, and players who played co op with friends have even more play hours.

Play hours do matter a lot, because in the end, it’s play hours that create “prophets” out of players, who turn their friends to their belief. Stats and Kotaku says that word of mouth are responsible for almost 33% of all game sales, not marketing or anything else, word or mouth. More play hours mean bigger probability that game will be in mind of a player when he will talk to another future player and he will share his thoughts about this game, talking about virality here, and this is the place where quality of memorised(not on-going) experience matter most! (In simple words, just make better games so it will be pleasant to reminisce).

And this is why co op becoming a big thing, it makes more money and more happy players (and their friends, sometimes).

But in the end statistics just proving that were already obvious from point of view of brain chemistry...

What chemistry says about co op?

In Player motivation, part 1: Biological foundation of emotions I outlined basic framework of human brain on side of experience, memories and emotions and how three of them interconnected with each other and game design.

As you can recall from there activities that tied up with cooperation, solving problem, camaraderie and feeling of being in a team are recorded and readed by next neurotransmitters:

  • Serotonin - solving a problem, cracking a puzzle, feeling of completing something, success.

  • Oxytocin - feeling of attachment, trust and compassion, altruistic behaviours.

  • Vasopressin - feeling of brotherhood and fatherhood, attachment to relatives and family.

Without co op it would be mostly serotonin, without other two, which means no association with comfort and home, no association with relatives and family in game.

All three of this hormones are deeply involved in our social daily lives and games that can make use of them will trigger so much more good emotions than just a single player game.

What psychology says about co op?

If you have no trust in statistics and all this neuroscience matter, and all this “chemistry behind” sort of things, there is always a backup plan, psychology. In Player motivation, part 2: Popular psychological models I outlined some psychological models of motivation that roaming around in internet and psychological sphere. And getting back to one of them, Self Determination Theory, we can say that any game with a co op feature is a source of relatedness.

Relatedness - Universal need to interact with, be connected to someone/something, and experience caring for others or care from others.

Any activity that require any time of interaction with other living being(or being perceived as such) replenish one’s need for relatedness and make one feel needed.

For more details I will suggest to read Player motivation articles or just research SDT.

Also one of the big deal of having a co op is showing off and frenemies activity. Sometimes being able to cooperate not always says that it will be 100% cooperation without competition. As one of the greatest minds of Xbox 360 era said:

It was mostly about achievements, but this same result can be relived again and again in real time. That one perfect headshot you landed on NPC that almost killed your friend, remember that feeling when your friend said to you: “Thanks, bro, that one almost got me!”.

Ok, so in the end we agreed that co op is a good thing, but most of the things above can be found in competitive games or team competitive games as well!

What is better?

Competitive vs co op vs team competitive

Co op and competitive audiences are very different in their core, but completely other story with team competitive. Pure competitive games that exclude any types of cooperation like chess are games that more appealing to players looking for Competence from SDT.

Competence - need to control the outcome of one’s actions and experience process of mastering any of one’s skills.

But if we broaden up terms and consider a twitch chat that offers some help to streamer that plays a single player game as a co op. Then one could tell that even purely co op games like Magicka can be competitive(talking about friendly fire…) but mostly often it goes that team competitive is a synergy of both modes and take best of two worlds but also suffers twice as much problems.

Co op is good co op is life!

You will ever work on a co op game, one must consider next necessary elements, their existence, complexity or simply lack of them in design:

  • Level of required coordination - when game have co op mode one additional parameter added up to each level/phase or mode or gameplay moment. Level of required coordination, low level of required consideration can result in feeling that game not giving a cooperative feeling, and to high level of required consideration can increase amount of mistakes and frustration greatly. As developer you need to control this level and tune it up from level to level to maintain difficulty curve growing slowly.

  • Price of a personal/friend’s mistake - Whenever coordination is involved there is a price of mistake, if action was not well coordinated what will happen? Will you die or your friend do? Who will be punished whole team or just the one becuase of whom it went out of hands? All this questions are deeply depends on goals and core pillars of the game. For example in Magika sometimes channeling a spell wrongly can kill only caster, but sometimes whole team...

