Stop Co-op Piracy

The philosopher’s stone of many game enthusiasts is how to bring their significant other to enjoy games with them. I am no different in this regard and my GF had to endure multiple experiments already. But expect from the occasional freak side-effect I remain unsuccessful in enkindling in her the kind of enthusiasm for the interactive medium I experience myself.

LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean Split-Screen

What is… I don’t even… Can’t we just watch the movie?

The recent attempt was LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean. The stars seemed to be perfectly aligned. She loves the series a lot. The new movie was about to come out (and she adores Penélope Cruz). LEGO games are known to be very forgiving but most importantly, they can be played cooperatively. They are divided into simple, byte-sized levels perfect for short sessions so I thought it would be easy to convince her to play for a quarter hour or so.

We started playing and it went well at first. But already after the first movie, the dream boat I was sailing on began to pick up water. It just didn’t really work and we had to stop. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Skill Gap – The main problem is something that many people fail to consider. Co-op games work very bad if there is huge gap of skill between the partners. There is this romantic idea of a veteran helping a noob out. In reality, I found that this is actually never a fun experience. The noob won’t actually learn anything because the veteran is always there to help out. The noob will never experience defeat so he can’t really learn from his mistakes. On top of that, he will have a much lesser sense of success because there is always that feeling that the other guy did all the work. As for the veteran, he will just be held back by the noob. He will be constantly torn between picking up the slack for the noob or waiting for the noob to catch up. Ironically, this is something I experience on a regular basis when I play Monster Hunter with my podcast buddies. I’m often the one in the inferior gear because I haven’t invested that much time in the game yet. My podcast buddies are very nice to help me out with some of my quests. But I always feel like I used a cheat code to skip a part of the game I was supposed to do by myself.

  • Chaos – Another issue is that games tend to get very chaotic when more players are involved. In the LEGO games the screen is already filled with lots of objects to smash and interact with. Add a dynamic split-screen that constantly changes orientation. Then add a battle sequence when a group of enemies is swarming in. Then add the ability for both players to change the appearance of their characters. Even for an experienced player it becomes very difficult to merely recognize which character you are controlling. And then you still need to figure out where to go and what to do. Single player is chaotic too, but at least you have all the time in the world to figure things out. Again, this is something I observed in other games as well. StarCraft II being another good example. It’s clearly balanced for 1v1 duels where it is an intense battle of the minds. When going 2v2 and especially 3v3, the game becomes a chaotic, arbitrary troll fest.

  • Adaptation Issues – One thing that was driving my GF at the beginning was a genuine passion for the source material. And sure, seeing even the walk animation of Captain Jack Sparrow was just hilarious at first. But then some incongruities set in. For example, one of the most memorable action scenes was the one in the second movie where they are on the water wheel of a mill that has come loose and is rolling trough a jungle. We were both looking forward to this in the game. Sadly, we were disappointed. There is a huge blunder ruining specifically in that scene. You are supposed to throw an Axe at Jack Sparrow, who is stuck in the rim of the wheel. There is nothing really telling you that. It doesn’t really make sense – you can reach him with a saber just fine. And even if you try it, the window for doing it is so small, you never even realize that you were attempting the right thing but just screwed up the timing. So what was supposed to be a smart, memorable, quirky action scene turned into a long, frustrating exercise of blindly trying everything over and over again. It culminated in looking up the solution on YouTube. The game has quite a few scenes like this. The Kraken boss from the same movie was similarly problematic for us. So slowly but steadily, our initial enthusiasm was undermined.

  • Source Material Issues – But perhaps that last part wasn’t entirely the game’s fault. Because we both realized that the movies just aren’t that great after all. LEGO Star Wars provides a good counter-example. Those movies are well-known and incredibly iconic. They use very stereotypical characters and easily understandable situations. So LEGO Star Wars worked well as a humorous remix of those familiar stories. Conversely, the story of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies is a catastrophic mess. The character’s motivations are hazy at best. There are multiple parties with unclear goals. Individual characters constantly switch sides. By the third movie, there are so many characters, most of the time you have not the slightest clue what is going on. In a movie, this may be bearable. You just hang in there and wait for the next scene where Jack Sparrow does something silly. But in a game where you need to actively play out all those filler scenes in-between, they can become a drag.

