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Subject: Co-operative Games - A forsaken wasteland forever? rss

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Eric Jome
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Preface

Yes, I'm very well aware that co-operative games are among the most popular, most successful games in existence. I'm sure some gentle reader will here find the very soul of provocation, sting enough to incite an energetic response. That's fine. Understand I've come to this point after long and hard deliberation and research - playing and designing. It is unlikely a vivid and heartfelt excoriation will put me in my place. But have at me, if you must.


Introduction

Ever since Knizia's primordial Lord of the Rings game dragged itself up onto land and sucked the clean air for strength, we've had co-operative games. And in that more-than-a-decade, we've seen spawn of the same phylum schlep themselves across tabletops like so many shaggy shoggoths. And that's not too strong an allusion for them as they offer just such a ghastly experience. Don't confuse them with the related biota of team-on-team or cousin creatures one-against-many. Co-operative games are those played by the assembled gamers - shall we not call them "the condemned" - collectively against a system of rules until such time as end conditions grant them their dispensation from further play.

What occasions this feeling then? Let's look at The Central Problem.

The Central Problem

When you and I play a game, it is a contest. Hopefully one of skill. We need not be masters or equals, but in our opposition to one another, the cut and thrust of plan and choice, we give rise to drama. We are given a framework in which to contend, the rules and domain of the game. It need not be fair or focused, though it is usually better if so. But in our opposition, we have the spectacle of contest, triumph and defeat. Blood on the sand.

But put us together? On one team? What do we oppose? Where is the drama? All we have left is the flip of a coin, the roll of the dice, the turn of the card. Stack many such soulless random elements in a complex pattern and it is still just a wall of motiveless, aimless chaos. Climb the wall or not? To what purpose? When we lose, we see it coming - need an 8? Rolled a 3! And win? The same. There's no drama here. Just a desert of randomness to wade through, an ashen waste of chaos.

Can we make bad choices? Sure. But with a whole team planning and executing, is that likely? And with so much randomness put between players' decisions and the result, is a poorly conceived plan - maybe even any plan? - really the fault of the players or just a turn of the wheel? In the end, co-operation has little drama, only struggle and toil against a faceless, arbitrary mechanic. No flesh or blood, no reason or will.

"Game Over! Try Again?" versus "A Grand Performance!"

How then do co-operative games appeal? The successful ones, I contend, settle on two experiences. These I call "Game Over! Try Again?" and "A Grand Performance!".

Long ago, people realized if we kept score, we could provide a strong motive to keep playing. 100? Good! Can you beat it? We enjoy the exercise through accumulation of context, building a story of the times we've played. This design paradigm in co-operative games is embodied by something like Pandemic or Forbidden Desert. The rules and action are simple and straight. There's no real story. The game is over quickly. The strategies are largely transparent. And when it is over, that elegant speed invites you, can you do it again? Faster? On a harder setting? With a different team?

Contrast this with providing a huge, immersive, thematic world full of flavor text and color. While you are executing the game, you are enjoying a cinematic story filled with dramatic events and engaging characters. A strong case for this successful design is something like Arkham Horror. A fully realized world of Cyclopean proportions gives you nooks and crannies to explore, villains to face, and epic adventures. When you come to the end, you do not do so quickly. It is the journey you are to enjoy, not the destination. Win? Lose? Are those even things anymore?

Forward into new realms?

Games and game design go ever to new places and I claim no vision of a future. But I'd encourage you, if you are making a co-op, to consider the lessons of these two forms. If you're looking for success anyway. Perhaps someone can make a game so complex and nuanced that it will not be obvious even to a team what to do and how to play. And do that without resorting to just a wall of randomness too thick to strategically penetrate? It seems a long shot, but maybe. Could someone build a hybrid of the two paradigms, a compelling story game played quickly with light mechanics? But then, many have failed by falling in the murk between two shining successes, failures to form an effective merger.

Perhaps, though, it is best to just admit that providing a co-operative game experience is doomed to put as opposition to players a randomness generator. A mechanical construct that will never engage on a human, emotional level as an opponent. Even if it might satisfy as a passive outlet for conflict avoidance, a quick and thin puzzle, or a story generator.

Almost always the dusty, empty soul of a co-operative game is best refigured as, at least, team on team or one on many. If co-operative it must be, perhaps learn at least to be short and sweet, urging a replay or epic and storied, urging a recounted tale to friends.
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Tyler
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cosine wrote:


It is unlikely a vivid and heartfelt excoriation will put me in my place. But have at me, if you must.




I excoriate you in the strongest possible terms. You, sir, are a cad and a rogue!

