I originally published this article through LinkedIn.
By nature, humans are social creatures. We enjoy not only taking on what may seem to be impossible, but working alongside our friends and peers to do so. We enjoy the ups and downs of social interaction, the feeling of being appreciated, and actively learning from one another. It is to no surprise then that cooperative multiplayer experiences have been woven into the history of games.
Designing those multiplayer experiences can be complicated though. It requires an understanding of social psychology, and an understanding of the principal of fun. When those two come together, the end result is some of the most engaging social gaming experiences available. Throughout my years as a designer working on numerous multiplayer games, I have accumulated some general goals an aspiring multiplayer designer should consider while building up their next cooperative multiplayer experience.
A Common Overarching Goal
Setting the initial tone for your upcoming player experience is first and foremost. This goal should act as the book cover of the entire experience - its job is to entice your players to partake in what you have designed. This can range anywhere from a story narrative, to a scarce resource (money, etc).
More so, it needs to be something all players care about. Something larger than a single player. It should encapsulate a common desire for every player, regardless of their own personal progression within the game. Similarly, unless the critical path of your game is designed to support constant cooperative play (such as 'Army of Two'), it is almost always best this be a side activity, not a critical path requirement.
Ownership of Specific Components
Players enjoy feeling needed - to feel like they are the reason the end goal was achieved. Throughout the mayhem of working to complete the overall goal, there should be moments where your individual players temporarily work on a smaller scale objective which pushes the larger whole forward.
A great example of this is present in the Heists found in 'Grand Theft Auto Online'. During a specific heist, one of the players are tasked with breaking into a safe through a small mini-game, while the other player is tasked with ensuring the getaway car is clear of police reinforcements and ready to go at the drop of a dime. Each player has their own very specific task they must accomplish, but the overall goal cannot be completed without active participationand execution from both players. Because of this, both players know the task could not have been completed unless each of them did their job to great skill.
Utilizing moments of ownership can create the following beneficial outcomes to the experience you are designing:
- Allows players to temporarily accomplish something on their own, building both individual and social confidence of the player.
- Creates a more personal, and thus deeper level of connection to the overall experience.
- Adds replayability to the experience, as one will want to experience what the other experienced.
- Builds teamwork. Moments of dependability and trust in other players helps build a sense of camaraderie and trust in the other players.
In many ways, numerous Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) which use character classes utilize this design for their group based content, such as Raids. In these games, it is usually referred to as the class trinity, where there is a tank, damage dealer, and a healer. Each has their own specific role throughout a fight, and players spend countless hours mastering and fine tuning their performance in said role. The fact that this grouping dynamic is used as often as it is could easily be contributed to this point.
Moments of Planning and Moments of "Winging It"
Not all steps of a cooperative experience are the same. There will (and should) be two distinct instances of gameplay at hand - one which requires planning to overcome a large challenge, and another which allows the players to simply play.
Giving your players challenges which require planning helps:
- Stimulate social communication and interaction.
- Promote teamwork.
- Challenge the brain to look for creative solutions to problems being presented.
However, planning takes time and mental power - it can become exhausting, and exhaustion can often lead to boredom. Suffice to say, this is not a desired goal. Give your players some time to just wing it, and let them simply play with the game instead of playing the game. This will help the players clear their minds and prepare for upcoming challenges, retrospect on the previous plan and its success, and to let off a little steam. For every peak of planning, give them a valley of "free play".
Complementary and Dynamic Player Mechanics
Shooting a fireball at an enemy is no doubt a ton of fun. Shooting a fireball at an enemy which was just covered in fuel by your friend, amplifying the damage your fireball does to an enemy is even better! Giving players mechanics to play with in and of themselves are obviously necessary, but allowing those mechanics to work complementary to each other creates new and exciting gameplay elements.
Creating dynamic player mechanics:
- Allows players to think creatively to solve problems.
- Reinforces teamwork.
- Creates an exploratory and curious experience which enhances fun.
The latest expansion to 'Destiny' - 'The Taken King' - does a great job on this topic with their new character sub-classes. The Hunter's new Nightstalker sub-class has an ability which tethers enemies into a centralized location. The Warlock's new Stormcaller sub-class has an ability to create a lightning chain between numerous closely grouped enemies. Combining the two powers in sequence allows the Hunter and the Warlock to work cooperatively to destroy large amounts of enemies in a near second. Without this dynamic, it would have taken them much longer to accomplish the same outcome, and would have been far less exciting.
Fully Support Your Cooperative Gameplay
Simply put, if you are designing cooperative gameplay, support it throughout your design. If you are designing for an RPG (Role-Playing Game) and your quest steps can be done in a cooperative group, allow one person's quest update to update the quest step of all members of the given experience. If you are designing a cooperative conversation and narrative, allow each player to have some impact on the outcome.
This may seem a redundant point to make; however I have seen games which should have been great lack attention to the total cooperative play experience. Those games are still enjoyable, but nowhere near as enjoyable as they could (and in most cases, should) have been.
This is the hardest theory to nail down. If you find your design is complex, yet robust enough to create emergent gameplay, you are in a for a treat. Emergent gameplay arises when systems within the game are flexible enough to be used in ways in which the designer never fully intended, yet are following all of the rules defined by the designer.
'EVE Online' is a great example of a game which offers amazing emergent gameplay. Following the rules and designs of the game, multiple highly publicized battles have broken out within the EVE Universe. These battles emerged from complex and robust game systems mixed finely with the social interactions within the game. The end result is some of the most memorable gaming experiences ever created, and that is something all designers can, and should, continually push for.