  • We gradually just stopped playing by the 3rd movie. I returned to the game alone just recently. And it is actually much more enjoyable for me alone. With the co-op issues out of the way, the other problems turned out to be not that bad because I don’t care about the series that much. I’m familiar with the structure of the LEGO games and they represent a very safe, comfortable type of gaming for me. It just turns out that they don’t translate too well into co-op with such asymmetric partners.

    The latter two issues have to do with the Pirates of the Carribean series. They were pivotal for my GF’s motivation but could have gone potentially differently with other material. I’m more worried about the first two issues. They may suggest that we will never be able to play together. The best way to introduce my GF into gaming may be by not to getting involved at all. Which kinda defeats the purpose.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

10 responses to “Stop Co-op Piracy”

  1. barbex

    Sorry, I can’t help you. I’ve been trying to get my husband into gaming for years now, no success. We played Lego Star Wars on the PS2 and we had fun, I build him a game capable PC and set up a Steam account and gifted him things like Borderlands to play with him but it is just no more interesting to him than watching TV or surfing the web!

    If the interest isn’t there, there is nothing you and I can do to change that I’m afraid.

  2. Altaem

    Strange that you should have so much trouble. My wife and I got Lego pirates for our wii and made it a rule that we’d only play together.

    For the most part it worked fine. Our main complaint being for many problems you can’t do anything unless you’re Jack Sparrow. A problem solved when replaying the game as we can switch characters at will, and have multiple Jacks unlocked.

    A lesser problem was the uselessness of the split screen. Due to the small size of most play areas we could rarely split up anyway.

    Agree some of the battles are insanely obscure. The kraken was a pain even after reading a walk through.

  3. Michael Samyn

    The problem with videogames is that they are not really fun as games. The really interesting and enjoyable aspects of videogames lie beyond a layer of competitive play. So, ironically, only people who are good at competitive play (and thus probably enjoy it), have access to those “hidden” joys.

    Maybe you should play a game that is less competitive (less about reaching a goal, etc) or that is more forgiving. Or make a videogame together with your girlfriend. That way, playing other videogames becomes research and she might be more motivated to bite through the annoying geek layer.

    Games that I’ve had good “whole family” play experiences with are Animal Crossing, Mario Cart Wii, Kessen II for PlayStation 2, Baldur’s Gate for PlayStation 2, the first few levels of Little Big Planet (before it becomes a challenging platform game), Guild Wars and A Tale in the Desert.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Animal Crossing wouldn’t work because it can’t be played simultaneously and it becomes effective only over a span of multiple sessions.

      Little Big Planet did work but exactly as you pointed out – only the first few levels.

      I haven’t considered Baldur’s Gate or Guid Wars but I wanted to try an RPG. That can’t be played cooperatively, though.

      Haven’t heard of Kessen or A Tale in the Desert yet. I’ll look into it!

      In general, LEGO Pirates is actually pretty good in not being competitive. Unlike LBP, you have infinite lives. That’s why I found it so surprising that the co-op didn’t work out.

  4. Michael Samyn

    Why do you want to play co-op? Often switching controllers can be a lot of fun too (where each player would do the parts that they are good at or prefer to do, while the other watches the show).

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Because I like games and I don’t trust myself not to hog the controller.
      Because she isn’t interested in games yet and just as passive activity, movies will always seem superior to her.
      Because the point is have her play.
      Because the point is to be together in that world.
      And because many problems I have mentioned won’t be necessarily alleviated by passing the controller.

      1. James O.

        I’ve come to realize that people who don’t enjoy games, do so because they won’t let themselves enjoy them.

        These kinds of people always play videogames while staying an arms length away. That is, while you and I may be engrossed in the experience, they stay beyond the 4th wall of believability. They can’t suspend their disbelief for games because they won’t let themselves. They play games like you or I might wash the dishes: they are physically doing the activity, but their mind is somewhere else. They’re thinking about the other things they could be doing, so they don’t ever give the experience a genuine chance. They sit back on the couch and subconsciously critisize the experience to some how invalidate it in their minds. They never become engrossed in it.

