Massively Overthinking: Is the popularity of small-scale co-op games hurting MMORPGs?
Gamasutra has an unusual piece from an Ubisoft developer this week arguing that co-op gameplay is the industry’s rising midcore trend, one that he believes will ultimately outstrip team competitive games. “It’s all about all the big data and stats that are finally available and can be mined,” author Andrii Goncharuk says, “and no surprise that it’s showing that players who played co-op mode have much more play hours, and players who played co-op with friends have even more play hours.”
He may be right, though first you’d have to believe co-op ever went anywhere to begin with (and console players would probably tell you nope!). But as I read the article, I couldn’t help but see MMOs in most of the arguments he’s making about what makes co-op games sticky, and yet MMOs are being edged out all the same. And while I don’t like to think of the MMO genre’s space in the industry as a zero-sum situation, the reality is that when people tire of MMORPG baggage but still want social play, co-op is exactly the sort of game they retreat to.
For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I asked our writers to reflect on the rise of co-op PvE games outside the MMO label. Do we play them? Do we prefer them, and when? How can we learn from them? Is the popularity of smaller-scale co-op hurting MMORPGs?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’m a big fan of co-op PvE. MMO wise, I generally prefer PvP battles because they’re large and mostly anonymous with some big egos/politics behind them (when they’re good- BGs have limited appeal to me in the long run). However, for “raiding” and story-based games, I want co-op or small-scale grouping, and I say that as someone who was getting server firsts in 40 man World of Warcraft raids.
I game socially because it’s social, not because I’m looking for a challenge. There’ve been few fellow gamers in my life who enjoy learning a challenge, and most of them want something very specific. For example, my first serious girlfriend liked difficult PvE, but only when someone else made a plan for her to follow- new content that lacked a guide was a huge turn-off. We both liked co-op games, especially RPGs, but off the top of my head, the only one we played was the Smash Bros Subspace Emissary missions, which weren’t particularly deep.
What I like about smaller scale games, in general, is that they teach you something about the other person, and rather quickly. Board games do this too (i.e. my dad’s a haggler, so he’ll always try to convince you that he’s following the rules even though he’s breaking them), but video games are stricter. The rules are laid out and the players have to work within that system. Maybe you find out your generally helpful friend runs far ahead and gets themselves killed a lot, or that weird girl at the party tanks to make sure people stick together. When I was playing Monster Hunter in Japan, my fellow players and I struggled to communicate at times, but the fact that they’d go into a boring section of the game and help me farm a specific butterfly for armor they were recommending showed that they were willing to invest in me, and that felt really good (until a fellow language learner rushed me through menus and accidentally guided me into deleting my character). I’ve talked about big MMO moments in my life, and they’ve left big impressions on me, but a lot ot time was invested into those worlds to reach those payoffs, especially with my brother.
The smaller, more personable experiences in co-op PvE multiplayer (especially if it’s local), can hurt MMOs in my opinion. Especially as I’m trying to rebuild my American social life, I’m finding myself doing more local and smaller scale games since it’s easier to meet people. Unlike MMOs, I don’t have an endless supply of bodies, don’t need to reach end-game difficulty for people to feel a “need” to group, and often they’re simply more accessible. Have you ever tried bringing a non-gamer into an MMO? It’s rough! But I’ve heard many stories about older siblings getting younger ones into gaming through Secret of Mana. I’ve played Mario games with all my serious ex-girlfriends. Heck, I just had a Saturday of local multiplayer experiences, and based on how people reacted in games like Overcooked, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, and Splatoon 2, I know who I’m going to gel with best even though we didn’t have any deep conversations. From those games, I know who can communicate, play as a team, and be patient. In an MMO, I feel like people who can do basics like that are “normal” and will be in my next pug unless they’re “terribads,” which isn’t what I should be thinking but that’s my reality, and I have a feeling it’s many other peoples’ as well.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Goncharuk’s article struck me because of fear, I suppose – the fear that MMORPGs are continuing to be dismantled and beaten at their own game — at their own minigames. Nearly every mode of MMORPGs — the battleground MOBA, the team FPS shooter, the construction sandbox, the survival competition, the social experience, even the auction war — exists and is done better in a subgenre dedicated to it. In posing the question, I was really asking for reassurance that dungeon crawling with our mates wasn’t also being funneled away.
But of course it is — and it always has been. MMORPGs have continued dropping the ball with PvE that is designed to slow us down and keep us grinding, with time investments and business models that still serve as barriers to entry and content that is (as somebody will surely argue) solo-friendly to the point of being antisocial, all ensuring that if you want a quick PvE game with friends, you’re better off in a genre tailored for it without all the concomitant bullshit of MMOs.
