An hour into playing the video game Baldur’s Gate 3 with my husband, we had already broken the first and probably most ignored rule of Dungeons & Dragons: Never split up the group.
After finding ourselves on opposite ends of a crypt following an unfortunate incident involving a trap that set a room on fire, we had no idea how to get our team – including his gnome monk and my elven cleric – back together without all of us getting together kill.
I had a few suggestions (throw a vase at the trap in hopes of disarming it and try to run through it). But after a few minutes of friendly bickering, we gave up the trap. I left my half of the group out of the crypt and walked around to reunite with my gnome husband in another room of the building.
After escaping that disaster, we relished the chance to solve a problem together while discovering a new realm (even though my partner nearly collapsed in the flames).
“Baldur’s Gate 3,” the role-playing game (RPG) set in the “Dungeons & Dragons” universe, debuted on PC in August with single-player and online multiplayer options. But the PlayStation 5 version released last week introduces a third option: local, or so-called Couch co-op, where people can play side by side on a split screen the old fashioned way.
It’s a throwback to the way most people played before online multiplayer – with a personal human connection, be it in the arcade or at home.
The game’s local co-op mode allows players to play together in the same room, complete quests, romance non-player characters, and potentially wreak havoc across the land. Teammates can work together in combat and experience the story together, while also taking their characters in different directions – both on the map and morally.
Created from popular games of the 80s and 90s such as “Contra”, “GoldenEye 007” “Secret of Mana” and the original “Diablo,” the modern era of couch co-op gaming, has surged in popularity in recent years, according to industry experts, in part due to the pandemic-related need for quarantine-friendly activities and the desire to bond to build up friends and family.
Some of the most successful titles in recent years include or require cooperative play, showing that the cooperative gaming experience is more desirable than ever, gaming experts say.
Action-adventure game It Takes Two, in which players take control of a couple on the verge of divorce, was named Game of the Year at the 2021 Game Awards. Blizzard released “Diablo 4” in June with couch co-op as an option in addition to online multiplayer.
Other games, including several “Lego”-themed titles, have also sparked interest in the genre.
“If you want to make a multiplayer game in 2023 – if it’s possible – you want couch co-op because you know people are going to gather around a TV to play,” said Greg Miller, co-founder and chief executive of the entertainment company Kinda Funny, which creates videos and podcasts about video game culture.
In my case, by the time I found my way back into the dank crypt, my husband had somehow started a fight in which he was outnumbered. I was gone for two minutes. But that’s couch co-op. I threw myself into the fight and we won.
That collaboration and conflict are part of the appeal from the comfort of your living room. Couch co-op offers the opportunity to strategize together, talk about what happened at work, and share popcorn while we fire bolts and arrows.
“Now you have such a diverse portfolio of local couch co-op games,” Miller said. “The two teams competing against each other like ‘Overcooked’, but then something like ‘Diablo 4’.”
Miller said that while a couch co-op option can make a game more marketable, the impact on sales is difficult to estimate.
Local co-op games can also be more difficult to create due to the requirements of running a game in split-screen mode – it can also be more expensive.
Nevertheless, consumer interest is high.
According to Baldur’s Gate 3, around 2.5 million copies were sold during the early access phase Bloomberg. The PS5 version of Baldur’s Gate 3 received a 96 Metacritic As of: Friday, making it one of the highest-rated games on the Sony console to date.
“Diablo 4,” meanwhile broke records for its publisher Blizzard, which grossed more than $666 million within the first five days of its release. More than 10 million people battled through the game in June, according to Activision Blizzardplayed for more than 700 million hours.
For Miller, former editor of video game and entertainment website IGN, playing a couch co-op game with his wife is more exciting than “just sitting down and watching another Netflix binge session.”
“We went through a brief period there where it seemed like online was the way to go,” he said of co-op play. “Then people realized pretty quickly how much they enjoyed playing together in the same room.”
Larian Studios, the Belgium-based developer of Baldur’s Gate 3, has been incorporating couch co-op into its games for years. Two of its popular RPG titles – Divinity: Original Sin and its sequel – allow split-screen play, a feature Larian’s founder says he insisted on.
“I was missing something like this in every game that I saw on the console and that I wanted to play with my wife,” said Swen Vincke, who is also the managing director of Larian. “We like RPGs and we like to really get into them, but there really aren’t any skills, or there have been very few games that let you adventure together on the same screen.”
Vincke said couch co-op isn’t the best-selling feature, but one that offers a unique gaming experience. And despite the extra work involved in game development, he added, creating a way for people to play together in person is worth the effort.
Although co-op is more common in “platformers” that involve running and jumping through a two-dimensional environment, this option is rare in larger titles because it requires a lot of development, he said.
“I think there’s actually a missed opportunity with this,” he said, pointing out that people who play games like Larian’s “Divinity: Original Sin 2” together tend to play for long periods of time – some for a long time Year.
The same people talked to friends about the game, he said, and started a free word-of-mouth marketing campaign. That game sold “similar numbers” for several years, Vincke added.
The heart of couch co-op play lies in the joy of achieving something together while simultaneously engaging in the conflict, emotions and drama of a narrative, Vincke said.
“Every couple, every relationship, there is a balance of power that is constantly shifting,” he said. “As a game developer, playing with it in the game and then provoking those emotions in players is cool.”
For some companies, the decision to include couch co-op gaming often comes down to weighing what’s most important in a game – gameplay, beautiful graphics and frame rates, or add-ons like in-game microtransactions.
“Some of these games are about getting the most revenue, right?” said Javon Frazier, founder of Maestro Media, a strategic development company that specializes in adapting original IP and pop culture franchises into board and tabletop games . “From a company perspective, this decision is fine. We will continue to offer this immersive world experience for several years and sell as many games as possible. While some of these games say, “No, we’re giving you a great gaming experience… that you play with your family.”
Ultimately, the local co-op option is often a financial decision, he said.
“We’re paying, you know, $400 million to develop the ‘Halo’ game. You want to figure out how to extrapolate revenue over a long period of time,” he said. “While Cuphead, which I played with my daughter, was another experience that we could play both together and in couch co-op, it kind of fit that budget and that level.”
Josef Fares, founder of Sweden-based It Takes Two developer Hazelight Studios, said part of what’s special about couch co-op is that we’re “social creatures.” In “It Takes Two,” a young girl’s imagination and desire for her parents to stay together turns her into toys and forces her to explore her home and garden.
“When I first introduced the game, I often asked myself, ‘Should we only play it with two people?’ Why can’t you play it alone? …. That might not sell. This may not reach the right market,” he said. “I don’t really care about that stuff.”
By all reports the game was a success. In addition to the awards, Hazelight Studios announced in February that the title had sold more than 10 million copies since its release in March 2021.
Hazelight’s co-op games are more than just a split-screen experience, Fares said – they’re designed from the start as two-player narratives that encourage collaboration and excitement while raising questions of trust. There can be a competitive advantage.
And to play, you really need to communicate with your playing partner. Ultimately, says Fares, “It’s always more fun to do things together.”