Is Co-op the Next Big Video Game Genre?

Right now, the gaming industry as a whole values games as a service, and this often pairs perfectly with online multiplayer experiences. Players don’t get a definite end to their fun, companies get to monetize the games in a way that keeps them running, developers have a chance to keep improving a game well after its launch, and the media has a new story to break with each update or patch. It’s a model that’s particularly attractive to all sides of the industry right now. However, just like anything else in life, it won’t last. Something will take its place. This could be story-driven, character-centered experiences or another form of online play… or it could be both.

The Power of Online Gaming

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the world, and while a lot of people try to focus on what they’ll do when it ends, the reality is that it may never truly be over. Instead, we’ll be living differently. This transition has already begun. Despite the world making steps towards opening back up, people have developed a certain comfort around working from home, ordering food and groceries online, and talking to their friends and family through a Wi-Fi connection. It’s highly likely that the world has been permanently altered, and as a part of the world, the gaming industry is no different.

multiplayer vs single player audiences

How much of your time playing video games is spent playing each of the following types of games? (Scale 0-4)

With the likely continuation of at-home living, the gaming community will be turning more towards games for their human interaction than ever before. This puts a large emphasis on online multiplayer, but what does this mean for companies like Naughty Dog, Dontnod, and Telltale that specialize in story-rich games? As it is, single-player games that put a high value on narratives like these don’t have a hold on the industry. In fact, it’s been shown that the average “gamer” invests far more of their gaming time into multiplayer experiences than dramatic, cinematic ones. This isn’t to say that single-player games don’t have value, though. On a fairly consistent basis, single-player games receive higher praise than multiplayer ones. Eight of the top sixteen games of all time according to Metacritic were definitively single-player experiences upon release, and arguably, at least five more could be primarily considered single-player games with additional multiplayer modes. However, it’s not simply the single-player nature that sets these games apart; it’s the narrative.

YouTube and Twitch Encourage Shared-Narrative Gaming

We’ve already seen how a craving for an enticing narrative can combine with a desire to be with our peers. YouTube and Twitch serve as ways for the gaming community to feel like they’re a part of something bigger and social. In modern times, these platforms are often directly responsible for the popularity of video games. YouTube in particular has been a hotbed for people to watch others play single-player games that they may one day purchase. YouTuber JackSepticEye surpassed twenty million subscribers in 2018 and never looked back. A lot of his channel’s success has come from playthroughs of narrative-focused games like Undertale, Life Is Strange, Bendy and the Ink Machine, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Night in the Woods, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and many more. This is the story for many creators on the platform, both for single-player and multiplayer games. Even though people don’t actively participate with them as they play, viewers still feel a connection. It’s reported that of gamers who watch others play games online, over 30% will watch for five hours or more every week (Limelight 14).

JackSepticEye Plaing Bendy and the Ink Machine

There’s a certain level of mental interaction when someone experiences something with another person, in the same way that people would rather go to a movie with someone than alone. In a study entitled “Why do people watch others play video games? An empirical study on the motivations of Twitch users,” it was concluded that “the only gratification that seems to explain subscribing behavior is that concerning social integrative motivations.” Regardless of what type of game is being played, players are drawn to the concept of being able to interact or feel a part of something with someone else. With the recent self-isolation, people seek this ability to interact.

Co-op Narratives Are Already Here

This has led to the phenomenon that is Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The narrative that New Horizons tells is your own, and the appeal is that you can share it with somebody else. Shared experiences powerfully draw players who typically wouldn’t be interested in something to participate in it. It’s the classic peer pressure that grabs hold of you. However, this could very likely translate into games with narratives that are scripted and character-based. A Way Out came out in early 2018, and Hazelight Studios and Electronic Arts marketed it based on the ability to experience a compelling narrative with a friend. One person could be in a cutscene while another is performing some other action. They could be in different places, playing both separate and realized characters, and still experience the same story. The game received pretty decent scores from both users and critics and it sold millions of copies. However, while it did make headlines, it wasn’t seen as particularly revolutionary or groundbreaking.

A Way Out Key Art

Regardless, this seems like a logical next step for the industry. Playing off of the increased desire for companionship, developers have a chance to bring people new experiences that they can share. Hazelight Studios already has shown themselves capable of this model with A Way Out and their first title, Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons, which follows a similar style of two players following a deep narrative and received praise far and wide. This co-op, story-rich experience is a beacon for the industry. It combines the appeal of camaraderie with the highly praised narratives that bring the industry to its knees. Imagine playing The Last of Us where one person plays as Joel and the other plays as Ellie. Imagine playing a story with someone instead of watching them play it on YouTube or hearing about their playthrough over Discord the next day.

While speculative, it would make sense that since the reveal and release of A Way Out, the industry has had years to consider it and potentially begin work on similar experiences. All it takes is the right company to make the right game that perfects the idea, in the same way that Fortnite perfected what games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and H1Z1 had already been experimenting with and creating. Similarly, the functionality has already been experimented with for co-op, story-rich games. In fact, the industry has already shown the value that these experiences would have. A Way Out may not have shifted the tides on its own, but it still made a splash when it sold millions of copies. We’ve already arrived, but which game will be the one to show the industry that we have?