I was a happy bunny in 2008, because it was the year when designing games specifically for co-op play finally entered mainstream thinking. Sure, games have had co-op modes for a while, but they’d usually been a bolt-on extra - at best you could add maybe one extra player who would be ‘along for the ride’; disposable, an afterthought. At worst, it might actually undermine the play experience, because the game wasn’t deliberately balanced for 2 players, or maybe you’d be limited to a small section of the content in co-op specific play modes.
Team play in multiplayer was the closest you generally got, and that’s not everyone’s cup of tea - not only do you need to find double the number of players to form the 2 teams who are a) roughly your skill level, b) do not act like complete tools, and c) are online when you are, but you’re also limited to player vs player mechanics. This is ok for some, but for me, a person who isn’t interested in refining their gaming skills to the nth degree but just having fun, player vs player is too often a frustrating experience; even assuming no-one is being obnoxious, skill matching which even the best matchmaking systems can’t fix - even Halo 3, supposedly the most played game last year, invariably matched me against people who were either way above me or way below me in skill level, which is no fun for anyone (unless you’re the kind of git who likes swatting newbies).
Games that allow you to team up against the AI, in the main game content itself especially, are far more preferable to me because assembling a small group of known friends is easier, and difficulty is tunable so you can rely on always having a good time whenever you play.
**The Co-op Stars of 2008
Arguably the first Gears of War was the first AAA game to really build co-op centrally into the primary play experience from day 1, and 2008’s sequel did it again - except this time it wasn’t the only one. The second character, Dom, is there all the time anyway, even in single player mode when he’s AI controlled, so play balance when adding a second player is not an issue. The strategic nature of the gameplay, especially on harder settings, particularly suits co-op play (the gameplay is often oversimplified by people who haven’t played it - I was guilty of thinking it was just another dumb shooter myself until I picked up the first one). Horde mode extends this further, a purely co-op mode where you and a bunch of friends try to survive as many waves of AI creatures as possible. We just started playing that this week, after finishing the main game in co-op, and it’s enormous fun for 2-5 people.
Of course 2008 brought us Left 4 Dead, possibly the most ground-breaking co-op experience so far, designed specifically to be played co-op, and blending story mode with random, adaptive, replayable elements. Feels exactly like you would expect if you and 3 friends were trapped in a zombie movie, you have no idea precisely what’s coming, and it uses just the right dose of sadistic gameplay mechanics to instill desperate comradeship in the most anti-social of players. Provokes more emotional responses that most other games I’ve played - fear, paranoia, blind panic, relief, gratitude, elation. Also features the most turn-around moments - where things go suddenly pear-shaped, or you somehow manage to claw your way to escape just when everything seemed hopeless; either way, you always come away with a story to tell. And like all good stories, they’re always best when shared.
Rock Band deserves a mention too of course. While the Guitar Hero series started as a single-player experience, co-op was bolted on in the sequel (and that bolt was loosened in the wobbly 3rd instalment), Rock Band was designed to be co-op from the start, and it shows. The fact that it is generally accepted without comment that you would have to be mad to buy this game if you only play alone shows how far co-op gaming has come in a short time.
Fable 2 was the only disappointment as far as co-op goes in 2008. It’s still a great game, but the experience was initially marred by the disappointing co-op implementation, which was dubbed as a core feature but in fact felt like anything but. Camera problems and the total lack of any meaningful persistent presence, customisation or interaction beyond fighting for the second player meant we reverted to separate single-player games very quickly. Which had the advantage that we could watch each other’s alternate paths pan out in the world of course, but still, a co-op game this was not. It seems to have been designed from the standpoint that there would be a ‘primary player’ and a ‘faceless sidekick’ - I get the feeling from interviews with Peter Molyneux that the intention was that the latter role could be filled by a non-gamer or occasional gamer as support for the ‘real’ gamer in the house. Which would be fine, if there was the option for another ‘real’ gamer to join in properly - in practice there’s little incentive for another ‘real’ gamer to join your world except as a temporarily visit to see what you’ve done with it and to chat for half an hour or something (something I’ve done). I think other games in 2008 proved that there are far more cohesive ways to do co-op.
2008 has shown companies that there’s a very real demand for multiplayer gaming that is designed around co-operation against the primary game content & AI; as distinct from single player experiences and player vs player or team vs team multiplayer. It’s not for everyone, any more than other multiplayer modes are for everyone, but as a way to stand out from the crowd and perhaps importantly, to appeal to social gamers, it’s an important step.
Extensive online play was touted as one of this console generation’s big advancements, but in many ways until 2008 it didn’t really do anything that the PC didn’t already do 5-8 years ago. While a new generation of console gamers got super-excited about being able to compete with each other online, I know a lot of people are like me - have seen all this before on PC and have perhaps lost the inclination to continue to extensively hone their gaming skills for PvP action. They just want to have fun with friends, and find PvP a little too unpredictable in delivering fun in the short windows of time they have to game in. Co-op vs game / AI provides a social gaming outlet for these people and IMO combines the best aspects of both single player (story mode, tunable difficulty) and multiplayer (social, shared experience) gaming. I think it appeals to an audience that is different to the dedicated single player gamers, and the highly competitive multiplayer gamers, while still overlapping somewhat into both groups, and as such is a great opportunity. I hope to see more in 2009.