Well, I'm sorry to have flown off the handle like that. In all seriousness, thank you for posting an intelligent and well-written treatise. I very much enjoyed your thoughts on the subject.
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Uncle Potato
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I agree to an extent. I think the weakness of the co-op style is, in a sense, also its strength. Though Pandemic, for example, has become stale as a two-player game for me and my wife, I still love playing it with people new to the genre. The bulk of the challenge is in creating consensus on which path should be taken, and in that I find quite a bit of fun.
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Lucas Maciel
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First of all, congrats for such a well-written contribution. Although cooperative games are among my favorites, I can relate to your opinion and it reminded me of a personal "design challenge": is it possible to design a cooperative game where knowing your friends' personal information is actually worse for the outcome of the game?

I'll try to explain. Much of the player interaction in a competitive game comes from not knowing your opponent's secret information (excluding perfect information games, obviously). Bluffing, negotiating, threatening and all sorts of speculation can only take place when you can only wonder what your opponent has. In other words, your own decisions are always better if you get access to everything your opponents knows.

For this reason, all these interactions can never take place in a cooperative game where personal information is only hidden for thematic or difficulty purposes and can always be revealed, breaking some rules, in order to ease the game and allow for better decisions.

Is it possible, then, to design a game where your decisions are always better if you don't know about your opponent secret information? Is it possible to conceive a mechanic where discovering this information automatically worsen your decision-making? If it is indeed possible, then we could have all the bluffing and negotiation in a cooperative game where each player hides its own information for the greater good.

PS: It cannot be so through rules or thematic reasons as in "If you reveal your hand you have to discard it" or something. It must be something like Hanabi, where knowing ruins the game, but in this case, knowing about the others.
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Jeremy Lennert
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So...your central thesis is basically that playing Chess against a human opponent, even a novice, is dramatic test of skill, but playing Chess against a computer is purely a matter of luck and where skill plays no role?

If you just enjoy it more when you can make a human connection with your opponent, that's fine, but that doesn't mean that cooperative games are just disguised random number generators: in most coop games, some strategies do win more often than others. And if there is never any doubt in your mind about what move is optimal, even the first time you play, then I suspect you are either playing rather simple games or overlooking a great deal of nuance, and probably both.
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Tim Jesurun
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Hanabi, I think, side steps all of your negativity. The random elements are negligible, and the random elements are not the enemy. Unlucky card draw is not why you lost.
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Eric Jome
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Antistone wrote:
So...your central thesis is basically that playing Chess against a human opponent, even a novice, is dramatic test of skill, but playing Chess against a computer is purely a matter of luck and where skill plays no role?


Clearly not. "Against". A computer is not a random thing. It is lacking a wholly different form of pleasure. As is Chess lacking a third.
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Eric Jome
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Horatio252 wrote:
Hanabi, I think, side steps all of your negativity. The random elements are negligible, and the random elements are not the enemy. Unlucky card draw is not why you lost.


Firmly in the Pandemic, Forbidden Desert camp. Cleanly, simply, boringly random.
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cosine wrote:
But put us together? On one team? What do we oppose? Where is the drama? All we have left is the flip of a coin, the roll of the dice, the turn of the card. Stack many such soulless random elements in a complex pattern and it is still just a wall of motiveless, aimless chaos. Climb the wall or not? To what purpose? When we lose, we see it coming - need an 8? Rolled a 3! And win? The same. There's no drama here. Just a desert of randomness to wade through, an ashen waste of chaos.

Can we make bad choices? Sure. But with a whole team planning and executing, is that likely? And with so much randomness put between players' decisions and the result, is a poorly conceived plan - maybe even any plan? - really the fault of the players or just a turn of the wheel? In the end, co-operation has little drama, only struggle and toil against a faceless, arbitrary mechanic. No flesh or blood, no reason or will.

This seems to also be an argument against solitaire games. Yet I have played a variety of excellent strategically/tactically interesting solitaire games.

It also seems to imply that an AI player cannot be an interesting worthy opponent, which is also counter to my experience.

The existence of some uninteresting coops/solitaires and some uninteresting AI players does not justify such universal dismissals.
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cosine wrote:
Horatio252 wrote:
Hanabi, I think, side steps all of your negativity. The random elements are negligible, and the random elements are not the enemy. Unlucky card draw is not why you lost.


Firmly in the Pandemic, Forbidden Desert camp. Cleanly, simply, boringly random.

