Over the course of my gaming career, I've had a fickle and complicated relationship with competitive multiplayer. While I enjoy playing competitive games from time to time, like most other gamers, I certainly don't enjoy losing--which is exactly what happens whenever I step into competitive arenas. Because of this, purely cooperative multiplayer games have become my solace, even as I recognize aspects of competitive games that purely cooperative games often can’t replicate. However the latest multiplayer trend to sweep the industry may just be changing all of that.
What I like the most about cooperative multiplayer is the concept of working together with a team of fellow gamers to triumph over a greater threat. There is no smack-talking, no bad sportsmanship (or at least not nearly as much as in competitive games), and no sense of being outclassed because my opponents devoted more time and/or money than me.
This is exactly the sort of experience upcoming games like Turtle Rock's Evolve, Lionhead's Fable Legends, and BioWare's Shadow Realms offer. Except, the greater threat these games pit teams against is another player. In Evolve, players can control a variety of large alien beasts. Fable Legends has them taking on the role of a sadistic dungeon master, placing monsters and traps from on high. And Shadow Realms offers a bit of both; letting players set up traps while also letting them control a powerful boss creature should the other players reach the end of their dungeon. Given how many developers are latching onto it, this blending of competitive and cooperative gameplay elements is clearly more than just a passing gimmick. It could also be the perfect way to let those who prefer co-op but still have that competitive itch to have their cake and eat it too.
Cooperative games can be fun but they often aren’t quite a worthy substitute for their competitive counterparts. If a developer splits its time between making both a competitive and a cooperative multiplayer component for its game, the competitive component usually receives the lion’s share of polish and refinement. Even when cooperative multiplayer is a developer’s first priority, there’s only so much you can do with it before it grows stale. I know I've played one too many variants of the “classic” horde mode over the years.
Fortunately, games like Evolve remedy these symptoms while also providing other unforeseen benefits. Since the greater threat is player-controlled instead of A.I.-controlled, the risk of staleness and repetitiveness is much lower. Also, since both competitive and cooperative elements are blended into a single experience, there’s no risk of having one element feel like the ugly step child. Turtle Rock has also confirmed that A.I. bots can fill in for either the larger monster or the team of hunters, meaning Evolve players who want a more traditional co-op experience can still have one.
If a developer splits its time between making both a competitive and a cooperative multiplayer component for its game, the competitive component usually receives the lion's share of polish and refinement.
As strange as it may sound, the lopsided nature of pitting a single powerful player against a team of less powerful opponents could also serve as a great way to ease gamers into the high-tension environment of competitive multiplayer. There’s obviously less pressure when you have a group of friends supporting you and you only have one other opponent to worry about (even if that opponent could smoke you in a one-on-one fight). Games like Evolve also help to lessen the sting of defeat. If the monster in Evolve or the dungeon master in Fable Legends triumphs, you know right away that it was likely because your team didn’t work well together, and not because of a cheap tactic or exploit.
In addition to the shooter, hack-and-slash, and RPG genres that are being covered by games like Evolve, Fable Legends, and Shadow Realms, this new co-op/competitive hybrid dynamic is showing up in other genres as well. Techland’s upcoming parkour/zombie survival game Dying Light will feature an optional mode aptly called “Be The Zombie.” In this mode, a group of players must work together to complete an objective while another player, playing as a powerful, unkillable “Hunter” zombie, hunts them down and tries to stop them.
For a more “traditional” horror experience, fans can also check out Damned, a new PC game on Steam that tasks a group of players with escaping from a procedurally generated environment while another player, playing as a monster, stalks them. Unlike in Dying Light and Evolve, there’s literally nothing players in Damned can do to defend themselves from the monster player.
Not only does this help to quickly build tension but it also conjures the same sort of feeling as playing a game like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Slender: The Arrival, only this time the supernatural force hunting you is one of your fellow gamers.
I was admittedly not sold on the concept of hybridized competitive and cooperative multiplayer at first but when I realized just how much the benefits outweigh the potential downfalls, I quickly became a believer. For years I have lamented about the shortcomings of cooperative multiplayer and the frustrations of its competitive sibling and how I wished there was a game that offered the best of both worlds. While games like Evolve aren’t exactly what I had in mind, they are certainly a step in the right direction and could be the games that finally make me into a bona fide competitive multiplayer fan. I know it’s not exactly wise to get so excited for games I have yet to play for myself, but if hybrid multiplayer games end up being the next big thing, I definitely don’t want to miss out.