Unique Problems of Cooperative Game Design

Cooperation
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In some ways, cooperative systems make a designer’s life much easier. It’s easier to enjoy even a mediocre experience with friends, because humans like to goof, harass, support, and suffer each other. And unlike a similar benefit from competitive multiplayer, cooperative games don’t need to worry as much about the usual kinds of balance — if a player or item is overly powerful, the players can decide how to share that power.

Yet for all the advantages, there are unique problems in cooperative gameplay. Even if you target a collaborative audience, with a happy-fuzzy theme that encourages cooperation, it’s entirely possible to create mechanics that put players at each others’ throats.

Here are 5 unique cooperative design problems I’ve observed or designed around, along with some possible solutions!

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Problem 1: Knowledge Mismatch

“She always tells me what to do.”
“He makes the dumbest mistakes.”
“You’re not listening to me! I know how to win!”

“Veteran syndrome” happens most often in cooperative puzzle or strategy games. True cooperation is difficult when one player can make a master plan and then order the others to execute on that — and for that plan to always be the best solution. This causes intense domination and/or boredom.

Consider playing Portal 2 with someone who had already played it 8 times previously. Even if they play very politely and don’t treat you like a hand-puppet, it’s just not as fun, right?

Concrete Solutions

  1. Real-time challenge: if there’s enough time pressure, El Capitan can’t perfectly order every move. This results in more individual tests of skill, and more satisfaction in your personal performance… but this increased individuality can also result in each player choosing their own goal, rather than contributing to the group goal cooperatively. We deliberately made the combat in Moon Hunters frenzied action rather than turn-based, in order to give players mental independence.
  2. Match-making: if you ensure newbies and veterans each play with matching skillsets, it can be somewhat mitigated … but this breaks up friends and isolates communities.
    Dilute communication: you can’t give orders when you can’t talk! Journey benefits enormously from allowing more experienced players to role model rather than order. Teaching by showing is also more supportive than teaching by instruction.
  3. Secret information: you can’t give orders when you don’t have all of the necessary data, and other players have incentive not to share with you. Werewolf simultaneously encourages competition and wary cooperation, resulting in even the most experienced players often keeping their mouths firmly shut.
  4. Unpredictability: in Moon Hunters, we procedurally generate both the level design and world map, as well as cause dynamic responses from non-player characters, based on player choices. Cooperative players can vote on which choice to make, but one player probably won’t tell everyone else what to vote for with any kind of authority, since it’s unlikely even an experienced player knows what the “correct” choice is.

Solution Goals

Give players a reason to trust each other. Or, give players a reason to distrust each other.

At worst, encourage teaching by example and allow some player goals to be mutually exclusive.

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Problem 2: Skill Mismatch

“Noobs are the worst.”
“I always carry my team.”
“I feel useless. My team does better without me.”

Striving together to accomplish something genuinely difficult is extremely satisfying, and possibly the reason the human species has succeeded. Yet we resent being forced to cooperate with people that make our games more difficult. Even if we love that person. This causes frustration on one side and (assuming the other player is aware of the difficulties they’re adding) shame on the other. And when players see that their performance is much worse than even A.I. teammates…

Your first experience with team sports was probably somewhat less pleasant due to skill mismatch. Although it can be a great moment for character building and personal growth, as game designers, it’s worthwhile to try and improve our players’ experience.

Concrete Solutions

  1. More is always better: no such thing as failure or “harming” the team. If you can re-structure your rules to reward even participation, all players will be more welcoming, and may even reach out to newbies warmly without further incentive.
  2. Match-making: players could be automatically placed where they are most needed, and the game suggests how to employ their skills usefully. However, as with other kinds of match-making, this will still separate communities and friends from one another.
  3. Randomness: most cross-generational games allow for a strong element of randomness, empowering younger players (though often at the cost of older players’ satisfaction).
  4. Subjective skill: if you can add an element of open-ended personal expression, every player can decide for themselves how much they ‘won’, separate from score tallies. We applied this in Moon Hunters by allowing players to define themselves in terms of personality traits — even if you didn’t help kill a boss very effectively, you can still feel special for being the one with a reputation for being “Cunning”.
  5. Mentor network: explicitly acknowledging the imbalance and encouraging skilled players to befriend and train newbies can really help with community building. But any mechanical incentives should be closely monitored for potential to cause bullying or conspiracy.

Solution Goals

Let even the newest, least skilled player meaningfully contribute to the team. Provide a means for more experienced players to connect and share their insight.

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Problem 3: Public Humiliation

“I just want to practice.”
“I don’t like multiplayer games.”
“I don’t know how to do it.”

Remember trying to speak a new language in front of a native speaker for the first time? It’s horrible and intimidating, and that’s how many people feel the first time they try playing a new multiplayer game, even if it’s cooperative and there’s no mechanical competition. Some players will withdraw due to stress before the game even begins! Performance anxiety is strongest when people are counting on you.

This is one of the hardest problems because at its worst, the sufferer may never play your game at all! But there are many ways to lessen the impact and minimize early quitters.

