Removing the Limitations on Agency from Cooperative Games
Cooperative games are the best. Stop lying to yourself, it’s true: Left 4 Dead, Contra, Diablo, Double Dragon, Raiden, The Simpsons arcade game, Halo, the Lord of the Rings board game, Ikaruga, Castle Crashers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Lego Star Wars, Pandemic, New Super Mario Bros., Smash TV, okay I’m starting to hyperventilate.
Cooperation is by far my favorite game mechanic. When I started designing a game I couldn’t imagine doing anything that didn’t have cooperation at its core. As something of a connoisseur of cooperation, I really wanted to do something novel (to me) with the concept:
Make a game where cooperation and team spirit come voluntarily, not by rule
This is a fundamental problem I have with cooperative games: why cooperate to begin with? Well, typically because you have no choice. It’s thrust upon you by the mechanics of the game. But forcing behavior isn’t what games do best. Irrational’s Steve Gaynor argues this premise in his great post Being There:
So, the game designer’s role is to provide the player with an intriguing place to be, and then give them tools to perform interactions they’d logically be able to as a person in that place— to fully express their agency within the gameworld that’s been provided. In pursuit of these values, the game designer’s highest ideal should be verisimilitude of potential experience. The “potential” here is key. Game design is a hands-off kind of shared authorship, and one that requires a lack of ego and a trust in your audience.
The deep, wonderful beauty of cooperation in real life is that it typically comes at a cost, namely the cost of looking out for oneself. So what sort of “verisimilitude of potential experience” is offered if players don’t have the opportunity to be selfish? That opportunity, and the choice between cooperation and competition, is the crux of my game.
How does this choice manifest? To take one example, every character has a special ability: the Cook gets extra food, the Wrangler can prevent maulings, the Veterinarian can heal the injured, and the Tour Guide can discover what lays hidden ahead. The critical component of designing these abilities is that they provide both a cooperative and a competitive advantage. Furthermore, using them cooperatively is a risk for the player. So, the Wrangler can prevent another player from getting mauled but there’s a small chance of getting mauled himself. The Guide can share what’s on the other tiles, but at the risk of giving up information he could use to his own advantage.
By making cooperative abilities come at a cost, the other players have to earn that cooperation by reciprocating with their own abilities (and through other actions in the game). My hope is that when the game is balanced, it will be necessary to cooperate to get most of the way through the game. But as the players progress, the mounting pressures of starvation and animal attacks will cross a threshold and being selfish will become the safer bet.
Exactly when that line is crossed, or if it’s crossed at all, is the range of potential experience that defines Menagerie. This is my flame.
In order to make this work, being selfish can’t be a valid strategy from the beginning of the game. The animal fights are so intense and unpredictable that staying in a pack is by far the safest bet. Because of the linear nature of the board, the risk of an animal fight will go down as you approach the exit and the locations of dangers are more known. This will allow the group to stop relying on each other to survive large attacks.
Game designers, like all product designers, benefit from solving a design problem nobody has ever tackled before. Further, I think a designer’s hardest problem should produce the product’s most unique offering. For example, if the game isn’t about platforming, it just happens to contain it, you don’t need to reinvent the way jumping works — just do what people know. Sometimes I feel the impulse to reinvent every piece of a product but in practice that’s unrealistic and wasteful. Balancing cooperation and competition is the hardest problem I’m facing with Menagerie, which is fantastic because it’s the heart of the game.