From Gauntlet to Left 4 Dead - the history of co-op gaming

17th Jan 2009 | 10:02

From Gauntlet to Left 4 Dead - the history of co-op gaming

It's more fun to play together

Everything's better with friends: going to the pub, hearing difficult news and taking on the massed demons of hell – you name it.

This probably says something about us as a species that while most of our favourite games are all about playing with others, it's typically spent trying to tear each other apart with fists of fury, hot lead, magical spells and anything else that might make a pretty splash of gore that has one yelling 'Damn!' and the other giggling 'LOL'.

Co-op is a different beast; one with the power to draw us together across continents and let us pool our fictional resources in the name of more social glories. If a problem shared is a problem halved, a shared victory is all the more glorious. Yet getting to that point is an uphill climb, for players, for developers and for the armies of baddies tasked with giving you value for your money.

This was literally true in the case of the earliest co-op games, as found in arcades all round the country. One of the earliest, and definitely the most famous, was Gauntlet – the top-down maze game where players took on the role of Warrior, Wizard, Valkyrie or Elf and hurled weapons at an endless stream of monsters, and personally punched anyone unlucky enough to accidentally shoot the potions and food they were supposed to be collecting. You could play Gauntlet on your own, but only if you wanted to play the most pointless game since Strip Patience.

Co-op bloomed in several genres, especially shooters and beat-em-up games – both of the Street Fighter mould, and the simpler Final Fight variety. Before Street Fighter 2 and its ilk turned everyone onto the joys of competitive gaming, co-op was one of the best ways for arcades to get between two and four times the money per game. That was just for starters.

With arcade games typically tuned to somewhere close to impossible difficulty, having a friend to spread the pain was the only way for most players to see the later levels of games like The Simpsons (a truly fine scrolling beat-em-up for its time), Contra, and Smash TV… or F***ing Smash F***ing TV, as it quickly became known among self-censoring gamers. Even on Xbox Live Arcade, the pain of that particular game still lingers.

All this was going on in the late 80s and early 90s, when the average arcade cabinet at the time was light years ahead of anything in the home computer market. If you wanted to play arcade quality games, only the Neo Geo offered anything close – but with games costing hundreds of pounds, most were content with their Nintendos, Spectrums, and those PC things that have been popular lately.

Many games made the jump from arcade to home computer, but co-op typically got lost in transition. Either the game would became single player only, or players had to take it in turns. Sequels, such as Double Dragon II, might restore it.

More often, co-op would be built into a new game from the start, letting the developers work with the system's limitations. Bubble Bobble, Battletoads, and Streets of Rage are just three examples.

Games would often let you choose whether your attacks would harm the other player or not. Gamers could usually be relied on to say 'yes' to a bit of friendly fragging.

Cooking up co-op

The great irony for co-op games is that the same technology that gives computers the ability to create them is the reason we don't get to see very many games embrace multiplayer gaming in the first place.

Unless a game is specifically designed with an eye towards co-op play, it's based on very different rules. Death can't be permanent, but has to have respawn built into it. The game needs to decide if you lose things like keycards, or if one player getting them means that everyone can now open those doors.

Traps have to be designed with a view towards the player coming back after they've been sprung, instead of either getting through/time-travelling to try them again, thanks to the Quickload button. Doom, which let you play through the whole campaign with up to four friends, had it relatively easy. Run round the maze, shoot monsters, move levels.

Even ignoring that the story itself wouldn't work, how would you go about turning Bioshock into a co-op game? What happens if one person triggers a cut-scene, but their partner is hammering the 'skip' button? Even if the mechanics themselves work, players are tough to control.

The original Neverwinter Nights offered a painful campaign if you tried to play it multiplayer. There'd always be someone wanting to hang back and roleplay properly, reading all the text and drinking in the vibe. There'd always be someone who knew where they were going, and would blitz off towards it at lightspeed. Everyone else was trapped in the middle. The campaign could only work if everyone was experiencing it for the first time.

