justice for player two: balancing couch co-op in video games
The Lego video games are some of my favourite couch co-op experiences. As a franchise, they have a strong awareness of what they are: pure, wholesome, family fun, and they don’t try to be anything else. In particular, I enjoy their split-screen design, which rotates based on where each player is in the level. Plus, it’s a great game full of juicy feedback, making running around picking up coins all the more rewarding.
So, I was amused when a good friend sent me this meme to describe her experience playing Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes.
This made me think about the design of two-player couch co-op in various video games, with regard to the balance of the players. In this blog post, I will discuss couch co-op design and balance in games, and address the pain points of couch co-op in the Lego games as described in the meme above.
What is Couch Co-op?
Couch co-op, or local co-op, describes games designed for cooperative play amongst multiple players on the same screen. This means that only a single copy of the game and a single console with multiple controllers are used. Traditionally, it requires that players are physically playing together in the same location.
In recent years, couch co-op has fallen out of popularity in favour of online multiplayer. Gone are the days of everyone going over to the house of the friend that owned the GameCube. Additionally, the pandemic’s in-person social restrictions has increased our propensity towards playing together remotely online.
I think there’s still a place for couch co-op in games. Nintendo’s consoles in particular have encouraged gaming within a household, with the Wii (2006)’s popularity making gaming a mainstay amongst family members of all ages. The Switch, released eleven years later in 2017, continues to prioritise couch co-op more than other modern consoles.
Who is Player Two?
In two-player games, couch co-op should be designed with the question in mind: who is player two?
In the context of couch co-op, player two can take on a number of different personas. While player one is usually treated as the main player, especially if co-op mode is optional, player two could be anyone from your very skilled best friend to a younger sibling who doesn’t know how to play.
An understanding of the second player should impact the game’s design. No matter their skill level, each player should feel like they are contributing in a meaningful way to the team. If the characters have different abilities or roles, players should also be able to play in a style that they enjoy. Finally, a player should not feel like they are holding the other player back and vice-versa.
By looking at players on opposite ends of the skill spectrum, we can learn how to best balance couch co-op games for both players to have an equally fun experience.
Player Two as Partner
When both players are equally competent and able to contribute, player two can be treated as a partner and be given an equal share of skills and responsibilities.
Portal 2 is a good example of designing co-op play as equivalent for both players. The game’s characters, two androids named ATLAS and P-body, have the identical ability of being able to create portals. This means that either player can complete most objectives, so players can strategise based on their personal strengths and play style.
Additionally, Portal 2 has a dedicated co-op mode which requires two players to work together and solve puzzles. This makes equally dividing up the work easier because there’s a guarantee that both players will be present. By also requiring co-op, Overcooked 2 presents a delightfully chaotic version of couch co-op while keeping players equal in ability and contribution.
However, many other games treat both players equally without mandating co-op. For instance, the 2005 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire video game does not require co-op, but allows up to three players to play as Harry, Ron and Hermione. Their abilities individually are the same, but they can cast more powerful spells together.
For player two as a partner, players don’t need to have exactly the same skills and play styles. In the console versions of Diablo 3, up to four players of different classes, abilities and builds can participate equally.
In all these cases, designing player two as player one’s partner results in a similar game experience amongst all players.
Player Two as Sidekick
On the other hand, player two can be treated as less skilled or less important than player one, and thus be designated as the sidekick. This is where the player two character is intended for a person who is not as skilled, or who just wants to help player one without doing too much. This is often used when co-op is optional, when the game can therefore be completed by one player. In this case, he second player’s functionality is added on top of what is needed to finish the game, and serves to make player one’s life easier or to the make the game more fun as a whole.
In Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010), the optional second player can join in Co-Star mode, where they play as a tiny star “Luma” creature that accompanies player one, who plays as Mario. Player two can only freeze enemies and pick up items and power-ups, and isn’t really an independent character like Luigi in other Mario games. However, it’s still fun to help player one, even though the in-game mechanics and skill levels are different.
Another example, Monsters vs. Aliens (2009), features drop-in co-op mode where player two doesn’t even have a character, but instead controls the crosshairs of Dr. Cockroach’s weapon for simple point-and-shoot gameplay. This design is likely intended for player two to be a child or younger sibling who is less familiar with gaming.
With player two as a sidekick, it’s likely that their experience, by nature of their separate role in the game, is different from player one’s.
Balancing Player One and Player Two in the Lego Video Games
The Lego games are an interesting case study for couch co-op because they support different types of player two. It’s entirely possible to enjoy the game alone, with a partner or with a sidekick. What makes this more complex is the distribution of abilities between playable characters, which also brings into consideration the play styles of each player.
Lego video games have a cast of characters, a subset of which are available to play in each level in story mode. These characters have different abilities, so more than one character is usually needed to complete each level. Players can switch between available characters while playing the level. When there are two players, each is assigned a character at the start of the level.
This means that sometimes, a player that gets the droid character who does the door-unlocking rather than the Jedi character who does the Sith-fighting. When these don’t match up with play style, especially multiple levels in a row, it can feel unfair and make the game boring.
In this case, randomly assigning characters each round can feel unfair. To counter this, it would be great to be able to specify settings for player one and player two character assignments in the Lego video games. This way, players could inform the game that player two wants to always be the combat character, or to alternate the more technical character between players each level.
Over the years, the Lego games have introduced more different characters and abilities, making them more complicated and frustrating to play. As the Lego video games get more complex, designers should look at the ability distribution between available characters each level from a play style perspective as well as a level completion one.
Creative Designs for Player Two in Couch Co-op
Recently, it’s been exciting to see more creative approaches to designing for player two in local co-op. In Never Alone (2014), one player plays as the girl Nuna and the other as her Arctic fox companion, as they traverse platforming puzzles together by using their unique abilities. And in Super Mario Odyssey (2017), player two plays as Mario’s sentient hat Cappy, in an unexpectedly active role on par with player one’s Mario.
When asking “who is player two?”, therefore, it might be interesting to consider supporting the entire spectrum of competency rather than either extreme. Designers should consider allowing individual difficulty settings or more character choices to allow both players to be playing at a comfortable and challenging level without sacrificing fun cooperative gameplay. In the end, designing a game to handle a naïve player two as well as a skillful one allows it to be more accessible to all kinds of players.