Like many of my generation, I’m sure many of you reading this article were once kids who tried to find every minikit in the LEGO Star Wars games. Whether it was the infuriating driving scenes, creating the ultimate custom character (bounty hunter helmet + lightsaber in my case), or saving up the studs necessary to buy force ghost Yoda, many of us have fond memories of that game. But in truth, the game is simple, and nowadays it would be considered mediocre at best and boring at worst. Features such as many collectibles and repetitive combat are now considered deplorable things and are mocked in the gaming community today. So what made LEGO Star Wars different? My answer: the permanent existence of Player 2.
For many of us, this was the game that you’d play at a sleepover or what you play when you invited your best mate round to your home. It wasn’t fun unless both of you were there playing it together, unlocking characters and making mistakes. It was a true co-op game, a breed that is unfortunately dying out.
Allow me to first define the difference between Multiplayer and Co-op. Multiplayer games thrive with the more players they have. Fortnite, Battlefield, World of Warcraft - these are games with vastly different mechanics, their enjoyable nature coming as a product of the scale of their player base, with a massive number of people competing in large teams or against one another. Co-op on the other hand functions on a smaller scale. Classics include Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, and Portal 2. A key difference between the two is the attitude towards the number of players and the gameplay. In Multiplayer, the fun is focused on the shared experience, but doing so often limits the immersion of the individual. There are exceptions, such as the classic Star Wars Battlefront games, where you had to earn your classes in the battle through racking up kills. Unlike many of the current multiplayers games, which have various abilities and accessories, your skill was the only thing that was carried across matches. Co-op, on the other hand, is often optimised for a handful of players. This can be seen by things such as mechanics where a team member can revive another, or where abilities focus on improving the overall effects of the party. However, a growing trend has me concerned.
I’m sure there will be accusations of gatekeeping, but I do not consider games such as Destiny, The Division and Anthem to be Co-op games. They are “shared world” singleplayer games, which is another way of saying MMOs done badly. The original hype of Destiny becoming the new Halo was rapidly lost, and although the game has improved, it has failed to capture the core fun that came from games like Halo 2 and the fast paced classic shooters it tried to match. Anthem is riddled with problems, besides the technical ones that are spreading across the internet. The problem lies within the fact that these games are based off of the idea that Co-op and Multiplayer are the same, and that using Multiplayer game design in a Singleplayer world achieves the equivalent.
It does not.
Though the triple A landscape is bleak, luckily there are survivors. Gameplay that is as fun as couch Co-op rarely goes unnoticed. Indie studios are keeping the genre alive, and classics like Magicka and Left 4 Dead will always be fun to play. But the nature of gaming has changed, and Co-op has evolved into something else, MOBAs.
Now I realise that many will say that MOBAs are Multiplayer, that just because you team up with your friends to fight on the same team doesn’t make it Co-op. But for me, the feeling I get when playing DotA or Overwatch or League is the same feeling of working towards something with a friend that I had when I was younger. Though competitive, the feel of a MOBA when playing with friends in company to random strangers online is not the same as the equivalent in large scale multiplayer games. In my humble opinion, I believe I know why this is.
In Battlefield, your squad are a blip on a large map. Your fun comes from when you each capture a point or rack up your K/D ratio. In Borderlands, you and your friends are wildly firing ability spamming your way to the boss fight. Your fun will come from the utter chaos of the environment you’ve thrown yourself into and getting that sweet, sweet loot. In MOBAs, you and your team depend on each other to successfully and tactically take the enemy towers down, whilst holding their own in a fight.
In short, Co-op games are fun, because they are cooperative (No shit Sherlock, right?). Your score is irrelevant unless all of you survive; your victory is short-lived if others are failing; your success is only thanks to the combined efforts of the team. In the end, it is a team game, and team games are always more fun if you know your team.
Good Co-op games are few and far in between, and these big imposter games that prioritise your own personal loot and success over core fun team gameplay fail to realise the joy of winning with a team, and what it means to have your Player 2, your team. But gaming has gone through many iterations, and maybe after the MOBA boom and the arena boom that followed it, a Co-op boom will follow.
In the meantime, I’ll be branching out into 2D rogue-likes, those early access Kickstarter games aren’t gonna fund themselves!