This week, we've asked the speakers of some of the most promising sessions at next week's Game Developers Conference to write for us about their presentations. Here, Ubisoft Toronto game director, Patrick Redding, sets out what he hopes to achieve with his session, titled Keep It Together: Encouraging Cooperative Behavior During Co-op Play. Redding spent five years at Ubisoft's Montreal studio, working as narrative designer on FarCry 2 and co-op game director on Splinter Cell: Conviction. Before that, he was creative director at Vancouver-based marketing and branding specialist, Blast Radius, working with companies such as Nintendo, Sony, EA and Activision.
When I was brought on board, not long after flying back to Montreal from the 2009 GDC, Splinter Cell: Conviction was less than a year from shipping. We had just received a mandate from the Ubisoft head office in Paris to integrate two-player co-op, building on the core mechanics that were already being developed for single-player. You could say it was a pressure-cooker situation. We knew we needed to pick our battles, but we didn’t want to deliver a co-op game that would degenerate into “double solo” play.
We started thinking a lot about what made players choose to work together, and we specifically looked for ways in which cooperation could actively help players to be more stealthy. One of the big lessons we learned from looking at a variety of co-op games and our own early builds was that players are naturally predisposed to enjoy any game that gives them the tools to interact with their friends/teammates with any level of depth. In fact, players become surprisingly forgiving of the kinds of flaws that they would fixate on in a single-player experience.
Splinter Cell: Conviction
That said, some modes of cooperation were clearly more compelling than others, and even though we didn’t get to fully employ that knowledge on Conviction (ultimately, we had to ship), the design team was able to codify some important principles, backed by observations from hundreds of hours of playtests.
The big, seemingly obvious lesson is that if you want players to work together, your game needs to deliver dynamics that favour cooperation. Note that I say 'favour,' not 'force'. In other words, the way the game’s mechanics – its rules – respond to the actions of players in the middle of gameplay needs to offer deeper rewards to those who combine their efforts in an intentional way, than it does to players that are just doing their own thing. Elementary, right?
Well, sure. But we can look at a lot of games, titles that are loved for their co-op, and see that many of them aren’t built that way. And to be fair, adapting cooperative modes into games that have been designed primarily as single-player isn’t trivial. The process tends to yield ugly edge-cases under every rock the designers flip over. Never mind all the complexities of making the game work online, in split-screen, etc.My goal in presenting this year is to break down some of the specific methods for promoting player cooperation. What I’ll show is that all the solutions run the gamut from the entirely prescriptive – in which players don’t have any choice but to act in tandem – to the highly emergent – in which players are in charge of negotiating with each other, when and how they’ll combine their efforts. It becomes apparent fairly quickly that meaningful cooperation depends on players having a shared set of goals, and on developing their own plans of action that uses their understanding of the game’s systems. The more voluntary and intentional we can make that, the more invested players become in each other’s success.
Some cooperative dynamics will be immediately familiar to players: Anyone who has been abruptly teleported forward because a team-mate hit the next checkpoint, or needed to wait for their friend to arrive to help them move an obstacle intuitively understands what tethering and gating is, and knows that it’s jarring.
Splinter Cell: Conviction
Other dynamics are subtle, and require careful tuning to avoid exploits, but done properly they can deliver a more rewarding game experience. Co-op games can afford to offer a greater breadth of gameplay actions than single-player games, and can support more of those actions at the same time because players are actually very good at dividing up roles and responsibilities between them – as long as they are meaningful actions and not mindless chores.
I’m going to review seven main cooperative dynamics – ones that are applicable to a lot of games across many genres – giving examples of titles that showcase the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. And in the interests of being fair and balanced, I’ll attempt to show in each case whether Conviction co-op either succeeded or failed in applying the lesson.
The industry is undergoing a tidal shift away from games that are isolated experiences to games that are platforms for collective action, whether in the form of traditional co-op or as communities for asynchronous player collaboration. A lot of us are having to recalibrate our understanding of how mainstream gamers want to play and share. If this session encourages a few of my colleagues to expand their design vocabularies, then I’m happy to help.