Drifting Away From Halo: The Removal of Couch Co-Op in Halo 5

Playing video games with my friends and family has always been the medium’s biggest draw for me. To partner up with someone you care about and take on a world of monsters, zombies, and aliens is truly something special. When I look back at my earliest gaming memories, I see that they all involve other people: Playing through Sonic 3 as Tails and flying my friend away from harm; using an infinite lives glitch in Joust and getting to level 100 with my brother; racing alongside my neighbor in Mario Kart, trying to best all of the AI players who were much better than us.

All of these memories stand out because I was sharing the fun. Saving the world is simply better with a partner and a bottle of whiskey close at hand.

Over the many years I’ve been gaming, Halo has become my favorite vessel for cooperative play. I love everything about the series, from the lore to the guns to the difficulty spike that is Legendary Mode, but most of all, I love that I’ve been able to share this series with my brother.

While I had played Halo 1 on the PC when it first came out, it wasn’t until 2007 that I really got into the series with Halo 3. Up until that point, my gaming attention was divided between the PC and the Gamecube, and I could best be described as a Nintendo fanboy. But Halo 3, that game changed it all. My brother and I went in on an Xbox 360, purchased Halo 3, and were blown away by what we got to experience.

To this day, I still believe that the last level in Halo 3 is one of the best last levels in all of video game history.

When playing through the campaign again and again finally lost its shine, we hit up multiplayer. 2007 quickly became the year of Capture the Flag, Disturbed’s album Indestructible, and Captain Morgan spiced rum.

In 2008 Halo: ODST came out with Firefight, which brought a whole new level of cooperative fun. In 2010, the Halo train continued with Halo: Reach. It was around then that playing every weekend on Friday, without fault, became a tradition that is still going on to this day.

College and work separated us, but we still make time to get together, sit on the same couch, play loud music, drink and kill aliens.

And then a week ago, Game Informer published a big list of new information for Halo 5, and hidden within was the removal of local campaign co-op.

Up until that point, Halo 5 was easily my most anticipated game of this year. It’s a game I’ve been following closely, and I’ve now lost count on how many conversations I’ve had with others, speculating on what Master Chief is up to and wondering who Agent Locke is. Halo 5 promises a better campaign than Halo 4, which is my favorite of the six primary Halo games.

In one quick swoop, 343 killed all of my enthusiasm for a franchise I’ve been playing for over seven years.

Even now, with E3 upon us, I’m watching the new Halo 5 campaign trailer and only feeling something akin to bitterness. I see all of these tactical, squad-based movements and can’t help but wonder why couch co-op has been taken out. Pushing a button and directing an AI player is nothing when you’re arguing with a real person, someone right beside you, that he should go first because “he’s better” and “No I won’t stick you with a plasma grenade, honest.”

I am disappointed, but not just with 343 and Halo; I’m disappointed that couch co-op is dying, considered old fashioned, and according to the comment sections on some websites, not something that will be missed.

I’ll miss it; I’ll miss it very much.

I want to take a quick moment to look at some numbers, not in a specific sense but in a general one. There’s no precise way to really measure the death of this form of game play, at least not easily, but http://www.co-optimus.com does provide a few fun tools to work with. We can at least notice a trend.

Because my primary console for the last decade has been an Xbox 360, I’m using that as my platform base. My search criteria are couch co-op and co-op campaign. I realize these parameters are a little unwieldy given the nature of some games, especially move tie ins which normally aren’t good or might not have co-op as a defining trait, but we’re looking for trends, not hard numbers.

  • 2007 had 22 games with campaign couch co-op
  • 2008 had 24 games with campaign couch co-op
  • 2009 had 28 games with campaign couch co-op
  • 2010 had 22 games with campaign couch co-op
  • 2011 had 34 games with campaign couch co-op
  • 2012 had 22 games with campaign couch co-op
  • 2013 had 17 games with campaign couch co-op
  • 2014 had 10 games with campaign couch co-op

Between 2007 and 2010, the numbers are a little scattered, with some years having more couch co-op games than others, and that’s not unexpected. Years differ greatly in what’s released. However, between the years 2011 and 2014, the numbers do nothing but decline, and by 2014, we don’t even have a dozen games to work with.