So yes: I play these games. I like these games. But I’ll also say that while they create sticky social bonds (or more specifically, make existing social bonds even more sticky), they’re missing a sense of permanence and longevity in the game itself apart from the meatbodies playing it, that virtual world feeling, the feeling of immersing into thousands of other people and maybe making a new friend — which is something I personally like to have. That’s one of the few special things MMOs still have over co-op games. So far.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Co-op has never really gone away, but when more and more games have shoehorned in some kind of competitive aspect, the co-op side of thing seems to have not grown with the same vigor. It’s less that “co-op games went away” and more that it was easier to appeal to a certain crowd by giving every game a shooty-shoot multiplayer segment that made every player feel a duty to answer the call to arms. Whether or not that made for better games is an open question (it didn’t), but it did mean that lots of games with multiplayer functions had multiplayer that was just another incarnation of Let’s Sit In A Box And Shoot Each Other.
The awkward apotheosis of that particular trend was the inclusion of competitive shooter multiplayer in Spec Ops: The Line, which anyone who has played the game would recognize as missing the point so severely that you’d wind up tumbling into space.
The reality is that proper co-op gameplay is always harder to design, and thus not a lot of games have it. One of my many reasons for loving the Saints Row titles is how they let you play with a friend almost seamlessly, resulting in far too many grand romps across the city acting as teammates and allies. And all of the traits attributed to co-op games are fair, but I think comparing them to MMOs is a little bit unfair. Because, to use Saints Row as an example, when I’m looking forward to playing that game co-op, I’m not looking to play with some random stranger over the Internet; I’m looking to play with my friends.
The difference is substantial. When I sit down to play New Super Mario Bros. with my brother, the point is to play a game with my brother. We laugh, we screw around, we goof around and make mistakes, but it is fundamentally a bonding experience between the two of us. When I sit down to play Final Fantasy XIV, I’m playing with everyone in a shared world. I might want to do something specifically with friends – I have friends (and my lovely wife) whom I plan things out with well in advance – but the world and the game is not reliant on us both being there. It’s bigger. It’s a shared persistent space, one that changes when I’m not around.
If you play MMOs just to get that co-op experience, then yes, they’re going to feel like two sides of the same coin. But I think assuming that’s why everyone plays MMOs is missing the point; it’s more that MMOs are a game which allows for constant co-op potential rather than co-op games scaled up endlessly. I like playing co-op games with my wife, definitely, but that’s a very different experience than when we log into an online game together.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): We’ve been playing co-op games since the 1970s (or before!) in arcades and on the early consoles like the Atari 2600. In contrast to the “take turns” or PvP approach to gameplay, co-op forged a bond between two or more gamers by giving them a common goal and placing them on the same team. By doing this, the switch from competition to cooperation occurred, and games became a lot more interesting.
You can definitely see limited co-op becoming increasingly popular among PC and console players who aren’t as enamored with PvP yet want something to play with friends. Destiny, Diablo III, and The Division each server as testimonies to different coop designs and the popularity of such game modes. With games coming up like BioWare’s Anthem, Bungie’s Destiny 2, and Phoenix Labs’ Dauntless, four- or five-player co-op is looking more like a strong trend these days. Yet we would be remiss to ignore the fact that it’s been in our industry for more than 10 years now. The original Guild Wars was a prime example of a modern co-op RPG, delivering small group play with the feel and social scene of a larger game. It existed just fine alongside of more “pure” MMORPGs and shared much of the same audience.
