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A look at collaborative game mechanics, relevant for the design of serious games.

Collaborative and co-operative mechanisms have become an important feature of many modern computer games. The gaming industry realises this, and some of the most popular AAA titles today include collaborative and co-operative gameplay. Games like World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2001), League of Legends (Riot Games, 2009), Portal 2 (Valve, 2011), Diablo 3 (Blizzard Entertainment, 2012), Destiny (Bungie, 2014) and Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment, 2016) continue to boast active player communities years after release and stand out as some of the most lucrative games ever developed. These kinds of games offer social spaces where players can connect and communicate with friends from the comfort of their own home. Most importantly, they encourage players to work together and collaborate as they progress towards common goals. Sadly, many serious games remain

purely single player experiences, and the serious games industry often overlook collaborative and co-operative mechanisms when designing games.

This post summarizes research findings giving insights into the mechanics of collaborative gameplay and argues that serious game designers can learn from the successes of the entertainment games industry, and do more to encourage players to work together, learn together, and play together, using similar principles.

Kim (2013) describes the increasing success of collaborative games as the “co-op revolution”. In particular, she describes three disruptive trends that are reshaping the gaming industry and influencing the broader digital landscape. Firstly, ubiquitously connected devices are disrupting the dominance of consoles in the games industry. In 2014,

PC games revenue surpassed that of console games, and growth in the video games sector is predicted to be concentrated in the mobile and online gaming markets (Figure 1).

Games revenue share and predicted growth by sector (Digi-Capital, 2016). The mobile and Mass Multiplayer Online (MMO)/Mass Online Battle Arena (MOBA) gaming markets are predicted to continue growing year-on-year, and make up the most lucrative sectors of the market. The console gaming market is shrinking rapidly, while the popularity of Virtual Reality (VR) games and Augmented Reality (AR) games is expected to grow significantly by the year 2020.


Secondly, gaming has gone mainstream and is appealing to a much wider audience of all ages, genders and cultures. Gaming is no longer a “boys club”, and has become an increasingly social experience. According to a recent survey, 93% of children ages 8–13 play games online in the USA (M2 Research, 2014). Thirdly, user-generated content is disrupting the way game developers approach gameplay. Minecraft (Mojang, 2011), one of the most successful games in recent history, focuses on allowing players to collaboratively build virtual spaces together, one building block at a time. Minecraft players generate their own content, and in doing so they entertain, inspire and communicate through an active and thriving social community centred on collaboration and co-operation.

Designing Games for Collaboration

Due to an uptick in games that provide co-operative mechanisms without necessarily fostering collaboration between players, Zagal, Rick and Hsi (2006) investigated those co-operative mechanisms that encourage collaboration among players. They posed the question: “How can electronic games be designed so that collaboration is a worthwhile, interesting, and attractive option?” (Zagal, Rick & Hsi, 2006, p. 25). The authors argue that, owing to the complexity of existing collaborative electronic games, it is difficult to extract design principles from them. Consequently, they focus on collaborative board games, which are simpler and easier to understand. In traditional (i.e., non-digital) game research, games are considered innately multiplayer activities that can be

divided into two basic categories: co-operative or competitive. In a competitive game, players are required to form strategies that conflict directly with other players in the game. The goals and objectives of competing players are diametrically opposed (Zagal, Rick & Hsi, 2006). Many popular traditional board games like chess, checkers and go fall into the competitive category (Jones, 2000). On the other hand, a co-operative game presents a scenario where two or more people have interests that are “neither completely opposed nor completely coincident” (Nash, 2002). In a co-operative game, players have the opportunity to work together to obtain a win–win condition. The word “opportunity” is important here, since it is not guaranteed that co-operating players will benefit equally or even at all. Although it was not originally recognised by game theorists, a third category of game exists: collaborative (Zagal, Rick &

Hsi, 2006). In a collaborative game, players are required to work as a team towards a shared outcome. If the team wins, everyone wins. If the team loses, everyone loses. Marschak (1972) defines a team as an organisation in which the interests and beliefs of each individual are the same, while the type of information each person possesses can differ. Co-operation among individuals differs from collaboration as a team in that collaborative players have only one objective and share the consequences or rewards of their decisions. “The challenge for players in a collaborative game”, write Zagal, Rick and Hsi (2006, p. 26), “is working together to maximise a team’s utility.” Conversely, co-operative players can have different goals and may reap rewards individually.

