A New Kind of Player 2
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.