Ready Player Two, Three & Four
The current state of couch co-op has been altered for what seems like an eternity. The pandemic of 2020 in some ways forever changed how we communicate, work and consume media. On the surface, gamers would seem to benefit from this “new way of life”. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. To be fair, when the lockdowns began and the paranoia escalated, for a moment it felt like an extended holiday. The emergence of online play during the 7th generation of consoles made keeping up with your friends and playing together easier (in most cases). However, as the case numbers increased and the pandemic escalated the reality of what was at hand truly began to sink in. We have shifted to a place of overreliance on technology to enjoy our gaming. Thanks to the increasing popularity of Indie Games, the couch co-op phenomenon has returned. Herein lies the problem. Often with budgets that would barely cover the lunch tab at AAA studio, can offline couch co-op thrive?
Growing up in the 80s, couch co-op was king
Every week felt like a mad dash (NO not the Crystal Dynamics OG Xbox launch game) to get to Friday. The location didn’t matter – anyone that had a console knew eventually the festivities would end up at their house. The excitement was palpable as pre-adolescents poured hour after hour into what turned into some of the game industry’s classic titles. While not every title was a winner, the experience itself was worth the playtime. Whether outside playing in the woods, riding bikes, or sitting on the floor gaming you did it with your friends close by.
While technology has certainly improved, there has also been a shift away from the offline modes in favour of online play. You would be hard-pressed to not look at the effect the original Halo had on the market when it was released in 2001. The 80’s child was now in College drilling holes in dorm walls just to system link an Xbox for a weekend of wild debauchery or rather night-long LAN sessions with your neighbours. Even then, we assembled in a way the Avengers could only dream. The conversations, the food, the games but more importantly the memories that were made in the presence of what in some cases became lifelong friends can never be replaced.
Welcome to the next generation
Technological advancements in online play further pushed players apart. While this is a bit of an exaggeration the fact remains that the accessibility to reliable internet made gaming more convenient apart. Unfortunately, the strongest voices of the time (the consumers) asked and in some instances begged for more online features. Newly graduated from college and in the real world, time was now a valuable asset. Gone, were the days of impromptu overnight sessions. Instead, they slowly were replaced by scheduled sessions or just randomly logging in. This convenience came at a cost.
Gaming has reached a new stage in its life cycle. The once niche hobby now sits as a multi-billion dollar industry. This evolution mirrors that of the consumers who support the industry whilst battling that unruly undefeated boss, time. New technology breeds new ways of communication. The online boom that started with little labels that read “Online Enabled” is now common enough to just be a bullet point on the back. This shift has also been seen in the offline multiplayer space. Why produce wooden wheels when everyone else has moved onto rubber and steel?
The Nintendo Switch burst onto the scene
The Switch was Nintendo’s latest step towards blending the home and handheld markets but one that was incapable of battling the Sony and Microsoft behemoths head-to-head in raw power. But as you have no doubt been told at some point in your life; looks are not everything. As a result, this has fostered an atmosphere of experimentation and freedom not seen on consoles for quite a while. With that, there has been a surge of titles that put forward offline multiplayer components as well as couch co-op.
While many factors could be at play, economics and time appear to be the biggest offenders. Simply put some developers ultimately lack the money needed to support the servers for their titles. Further, that previously mentioned undefeated boss known as time is back. Single-person studios can’t be faulted for prioritising patches and updates over implementing new features and maintaining the associated server while also working on their next title – and in some cases holding a 9 to 5 job on top of that.
Jump to the present day (2021) and far gone are the nights of long gaming sessions. Passing out in your gamer chair only to be awakened by phone calls and texts telling you it’s your turn. Instead, responsibility, parenting being a good partner all take precedence. The market and trends show no real sign of shifting back to a focus on couch play. To be fair, how could it? The pandemic further separated people making online the easiest most reliable way to interact with friends. Nintendo themselves may have actually answered the question of how to recapture those joyous childhood memories but with today’s technology to support it.
The much-maligned Nintendo Online Service is no stranger to criticism
However, one feature often overlooked that should be praised is its implementation of online multiplayer while emulating and running NES/SNES titles that existed before the internet. The ability to fire up a couch co-op session of Super Mario Brothers with a buddy from 30 years ago has never felt so transformative. The waves of nostalgia sweep in as the all too familiar tunes kick in as you journey back to the mid-80s. Conceptualising the idea of one day playing with your childhood friends while approaching middle age was the furthest thing from our minds while we jumped and smashed bricks all night long.
The global pandemic has certainly altered a lot of things forever. While couch co-op as the main form of multiplayer connection will never go away, the rapid increase in technological advancement makes it a moot point. AS the world opens back up more people will soon welcome friends not seen in a while over. Thankfully, video games will be waiting so long as you have a spare controller.
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