System Shock 2 was much the same. Despite the amount of time Irrational spent trying to bash a fervently single-player game into a multiplayer experience, it simply wasn't fun. Cutscenes, pacing, narrative flow – forget it. What one player will happily accept will quickly have two of them bouncing off the walls.

Back seat questing

Trying to fix these problems led to some interesting solutions – some sensible, some just weird.

No-One Lives Forever 2 offered a dedicated co-op multiplayer mode that took a few of the levels from the regular game, redressing them with new mission objectives that could only be finished as a team.

Zork: Grand Inquisitor was one of the few Myst-style games to be both funny and really enjoyable. Its co-op mode consisted of one person playing the game, and the other acting as a backseat driver to help with puzzles and point out important things.

That was one of the few times such a feature was implemented directly, and for a good reason. Adventures were often played co-operatively, but only when sitting around the same computer. The same technology that enabled co-op play killed any reason to use it, since you could just as easily grab a walkthrough.

The only major online game to even attempt drawing from this well was Uru, the long awaited online edition of Myst. The original release quickly found itself increasingly focused into a single-player game, and not a good one, with its horrible controls and steep system requirements.

The online version came later, and picked up a devoted following, but not enough of one to avoid it being cancelled. Multiple times. It's still running though, as part of the US-based Gametap service.

Seat questing

With all this in mind, you'd be forgiven for thinking that co-op simply fell off the radar. Not so. Ask the 11 million people currently playing World of Warcraft, or the millions more gathering loot in Warhammer, City of Heroes, and other MMORPGs.

While you can 'win' these games (getting to max level) by playing solo, if you want to see the most interesting content, hitting the level cap is just the start of the journey. To see it all, you've got to bring some friends to the party.

We'll use World of Warcraft as our example game, because it's the best and if you think otherwise, we'll burn you with mage fire (mages being, of course, the best class, especially Alliance ones).

Simply playing in a group isn't the cooperative experience people get hooked on. In those fights, you're typically just lending your damage dealing/monster distracting/player healing skills to a simple fight.

It's only in the dedicated dungeons and PvP modes that you start to see the real game, with bosses that have multiple phases to defeat instead of simply a health-bar, along with the simple cut-scenes and narrative flow for areas that make them an adventure instead of simply a target.

An early example in the game is the Deadmines, which takes you through the mines themselves, the factories underneath them, and finally onto an underground galleon. Enemies become more complex as well, with regular monsters being relegated to 'trash', and the big-bads following more scripted routines, such as enemies arriving at certain points in the battle, or deploying more advanced attacks if not taken care of correctly.

The more advanced version, raiding, really ups the stakes. These encounters are built for teams of between five and 40 players and built around the Warcraft universe's greatest challenges, such as the Lich King from the most recent expansion.

A raid consists of several bosses, each requiring precision tactics to destroy, and heavy organisation. It's not enough to have your Elf actively not shoot the food; they've got to juggle the enemies, and deploy a whole bar full of potions and skills.

Mistakes are not kindly looked upon. A trip through a big dungeon like Karazhan, with special encounters ranging from a massive dragon fight to an opera-themed battle and a quick game of Warcraft themed chess can easily take four hours.

No wonder many players lose their lives to it all, especially since it'll take many, many, many trips through the same content to get all its treasure. With so much time spent talking, playing, and fighting in the company of the same group/players, proper friendships almost have to develop. If not, there's always slinky Night Elf dancing…

Speaking in teams

Actually managing something like this requires a lot of technology. It's not enough for your computer to simply play the game; it has to facilitate the communication required to coordinate anything more complicated than everyone just dashing around.

Most genres kicked off by leaving this to the players themselves. By setting up a LAN instead of using the internet (slow modems), voice communication could be done by the not very technical method of opening one's mouth and propelling air out of it in the form of spoken words.

These days, you need voice communication, using tools like Teamspeak and Ventrilo, the bandwidth to use them, and broadband connections fast enough to react instantly to online games running at the pace of any single-player title.

Simple shooters and strategy games were perfect for LAN play. Shooters – most notably Doom – could compensate for dumb AI by pouring lots and lots of enemies into the world, while strategy offered ways to take on the computer's multitasking/cheating ways by letting both players take a hand in either controlling the same army, or teaming up to show that if Skynet ever does declare war on us, we can take it.

