This is a version of an article that first appeared in the December 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine.


Left 4 Dead has many things going for it – tight mechanics, compelling atmosphere, great characters, all of which make Valve’s zombie-pulping low budget masterpiece a must-buy for serious gamers.  However, without a doubt, the center pillar of the game was the focus on cooperative play – the idea that all players are working for a common goal.

Cooperative play used to be an afterthought in games, except those made for consoles played on the same couch.  For a while, designers focused more on direct conflict (i.e. player vs. player combat or deathmatch) as the natural way to play.  However, cooperative play has survived, and indeed now thrives, now frequently as a fulcrum to multiplayer game’s design.

Capture the Flag

Cooperative play is nothing new, however the shooter market seemed to almost abandon the concept, putting in very nearly token cooperative modes in games, while focusing more and more time on making other multiplayer modes more popular.  But along the way, a funny thing happened – the two gameplays merged.  As id moved from Doom to Quake I and Quake II, Capture the Flag slowly emerged as a gameplay mode far preferable to straight up deathmatch, and almost every gameplay mode since then that has emerged has focused on various team vs. team structures.

There are a lot of reasons for this.  Capture the Flag offers a lot more strategy and depth than straight up headshotting opponents endlessly, and there are a lot more different ways to play the game: as the defender of the home base, as the kamikazi flag runner, or as the sniper taking potshots across no-mans-land.  But I think most of all, it is the sense of teamwork and camaraderie that enriches the game experience, and keeps players coming back.

Consider the various psychological emotions that happen in a good capture-the-flag game.  Leaders get a chance to shine.  The very skilled get a chance to display mastery over other players, but the lesser skilled can still contribute and get the good feelings from a victory.  Winning team members congratulate each other.  Losing members console each other.  The odds that a player will have a positive interaction in a game with a cooperative element are far higher than in one where everyone is trying to crush each other – especially online, where the other driving factor is anonymity.

Cooperative Board Games

While it is no means the first, the excellent board game Pandemic ushered in a wave of cooperative dice-throwers (with other games like Forbidden Island and Defenders of the Realm offering very similar gameplay styles).   And beyond the fact that they offer interesting and different game mechanics from the usual fare, it’s not difficult to see why.

In most of the great board games, gathering 6 people means that after a couple of hours of play, 1 player will be the winner and 5 will be losers (this math is even worse on a 32 person Quake Deathmatch server, of course).  But in Pandemic, either everyone wins or everyone loses.  As a person who runs a lot of board games, this comes in very handy when, for example, you have more than one person who cares about winning a little too much.  Or more crucially, when you have a new person at the table, who is unsure of the rules and concerned about making foolish decisions.  The tone of the table changes considerably when everyone has a vested interest in the new guy’s success.

Pandemic is not without its flaws.  The nature of the game means that it is possible and likely one domineering player may effectively run the game, controlling everyone’s turns, for example.  And some designers, such as the team that did the excellent Battlestar Galactica boardgame, have managed to find success in creating tension and interesting social mechanics with the introduction of a traitor mechanic into the cooperative gameplay style.  Still, board games have improved dramatically as a whole since some designers have taken cooperative gameplay to heart.

Force Multipliers

When most people imagine the possibilities inside of an MMO like Ultima Online or EVE, what they tend to gravitate towards is the ‘massive’ part of the equation.  Getting hundreds or thousands of people in the same space is interesting because of the possibilities there of doing something much larger than yourself, whether its attacking an enemy player city with 50 close friends in Shadowbane, or killing the Lich King with 25 close friends in World of Warcraft.  These spaces are interesting largely because of the uniqueness of the experience, and what adventuring with other players brings to the table.

Even on PvP servers, MMOs are largely all about cooperative play, and the cutting edge of that play is typically dominated by guilds who have embraced the three great force-multipliers of cooperative play, Leadership, Teamwork and Communication.  Guilds with strong, charismatic leaders can motivate and drive their players through conflict.  Players acting in concert can be devastating.  And the degree of coordination and responsiveness that can be achieved with strong communication tools like voice chat can dramatically increase a team’s effectiveness.

One of the great challenges of an MMO designer is finding ways to challenge players who have embraced these tenets of cooperative play, without making the game impossible for players who can’t find these guilds.  But the interesting thing about these principles — leadership, teamwork and communication – is that they take hard work to achieve.  Whether it be hardcore PvP or top-level raiding, excelling requires players need to know each other, learn how to work well with each other, and depend on each other.  And these dependencies work to build strong communities inside of your game space.

Asynchronous Play

One of the principle knocks against Facebook games is that, even though the games are called social games, the games to be found there are typically profoundly asocial.  Playing most facebook games is somewhat of a solitary existence, and the play patterns are very short.  A player may spend 15-20 minutes getting a group together in an MMO like World of Warcraft or Rift – few entire Mafia Wars game sessions last more than 10.

Some games, like Frontierville, allow the player to visit another player’s lot, but the short time cycles are so brief that the odds of actually running into the owner of that lot are fairly low – and considering many people are tending their crops when they’re supposed to be at work, they may not be in the mood for a prolonged conversation anyway.

However, Facebook games lean heavily on cooperative play in order to build virality into their products, and they do so with asynchronous game concepts – i.e. finding ways for players to assist each other even when they don’t play on the same time.  They like to do this with both carrots (offering rewarding mechanics for giving gifts) and sticks (putting in roadblocks that can only be overcome by getting help).

Facebook games are still hitting their stride in finding the way to do this.  Spamming up a player’s wall provokes a fair amount of backlash from players, something I think not enough Facebook developers worry about.  Asking for help is often socially awkward, and introverts in particular may resist.  But logging in to find that while you were offline, your high school girlfriend gave you a rusty pump handle is a surprisingly powerful emotional event.

Other Players as Content

Playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band alone is one thing.  Playing it with a full group of four is quite another.   The former is a test of your own personal skill, and little more.  The latter is more social, and more fun.   Suddenly, new concerns come up, such as maximizing star power bonuses or saving a weaker link.  Players play song outside their comfort zones.  Virtuosos have an audience to show off to.  And like most cooperative gameplay, the sense of shared triumph is even more intoxicating than beating the game alone.

One of the most central tenets of multiplayer game design is that, when designed correctly, other players are the content.  Few things bring this home like handing the microphone around in Rock Band, and hearing your mother sing Metallica – often while reading the lyrics for the first time.  Like all cooperative games, the presence of other people makes old content new again, and the presence of different people brings new strengths and challenges.

In Conclusion

Making great cooperative content isn’t easy, but if done right, it can result in powerful gameplay elements that strike strong emotive notes in the player.  Principles like cooperation, teamwork and leadership become very important.  Designers need to work to account for these, and to encourage players to bond and sympathize with each other to achieve loftier goals inside the gamespace.

One of the best ways to make cooperative gameplay interesting is to elevate other players to be interesting actors inside the space, who can bring different skills, talents and personality to a task.  Designers that succeed may find themselves rewarded with games that have greater replayability, stronger communities, and memories that resonate in the player’s mind long after the game is gathering dust on the shelf.  Other people are interesting.  Cooperative gameplay should embrace that.