For someone like me, who primarily plays console games for a cooperative experiences, that hurts. I’ve gone out of my way to buy games that some consider bad or I might not generally be interested in because they had a cooperative campaign to play through. Resident Evil 5 and Diablo 3 come to mind, both of which are amazing cooperative experiences that I imagine are no fun to play solo, the former due to buggy AI and the latter because it’s repetitive to a fault.

If you asked me why couch co-op was on the decline, I’d be hard pressed to give an answer. It certainly can’t be due to hardware limitations as by 2014, every developer new how to push the Xbox 360 to its absolute best. Perhaps it has to do with games themselves. The medium has certainly grown over the last decade, especially in its ability to deliver a true narrative experience. I can see developers not wanting a secondary screen around to muddy the hard work they’ve put into their environments or stories, because let’s face it: It’s harder to pay attention to what’s going on when two people are sharing a screen.

Or perhaps it has more to do with the way we as a gamer society have changed. Internet access isn’t just common but a household necessity now, and all of the new shiny consoles require it. Plug in an Xbox One and the first thing it wants to do is update; the same goes for the PlayStation 4. So you combine widespread internet with the widespread availability of microphones, chat software like Skype, and one has to wonder why anyone would leave his house to visit another to play video games; it’s just easier to just stay at home. You can still talk to your friends, join their parties, drink, and kill the bad guys to your heart’s content.

Granted, you’d technically be drinking alone, but only technically.

I sincerely hope that isn’t the case though, because I don’t want society to be okay with considering talking through a headset the epitome of social gaming interaction. It works, and I’ve certainly done it and had plenty of fun, but it’s not the same as being in the same room with someone. It’s a simultaneous experience, but not a shared one.

And for what it’s worth (and we can put a price tag on this), it costs more to have two Xbox Ones, two TVs, two Gold accounts, and two copies of the same game. The shared-experience method isn’t just more fun, it’s also much cheaper.

To be honest, I’m not sure I really noticed a decline in couch co-op games until recently, when I exhausted the ones I owned and started looking for something else I could play with my friends and family. I play console games so infrequently that there’s always something to check out though, and I don’t mind delving into a console’s past to find some gems. A game doesn’t need to be new to be new to me. Earth Defense Force 2025 came out in 2013, yet I didn’t get to it until late 2014. It’s now one of my absolute favorite games, and that has everything to do with how insanely fun it is to play with others. The constant yelling of, “Oh my God, that just happened” is infectious, especially when the dragons show up.

Noticeable decline or not, Halo always promised to be there for me, to fill the role that games fill best. It’s part of a wonderful trinity, standing tall next to Borderlands and Gears of War, both of which I’ve spent many hours in with friends and family.

Now it’s gone. Halo 5 is the first primary Halo game to not have couch co-op. It’s broken a six-game run, and I can’t help but feel like the video game medium has suffered a big blow because of it.

Bound By Flame: The First Two Hours

Normally I prefer not to curse in these posts as I’d like to maintain some level of mature respectability, but it feels like a pair of hammers are hardcore fucking the inside of my skull and Bound by Flame is fucking terrible. Fuck the rules, I’m just too tired to care.

See, I don’t normally ragequit video games. I value the almighty dollar and prefer to get my monies worth out of all products, though as it turns out, I value my time more. This has been an introspective learning experience.

Woohoo…

So Bound by Flame, the $40 shitheap Spiders developed which stole two and a half hours of my life! I’m told there are about 27 more hours to go, but that thought just makes me depressed. The mature side of me is going, “But there’s so much you didn’t experience; surely you can’t judge a game by only two and a half hours worth of play!”

Maturity can go fuck itself tonight.

