Theory: Dependency in Cooperative Games

Cooperative games exist on a sliding scale based on how players interact with each other. Some feature high levels of dependency: players rely heavily on each other to carry out their respective tasks. Low-dependency games, on the other hand, allow players to progress independently. Recognizing where a design falls on the dependency spectrum is vital, because it has an enormous effect on the player experience.

In high-dependency games, player 1’s ability to perform in-game actions is gated by player 2’s choices. American football has many examples: the wide receiver simply cannot catch a ball the quarterback throws too inaccurately, and a running back stops at the line of scrimmage if the offensive linemen do not make a hole. Video game healers often fall into this category as well, unable to raise health bars when the rest of the team has gotten themselves killed.

High dependency means that if the rest of the team plays badly, or according to a different gameplan, player 1 cannot act. This makes players extremely aware of each other, and can create a very strong team experience. Clockwork moves that enable successive players to act at their best are both intrinsically satisfying and impressive to watch. When this kind of game is going well, the positive feedback is extremely strong.

On the other hand, when things get off the rails high dependency games turn nasty. Successful play is like an assembly line, and when widgets stop coming it’s easy to identify where the issue arose. The center snapped correctly, the quarterback threw accurately, and then the wide receiver was supposed to catch it and run—but that last step was missed. Since center and quarterback did things right, it must be the wide receiver’s fault. If the team is fractious, or team members enjoy the anonymity of online play, recrimination is apt to follow.

Low dependency play avoids turning player 2 into a gate for player 1. Pandemic’s Researcher can always cure diseases regardless of what the Medic is doing. Team Warmachine tournaments pair off members of opposing squads, such that teammates cannot help or hinder a game in progress.

It’s much easier to keep team dynamics positive in low dependency games. Everyone gets to do their thing, whether or not others are succeeding. Assuming “their thing” is fun, the game can be satisfying even if the rest of the group is having trouble.

Yet, low dependency makes it quite a bit more difficult to create a team dynamic in the first place. If everyone can act independently, it is easy to ignore one’s teammates. The game can devolve into loosely connected solo games, or the most skilled player dispensing with cooperation in an effort to carry the entire game.

Neither high nor low dependency is inherently better. Both dynamics provide value, and the weaknesses of each can be designed around. It is possible to shift between them, or to incorporate elements of both, adding just enough dependency to a game to keep a team together while providing independence to cool tensions.

The key for designers is to position their game on this spectrum consciously. Increasing dependency risks increasing toxicity; decreasing it can undermine cooperation. Knowing that, one can design around it.

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