A New Kind of Player 2

Your star-buddy

Two people playing together is a time-honored tradition in gaming. But most of the time we're used to seeing two sets of identical battle armor in two colors. They have the same move sets and do pretty much the same stuff. But lately, there has been some good work expanding in other directions. Sometimes, Player 2 isn't just a clone of Player 1.

We have accumulated a library of new ways to play over the last few years. With the motion-control hardware like the Move, Wiimote, and Kinect, designers have come up with some very cool approaches. I'm going to be interested to see what's in store with the patch for Skyrim that Bethesda is releasing today to deploy full Kinect support. I don't know about you, but I bet my neighbors aren't going to be amused when I sound my barbaric YAWP in the living room. And with the recent serious movement into the touch interface for all sorts of games, designers have begun to try to extend even traditional controller-type games onto a whole new plane. I have personally been enjoying my time with Mass Effect Infiltrator on the iPad. Using two thumbs to approximate the dual-stick control scheme is scratchy and twitchy as heck but I think the concept has got possibilities.

I saw the leaked trailer for Rayman: Legends. Origins was awesome, and I trust Ancel is doing his usual good work here. Some people were concerned by it, but I'm cautiously optimistic, and here's why: As new as this is supposed to be, we've actually got some examples of asymmetric co-op out there, and it looks like at least some of those lessons have been applied here.

Super Mario Galaxy (and its sequel) demonstrated a fairly balanced template for handling the concepts of characters having different functions and skill levels. Whatever you may think about Nintendo's approach to hardware, the quality of their in-house games is a gold standard. You may or may not like a given mechanic, but the implementation is solid. That makes them a very good subject for analysis, because you can be fairly confident that any issues are not in the code, but in the concept.

When you're planning an interface model, a method designers often rely on is pretending an actual person is going to use the product. Then they make up a story about what they might need the product for and what they'd do with it. The point is to design the product to help them accomplish those tasks, using that story as a guide. The technical term for that sort of pretend scenario is "use case."

In case you haven't played the game, Player 1 is, of course, everyone's favorite Italian plumber. Player 2 is a cute little star that floats along behind him. Nintendo gave their cooperative mode a groaner of a name ("Co-Star Mode"), but it's got some serious chops.

The little star-dude is designed into the game to fit two different sorts of use cases. If you get someone with skills in there to play him, you can get some cool benefits. But the games doesn't forget that you also have to make the game playable if the 2nd player is only up to gathering starbits. So there's the two stories here: a second player of equivalent skill to the Mario player, and a second player of less or even no skill.

To cater to the equivalent-skill scenario, our star-buddy is not just a starbit-guzzling version of Navi (IMHO, the most useless, annoying sidekick ever conceived by the mind of man). The star doesn't even have a proper name, but he's got his own move set, and it's pretty cool. You can grab and hold some enemies to allow Player 1 to get by or more easily deal with them. You can shoot your gathered star bits to knock enemies out. You can also set off various environmental effects and grab/move things to help Player 1 progress. Working together, you can even directly affect the main action by helping Player 1 jump higher. A skilled Player 2 can make a huge difference in the game.

But it's also important to be able to play the game well if you just handed the second Wiimote off to a small child to keep them occupied chasing sparklies. Our Mario is just as good a leader as he is a co-worker. Having someone else happily gathering those starbits that are a pain to reach simplifies the platforming and feeds Player 1 needed lives. It also allows you to pay for various unlocks much more easily. Player 2's role is not just a sinecure from either angle; the mechanics are designed to help the game compensate for them not helping you in other ways.

Some of that concept has been percolating through to the new design scenarios coming out with the WiiU. In that Rayman: Legends trailer, there's a scene where you can see the player with the Touch unit moving the platforms around with her finger to let the other players advance. That mechanic would be an awesome one for an entry-level player. I did cringe a bit; that footage looked and felt like yet another annoying throwback to putting the girl in what my ex-husband used to call "the girlfriend position" while gaming (behind her boyfriend's left elbow, being careful to keep her reflection off the screen in the dim arcade light).

But that asymmetrical cop-operative concept is very important, and I hope they take that into account all through the game. If we want to include people, we have to take new players into account and include them in the game at a level where they feel more comfortable. You can't stress them out, by demanding skills they may not have mastered, while still giving them a real hand in the game's progress — that is, if you ever want them to invest the time and effort to learn how to take Player 1's controller for themselves. It's a fine line.