  • Personal and team gains - whenever action are performed, coordinated or not, it is a question who is accountable for results? For example in Dota experience are personal parameter and if one player will perform a kill another on the other end of the map won't benefit experience points for that and as an opposite approach in Heroes of the Storm everyone rewarded with exp. Points cause who ever invested most in action, team is winner. It can be good for players seeking relatedness but bad for players who look for competence, cause game in that case not counting kill as Their, whatever you do, it’s not Your reward even if it was 100% your effort.

  • Importance of non-blocking action - whatever activity can be performed by player in game it is important(if it is not intended to be like that) so most often performed activities won’t block other players resulting in unnecessary, unplanned frustration. Sometimes it’s hard to achieve within game lore and world, but at least it must be clearly communicated whenever activity cannot be performed because of what or whom.

So what’s now?

Does all above mean that all games from now on need to add co op no questions asked? Surely no, there is plenty examples where co op or hard to add or it will ruin experience, talking about Alien Isolation for example. And also needs to be considered that adding a co op feature is not a simple task as it look at first glance, even in simplest form. With co op existing, online dev team or programmer required, testers who will test online activities, servers to run, etc. Simply adding a co op could result in a really big pile of work and for some games it can be completely unnecessary or even damaging.


  • Co op is a gameplay that involves cooperation between two players

  • There is a broad range of co op game design patterns to use

  • Co op is a next big thing, after competitive

  • Brain chemistry outline that co op games are triggering brain more than SP games

  • Psychology says that co op helps to fight loneliness, obviously

  • There is more to co op rather than cooperation, showing off and play with frenemies

  • Co op cannot be compared directly to competitive games, but can be combined!

  • To make a good co op game there is many things to consider

  • There is no need to put co op everywhere where it technically possible!


Bonus level:

Here is breakdown of some co op games as example, selection and order are totally random and comments are purely subjective, deal with it:

Streets of Rage 2

Year of release: 1992

Genre: Beat-em-all-up-until-they-flash-and-disappear


Alone or you and your friend cleaning streets from uncontrolled rage condensed in locals. Until you find source and clean him as well.


Game design patterns:

  1. Shared goal - completing game or killing boss is some sort of shared goal

  2. Synergies between abilities - one player can hold another to perform special attack

  3. Camera Setting: all characters are in focus

  4. Limited resources - health packs can be picked-up by one or another character

Level of required coordination: low

Price of personal mistake: low, you got damaged

Price of a teammate mistake: low, if teammate damaged you won’t feel pain or regret(maybe)

Personal gain: your pick-up’s is yours

Team gain: progressing through the game story as a team

Player could block each other: yes

Laughters meter: moderate

Frustration meter: moderate

Co op value verdict: 5 replenishing health fried chickens out of 10, co op is very optional.


Year of release: 2011

Genre: Deadly(for yourself and friends) magic editor


Traveling alone or with friends massacring locals and your team, while trying to get grasp on how the heck cast proper spells.


Game design patterns:

  1. Synergies between abilities - some spells are synergetic in their nature

  2. Abilities that can only be used on another player - healing and buffs and other effects

  3. Shared goal - completing game, killing boss, usual stuff

  4. Camera Setting: all characters are in focus

  5. Limited resources - loot can be shared between teammates

Level of required coordination: high

Price of personal mistake: potentially deadly for whole team or very harmful

Price of a teammate mistake: same as above

Personal gain: loot can be shared with teammates

Team gain: advancing through game progression together

Player could block each other: yes

Laughters meter: incredibly high

Frustration meter: incredibly high

Co op value verdict: 7 failed spells out of 10, accidently killing whole team is fun!

Keep Talking and Nobody Explode

Year of release: 2015

Genre: Human communications crash course


Trying to calm down your friend who is researching manual on how to disarm bomb that will might kill you, and also solving puzzles, together.


Game design patterns:

  1. Vocalization - pillar element of the gameplay, one player need to guide another

  2. Camera Setting: all characters(one bomb) are in focus

  3. Shared Puzzles - not directly but puzzles here are more like a double edge sword

Level of required coordination: extremely high

Price of personal mistake: game over

Price of a teammate mistake: game over

Personal gain: depends on side, for paper man no rewards, for defuser, game progress

Team gain: actual reward only given to defuser

Player could block each other: no, there is no direct interaction

Laughters meter: high

Frustration meter: abnormally high

Co op value verdict: 9 defused bombs out of 10, best teambuilding game ever existed.