Many strategy games have featured such co-op, both in the form of teams (often in Skirmish mode only) or letting two players share a base (as in Starcraft), but Red Alert 3 is the only major one to step up and make this a fundamental part of the campaign mode itself. By default, the player is teamed up with an AI character.

Alternatively, a friend can take over the secondary forces. This is a great way for two players to work together, or for an experienced player to demonstrate the The Art of War in ways Sun Tzu never even considered. With time-travellers, commandos in crop-tops and giant robot monsters. Clearly, he lacked imagination.

Sadly, all this technology comes with a cost – the feeling of connectedness. Playing with a friend is a very different experience to playing with some random player at the other end of the world, and not having distance between members of a team can often create a feeling of distance that you just don't get with a split-screen.

This is also true of deathmatch, but to a lesser level. In competitive gaming, everything's about you, and your score. In co-op, it's supposed to be about 'us'. Not having your teammates there can heavily encourage score chasing and irritation, not support and teamplay.

Shooting 'em up

And yet, there are exceptions. Of all the amazing things that Team Fortress 2 does, top of the list has to be that even now, a year later, people take it in the right spirit – as a funny game, where losing can be as entertaining as winning.

A team with no hope of winning suddenly emerging from their bunker waving shovels instead of flamethrowers, or creating a circle of healing around the final capture point and fighting with the power of positive thinking, cheers everyone up.

The fact that the enemy you're cooperating to destroy is another team of mostly-sentient humans doesn't make a difference – you need someone to fight, and bots will never offer the same opposition as a close-knit team. This is something that RPG games like Warcraft desperately struggle with.

When new content goes live, nobody knows how to deal with it, and the result is lots of killed parties and a massive uphill struggle. However, as soon as tactics emerge, and people know how the bosses respond to X, Y and Z, things become much more mechanical. The attacks may come in a different order, or when you're not ready, but the encounter itself is fixed.

People are less predictable. True, they'll typically gravitate to certain ways of dealing with a situation – most notably the path of least resistance – but there's always a random element that can be impossible to plan for. Just when you think you know what they're doing, you find a couple of turrets placed in exactly the right place.

Dead to rights

Left 4 Dead is easily the most advanced co-operative shooter released so far. While teambased, it's trying to simulate something that would previously have been the sole domain of single-player action.

Its engine is built around creating a narrative flow instead of simply throwing in more monsters, and that's before factoring in another team of players who'll, no doubt, be spending the next year at least engaged in a deep study of evil.

It's particularly unusual for shooters in the way that it focuses on a party as a physical unit, with the name alone reinforcing what a bad time most players will have if they cut off and try and take on the zombies on their own.

The problem that most co-op content faces is one of over-familiarity. There's something about a ten-minute long deathmatch that remains addicting and exciting, even a hundred games later.

Ploughing through the same content in a group, even a good group, quickly loses its shine. People typically don't want to play through a dungeon, like Karazhan, a hundred times; they're simply compelled to in order to gather the rewards. Replaying a single-player game doesn't have that, and most get bored of it quickly.

The same goes for strategy campaigns. When you've finished the book, you don't want to read it every night. And since by that point, the AI's little if any problem, and you know the levels backwards, you may as well just turn the guns on each other and enjoy the far more satisfying challenge of a good scrap against an opponent who can play without cheating.

This doesn't mean that co-op is a failure. It's just a more limited experience, one which requires more of players and burns out faster. Played right, some of the best experiences on the PC are working with someone.

However, without a stream of fresh content to keep the experience new and interesting, playing this way is more likely to be a one-shot experience than most multiplayer modes.

It's no surprise that as people stop gathering around a TV to play games, the odd exception like the Rock Band series notwithstanding, the focus is on more team games and deathmatching.

That's left co-op somewhat out in the cold, but with games like Red Alert 3 and Left 4 Dead to show everyone how much fun it can be, perhaps not for too much longer…

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First published in PC Format, Issue 222

Now read 11 signs you're no longer a hardcore gamer

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