Video games, from the start, have been meant to be play with friends. But, until relatively recently, it was more common to go against your friends, not team up with them. So why are gamers more likely to work together now instead of going after everybody else?
Technology vs. Friendship
There was a limit to co-op gaming as Atari and then Nintendo started putting a game console in front of every television. The first was technological: It was tricky to work out co-op play, so many developers didn’t bother. While there was the occasional exception, such as Contra, by and large co-op gaming was limited to the arcade.
While co-op became technically feasible as consoles improved, it just wasn’t as popular as defeating your friends. But co-op gaming was beginning to come together in an entirely different place.
Fighting with Friends
Really, the roots of every co-op experience in modern gaming, from fragging bots with friends in an FPS to going on a raid, comes down to Diablo and Battle.net. PC gaming was no stranger to multiplayer. Competitive multiplayer over a network was actually, at first, one of the key features of classics like Doom.
But it came with a few drawbacks: Multiplayer needed a LAN network, and it functioned by compiling everything you did and transmitting it to everyone else in a deathmatch every 1/35th of a second. Any delay in that, or any mistake in the order of commands transmitted and sent, and you get lag. The further apart the network and the slower the connection, the worse lag got, and it could mean the difference between winning and losing a match.
Battle.net changed how co-op worked. It was originally just a tool to connect other players to games directly, but being able to play with somebody else over a connection was an entirely new experience for many. As a result, co-op gaming in PC exploded, but console games were at a distinct disadvantage in that none of them were on the internet in any meaningful way.
It wasn’t for lack of effort, at least for some companies. Part of the reason the Dreamcast is so beloved is that it actually shipped with a modem. Unfortunately, it shipped with a dial-up modem, and it wasn’t until 2002, and the Xbox, that co-op gaming meant something more on consoles.
That was largely thanks to Halo. The idea of teaming up with your friends, and killing other groups of friends, was arguably the gameplay that the Xbox sold on, and in fairly short order, as the internet spread to more corners of the world, co-op exploded on consoles.
While that was happening, consoles and PC games were moving closer together. As consoles became more advanced, and porting became less of an expensive chore, developers began to develop a more complicated approach to co-op.
A New Kind of Playing Together
At this point, one could argue that co-op games are almost their own genre. New modes and ideas are being tried out all the time, from 4-on-1 multiplayer to asynchronous multiplayer. In many ways, co-op games are their own games, either standing alone, such as in Evolve, or as a part of a larger story. In a way, you could say it’s gone full circle. The future of games is playing together.