Lost vikings

Year of release: 1992

Genre: Split personality disorder, the game


Three completely different vikings trying to find way home with your and your friends help.


Game design patterns:

  1. Shared Characters - controllable characters are shared between players

  2. Complementarity - is core pillar of this game, all 3 vikings have different mechanics

  3. Camera Setting: one active character in focus

  4. Shared Puzzles - puzzles most of the time can be solved only as teamplay

Level of required coordination: moderate

Price of personal mistake: not big enough, death of a one character not end of the game

Price of a teammate mistake: same as above

Personal gain: no personal rewards or fines, everything is shared, even characters

Team gain: same as above

Player could block each other: some sort of, blocking controls of a character

Laughters meter: high but mostly because of fails

Frustration meter: reasons sames as above

Co op value verdict: 8 beard’s out of 10, playing with friend really make gameplay shine.

Orcs Must Die 2

Year of release: 2011

Genre: Friendship destroyer 3000


Protecting special points from orcs and other various beasts with help of traps and tools, alone or with friend.


Game design patterns:

  1. Synergies between abilities - some of the traps and abilities can benefit of one another

  2. Camera Setting: each player has one active character in focus

  3. Shared goal - completing level and secure rift are shared goals

  4. Limited resources - some sort of it at least, one can share mobs with other to gain gold

Level of required coordination: low, no coordinated actions or skills could be performed

Price of personal mistake: low but affect whole team

Price of a teammate mistake: same as above

Personal gain: progression is shared, money for killed orcs, not

Team gain: same as above

Player could block each other: not necessarily, but griefing is possible

Laughters meter: high, mostly because of developers investment on story and narration side

Frustration meter: moderate

Co op value verdict: 5 closed rifts out of 10, Orcs do must die!

The Division

Year of release: 2016

Genre: School bullying in post apocalyptic NY


Going rogue, scavenging, massacring, fixing things, killing dragons and other things that can be done in post apocalyptic NY theme park.


Game design patterns:

  1. Complementarity - player classes are synergetic and complete each other, except medic

  2. Synergies between abilities - tons of it, applied effects, debuffs, item bonuses

  3. Abilities that can only be used on another player - healing, reviving, buffing lot’s of it

  4. Camera Setting: each player has one active character in focus

  5. Synergies between goals - especially in DZ goals can be synergetic and not contradict

  6. Limited resources - loot can be shared between teammates for a limited amount of time

Level of required coordination: PvE - high, PvP - depends on situation

Price of personal mistake: player can be reviewed by many means, teammate, gadget

Price of a teammate mistake: almost none, someone else mistake won't affect directly team

Personal gain: incredibly high, almost all activities and co op no exception gives rewards

Team gain: making personal gain easier, but there is no team bonus rewards or rewards for team (except Last Stand mode)

Player could block each other: friendly fire possible and in dark zone, often...

Laughters meter: almost none, only if you have a stand up comedian as teammate

Frustration meter: high, especially losing personal loot.

Co op value verdict: 6 secured supply drops out of 10, co op included but not required, except raids and incursions.

Portal 2 co op mode

Year of release: 2010

Genre: Problem solving with unpredictable obstacle(your friend)


Trying to solve a hard and elaborate set of puzzles and tricks that a human to human interaction is, while playing usual easy to handle portal like levels.


Game design patterns:

  1. Shared goal - completing game, beat all puzzles is shared goal, more or less

  2. Shared Puzzles - all of the puzzles in co op mode require teammate

  3. Interacting with the same object - bunch of objects that can be interacted with by team

  4. Camera Setting: each player has his first person view

Level of required coordination: from low to high, depends on puzzle

Price of personal mistake: non-existent, you simply respawn, just like in real life

Price of a teammate mistake: same as above

Personal gain: game progression

Team gain: same as above

Player could block each other: yes, can and more often do

Laughters meter: depends

Frustration meter: really low

Co op value verdict: 7 companion cubes out of 10, it is a co op game at is core and puzzles are required to be solved together but not much of coordination needs to be applied.