Bound by Flame’s worst enemy, as far as the first two hours are concerned, is its gameplay. A game can have a plethora of problems and still be worth experiencing, but if it plays like shit, then nothing else is important.

Gameplay is the thing that connects all of the other aspects of a game together, and the thing that connects Bound by Flame’s bad voice acting and terrible writing is fundamentally flawed. At best it’s boring, but at worst—and oh how the game enjoys being at worst—it’s broken.

Combat is slow and sluggish, and even the big weapons feel like they lack weight. Swinging them isn’t fun, and there’s little depth to be had (at least in the first two and a half hours). There aren’t any other meters to play around with, only your health bar and a mana bar. Swing your sword, hold parry to block, then swing your sword again. Back and forth and back and forth.

It’s boring.

It becomes downright frustrating when you’re attacking more than one monster at a time, for the monsters do a shit job of advertising their attacks. The whole game would function drastically better if the monsters telegraphed their intentions, but instead they wiggle some tiny thing that’s hard to make out (the camera is pulled back way too far) and then a large chunk of your health is missing.

The more monsters around you, the harder it is to tell what any one of them will do, and you’re multi-hit swings are slow and weak. If you get surrounded, you’re pretty much going to die.

I thought I could circumvent a few things by trying to be a more ranged class since my fireball spell seemed to be pretty powerful. I stuck a bunch of talent points into it and set off with the aim of blowing all of my foes up!

As it turns out, my hero is a shit aim. Half the time my fireballs would miss—and I shoot three of them at once—and enemies are so fast they’d close the distance before I could fire off more than a few.

The game is frustrating to play, and it doesn’t even give you the knowledge that it’s fair or even gives a shit. If you die in something like Dark Souls you know it’s your fault; if you die here, it’s because the game is downright clunky and poorly designed.

The writing is terrible as well. I didn’t expect a winning narrative by any means, but I also figure it’s impossible to fuck up hordes of revenants. This is some fantasy 101 shit, and I’m perfectly fine with bottom-of-the-barrel fantasy, but even here, the game just doesn’t try.

Characters vomit out words because the plot demands they speak, and no one seems to care about the environment around them. My hero gets possessed by a demon and I kill a big monster. That’s some serious shit! So at first she goes, “Oh God! I’m burning” and sounds like she’s in pain; five seconds later and she’s goes, “Wow! I killed that thing. Don’t I kick ass?”

Everyone around her just shrugs as if they weren’t even there.

The dialogue itself is filled with anachronisms and is poorly delivered, and all of it amounts to exposition.

The first conversation you have with the demon that possesses you is infuriatingly bad. The demon attempts to speak in some butchered form of Early Modern English but gets too lazy to keep the charade up every other paragraph, and the actual content is just drivel.

To cap it all off, the PC version is a poor port. I couldn’t map anything to my extra mouse buttons despite this being the year 2014, and I couldn’t map any of my main spells to anything but the 1-4 numerals. I have a keyboard with more buttons than I rightfully need, yet I can’t use most of them? How the fuck can this still be a problem?

When Bound by Flame works, it’s boring and poorly constructed. That’s when this shit game is at its best. Otherwise the gameplay is a horror of imbalance and frustration where one fighting stance is so much better than the other that there might as well only be one. Who designs a game where half the way you can play it is unplayable?

Spiders, apparently.

Fuck. This. Game.

A Last Minute Change: Game Development

(Didn’t plan on tossing this and others like it here, but exposure is exposure and I’m happy with how this project is going. Happy means sharing. For more information about The Regret of Vitrerran, please visit http://www.dualwieldsoftware.com/ You can find us on Facebook and Twitter at @Dualwieldsoft)

The title to this post is one part joke and one part reality. As it stands, The Regret of Vitrerran is early in development and so any changes made right now aren’t and cannot be last minute. We haven’t even Kickstarted this yet! However, we did—or rather, Joe did—employ a very substantial change that has pushed our Kicktarter plans back a bit.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the last two and a half weeks have been absolutely correct.

