Is Cooperative Gaming Making a Comeback?

The days of split screen gaming seem to be far behind us.  But the days of couch coop are some of the best memories of my childhood and a great way to introduce gaming to your non-gaming friends.  I remember playing hour long bouts of Mario Party, ending in wrestling matches.  I remember playing Rock Band for hours and forcing everyone to listen to my awful intonation.  I remember playing Portal 2 with a friend after a tough workout and trying to solve every puzzle before we fell asleep.  I remember playing the original Halo with four controllers and accusing my friends of screen looking.  Okay… I was the screen looker, but we still had fun.  What happened to couch coop?

Sea of Thieves reminds me of the good old days of cooperative gaming.  When we played just for fun and not for experience points or ranked wins.  The world of competitive gaming has changed the way people view video games, and I believe that limits the ability for video games to be fun for everyone.  I would never encourage my girlfriend or non gamer friends to pick up a game of Heroes of the Storm, which is still considered the most accessible MOBA, because of how complicated the game is.  But I have encouraged her and my friends to play Mario Kart and Mario Party.

There are two things at play here.  First, games and gamers are becoming increasingly focused on completion and persistent progress.  Second, the online sphere of games emphasizes playing with strangers rather than immediate friends.

One of the biggest complaints about Sea of Thieves is centered around the lack of content.  Players seemed to ask for some kind of scripted narrative, more varied quest strings, or some combination of both.  However, I believe the game was designed as a sandbox with player creativity at it’s heart.  Players are encouraged to design their own missions.  When Chase, Brian, Ian, and I sailed around we gathered five chests but lost them all to the mighty sea.  Technically we experienced zero progression, but I still had a good time (even though I was complaining about losing the gold and potential cosmetic upgrades).

Achievements, trophies, and persistent online profiles encourage players to play games with specific goals in mind.  These external triggers belittle the intrinsic motives that many players used to experience.  Classic Super Nintendo games never had trophies or achievements, but I spent hours playing and replaying games that I though were fun, often with friends sitting next to me on the couch.  There was never an achievement for catching all 150 Pokemon in the original games, but I did it because I wanted to.  Adding a notification that grants you some arbitrary number or level adds some easy fun responses, but takes away some of the intrinsic motivation about completing the activity and places the emphasis outside of the player.

The real achievements came from speaking with your friends about accomplishments or fun things that happened during a play session.  Competition can occur naturally throughout a play session.  I have not directly competed against my friends in a long time.  We are always on the same team competing against random strangers.  Halo multiplayer used to be one of my favorite activities among my friend group.  We would play in one room, sometimes with two screens and two Xbox’s, and play against each other to see who was the best.  Then we would play 2v2, and change the teams up.  Then we would make up our own game modes, like Tower of Power, in order to try something new.

Online play has enabled connectivity across the globe and made it easier to find and set up competitive matches.  But playing against strangers does not build a sense of community.  You don’t know who you are playing against, can’t communicate with them, and will probably never play against them again.  I used to post messages on forums looking for other Call of Duty teams to play against.  I used GameBattles and the old MLG website to schedule matches for me and my friends.  The matches meant something and even if we lost, we would make a new friend to play against some other time.

Brian and I played Resident Evil 6 co-op last night.  Even though the game is designed as a two player experience, the game still offers to use matchmaking to find a partner.  I would not want to play a game like that with a complete stranger, I want to play with my friends.  It is more fun to play Monopoly (and other board games) with friends and family so you can use your past history and relationship to create an unique experience that draws on your connections, and maybe creates new ones.  Playing with strangers loses an entire sphere of what makes playing games so much fun.

The Xbox Game Pass includes cooperative experiences like Resident Evil 6, Gears of War, and Halo Wars 2A Way Out is designed with cooperative play as the only avenue of experience.  I still want to play more games with couch coop in mind, but until then at least Sea of Thieves is trying something new.

What are some of your favorite memories from the couch co-op era?

Jake “prettyboyplaid” Fredericks

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