        I used to play Donkey Kong Country with my dad all the time when I was 8. Despite having less experience with games, he was usually better than me once he got going. He seemed to genuinely enjoy games, but never went out of his way to play on his own. But when I got the Wii, he probably spent more time on it than I. He loved the thing. He love the bowling, boxing, shooting — everything. Then, when I moved out later that year, he never played one again.

        This is the behavior I don’t understand: If he really liked the Wii, and then it was taken from him, why wouldn’t he go out to buy his own?

        Nongamers don’t take the extra step to allow themselves to enjoy it. Its as if they live in a world where games just come and go. One day there is a Wii, and it was great, but now its gone forever. The idea of owning their own game system is nonexistent.

        I know he’d be happy with his own game system, and I’ve tried countlessly to get him into it. But nongamers won’t take the extra step of expanding their hobby themselves. Its as if they convince themselves that its a “kid’s toy” or that “games aren’t really me.” So despite the fact that they really did enjoy it a lot, they won’t actively seek out that enjoyment at all. They some how convince themselves that its some sort of guilty pleasure, and they tell themselves that they don’t like it until its effectively true.

        So there are 2 types of nongamers:
        Those who won’t allow themselves to invest psychologically into the experience, and those who enjoy games but won’t invest themselves financially into the hobby.

        The difference between these people and gamers, is that gamers seem to be more OK with expanding their horizons, and can easily invest themselves into fantasy. This is why we actively seek out new ways to enjoy games, or find new genres that might interest us.

        Changing a nongamer is like changing a racist: its not going to happen. Unless you somehow break their inner psychological barrier that won’t allow themselves to try new things and give them a chance. You have to somehow remove all their preconceived notions and replace them with openness for enjoying an experience. The thing is, you can’t change someones mind for them. So the trouble is getting them to change it themselves.

        1. Michael Samyn

          Thank you, James O., for the enlightening insight into the mind of a gamer!

          I consider myself a non-gamer. I play many videogames and even enjoy them somewhat sometimes. But without professional reasons (I create games), I’d probably be like your dad, and not get a new games console if my current one would disappear somehow.

          There once was a time when I was hopeful for videogames and when I did really want to play them because it felt the medium was opening up and becoming ambitious (early 2000’s, I guess). But after Ico, Silent Hill 2 and Black & White, things closed down instead of opening up. And all games devolved back into some version of the arcade model.

          I’m not talking about web games or mobile games here. Everyone plays these. This is about console and PC games. I don’t think non-gamers are not sufficiently open-minded. I think games themselves are too single minded and too closed. They only cater to one particular style of play (the one preferred by the developers) and the subject matter they deal with is extremely narrow. It’s a bit as if all comic strips would be about super heroes. And there would be no books without pictures.

          There’s different kinds of people in the world. And videogames only cater to one of them.

          1. James

            I do see what you mean. I mentioned this also: video games seem to attract a specific kind of person, and don’t really appeal to all wider audiences in general.

            But my question is: why?

            I can agree with you that games seem to almost all follow the same formula now. Just like the arcade days. But at the same time, there are so many genres of games, I don’t see how they don’t appeal to larger audience. Some games are very actiony, and others have no action or violence at all. Some are realistic, and others very whimsical.

            I think the problem is more personal. The avid TV watcher doesn’t want to participate in games. They want to sit back and passively have entertainment thrown at them. They don’t want to read, interact, decide, or make any types of choices at all.

            This is why your average TV/Movie watcher probably reads less than 1 book per year. Because reading is an active intake of information, just like games. You have to think a little, and can’t just absorb. Simply, its too much work and people are lazy.

            So yeah, its a bigger problem than just games, but a psychological one none the less.

            Getting an average person to play games is the very same problem of “how do we get more children to read?”

            There is something about “active entertainment” that scares the average person, and I don’t know why (because I love it). But it seems that most people would prefer to sit on the sidelines and watch others have fun.

  5. Michael Samyn

    I see the problem. You like games too much. I don’t think co-op is going to solve that. Maybe you should try to play a game that you don’t like.

    Or play an MMORPG and have her play a character of level 40 and you of level 3. :)


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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