I'm not even into co-ops, but Hanabi did not seem boringly random to me. It also seemed clearly a bit different from many "typical" coops, e.g. in that it would not make sense to play it solitaire.
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manus trium
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I have felt this way about co-ops from time to time.The game Space Cadets changed my mind to a large extent. There's a lot of fun and drama to be had there. I feel like the players rub up against each other a bit more.

It also showed me not to lose faith in the genre being able to invent and move things forward a bit.

But yeah I see your point. In the end I'd take a co-op puzzle like Pandemic over a co-op jigsaw puzzle though and those sell copies too.

Oh yeah, I also love Space Alert. Just had to throw that game in there. Cuz you know... Space Alert!
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Eric Jome
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russ wrote:
This seems to also be an argument against solitaire games.


It is. Co-operative games are often solo games. What have you to play against?

You are entitled to your own taste. Many are the people who claim sushi is somehow edible when clearly it is not - rubbery, fishy nasty. Many drink IPA beer claiming it good when it is only traditional; the people who invented it then only did so as they could not get better.

Co-operative games are, at best, pale shadows of competitive games. Lacking in vital content. At least we have a couple of examples of the degenerate form to try to build on, wasteful though such effort is...

Call me when co-ops dominate the top 100.

Quote:
It also seems to imply that an AI player cannot be an interesting worthy opponent, which is also counter to my experience.


It is flat and dull too. An opponent lacking skill would also be less pleasant than an even match.
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Eric Jome
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russ wrote:
I'm not even into co-ops, but Hanabi did not seem boringly random to me. It also seemed clearly a bit different from many "typical" coops, e.g. in that it would not make sense to play it solitaire.


Hanabi is an excellent, innovative example of its genre. A clever, solid design in a stagnant, smelly little pool of design space.

It plays just like Pandemic or Forbidden Desert as I mention above. A good inspiration of one successful wing of an ugly branch of game design.
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cosine wrote:
You are entitled to your own taste. Many are the people who claim sushi is somehow edible when clearly it is not - rubbery, fishy nasty. Many drink IPA beer claiming it good when it is only traditional; the people who invented it then only did so as they could not get better.

It's true, IPAs are rarely good, but sushi is objectively amazing.
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cosine wrote:
russ wrote:
This seems to also be an argument against solitaire games.


It is. Co-operative games are often solo games. What have you to play against?

You are entitled to your own taste. Many are the people who claim sushi is somehow edible when clearly it is not - rubbery, fishy nasty. Many drink IPA beer claiming it good when it is only traditional; the people who invented it then only did so as they could not get better.

Co-operative games are, at best, pale shadows of competitive games. Lacking in vital content. At least we have a couple of examples of the degenerate form to try to build on, wasteful though such effort is...

Call me when co-ops dominate the top 100.

Quote:
It also seems to imply that an AI player cannot be an interesting worthy opponent, which is also counter to my experience.


It is flat and dull too. An opponent lacking skill would also be less pleasant than an even match.


It seems to me that you are forgetting one fundamental aspect.
The game AI is created by a human, or a team of humans, in a challenge of mental toughness.
The game creators have the burden to design and realize a complex riddle that other humans will have to unfold. This riddle has requirements, such as adaptability to what the players do. In the case of a co-op game, the board is the medium on which the challenge happens. The creators have one and only one try to make their challenge not only flexible and interesting, but also fun. The players have the advantage of many tries, but the burden to learn the mechanics and devise a strategy to beat the game.
A coop it’s a battle of the minds the same way that a non-coop game is. The only difference is the time-delay and how it happens.
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Kevin Eastwood
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Out of curiosity, where would you place games such as Archipelago and A Study in Emerald?
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Eric Jome
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eastwoodk wrote:
Out of curiosity, where would you place games such as Archipelago and A Study in Emerald?


I have not played Archipelago. It does not appear to be a co-operative game. That no one might win does not make it co-operative.

I have played a lot of A Study In Emerald. It is not a co-operative game. It is team on team. Also, it is grossly better for it than it would have been as a co-operative only experience.
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Eric Jome
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jmzero wrote:
Even if you don't like Hanabi, it's ridiculous to put it in the same bucket as "standard co-ops" like Forbidden Island.


Is it? I wonder which has sold more units? I wonder which more people have played?

Go back and read the two types again. You'll see where Hanabi belongs.
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Jeremy Lennert
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cosine wrote:
Antistone wrote:
So...your central thesis is basically that playing Chess against a human opponent, even a novice, is dramatic test of skill, but playing Chess against a computer is purely a matter of luck and where skill plays no role?


Clearly not. "Against". A computer is not a random thing. It is lacking a wholly different form of pleasure. As is Chess lacking a third.


