The Death of Couch Co-Op?

We had an unspoken tradition in my family for years. Whenever my cousin would come visit, my brother and I would play through Halo‘s campaign with him. We spent hours getting through it on at least Heroic before cranking it up to Legendary to test our mettle, passing the controller off when one of us died. I’d be afraid to find out just how many hours my friends spent playing Madden NFL 2002 or SSX Tricky. Split screen games were such a huge part of my life back then that I bought quite a few controllers to keep and my friends’ houses so we’d never be short. Even just a few days ago, a friend and I fired up the Master Chief Collection to re-live our childhood a bit. Needless to say, we were quite rusty and failed miserably when jumping right into a Big Team Battle match. So we hung up our controllers and started talking about the controversial decision by 343 Industries to remove the split screen feature that was so synonymous with their series. Such a large part of our gaming lives revolved around coming over to a buddies house, grabbing a controller and a spot on the couch, and playing these games together. But with more and more companies shying away from local multiplayer and split screen, we were left to wonder, is this the end of “couch co-op”?

343 Industries removing split screen from Halo 5 definitely got a lot of attention because of the series’ long tradition of including the feature, but it’s hardly the only franchise to do so. Recently, EA Dice also upset fans by only having local multiplayer on consoles, and only in one game mode. Even Blizzard has been receiving criticism for not including split screen on Overwatch, a game seemingly perfect for couch co-op. Gamers seem somewhat split on the issue, and are either arguing for split screen with every major release, or rejoicing that they don’t have to share a crowded corner of the screen and play online instead.

Is Couch Co-op Really Dying?

The first thing I looked at in trying to get a handle on this debate was whether or not local multiplayer is really on the decline. Could gamers just be suffering a nostalgia crisis and bemoaning the loss of something that never really went anywhere? To find out, I tried to gather up as much information as I could about how many couch co-op games there really were out there. Now, full disclosure, there isn’t much data on the topic from what I could find, so my results are based on some pretty slim pickings. While I’m still using what data I could find, I would look at these numbers more as a ballpark estimate than cold hard facts.

That being said, to find out if couch co-op games were really on the decline, I turned to the database at co-optimus.com, a comprehensive list of everything co-op. According to an editorial published in 2011, the numbers show the opposite: that local multiplayer was actually on the rise. I did some digging through their data and took a look at how many local co-op games were released between 2007 and 2015.

co-op releases

For the most part, it seems that co-op games are still on the rise, albeit not very fast. Local co-op was included in close to the same number of releases as online co-op, and both numbers seem to have increased at roughly the same rate. So why then are we seeing so many people upset with the loss of co-op?

Since the co-optimus results included releases on every platform, I decided to narrow my search and limit it to just PC games, which have been notorious for excluding couch co-op. I turned to steamspy.com, a site that tracks a wide variety of Steam statistics. I searched for every came with the tags “Split Scren”, “Local Co-op” or “Local Multiplayer” and sorted them by release date.

Again, it looked like couch co-op was in fact alive and thriving. However, something struck me as odd about this curve. It seemed to start taking a steep upturn between 2011 and 2013. Those years were important for another big reason: the rise of the Indie game.

indie games on steam

Steam local multiplayer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So yes, there has in fact been a rise in the number of local multiplayer games on steam, but not nearly as much of an increase as the number of indie games flooding the digital market. So, to make a long, number-filled story short, couch co-op is indeed on the decline, being included in indie games more often than AAA releases.

Why Isn’t Couch Co-op Included Anymore?

Now that we’ve established that local co-op is in fact fading away, the big question becomes why? Why is a feature that was virtually a guarantee a few years ago being quietly put to pasture? One argument is that the prevalence of online gaming has all but eliminated the need for couch co-op. I don’t need to share a quarter of my screen with three freinds anymore. Instead, we can each play at home, uncompromisingly hogging the entire display while we taunt each other over voice chat instead of face to face. But while I can’t deny that online gaming has become far more popular that it was 10 years ago, I believe the real problem boils down to a matter or resources. Split screen games have never been the most reliable when it came to keeping frame rates high. I can definetly remember Halo lagging when four of us tried playing a Slayer match with rockets launchers and Scorpions. But then again, that was two console generations ago. Surely we’d have enough hardware power to handle split screen now… right?

While rendering two screens doesn’t necessarily mean doubling the processing power, it does put more strain on the already limited resources available. While PC gamers are less likely to run into this problem, most of the AAA titles that fans are dying to see split screen included in are cross-platform, meaning they have to be able to run on the lowest common denominator of system specs. Next gen games have raised the bar for graphics and overall scale of games. Any new release not clearing these new standards would be pushed to the back burner and no longer be competitive in the market. In order to make this possible, something had to be sacrificed, and sadly, that was one of the most beloved features. Halo 5 executive producer Josh Holmes addressed this in a post on Halo Waypoint: “With Halo 5 we are delivering massive scale environments, improved AI behavior, increased visual and gameplay fidelity… something that truly takes advantage of a new platform. Many of our ambitious goals for Halo 5 would be compromised in a split-screen setting and the time spent optimizing and addressing split-screen-specific issues would take focus from building other parts of the game. Game development is a balancing act of resources, time and technology, and in this case we made the tough decision to sacrifice something that’s been near and dear to us all.”

Can Couch Co-op Be Resurrected?

Despite the development or hardware constraints, I believe there’s still an argument to be made for keeping couch co-op alive. We’ve long since passed the idea that video games aren’t a social activity. Just look at the rise of MOBAs or Esports or streaming services like Twitch. Now more than ever people are playing games to connect with others, to share the experience like never before. Despite the fact that these games are mostly played online now, games are still a social experience, and there’s no replacement for being able to talk smack or coordinate a strategy with someone right next to you. I play Rust with friends regularly, but it still can’t compare to breaking out the N64 for a few rounds of Super Smash Bros. or Mario Kart 64. Games are meant to be shared, and gamers have always been proud of their community. Couch co-op is one way to keep that community as inclusive as possible, and maybe the only way to keep this social aspect from only existing in the digital world.

But this is just one opinion. What do you think? Should couch co-op go the way of the Dodo, or do we push to keep it alive? Let us know in the comments below and on Facebook facebook.com/iBuypowerPC.

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by Shelby Morgan, on June 7, 2016