The Regret of Vitrerran is now a different game with different gameplay.

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See, here’s the fun thing about being part of a small team: there’s no one to say “no” to changes or new ideas. Most changes are small, as the gist of the project is fairly set in stone, and if they don’t pan out, all that’s needed is to reload an older file.

There’s no real formal method to how we are approaching game development, so as it stands, all ideas are at least worth talking about. Some are worth trying. Most have been worth implementing.

So about two and a half weeks ago Joe came up to me and said something along the lines of, “Hey, we have a real-time card game that doesn’t really feel like a real-time card game due to balance delays. I want to fix that, but that means changing a lot of it.”

I was concerned. This wasn’t a small change. “How long will this take?” I asked.

“I can have a mockup done before the weekend is out. Take about six hours.”

I will forever stand by the fact that our original gameplay designs were fun, even if they were perhaps a bit strange and quite hard to explain. We had a three by three grid where attack and defense cards were placed, the goal to break through a defense to unleash an attack. However, the game didn’t quite play the way either of us expected.

Let’s look at fires. You have an area and I have an area, and both of us have the means to throw fire and the means to put the fires out. I throw my fire at you, and you douse it in water. You do the same to me and I douse the flame. The emphasis here isn’t on setting fires but putting them out. I throw more fires; you hope to have more water on hand to put them out. We are trying to burn each other to the ground yes, but too much emphasis seems to be placed on the water.

Our first model was too defense focused. Too chaotic. We want to make a card game, and card games play host to strategy, yet our old version didn’t require all that much strategy. Having forethought was better than not having it, but I found it just as useful to throw attack cards randomly and only bother with precision when it came to defense.

And really, attacking just didn’t have the force or fun it should have had. Setting fires is more fun than putting them out. When you attack in a game, you want immediate feedback. You want a noise and an action. You want fire. In our first version, you were met with a delay as the attack card prepared to work. The opponent had to have the chance to defend, otherwise defense cards weren’t useful.

Every action was delayed, which was interesting, fun in its own right, but not right.

Joe wanted to remove the delays to create immediate feedback. “I don’t know why we never bothered with this before” he said, and I don’t either.

What he wanted to do was create two grids, one for attacking and one for defending. That posed its own problems, but a “what if the defense cards stack so you can keep refreshing them?” fixed the biggest one.

My main concern was actually one of uniqueness, which is both foolish and petulant now that I think about it. I have seen other games with attack and defense parameters before, and I liked that ours contained them in one place. I liked that we were making a game quite different from others, and this felt like a step backwards.

Joe was adamant and I was curious, and so he retooled our gameplay to what it now is and what it will now stay (unless a better idea strikes, but I’d rather not dwell on that). I think it took a bit longer than he had wanted it to, but he did have it done before that weekend was out.

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And, sad story, it didn’t work. The emphasis was now on attack, but strategy had fled the field. See, even though there were nine places to attack and nine places to defend, it really didn’t matter: attacking in one spot over and over proved the only strategy worth employing.

“Well, I programmed this in a much more efficient way, so it isn’t completely lost” Joe said, and we both frowned and wondered what to do.

The answer turned out to be delays. This bothered me for actual gameplay reasons: we are making a real-time card game, and too many delays might make it feel like a turn-based game. Too many delays might make the player feel too controlled, and that’s not fun.

We threw out some more ideas, including a rather stupid one where defense cards ticked up and down—stupid for two reasons: One; it wouldn’t fix the problem and Two; it put unneeded emphasis on defending again (though expect to find magical defense cards that start quite high and tick downwards (stupid ideas have their uses))—and decided to sleep on the idea before scraping it.

I was offput by the delays, but Joe implemented them anyways. I didn’t have any better ideas, and neither of us wanted to throw away that many hours of work. The worry became one of instant gratification: “We can’t force this to work simply because we put immediate time into it when we put a lot more time into the old way.”