Nintendo has stated that they won't give us a release date or launch lineup for the WiiU at this year's E3 coming up in June. But since they simultaneously promised to ship worldwide by the end of the year, I'll bet that shortly after that we'll start to see other trailers and announcements of games that are supposedly designed for the launch lineup of the WiiU, plus an official release date. I hope game designers have remembered the lessons they've learned before, and that they've begun to build new, cool things on top of them.

Comments

I think this is a pretty fascinating concept, actually. Breaking the two players into meaningfully different characters, instead of just reskins, seems like it could be the next step forward in co-op since Gauntlet and Contra. It's been a long time coming.

Love this article. Plus, it helps that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of my favorite games, both alone and with a buddy.

wordsmythe wrote:
I think this is a pretty fascinating concept, actually. Breaking the two players into meaningfully different characters, instead of just reskins, seems like it could be the next step forward in co-op since Gauntlet and Contra. It's been a long time coming.

What is interesting is doing this such that P2 has depth, and that your skill-free companion can learn and grow a player.

I thought so, too. I'd played the game several times with various side-men, but I didn't find out about hold-em-and-help-jump bits until one day when I ended up riding as my eldest son's posse. The two of us together kicked some serious space-Koopa butt.

Later I ended up playing as Mario with some very non-gamer members of my church youth group, but it didn't mess me up and watching that work was where I discovered the other end of the equation.

I wasn't joking when I say I hope others have learned this same lesson. I can't wait to see where this goes.

This is the first time I've seen the phrase "asymmetric co-op." I look forward to games that make this a more significant feature.

This reminded me of the Tails trick in Sonic. You would play sonic until you got to a boss fight, where you'd switch and have the worse person hide Sonic in a corner while the invincible Tails player beat down the boss.

Co-op has always been my favorite part of games. Dungeon Defenders was awesome, and Torchlight 2 looks promising for some more. It's always good to see co-op percolating down to more games, and with an easier entry level.

Sounds like a great way to introduce someone to gaming. You can give them the "easier" character so that they can learn without having to sit around only watching.

Aristophan wrote:
This is the first time I've seen the phrase "asymmetric co-op."

Probably because we made it up!

TheHipGamer wrote:
What is interesting is doing this such that P2 has depth, and that your skill-free companion can learn and grow [as] a player.

Yeah, this article really opened my eyes about the "star bitch" role being able to be much more meaningful than the nickname implies.

wordsmythe wrote:
Yeah, this article really opened my eyes about the "star bitch" role being able to be much more meaningful than the nickname implies.

Same here. Unfortunately, I imagine a lot of members of the industry never saw anything more than a "star bitch" role, either, and thus make it a bit more difficult to emulate or understand what's really going on with it.

It does remind me of playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii for the first time at a friend's New Years party. The morning of January 1st, when everyone's waking up and feeling lazy and cozy in pajamas. Four people of varying gaming skill sat together. I took a controller, two friends that mildly game took two controllers, and the fourth was taken by someone that hasn't played a Mario game since, well, Mario.

Because of everyone's ability to jump onto each other and wreck each other's day, it was just a fun, silly game where the levels simply provided a place for us to mess around. Sure, you could run out of extra lives, but at the end of each level they were replenished. I was killed by my friends more often than the game itself, yet at certain points I was able to help the less experienced figure out how to surpass certain obstacles by demonstrating.

It was a very different experience than four players that regularly game sitting down and trying to progress together, where the fun was in completing the level rather than simply interacting with each other. I'd similarly like to see more co-op experiences like this, which sit in that spot between objective-based gameplay and party game.

Kirby's Epic Yarn takes an interesting approach to co-op gaming. For most of the game, it's more or less just like New Super Mario Bros. Wii in that the two characters are largely re-skins of one another that can interact with one another in the same space. However, in certain levels, Kirby or Prince Fluff will need to grab a power-up that transforms them both into one giant character, like a tank or a robot or a train. While in this mode, the players each have different roles and their own controls. So while in robot mode, one player will control the robot's movement and fire's missile out its mouth while the other player controls a big robotic arm with a boxing glove. Both players have something to do in the scenario, but they're not necessarily doing the same thing.

What's really interesting is that many of these transformations seem to have two roles: a primary role that's mission-critical and a secondary role that's more of a bonus (in the example above, moving and shooting is the primary role and the boxing glove is the secondary). Which player ends up in the primary role is determined by who grabs the transformation power-up. If two players of disparate skill levels are playing together, the more skilled player is more likely to grab the power-up and end up in the primary role because the power-ups are usually on the far side of an obstacle. If two players of equal skill are playing, then either one has a chance of ending up in the driver's seat, as it were, which likely evens out which player has the primary role over the course of the game such that neither player ends up playing second fiddle more often than the other.

