Where have all the couch co-op games gone?

People love Rocket League and not just on The Seriousness podcast.

It seems like a great deal of the love people have for this cars-playing-soccer game lies in the offline, split screen multiplayer. This couch co-op, as it’s contemporarily known has harkens back to the origins of video games and even the video game experience. It seems like people want that choice in their games just as developers are foregoing the feature.

I'm fairly certain that @RocketLeague is the best thing that happened to my PS4 since I've owned it! Welcome back proper couch co-op gaming

— Helder Pinto (@HelderHP) July 13, 2015

Is this simply the game-playing audience wanting what it can’t have or has our push for greater graphical fidelity simply stripped the option for the majority of new games?

@RocketLeague some of the best couch co-op nostalgia we've experienced in a long time! pic.twitter.com/s5Ms8VkyNS

— Zach Fuentes (@_German_Mexican) July 8, 2015

People that played together, stayed together

Local multiplayer, cooperative multiplayer, offline multiplayer or just plain couch co-op holds a place as one of the oldest in video game features. Though debate still rages over which video game came first, most of the earliest contenders had a local multiplayer component, from Alan Turing’s theoretical computer chess program to Pong.

The evolution of tennis.

The evolution of tennis.

Despite which game ran first out of the gate, Pong set the stage for the size and breadth of the modern video game industry. Its 1972 arcade cabinet and 1975 home console marked the very first mainstream success of video games and proved the financial viability of the medium.

People can debate on the exact reasons for its success, but the welcoming existence of multiplayer has to be one of the foremost considerations.

Of course, that trend waxed and waned as gaming matured and single player experiences like Frogger and Donkey Kong eventually evolved. However the presence of cooperative play existed right along side it in such games like the Mario Bros. arcade cabinet.

 

The rest of that story is well known. With Nintendo leading the charge, even making the first console with four controller ports, local cooperative games became something of a regular feature up to the last generation of games.

 

2008 stands at the height of the feature, according to a Wikipedia list. Over 75 games were made that included local cooperative and competitive play. It was the year of Army of Two, Castle Crashers, Gears of War 2, Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii.

As you would expect, the trend turned towards online multiplayer and the number of games that offered a local option began shrinking.

 

Trends get cooperatively current

One of the most interesting aspects about the current generation of offline multiplayer games is the sheer diversity they espouse. Tiny experiences, party packs, medium games and triple A experiences.

Towerfall, Lego Games, Jackbox, Diablo 3 and more have given local players with friends nearby a reason to make more room on the couch and spend money on extra controllers.

Sibling rivalry entered the digital age...

Sibling rivalry entered the digital age...

Harkening back to past trends, Nintendo seems to currently lead the current swatch of local multiplayer games. The recent Super Mario Games, Smash Bros., Mario Kart and more hold the standard high (though the feature is interestingly limited in the big N’s newest franchise, Splatoon).

In general, however, larger triple A titles have mostly given up on providing the feature. One of the most recent examples, and most telling of the trend, came from 343 Industries when they said at E3 that Halo 5 would not ship with split screen multiplayer. In its 14 years as a franchise, every shooter-based Halo game has included couch co-op, until now.

“Well, we do listen to gamers,” General Manager of Games Publishing Shannon Loftis. told Engadget. “The priority feature for the release of Halo 5 was 60FPS, so that’s what the team has been focused on delivering. But, you know, never say never. The glorious thing about Halo and about Xbox is that we can deliver continuous improvements to any experience. But, no announcements being made here.”

 

So, what's the hold up?

It remains undefined what has caused the shift. Research or developer commentary is difficult to find that would specify the reasons have slowed down drastically in making local coop games.

Most of the conversation around it has happened in message boards and forums.  That discussion and other sources have identified at least three possibilities which might make up most of the reason for the demise in local multiplayer.

The first resides in straightforward system architecture. Split screen experiences double the needed resources from a system. Developers can hedge those features by lowering frame rates, lessening texture performance, etc. It would require less to have local multiplayer using the same screen like New Super Mario Bros., but a whole game would have to be built around the experience.

A former Rare developer interview echoes this hypothesis for the slow demise of local co-op comes from 

“[S]plit screen games have a different set of problems,” Former Rare developer Steve Ellis said, comparing it with online gaming. “If everyone is sharing the same device, that device’s resources - CPU, memory, screen space - need to be divided amongst the players. Since no player has the full resources of the device, sacrifices must be made. With a four-way split you only have a quarter of the resources per player, so the frame rate might be lower, the game world or textures might have less detail, the UI might need to be less complex to fit into a smaller space.”

343 Industries’ commitment to 60 frames per second for Halo 5 certainly fits in this category.

 

The second possible cause behind the lack of current couch co-op could conceivably be found in simple societal trends. Many, many, many responses on the various boards detailed how much easier online multiplayer made things, the convenience it brought to finding people with which to play and the hassle of having to buy extra controllers/find friends/have guests.

In short it could merely be the result of how these times they are a changin’.









 

The third possibility rests in simple capitalism. Instead of creating and selling one copy of a game wherein four people could join up and play, publishers could require these single player games and sell up to four copies of a game.

Another @RocketLeague enthusiast! (After the "final nail in the couch co-op coffin" of @Halo5_ ) @DeejayKnight https://t.co/sbkeyn69by

— Aleshia Hayes (@AleshiaProf) July 29, 2015

 

People keep having opinions

The success of Rocket League has again been telling in this conversation. Certainly the game has online multiplayer, but the inclusion of local play has received a whole lot of attention as well.

It struck a nerve that has risen to the surface over the past few years. Many journalism outlets have published opinion piece after opinion piece.

Are these just the opinions of journalists that probably skew in a little older demographic than studios consider while making games?

Is this just nostalgia? They all read like some version of this:

“When you get together to play games with friends, the space you’re in becomes a ritual space, like the stage at a concert or the altar at a wedding,” Bennett Foddy wrote in an opinion piece on Polygon. Foddy created QWOP and the recent local co-op game Sportsfriends. “It’s a space where you can trash-talk your friends or howl in defeat, where you can trick people, where you can laugh at their expense and dance on their grave.”

Soccer savior?

Soccer savior?

His experience seems to echo the many that have flocked to the local offerings of Rocket League, even though this opinion referred to TowerFall.

“As a designer, I’m looking to recreate the sense of occasion and ritual and importance that I have felt playing local multiplayer games,” Foddy wrote. “As a player, I’m always looking for games that are built for that from the ground up.”


By this point, we'll probably never experience another large rise in couch co-op. The Internet of Things has expanded our ability to house online connectivity while business practices have gotten as stingy as possible. Plus, that nostalgia isn't shared by the upcoming generation who have grown up with more online multiplayer than offline. 

Still, the success of Rocket League ensures that the feature is and will remain far from dead.