Though Electronic Arts' co-operative Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 action game Army of Two didn't score particularly well with critics, it did sell -- and develop a devoted online following.
The sequel, The 40th Day, currently in development at EA Montreal, is being designed to take even more compelling advantage of the two-man play that the original game was predicated on. Here, lead design director Benoit Richer talks about how his team is approaching that challenge.
Richer discusses not just the nature of designing for co-op from a pure gameplay perspective, but how you can rely on players to discuss the options the game gives them -- including, even, moral choices.
What's your approach to designing levels specifically to encourage -- or demand -- co-op play?
Benoit Richer: The goal is to make choices; you need more choices all the time. Because the first [Army of Two] was more linear as a game, that was one of the core elements to make sure, since you're playing co-op, you don't want to share the same path -- the same doorway.
This is why we create a lot of options that represent all the co-op moves. You saw the hostage situation? You have to make sure that there are multiple ways that you can make it happen. So depending on the gameplay ingredients, we designed the level to make sure all the options were possible all the time.
You want to engender communication and get people talking, but how do you actually do that? How do you know that you're successful in creating a situation that people will actually work together, instead of just getting frustrated?
BR: It depends sometimes. One of the examples would be the aggro level. If someone really has higher aggro, he will have all the attention so he might die really quick. So if the other one is not taking that opportunity, his partner's going to get wounded, it's going to be more difficult, etc. That's one of the examples. Same thing as tagging. You can tag the enemy; say, "Oh, I have this guy, this turret or whatever, and I'm having a hard time with it." You can just tag it and as soon as the other one opens the GPS he's gonna know the exact location.
The player gets a morality boost for saving people. What do you think about translating conflict? You're taking something abstract and making it concrete, right?
BR: Well, depending if your morality is good or bad, it's gonna influence events further in the game. So depending on what you've done; if you've been good, if you've been bad, etc.
Do you find that players play because it goes with their personal morality or because they know they're going to be rewarded by it?
BR: You know, like the co-op, what we're seeing is organic; it's really important. The discussion is on that couch with the two buddies discussing it. So morality is the same thing -- "Hey, why did you take out, these hostages, man? They're good people. We're not gonna have the reward now." "I'm just having fun, and I want to shoot people."
So there's this discussion going on as well [as gameplay], right? Same thing for the morality moment, when you can choose to either execute or spare someone, but if you execute you receive weapons. So there's all this discussion that it's creating. It's something that is there every time; we just wanted to have a representation in the game.
What you're talking about is what's happening outside the game. You're putting hooks into the game to enhance feedback into the kind of patterns that you're observing in the players, then.
BR: Right. Pretty much, it's that.
When you sat down to get started on the project, did you have a lot of observational data about how people played the first one?
BR: Yeah. We took a lot of feedback from the fans on the first one, all the websites. The elements that they like, we try to push it further, like the weapon customization, co-op moves, and stuff like that. We changed the multiplayer from the ground up to make sure that it's way better now.
We're doing a lot of playtests. We do a couple of the maps; for example, for a gameplay sequence, we get people from the external people in the studio to test it out and give all their feedback. So this feedback, for me in my job, is really crucial. It's like designing the map, and after that -- was the player having fun? The fun factor: is it too difficult? Is there frustration getting in? So you want to be in position.
So you have these co-op related maps, and you're trying to engender more choice -- how do you lead the players, or show them their options from a level design perspective?
BR: First of all, when you present a challenge, as soon as you get the challenge, you need to see the different options. It needs to be clear-cut. It needs to be binary; it's either a path or an option, or it's not. It can't be that you can try to go and then it doesn't work.
As soon as you present the challenge, the player needs to know from his perspective all the different options that he can take. After that, there's the discussion between the two players saying, "Oh, there's a ladder; here, take it," or "I'm going to boost you over here; take the aggro." They need to see really clearly all the options.
Is that as much an element of things like art direction, and basically leading the player?
BR: Oh no, it is. For example, in focusing on the content of the level design, make sure the levels are, let's say, intuitive; the player knows where to go, and he's not running around. For me, if the player has to open his GPS to know the path, it's kind of a small failure, right? It's very important that it's always intuitive, always fun. We always need to guide the player.
Army of Two is kind of an interesting series because it wasn't that critically well-liked, but it sold really well, right?
BR: Yeah, it sold well; I think it's 2.5 million. I think it's one of the number one rented copies to this day, so yeah, and I think we forecasted the next one could be much bigger.
Why do you think that?
BR: Because it's fun to play! There were some flaws, right; most games, they've all got some flaws. It seems the reviewers don't like a certain aspect, or whatever is gonna hit the critic, but people who just want to play have fun -- like pick up a controller and play co-op with a buddy, for example, they're having fun.
They're not the one reviewing [as a] critic, so we see the difference sometimes in the community websites; you see that there are people that are really crazy about it and they really argue about the quotes and don't agree with [reviews]. It's two different things, right?