I welcome variety of game types and can see a lot of virtue in online co-op, especially if there is some measure of world and character persistence to edge those games more toward MMORPGs. In fact, many of these co-op games are starting to take on distinctive hues of the MMORPG, including guilds, large social hubs, gear progression, and the like. I think the more narrow focus of these games (more purely combat, streamlined RPG mechanics, linear instanced maps) appeals to players feeling a little overwhelmed by expansive MMO game worlds and feature-packed (and obtuse) designs. Can we have both? For sure. Is this a trend? I hadn’t really thought as much, although I cannot deny that these games are very, very popular right now and will attract other studios looking for something less risky, less ambitious, and perhaps more wide-reaching than the traditional MMORPG.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Hm, I don’t feel especially qualified to answer this as I rarely if ever have played the games this article highlights. However, I can say that as far as gaming goes, if there isn’t a co-op mode, I am not inclined to play. When I game I want to share the experience with friends and/or family; the social aspect is a huge part of it for me! No amount of gameplay feels awesome enough to toil away by myself for great lengths of time (well, except maybe Secret World Legends). No, I want to do said things with company. I just like sharing the experiences — it makes good things even better! My preference is still MMORPGs, and I cannot deny that a vibrant world filled with many folks to meet and play with was always my ideal. I’ve made some incredible life-long friends that enrich my life by chance in these games. And yet, thanks to the almost inescapable drama and vocal bad eggs in the really massive arena, I find myself retreating more and more to gaming experiences that are more restricted to smaller circles of friends. Look at my involvement in survival sandboxes: I’m loving so many aspects of these, but never on open public servers. Yet this isn’t considered co-op. Well, for me, when you pull together a group of friends to build a world then it feels co-op!
Is co-op a future that tosses MMOs to the side? I hate to think that for me, smaller-scale play really is edging it out. I just don’t have the time or inclination to deal with the drama llamas or toxic players. And co-op can let you hand-pick who is allowed to interact with you. And even though having a large pool of players could theoretically make it easier,I can’t ignore that it’s genrally easier to schedule gaming events with a smaller group of friends. There is the trade-off that I lose my chance to meet other amazing people like the ones I already have in my life. Unfortunately, sometimes that trade-off really feels worth it.
Patron Archebius: A few weeks ago, I rounded up everyone I could find on my friends list and started a full 4v4 game of Left 4 Dead 2. This included my wife, her brother, her friend who’s scarily into My Little Pony, my brother and sister, a guy from work, and a random dude my brother knows. Our disparate Steam libraries have precisely one convergence point – Left 4 Dead 2. We split up into separate Discord channels and proceeded to have a blast for the rest of the night.
So here we are, playing a game from 2009 for hours on end. It offers no advancement system, no loot, no upgrades, no unlockable skins, no player roles, no hats. The list of MMOs released in 2009 is a graveyard, but L4D2 still runs somewhere between 15-20,000 concurrent players a day. It’s not hard to see why – whether you’re playing Co-op or Versus, it’s a quick, fun, and rewarding thing to play with people.
And this is what gaming has always been about, for me – whether sharing a single keyboard with my siblings through Jazz Jackrabbit and Tyrian, or playing Halo with my wife, or running in the jungles of ARK with friends, being with people, sharing games and worlds with people, has always been vital. It sounds like MMOs should check those boxes, but they only rarely do.
So no, I don’t think the popularity of small-scale co-op is hurting MMORPGs, no more than small-team PvP or social networking sites or mobile games or the flood of competing multiplayer games hurts them – which is to say, they all take their own piece, but they take those pieces by offering a better experience than MMOs do.
And that brings us to the big question – what can we learn from them?
Ultimately, MMOs have to deal with the fact that their basic gameplay structure is outdated. When they were becoming popular and codified, they were one of the only ways to play something big and persistent together. They rolled together combative PvE in dungeons and raids, PvP for those who wanted it, and, in some cases, intricate social and economic systems for players to engage in. But this was all bound together with grinding or questing tedium, a system to give you a sense of advancement, of accomplishment, of becoming bigger and stronger.
And that tedium has become the bedrock of MMOs, the most recognizable feature. Whether we’re talking about ESO or SWTOR or WildStar or Black Desert, you are going to spend a significant amount of your early game whacking critters. I know of no one who looks back at their time in an MMO and says, “My favorite thing to do was slap wamp rats around until I got a slightly bigger blaster!” and yet, as we’ve stripped out so many other features from MMOs, that’s the core gameplay we’ve decided to keep. That’s what we build our games on.
And today, it’s just not good enough. The gear grind is on our phones for people who like that sort of thing. PvP has been overshadowed by tighter experiences like MOBAs and competitive shooters, games that give you everything you need right out of the gate. And now the MMO playerbase is fractured across so many MMOs that it’s tough, even knowing other people who enjoy the genre, to get a good group together where you’re all playing the same game, and you’re all at the same level, and you’re all having fun. Co-op games skip right past all those problems, right past the hundred or so hours you’ll spend doing quests for 7 silver and 32 copper and a pair of boots, and just let you have fun with friends.
The strength of MMOs is, or should be, in the number of players they bring together, in the size of the worlds they create, in building and creating and conquering together. But as they’ve aged, so many of them have clung to design elements that break people apart and gate content behind tedium. If they want to continue to grow and survive, that has to change.