Left 4 Dead

Year of release: 2008

Genre: First person minesweeper with zombies


Trying not to startle the witch, summon a horde, being lost, lose a teammate, die and many other things that you may try not to do, or else...


Game design patterns:

  1. Shared goal - completing level is a shared goal

  2. Camera Setting: each player has his first person view

  3. Limited resources - pickups are limited and can be shared

  4. Special rules - friendly fire can be applied to other players

  5. Shared Puzzles - some small puzzles needs to be solved together

  6. Special characters targeting lone wolf

Level of required coordination: low to medium, depends

Price of personal mistake: high, horde summoning, startling witch etc.

Price of a teammate mistake: most of mistakes can affect whole team

Personal gain: not much, a little bit of loot, progression is shared between team members

Team gain: same as above

Player could block each other: yes

Laughters meter: depends on watching you a comedy show on background or not

Frustration meter: high, from enemies, from teammates mistakes, friendly fire etc.

Co op value verdict: 8 startled witches of 10, cooperation is required but most of the time it’s punishments for low coordination and low teammates personal skill, which is a bad thing.

Arma 3

Year of release: 2013

Genre: Kinda tactical, sometimes first person, “Totally accurate battle simulator” rip-off


-Enemies on ten o'clock! I repeat enemies on ten o'clock!

-Kill confirm.

-It was friendly forces…



Game design patterns:

  1. Complementarity - depends on mission, but there is pilots, soldiers, snipers etc.

  2. Camera Setting: each player has his first person view

  3. Shared goals - completing mission objective most of the time are shared goal

  4. Synergies between goals - sometimes goals can be different but complete each other

  5. Special rules - friendly fire is a big deal in ARMA

  6. Interacting with the same object - interacting with battle helicopter by whole team

  7. Vocalization - vocal coordination are often required

  8. Limited resources - items and gadgets can be shared between teammates

Level of required coordination: from high to over 9000, depends on mission and type of play

Price of personal mistake: one personal mistake can affect whole team

Price of a teammate mistake: same as above, works both way, fail of team could result in personal fail.

Personal gain: progression in game(mission) shared, occasional loot that can be shared

Team gain: same as above

Player could block each other: yes and they do

Laughters meter: if you a jolly person or have some sort of a sadistic sense of humor, high

Frustration meter: pretty darn high I would say from my personal experience

Co op value verdict: for co op actions it’s 9 crashed helicopters out of 10, but can be played solo though, not very successful but still.

Payday 2

Year of release: 2013

Genre: Perfectly planned bank heist going wrong simulator


You and your AI or brain(not always the case) controlled teammates trying to rob a bank, just like in a movie, and just like in a movies all sort of bad things will happen...


Game design patterns:

  1. Complementarity - each character provide a certain set of required skills

  2. Camera Setting: each player has his first person view

  3. Synergies between abilities - some abilities applied to enemy forces benefit other players

  4. Abilities that can only be used on another player - “GET THE F*UCK UP!” and others

  5. Shared goals - mission objective are always shared for whole team

  6. Special rules - friendly fire can be applied in a certain circumstances

  7. Shared Puzzles - any silent run of a mission or loud is a shared puzzle to solve

  8. Vocalization - vocal coordination is almost certain must have during play

  9. Limited resources - usable placed bags are limited and can be shared

Level of required coordination: high

Price of personal mistake: on silent run can be a solid restart

Price of a teammate mistake: same as above, before alarm, price is high

Personal gain: each session has a personal reward to player

Team gain: no special team bonuses, but victory results is shared

Player could block each other: not directly

Laughters meter: moderate, there is funny occasions, but mostly depends on team

Frustration meter: high, since each team member mistake are affect whole team

Co op value verdict: 10 bags of money out of 10, Total Overkill level of cooperation is required.



The role of oxytocin and vasopressin in emotional and social behaviors

Oxytocin can improve compassion in people with symptoms of PTSD

Cooperative gameplay

Understanding and Evaluating Cooperative Games

Word Of Mouth Sells The Most Video Games

Web site devoted to co op games

Player motivation, part 1: Biological foundation of emotions

Player motivation, part 2: Popular psychological models

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