In short, competitive games exclude collaboration. Collaborative games require collaboration

between players. Co-operative games lie between competitive and collaborative games by allowing co-operating players to participate in anti-collaborative practices. Behaving competitively in a co-operative environment precludes collaboration, but might guarantee a player’s success. Thus, one of the key components in designing collaborative games is that of navigating the “competitiveness that players bring to the table” (Zagal, Rick & Hsi, 2006, p. 26). Collaborative games require mechanisms that force collaboration while inhibiting competitive or anti-collaborative practices.

More recent work by Rocha, Mascarenhas and Prada (2008) overlaps significantly with the findings presented by Zagal, Rick and Hsi (2006). Based on an analysis of popular collaborative and cooperative electronic games, Rocha et al. (2008) investigated the cooperative game mechanics that promote

collaboration while precluding competition. A game mechanism refers to a “physical artefact, rule or type of interaction that implements an action in the game” (Zagal, Rick & Hsi 2006, p. 27). Based on their findings, Rocha et al. (2008) describe six design patterns for developing collaborative game mechanics:

• Complementarity: Players have unique character roles or information that complement each other’s activities within the game.
• Synergies between abilities: Players have different abilities (often based on their unique character roles) that can assist or change another character’s abilities.
• Abilities that can only be used on another player: Players have abilities that are only usable on team members. For example, a medic in Team Fortress 2 (Valve Corporation, 2007) has a weapon that can only be used to heal fellow team members.

• Shared goals: A group of players have one non-exclusive goal that can only be accomplished by working together as a team. All players in the team depend on one another, and they either win together or lose together.
• Synergies between goals: When players have different tasks to accomplish, some sort of synergy or dependency between each of the player’s tasks encourages collaboration.
• Special rules for players of the same team: Rules are used to enforce collaboration between players in the same team; for example, preventing team members from being able to damage each other while allowing them to damage players on the opposing team.

Rocha et al. (2008) further explored how the in-game challenges defined by Rollings and Adams (2003) are used to encourage collaboration among players in

current cooperative games. They found that challenges can be divided into two primary categories: pure challenges and applied challenges. Pure challenges involve real-life physical effort, coordination, reflexes and spatial-awareness. Physical effort can be used to promote collaborative play if the effort required to accomplish a task is configured in such a way that it is too much for a single player handle. Collaboration is also encouraged in a team of players who have to coordinate movements and strategies, be spatially aware of their surroundings, and use their reflexes to react to challenges that arise during the attainment of shared goals.

Applied challenges are different to pure challenges in that they apply directly to the content and mechanics of the game in question. Examples of applied challenges that encourage collaboration include race

conditions, exploration, and economics. Race conditions (or timed events) force players to complete certain tasks in unison before a timer expires, and the additional time pressure causes players to focus better and work more cohesively. Exploration requires players to collaborate so they can progress to other areas by, for example, opening locked doors via simultaneous switches or working together to disable or avoid traps and dangerous objects. In games centred on resource management, economic necessity can be used to encourage players to collaborate closely, with players having to trade with each other and manage and allocate their shared resources in order to succeed.

Seif El-Nasr et al. (2010) continued the work begun by Zagal, Rick & Hsi (2006) and Rocha et al. (2008). Based on an in-depth analysis of fourteen popular

and current cooperative games, Seif El-Nasr et al. (2010) extended the findings of Rocha et al. (2008) and proposed an additional seven design patterns for developing collaborative game mechanics:
• Camera settings: Camera setup emerged as an important design component in collaborative games, especially in situations where people play together on a shared screen. The following camera setups were identified: screen split horizontally or vertically; one character in focus or all characters in focus.
• Interacting with the same object: Players interact with objects that can be manipulated by multiple team members simultaneously. For example, players sharing a ball or both players push/pull one object at the same time.
• Shared puzzles: Similar to Rocha, Mascarenhas and Prada’s (2008) Shared goals, players encounter shared challenges or obstacles.

