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Split Screen and the Changing Landscape of Co-op

April 3, 2013 Written by Kayvon Ghoreshi

Cooperative and competitive play have long been staples of the games industry, especially now that services like PSN and Xbox Live allow us to take our games online. While online play does come with its benefits, it has caused a shift in how developers approach offline multiplayer, and that shift will only continue as we move on to the next generation of consoles.

Offline multiplayer has various forms, from sharing the same screen in platformers like LittleBigPlanet, to the split screen setup that is common among first person shooters. Collectively, these are referred to as couch co-op since multiple people can be playing on the same screen and from the same couch. Of course, couch co-op and split screen are nothing new, as local multiplayer has existed since the very beginning of gaming with Pong.

Nowadays, online play has increased the number of people that can play in competitive multiplayer, and new features like drop in/drop out co-op allows for the seamless integration of co-op into campaigns. While this is great and allows friends to play together even when they aren’t together, it has caused developers to ignore the other half that want to be able to invite a friend over for some couch co-op.

This isn’t to say that no games this generation have offered split screen. Series like Borderlands, Army of Two, and Splinter Cell were designed for cooperative play and like other games in this generation, they offer an option for split screen. In fact, some of my favorite gaming experiences this generation have come from playing split screen with a close friend in games like Portal 2 and Killzone 3. The issue is that it has started to become less valuable to developers as a whole. Even games that people would expect to have split screen no longer do. For example, the recent entries in the Need for Speed series don’t offer split screen even though it makes sense for a racing game to do so – you can still race against your friends, but you can only do so online.

So why are split screen and couch co-op becoming rarities in this generation of consoles? As mentioned before, the availability of online play has allowed developers to focus on online co-op  as opposed to split screen, and to a certain extent it makes sense. With a decision to include split screen, the console’s resources are divided up which can lead to a fall in graphics and/or framerate. By making cooperative modes exclusively online, developers can avoiding taking this hit. This was the case with Battlefield 3 which, unlike its Call of Duty counterpart, did not offer any split screen multiplayer and rather focused on cooperative and competitive modes that were exclusively online. Online multiplayer can also be monetized with DLC and microtransactions to a far greater extent than local co-op.

This trend is only going to continue as we enter the next generation. The PS4 will obviously be more powerful than the PS3 so, in theory, it might be able to handle split screen better on the hardware front. However, it is more likely that developers will put that new power towards creating better graphics and bigger environments as opposed to implementing offline multiplayer. On the other hand, the PS4 might introduce a new way for friends to play together. In their press conference, Sony talked about how the PS4 will allow a friend to watch a livestream of what you’re playing, chat with you, and even take over control for you. This new feature could allow friends to help each other surpass difficult moments in a single player campaign or try out a new game they’re interested in without a DualShock ever needing to exchange hands.

At this point, however, the fate of offline multiplayer in AAA titles looks to be set in stone. As it started in this generation, the next generation will continue to push for graphical prowess and online interactions making split screen and couch co-op take a back seat. While I enjoy playing with friends online, its a shame if it has to come at the price of having the option to invite a few buddies over for a good time. Indie titles, however, are embracing co-op as they don’t need/can’t push for graphical brilliance, leading to games like the upcoming ibb and obb.

Do you wish more games had split screen or do you prefer it to be online? Have any great memories of split screen or couch co-op with a friend? Let us know in the comments.