Concrete Solutions

  1. Private tutorial: give player a supportive place to learn, without time limits. Ideally it is 100% private and feels ‘safe’ in every way, without judgment.
  2. Newbie “channel”: give players a chat channel or other place in game to ask (self-selecting, helpful) veterans for advice and information.
  3. Solo mode: although expensive, a way to play the game without prying eyes can help people get comfortable before making the leap to multiplayer. This can be quite limited, and ideally throughout, it’s clear how friends would enhance the experience. We’re fully supporting single-player Moon Hunters.
  4. Friends-only mode: why allow strangers in at all? I’ve never played Minecraft with strangers and I never will. It’s less traumatising to learn with friends, though still not ideal for many.
  5. Mentor network: by rewarding veterans for actively guiding newer players, and rewarding newbies for pairing with veterans, the tender sensitive time may be easier to overcome. Note that this would still come after a period of the newbie learning the basic controls on their own.

Solution Goals

The first test of skill should be for the lowest possible stakes. The tutorial must not allow public failure, and cannot disappoint another player. People who prefer solo play can be lured into cooperation, if they can engage on their own terms, when they are ready.

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Problem 4: Uniformity

“Which one am I?”
“It doesn’t matter whether I play or not.”
“I need a new hat.”
“She can do everything I can, but better.”

One of the psychological disadvantages to any multiplayer game, but especially cooperation, is that you can no longer play the part of the all-important, unique, protagonist snowflake. If all players are the same (perhaps to even the playing field for knowledge and skill mismatches), your identity is lost, your relationships to other characters feels shallow, and your immersion is weakened due to feeling like your “role” isn’t really your own.

Transformice is an amazing cooperative game, but if there were no shaman, we’d all lose interest much more quickly.

Concrete Solutions

  1. Creative expression: even the smallest avatar customisation helps people feel unique, as does the most basic way to express themselves, such as jumping, movement, etc.
  2. Mechanical roles: finding your identity through unique capabilities can be satisfying, too. Although many games (such as Moon Hunters) rely on a rigid “class” structure, if a system is sufficiently complex and/or open-ended, this will happen naturally, as people’s inherent tastes and talents lead them to take on different kinds of tasks.
  3. Celebrity: if you can provide a venue for players to be extremely visible, their skill alone will make them feel unique. This has a strong impact, mostly for your most vocal minority of players.
  4. Limited population: with only a few players on screen at a time, you may feel more unique, even if you’re identical. Your personality will be more obvious.
  5. Recognize behaviour patterns: when a game calls attention to how we are different in playstyle, we feel more different. Try to show when someone is “the most” something, even if it doesn’t mean they are the best. Note due to its emotional self-motivated content, high-value extrinsic rewards will severely limit this kind of system’s value.

Solution Goals

Feeling unique and remarkable is a core social pleasure, especially in anonymous environments. Empower the player to show their personality.

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Problem 5: Schadenfreude

P1: “…” (leaves the game)
P2: —“HAHAHAHA! THIS GAME IS AWESOME!”

Our suffering can amuse others, and the more you rely on someone else, the more their harassment can cause frustration, hurt feelings, and resentment. Cooperative games are a unique opportunity for jerks to stab trusting innocents in in the back.

Bartle’s player types theory calls these folks “killers”. They will actively seek out and destroy the happiness of other players. So what can we do about these folks?

Concrete Solutions

  1. Limited consequences/rewards. Most obvious, but least effective. By limiting mechanical consequences, you’re also limiting the power of your cooperative efforts.
  2. Official peacekeepers: also known as moderators, volunteers can actually be more effective than customer service, though they are often very high-maintenance.
  3. Culture pruning/normalize awesome: this is a quest for a holy grail, and more difficult the larger your playerbase is. Find, recognize, and reward standout community members that don’t tolerate jerks and who contribute to the kind of culture you want. The US Department of Health and Human Services has shown that children with problem behaviours can be seriously improved by being near more “socially competent” children.
  4. Friends-only: by putting the power in the players to choose who to play with, they can’t really blame the game when they are “griefed”.
  5. Unclear win/loss condition: by making a success more about personal expression, and less about strategy or skill, players of “killer” type (who mostly want the feeling of domination and superiority) are likely to to lose interest quickly.

Solution Goals

Sometimes suffering is okay. Identify when and where it’s “fair” for your demographic to encounter jerk behaviour and permit it in those places.

Summary

At their best, cooperative games aren’t just about working together towards a common goal! They’re also about helping every player feel useful, appreciated, and unique. If you can identify mechanics that are interfering with collaborative behaviours, and replace them with incentive to trust or lead by example, you’re on your way to a gratifying experience. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter @kitfoxgames with any suggestions of other unique co-op problems or solutions.

Happy cooperating!

  • Alexander Brazie

    This is a fantastic article. It spans the challenges of both competitive and collaborative coop games.

    I’m sad it hasn’t gotten more recognition.