Then you are contradicting yourself. You said:

cosine wrote:
The Central Problem
...
But put us together? On one team? What do we oppose? Where is the drama? All we have left is the flip of a coin, the roll of the dice, the turn of the card. Stack many such soulless random elements in a complex pattern and it is still just a wall of motiveless, aimless chaos. Climb the wall or not? To what purpose? When we lose, we see it coming - need an 8? Rolled a 3! And win? The same. There's no drama here. Just a desert of randomness to wade through, an ashen waste of chaos.


Playing Chess against a computer puts all the players on the same team opposing a strictly rules-based adversary. You argued that the central problem with cooperative games is that they are purely luck-based. Yet here's a "cooperative" game (you already agreed that solitaire games count) that you have just agreed is "clearly not" luck-based.

A human adversary is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a test of skill. If there is a fundamental problem with cooperative games, then whatever it is, you have utterly missed it.
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Albert Hernandez
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Very well said, but it's worth clarifying one point..
Quote:
Ever since Knizia's primordial Lord of the Rings game dragged itself up onto land and sucked the clean air for strength, we've had co-operative games.


Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases was originally released in 1981 and winning awards shortly after (Charles S Robert, 1982 & Spiel des Jahres, 1985). Arkham Horror dates back to 1987. Co-ops where around for a full decade before The Lord of the Rings. I do think LotR was pivotal, but it didn't really break the co-operative ice. I think it was Pandemic that finally accomplished that.
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When I buy co-ops, the main thing I have in mind is "solitaire game." If I end up playing with other people, great. But I'm very happy to try to beat the game on my own.

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You have to go through a lot of the same with incremental advances before someone makes a major breakthrough.

Be patient and play something else until then.
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Three things strike me: that your chief complaint is that the opposition in co-ops is driven purely by randomness, that you recommend co-ops are reworked into PvP games, and that you consider AI (as in Chess) a completely different issue.

But taken together, these considerations seem to confound your own complaint. If one places a player in the role of the "game", removing randomness from that side of play isn't always the natural approach; granting them the power of selection may often make more sense. So, what if the game makes its own selections? If the top three cards of the Mythos deck in Arkham Horror were flipped each turn and one were chosen by some algorithmic process, an intelligence similar to (though due to obvious limitations, less sophisticated than) a program handling chess has acted. Has this shifted your issues to an entirely different arena?

This also leads to a puzzling line of thinking--that it is perhaps possible to remove the features that will be selected infrequently, distilling the quality of choices that can be made, and returning to the original method which we previously considered wholly random. If removing the "choices" made by the game results in the same actions being taken, does it mean that we can replace intelligence with design? Here, I think, we hit upon the core issue and the very principle that drives the design of cooperative games.

Going further, suppose that the system of opposition was completely deterministic and only players filtered the random elements. If built well, strategy still exists. And if we can create a system that mirrors the choices of a real player in corresponding situations, is the drama there too?

Rather unrelated: I don't wish to denigrate the efforts of the OP, but it puzzles me that several people have come out to praise the post with comments suggesting that it is especially well-written. It strikes me as some fairly simple ideas conveyed by excessively purple prose. Rhetorical questions abound, but to what end? To create a paragraph on the substance of a single sentence? To illustrate a point that could be put forward more effectively and more concisely by a simple, direct statement? But I doubt that Eric came here for a writing critique, so I'll leave it there.
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Zeofar wrote:
. Rather unrelated: I don't wish to denigrate the efforts of the OP, but it puzzles me that several people have come out to praise the post with comments suggesting that it is especially well-written. It strikes me as some fairly simple ideas conveyed by excessively purple prose. Rhetorical questions abound, but to what end? To create a paragraph on the substance of a single sentence? To illustrate a point that could be put forward more effectively and more concisely by a simple, direct statement? But I doubt that Eric came here for a writing critique, so I'll leave it there.


The OP philisophical argument questions itself. His replies destroy his original argument.
No matter how well read, a Troll is still a Troll.
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Zeofar wrote:
Rather unrelated: I don't wish to denigrate the efforts of the OP, but it puzzles me that several people have come out to praise the post with comments suggesting that it is especially well-written. It strikes me as some fairly simple ideas conveyed by excessively purple prose.

I gave the OP the benefit of the doubt, but when cosine's response to my comment included "Many are the people who claim sushi is somehow edible when clearly it is not - rubbery, fishy nasty. Many drink IPA beer claiming it good when it is only traditional; the people who invented it then only did so as they could not get better." he successfully convinced me that he was mostly just trying to poke the anthill and get a rise out of people, and that this thread was not really meant to be taken seriously.
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