But our story has a happy ending, or at least this story has a happy ending. The delays work. They don’t feel too forceful, and they don’t create a turn-based affair. In fact, they make sense. If you’re attacked and hit in a specific spot, you’re bound to put a short-term emphasis on defending that spot so it isn’t hit again. That’s what these delays do.

And actually, they managed to solve all of the little problems with our old gameplay method.

The big gameplay emphasis is now on attacking while keeping up a solid defense. Defense is crucial, but the whole point is to get in solid attacks to win, not to defend the best while hoping for the best. It feels better to play; it feels like the player has more control.

The game now feels more strategic. There’s still some randomness to it, but I wouldn’t recommend being chaotic with your card placements if you want to win. Brute force really won’t work now.

We got to remove parry, which was a needed fix in our old method. If two attack cards were placed in the same spot at the same time, only one would take and that ruined the feel and flow of battle. Parry deleted both cards so it at least felt like you did something, and while the stat was actually quite fun and we wanted to plan utility cards around it, it’s better that it’s gone. We hope to replace that stat at some point since the more we have, the better.

The game is just more fun to play, and it’s more fun to play for longer periods of time. My one real worry with our old method was keeping things fresh for eight full single-player campaigns. That worry no longer exists. We’re now talking about creating bosses that extend or decrease the battle grids to make things even more hectic. Three by three can feel overwhelming at times, so surely a four by four would be even more intense.

The entire battlefield is now symmetrical, and humans just generally prefer symmetry. We got to remove the discard area as well.

A few misplaced weeks and the game is better than it ever has been, and now things are back on track for our Kickstarter attempt. Joe is working on more art and more magic to show off in a trailer, and I’m back to learning the mysteries behind FL Studio so I can create sound effects.

My hopes are high because I’m confident this game is going to be good when it’s done.

Super Meat Boy and the Multiverse

There’s something special about Super Meat Boy. Never has a game caused me to curse as much (swearing per hour of game time (s/phg)) as this one. Never has a game been so fun and fluid, yet so punishingly hard and impossible to play while inebriated. Yup, there’s something special about Super Meat Boy.

In Super Meat Boy, you play as Meat Boy, a giant square of meat with arms and legs. He has a girlfriend named Bandage Girl, and when she’s captured by the evil Dr. Fetus, he sets out on the tried and true adventure of “saving the damsel in distress.” What makes Super Meat Boy different from Super Mario Bros or any other “damsel in distress” game is that Meat Boy rescues Bandage Girl at the end of every level, only for her to be swept away and captured again.

This makes Meat Boy a rather interesting hero as he’s both surprisingly good at avoiding all kinds of dangers and rescuing Bandage Girl, yet terribly inefficient in that he can never keep her rescued.

But, while Meat Boy always saves Bandage Girl at the end of a level, I’ve now begun to question his prowess at “knight in shining armor.”

At the end of every level in Super Meat Boy, the player is greeted with seeing every death Meat Boy succumbs to before finally completing the level. There are many of these deaths. This is fundamentally important as most video games do not show you your deaths in a cruel yet amusing montage. In this way, I believe Super Meat Boy is a prime example of the Multiverse Hypothesis, though more specifically exemplifying Alternate Realities.

The Multiverse is the hypothetical infinite amount of universes that make up everything and every possibility. Our present universe consists of established physical laws and constants, but other universes within the Multiverse might forgo these laws and constants for something more interesting. We cannot pass the speed of light, but perhaps the speed of light is considered slow by the standards of a differing universe. Perhaps a differing universe lacks a dimension or has an extra one.

Now, Super Meat Boy never delves into such categories, so we must narrow our scope to Alternate Realities. An Alternate Reality is a direct copy of a current universe with something changed, and there can be an infinite amount of these as well. There exists a direct relationship between Alternate Realities, and in the case of Super Meat Boy, the relationship is when and how Meat Boy dies.

Every death of Meat Boy is a very real death in a differing Alternate Reality.