• Shared characters: There is a shared non-player character (NPC) equipped with unique abilities that can be taken control of by one player at a time. Shared characters encourage collaboration by enabling discussions among players concerning how to share the NPC.
• Special characters targeting lone wolf: Special NPCs that target players working alone or indulging in anti-collaborative practices are designed and implemented.
• Vocalisation: Player characters have automatic vocal expressions that alert team members of strategic decisions, challenging events or imminent danger. Vocal expressions encourage players to support each other and play close together.
• Limited resources: Players have a limited amount of resources, which encourages players to exchange or share resources to complete shared goals.

After having reviewed, identified and validated the collaborative patterns described above, Seif El-Nasr et al. (2010) ran a study to investigate how players experience multiplayer games that embed these patterns. Through an iterative process involving expert and team reviews, Seif El-Nasr et al. (2010) defined a set of performance metrics for analysing the collaborative nature of the games played. The performance metrics included the following components: players laughing and being excited together, players communicating to work out collaborative strategies, one player helping another player, players taking different roles that complement each other’s responsibilities and abilities, players waiting for each other, and players getting in each other’s way. The authors video-recorded a total of 25 three-hour gameplay sessions, with groups of two–to four participants playing collaborative games

throughout each session. They then annotated the video recordings and determined the causes of the performance metrics in each session. Consequently, the authors were able to identify the collaborative game mechanics that had the most significant impact on players’ performance metrics:

• Complementarity was identified as the most common component impacting players’ performance metrics. Complementarity was noted as an important factor in players laughing and being excited together, players communicating to work out collaborative strategies, and players taking different roles that complemented each other’s responsibilities and abilities.
• Shared goals and shared puzzles were identified as the primary causes behind players communicating as a team to work out collaborative strategies.

• Interacting with the same object was identified as a common cause for players laughing and being excited together, players helping each other, and players having to work out collaborative strategies together.
• Camera setting was identified as the primary cause for players having to wait for each other and players getting in each other’s way. Games employing a split screen or a camera led by the first player had a negative impact on player experience because they caused players to wait for each other and get in each other’s way relatively often. On the other hand, games where all characters are always in the camera’s focus had far fewer cases of players having to wait for each other or players getting in each other’s way.
• Difficulty was identified as one of the primary drivers of players helping each other. Although difficulty is not necessarily a game mechanism by itself, it is worth noting that players helped each other more

frequently when the game was difficult for players.

Applying these lessons to the design of Serious Games

Although most of the games mentioned in the above study can be categorised as “entertainment games”, these collaborative mechanisms are just as relevant for the design of serious games. The game mechanics that were found to have the most significant impact on necessitating collaboration between players were: complementarity; shared goals; shared puzzles; interacting with the same object; and difficulty.

When designing serious games that encourage collaboration, game designers and developers must also consider how players communicate during

collaborative gameplay. Verbal communication is most commonly facilitated via voice or text chat (Toups et al., 2014; Kowert, 2015). Additionally, alternative forms of in-game communication, like virtual gestures and environment-modifying mechanics, allow players to share information in ways that can be difficult or impossible to convey verbally (Toups et al., 2014). Through in-game social representations of players (i.e., avatars), player–avatar relationships also influence the way players experience games, and are helpful in understanding how players socialise during multiplayer games (Banks and Bowman, 2013).

To create serious games that foster collaboration while remaining engaging, fun and memorable for players, serious game designers should draw from the lessons learned by the entertainment games industry. Collaborative games require mechanisms that

cultivate teamwork while discouraging any competitive or anti-collaborative behaviour in players, and communication channels are pivotal to players’ success during collaborative gameplay.

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