Other other asymmetric co-op games:
Jet Force Gemini: Unfortunately, you couldn't get the 2nd player involved until at least halfway through. You could assemble a little hovering untouchable bot that could shoot enemies. The best part was, he stuck out to the side and above you, so you could hide in cover as long as the enemy didn't rush you.

Sin & Punsihment 2: Not so much of an asymmetric role, but it still is. P2 just becomes an extra firing reticule, but no 2nd character shows up on screen. Basically, just added firepower. So it sort of asks more of the new 2nd player, but P1 is never penalized for lack of P2's skill.

Mario Kart Double Dash: Similar to S&P2, the role is close to the main one, but basically divides a single drivers responsibility in half. One person has item control while the other worries about driving. Except you can switch if you want. This one isn't as good as it requires P2 understand a bit about Mario Kart items, which is in most regards simple until you get into needing to hold on to green shells and bananas to defend yourself and such.

Zack & Wiki would allow a 2nd player to point stuff out with the 2nd controller.

I can't think of anything not on a Nintendo platform save the already given Sonic/Tails combo.

I'm all for this mechanic. My girlfriend and I are currently romping through Trine 2, and each of the three characters has their own set of actions. The game design is gleefully flexible, allowing for any pair of characters to get through a section without switching over to the third, but the characters all feel distinct, keeping things fresh.

mrtomaytohead wrote:

I can't think of anything not on a Nintendo platform save the already given Sonic/Tails combo.

Rock Band should count, and it's probably one of the reasons it's so popular among non/casual gamers. The ability for everyone to pick their own difficulty is a great feature.

So where does World of Warcraft's Tank-Healer-DPS model fit into all this? It's definitely not as flexible as Mario Galaxy's model because in abstract it's equally demanding of all the participants. The different roles are definitely doing different things though... it's got to be on the spectrum somewhere.

Vargen wrote:
So where does World of Warcraft's Tank-Healer-DPS model fit into all this? It's definitely not as flexible as Mario Galaxy's model because in abstract it's equally demanding of all the participants. The different roles are definitely doing different things though... it's got to be on the spectrum somewhere.

I think that once you're talking about an MMO and a monthly subscription, you've moved out of the realm of "gentle introduction" and into something more formal and more difficult to draw parallels to this article with.

TheHipGamer wrote:
Vargen wrote:
So where does World of Warcraft's Tank-Healer-DPS model fit into all this? It's definitely not as flexible as Mario Galaxy's model because in abstract it's equally demanding of all the participants. The different roles are definitely doing different things though... it's got to be on the spectrum somewhere.

I think that once you're talking about an MMO and a monthly subscription, you've moved out of the realm of "gentle introduction" and into something more formal and more difficult to draw parallels to this article with.

Still, it's a good question.

wordsmythe wrote:
TheHipGamer wrote:
Vargen wrote:
So where does World of Warcraft's Tank-Healer-DPS model fit into all this? It's definitely not as flexible as Mario Galaxy's model because in abstract it's equally demanding of all the participants. The different roles are definitely doing different things though... it's got to be on the spectrum somewhere.

I think that once you're talking about an MMO and a monthly subscription, you've moved out of the realm of "gentle introduction" and into something more formal and more difficult to draw parallels to this article with.

Still, it's a good question.

Sure, but if the question is, "where do cooperative experiences in MMOs fit into the model of a low-stress asymmetrical co-op game?", my response is that they do not. The distinction that momgamer makes seems like it is between canonical second-player roles (e.g., something analogous to that of the first player) and an alternative whereby Player Two has a categorically different experience (e.g., they are invulnerable, or can't affect enemies, or have a different mechanic defined for them).

Just because your buttons are different in an MMO as a healer, you're still doing the same basic thing. It doesn't invalidate the game, but I don't see it fitting in here.

What about additional players in SC2? The basic assumption in MP coop SC2 is that while you may be playing completely different factions, each with unique mechanics and strategies, you'll both cooperate to take on the enemy with army contributions.

That is not the only way to play coop, though. You can play it such that one player only harvests resources and sends them to the other player, and the other player only ever makes and controls an army (no extra bases, natch).

Alternatively, you can send a newbie player a simple build-and-attack script that only has them making and upgrading basic units, while the more experienced player handles expansion, support units, and strategy adjustment through basic support units and the entirety of the advanced unit tree.

I was taking this article from the standpoint of the new interface models, but both Larry and Vargen's points are all part of the mix.

Class/team mechanics as expressed in MMO's and the changes that the RTS model make to it would make another two articles worth of conversation.