The player is greeted with this montage of deaths as a kind of reward for mastering a difficult level, but the character Meat Boy physically died over and over so the one correct reality could exist: the one where he saves Bandage Girl. The better you are at Super Meat Boy, the less Alternate Realities there will be, but there always be some since this game is excruciatingly difficult.

It’s not probable or possible for Meat Boy to have an infinite amount of lives. His coming back to life every death via reincarnation goes against all of the philosophical and religious views of reincarnation. I suppose Meat Boy could live in a universe where at least one of those things is true, but that opens up a different kind of philosophical discussion. It also opens up a new kind of physical discussion as Meat Boy always reappears in the same place after his death, and that would make no sense even if he did have an infinite amount of lives or was being instantly reincarnated. It makes more sense that he’s simply dying over and over in Alternate Realities.

The game even has its own evidence of this. Whenever you complete a level under a set time limit, you unlock a Dark World of that level. The Dark World is based off of the normal version of the level, though harder and sometimes physically darker. The idea of a Dark World is well used in other media, as is the idea of an evil clone from an Alternate Universe. Meat Boy’s Dark World clone is merely a different copy of him living in a much harsher world with a more evil Dr. Fetus. Bandage Girl most likely nags him more for not saving her fast enough.

Meat Boy is a creature that we should both respect and pity. Love is a powerful emotion that gets people do to crazy and dangerous things, but I’m not sure it has motivated someone to go through a torture hospital and Hell, one right after the other, for a woman. At some point, the hero just has to realize that his specific woman isn’t worth the effort. There are plenty of fish in the sea, as the saying goes, and surely 99% of them aren’t as danger prone as Bandage Girl. And yet, Meat Boy never comes to this conclusion, and the power of his love drives him through every kind of physically terrible situation imaginable. And these terrible situations kill him in thousands of Alternate Realities until the one special Reality where love conquers everything but common sense.

Now, in every level of Super Meat Boy, you leave a trail of meaty blood as you walk, jump, and touch anything and everything. This is a persistent trail and continues on from one life after the other. If these were Alternate Realities, one might ask, why is this trail of meaty blood always there and always growing? Surely these aren’t Alternate Realities.

This is a good point, but I must retort with: would you want to play this game without some kind of way to judge your mistakes? For the first few lives of any level, this meaty-blood trail is useful in gauging when to jump. It eventually becomes a kind of macabre paint, but for the player’s first few lives, it really is useful. Super Meat Boy is already difficult, and I can’t imagine playing the game without even this small bit of assistance, even if the assistance comes from my own mistakes.

I don’t think the meaty-blood trail is really there in front of Meat Boy. This trail of failure is for the player only, residing outside of Meat Boy’s reality. If Meat Boy constantly saw the pieces of his well-being thrown about the entirety of an area, he’d be forced to realize that this adventuring just isn’t worth it. Failure is its own motivator, and seeing the failure of a thousand deaths should motivate even the most insane and stupid person to stop. If this trail were real, at some point in the game Meat Boy would yell to Bandage Girl, “you know, maybe we should just see other people.” If he’s nice, he’ll follow with, “you can keep the ring,” but the player wouldn’t judge him if he followed with, “can you just mail me the ring back? I’m not going to jump through 30 saws and 12 lasers to get it.”

There’s a reasonably biological argument for the meaty trail of bloods nonexistence as well. Everything Meat Boy touches is doused with his own liquids, and such a creature leaving such a profound trail would eventually die from liquid loss. We also never see this trail of meaty blood during cut scenes, and if this trail were a persistent part of Meat Boy, it would surely show up there.

I’ve put a solid 20 hours into Super Meat Boy, and I’ve died 4593 times. Even the most star-crossed lover who has ever professed his life for his love would find that to be excessive. I find that to be excessive, and I’m the one who made Meat Boy die that many times.

There are 4594 Alternate Universes to my game of Super Meat Boy, and Meat Boy only lives happily ever after with Bandage Girl in one of those. That’s either incredibly profound or incredibly shoulder-shrug worthy. Perhaps both.