With the fate of our ship in our hands, our eyes were glued to the screen. As the asteroid careened towards us, I frantically yelled, “Everybody shake!”
This is Spaceteam, a “cooperative shouting game” created by Henry Smith of Sleeping Beast Games. In the game, each player controls different parts of the ship. The only hiccup? Instructions for your control panel often appear on the screen of other players (and vice versa). As such, in order to power the ship and avoid those pesky asteroids or ship-sucking wormholes, players need to work together.
During the past few years, Spaceteam has been one of a handful of games focusing on local cooperative play. These games depend on players working together towards a common goal. As we’ve previously reported, out of all forms of social gaming, this type of play seems to have an edge when it comes to enjoyability. While it’s certainly thrilling to triumph over another player, there’s something quite special when players triumph over a play experience together.
Games like Spaceteam tap into these feelings but with an added twist: you do a lot of talking.
For these games, the central core is communication or, more aptly, the challenges of miscommunication. Whether it’s because players are pressed for time or encountering seemingly indescribable symbols, these games bring to light the communication breakdowns we often face when relaying information. The game difficulty then comes mainly from the player interactions themselves.
In Spaceteam for example, its creator Henry Smith says the game is really about “reading body language, knowing when to not speak, when to wait, and when to take your turn.”
So while there are overt goals (such as surviving space), the underlying goal of these games is ultimately to understand and to be understood.
Take Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. The bomb-defusing game assigns players into the role of a “Defuser” and an “Expert.” As the Defuser, the player can see and interact with the bomb but must rely on the Expert (who cannot see the bomb but has the manual) to give disarming instructions.
Like Spaceteam, Keep Talking transforms the experience into a big puzzle where each player is given only a snippet of the overall picture. Doing this “blindfolds” players which in turn forces them to verbalize what they see but also requires them to explain in ways other players can understand. For example, faced with a strange looking symbol, the Defuser must find a way to describe it (“It [looks] like a ‘Y’ and an ‘I’”) so that the Expert can find the symbol and give the necessary instructions on what to do next.
It’s like a round of charades but one where guessing the intended message is only a stepping stone to the next puzzle.
Hayden Platt, one of the developers of Shackle (a VR horror game using similar “blindfolding” mechanics), says a large part of his game’s difficulty lies in how it parcels out the information given to each player. “Shackle levels would not be difficult if it was just one person and they could see the entire room,” explains Platt. “What makes it difficult is you’re working with broken pieces of information. You need to work with your partner to create full clues and then [from there] figure out what you need to do next.”
Communication then is key. Players can’t simply bulldoze through a level because each player has different pieces of the puzzle. These games are “cooperative” for a reason-you need to work together to win. At the same time, the replayability factor revolves around the players themselves. Because personalities and backgrounds differ, the dynamics between the players involved will constantly change.
Play a round of Spaceteam with a group of friends versus one with strangers and you’ll quickly see how your own interpersonal relationships shape how the game is played.
Because there’s a treasure trove of gameplay that can be mined from these player interactions, these games purposely focus on the communication aspect. For instance, in Spaceteam, Smith purposely designed it so that there’s only one interaction: following orders. “Once I realized that communicating back and forth, following instructions, was fun in itself, I just focused…on that,” says Smith. “I only added things if they would add to the chaos (i.e. things breaking down) or the humour…everything else I ended up cutting.”
Since these games use communication breakdowns as a gameplay challenge, they tend to also have open-ended structures that let players solve the game in ways creators didn’t anticipate. In the case of Spaceteam, one example Smith recalls was a demonstration where a crowd formed around players. Looking over those who were playing, the crowd starting telling them what to press. Then, someone started to press the controls themselves, with the game inevitably accommodating two people playing on the same iPad. Though not technically how it was meant to be played, the game was flexible enough to allow it and created a new playing experience.
“[Spaceteam is] very flexible in how it gets used. It made me realize, what I’m creating here…is a sort of framework for playing instead of a specific game with a specific ruleset that you can’t deviate from,” says Smith.
It’s this flexibility that Platt likes about cooperative games. “I think [these games] leave a lot of room for really creative thinking. You find, arguably, more emergent behaviour,” says Platt. “…when two minds are working together to achieve the same goal, [there’s] a broader range of solution base [and] a bigger range of ideas.”
These games though are not without pitfalls. Technical challenges aside (both Smith and Platt admit they faced significant challenges when programming the networked portion of their games), designing a well-balanced cooperative game requires its creators to think about how all players could react.
“In a co-op game, where everyone is supposed to be on the same team, you have to make sure that everyone has the right amount of stuff to do…so no one gets left behind,” explains Smith. One of the biggest challenges of co-op games come from players with dominant personalities. These are the folks who micromanage everyone, take control of the game, and tell others what needs to be done on every turn (which lessens the fun for others).
Smith wanted to minimize this in Spaceteam. Instead, he wanted to create a more meaningful experience where “everyone has a role to play…they can find their strengths and weaknesses, and work as a team.” Knowing these issues beforehand, he says he’s lucky because the way he envisioned Spaceteam made those issues easy to avoid. From the game’s hectic pace (too fast to micromanage) and the use of private information (nobody knows what everyone has unless you look at each other’s screens), players can’t help but cooperate with each other.
All in all, it’s this cooperative aspect that makes games like Spaceteam, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, and Shackle enjoyable to play. “We kind of noticed a lot of the time, we would have people play together (who have never met before), by the time they were done, they [were saying], ‘Oh my god, do you remember when you did that? That was so smart when you did this…'” recalls Platt. “Players felt closer [after the experience and it] created the sense of camaraderie that you don’t find as much in a competitive space.”