It’s Not Me, It’s Ya’ll (Forced Co-op Woes)
Contributed by DJMMT
Recently, I played a beta of an upcoming indie game from a well-known publisher. As the beta was under NDA, I cannot name the game or describe it in detail. But that’s OK because I don’t really want to discuss the game specifically in this post, so much as a major issue in my experience of playing it that is core to the game’s structure but in no way the fault of the developers.
The game in question is a 2D puzzle platformer. It’s done in a retro graphics style. Maybe not exactly 16-bit graphics, but certainly in that realm of design. It looks fine. The graphics are probably the weakest part of the game. The music is great. The gameplay is very smooth. The puzzles are interesting, challenging, and mostly fair. The character development/experience system is really straight forward and, in my opinion, effective in motivating you to want to play and unlock more while not feeling prohibitive to new players. Conceptually, it’s a solid game that is executed well. And I see the potential for longevity and additional/rotating content. My major issue with the game comes down to the problem of other players.
This game is a cooperative puzzle platformer that allows for up to 10 players in a single run. Runs consist of five levels. The farther you get, the more experience you get. If the group manages to complete the entire run, all participants get all the XP collectively gained by the squad. If the group fails to finish the run, players only get the XP they personally earned/acquired. I want to be clear in saying that the game in no way motivates players not to always work towards reaching the finish line. As the game has no PVP aspect and no exclusive content, you gain nothing from not constantly working to get the entire team to the end of the run. Players who die in a run are resurrected at the start of the next level. All of this is to say that during my time playing the beta, I do not believe that any player messed things up and caused the team to fail the run intentionally. The problem is that if this truly was the case it means that way too many people in the beta were noobs.
This 2D puzzle platformer has a few tricky puzzles, but most of the game is a combination of easy to medium difficulty puzzles and 2D platforming. A pretty easy game overall. Yet so many people I encountered during the beta sucked at the game. This was not something difficult like a raid in Destiny, where pretty much everyone has to be at the top of their game to win. This was not a retro game from the 80’s/90’s where the design was broken and insanely hard to actively prevent players from being able to reach the end, like Battletoads. This was basically “my first platformer” level gameplay.
To have lost so many runs in a 3-hour period was frankly unacceptable. I only managed to successfully complete two runs in my entire time playing the beta. For reference, an entire run can be completed successfully in about 15 minutes, give or take. My lobbies kept failing. Over and over, the same garbage performance from random players. I got to a point where I started to think maybe the game really was too hard, and I’m just that good at platforming. But it really wasn’t that hard. People just suck. Which ultimately ruined the experience for me. Because no matter how good the game may or may not be, if I have to rely on other players for it to be fun, and other players suck, which they often do, then it’s never going to be fun.
Cooperative games that lack a PVP component are nothing new. They’re not super common like other genres are, but we have plenty of examples of them. Warframe and Deep Rock Galactic being two wildly successful and currently active examples. However, I don’t personally play those games much. I’ve tried them. But ultimately the prospect of having to rely on other people to enjoy the games I play is just too high risk for me. I don’t want to spend hours of my time making no progress in a game, because the other players suck. Since I mostly play with randoms when it comes to cooperative online experiences, buying games of that nature seems like a bad bet in most scenarios. The one exception where I’ve never been disappointed by randoms would probably be The Division 1 & 2.
My concern is that game development is very clearly moving in this direction overall. While we currently have lots of single player experiences, with more on the way (Thanks Insomniac Games!), the industry very clearly wants to move to a fully live service model where you play one continuous game indefinitely and rely heavily on other players to make the experience work. Just look at how much MMOs have grown in recent years. Meanwhile, with the exception of shooters, fighters, and sports games, probably my three least favorite genres of games, it seems that the general skill level of gamers is heavily in decline. People are constantly demanding easy modes and more options to remove the challenge from games. And developers want me to rely on these people to have a fulfilling gaming experience? That does not sound like a fun time to me.
I’m sure that there will continue to be single player games for many years to come. But I worry more about the AAA titles continuing to move away from them in hopes of milking the public for the work they’re supposed to be doing in creating a meaningful gaming experience. And again, where does that leave players like me who don’t tend to enjoy playing with other people, or who don’t have the patience to deal with the massive pool of noobs out there? Will I be forced to join clans just to finish a game? Will I no longer be able to play AAA titles comfortably? These might not be pressing gaming issues today, but it’s always by ignoring them that we end up getting stuck with them in the future. There was a time when it was “just horse armor.” Now look at the state of microtransactions in games.