For the last four years, we worked on DYO, a local co-op puzzle platformer about tiny minotaurs who can hop between two sides of a split screen. During development, we quickly realized that, unfortunately, adding a second player to a game about solving puzzles doesn’t automatically make it a game about solving puzzles together.
Oftentimes what makes a co-op game memorable and meaningful is not what’s happening on the screen, but what’s happening in front of it – between the players. That’s why with DYO, a big focus for us was to encourage communication between players wherever possible. We mostly achieved this through how we implemented the game’s main mechanics, but we also found a couple of more subtle methods that are less specific to DYO and can be applied to any type of cooperative game with only a few changes. In this post, I’m going to share three of these techniques.
When designing your game, you usually want players to have a perfect overview of everything that’s currently happening in the game. You want every vital piece of information about the current state of the game to be visible at a glance, and you want players to immediately notice any important events, so they can react accordingly. It’s a basic game design rule. However, we found that in cooperative games, breaking this rule can sometimes help enforce communication between players. Let’s take the basic example of a cooperative top-down shooter like Nuclear Throne where players fight hordes of enemies across a shared screen. If a player loses all their health, they get knocked out and must be revived by their teammate before getting back in the fight. So, naturally, you’ll want to inform all the other players that their teammate just got knocked out, so they can get him back as soon as possible. You might put a big "K.O." above the fallen player’s position. Maybe let the screen flash wildly, play alert sound-effects. Keep adding effects so other players are instantly alerted when a K.O. happens. Right?
Well, what if we did the exact opposite? If a K.O. doesn’t come with huge effects that draw every player’s attention, the player who got K.O.’d has to tell their teammates what just happened. In other words, if the game doesn’t inform players about what everyone else is doing, they will have to do it themselves.
This may not sound like an interesting exchange between players, but it has two important effects: Firstly, the act of helping a teammate gains a much higher personal value if they directly asked you for help. Secondly, and more importantly, it makes players get used to talking to each other while playing. If you want players to have more complex social interactions (e.g. making plans together), getting them used to regularly informing each other about what’s happening is very important.
Making players dependent on each other too much can seem like making the gameplay less intuitive, and in a way, it often is. In DYO, we have a mechanic that allows players to switch their sides of the split screen at any point while playing. It’s an essential tool and often must be used several times in a single level. So, to make it as player-friendly as possible, we could have just let each player use this ability whenever they want. Instead, we not only decided that both players would have to press a button at the same time, we also didn’t inform players when their teammate was attempting to do so. The only way to successfully perform it is to inform each other verbally whenever you want to execute a screen-switch so both of you can do it at the same time. This is the opposite of what we usually consider to be intuitive game design - it’s seen as unnecessary and clunky - but from what we observed, players rarely perceive it like that, and indeed it’s often quite the opposite. If you’re playing a game with someone, chances are you don’t mind talking to them. And if players have trouble coordinating pressing a button simultaneously the first time they are asked to do it, that can be a rather good thing. Even overcoming tiny, seemingly trivial challenges like that by successfully communicating with each other strengthens the bond between players and, again, gets them used to talking to each other. Of course, you don’t want to overdo it. Pressing a button at the same time is still a relatively simple task - and in DYO, you’re never working under time pressure - but if the task is too complex or if players get punished too hard for not successfully performing it, they might start to see it as annoying and/or frustrating.
Another very effective way to make a co-op experience feel more personal is to get players to not only verbally but physically interact with each other. The first time we noticed this was when we implemented our experimental "shared controller“ control scheme. It allows two players to play, each using one hand on the controller. This started out as a somewhat silly gimmick mostly meant to draw people's attention at exhibitions, since it’s not the most comfortable way to hold a controller for a longer period. But when we started to observe people playing like that, we noticed that they would be faster to start talking to each other than people playing with separate controllers. This is obviously a very specific example and not really something that would make sense for most games. But later, we achieved a similar effect simply by implementing a very basic cosmetic change into the game: After beating a level, we added a screen showing the two minotaur's doing a high-five. The screen was intended as a congratulation for solving a puzzle. But it also not-so-subtly suggests to players that now would be a good time for them to do a high five. It sounds silly, but this turned out way more effective than we anticipated. A lot of players started to high-five whenever the screen was shown. A high-five symbolizes successful team-work, and even a small gesture like that can go a long way in making players feel like just that: a team.
One of the most important things when making a co-op game is getting players to talk to each other. Sometimes that means breaking some conventional design rules we know from singleplayer games. Obfuscating your UI or making controls less intuitive can be powerful tools in bringing players together. So, if you’re working on a co-op game, think about what small changes you can make to existing systems to include more player interaction. Also, tell players to high five. It works.
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