The lights are on
If a game has split-screen co-op, chances are you’re going to hear comparisons from the dev team to Traveller’s Tales’ co-op heavy gameplay. Unless a producer or game director is working on a game where you move through the world looking down the iron sights, the Lego games are generally seen as a modern-day standard for multiplayer, platform heavy games. Their gameplay is based around using multiple characters to solve puzzles and navigate through game worlds. They’re certainly enjoyable as single-player experiences, but it’s clear that they’re meant to be enjoyed with friends, young relatives, or kids of your own.
That multiplayer focus has been in the games since the first of TT Games’ Lego games, Lego Star Wars: The Video Game, was conceived. Studio head Jonathan Smith recalls the first pitch to Lucasarts, where co-op was just one of several gameplay features that the IP holder had to wrap their minds around – particularly in one of the game’s sillier modes.
“We’re actually okay with your crazier ideas about having this thing called Freeplay, where you can take this one character from a movie, even if they’re dead, and play them in another movie,” Smith recalls Lucasarts’ response. “You can take Darth Maul and put him into Episode III. And, we’ll let you have offline co-op as well, so two players can do this together. So in Freeplay, yeah, you can have General Grievous with General Grievous against General Grievous. You can have that."
The flexibility offered in Freeplay solved a potential living-room problem, too. Once characters were unlocked through campaign missions, players could freely pick and choose their favorites in the more freeform mode. That meant that one player wasn’t stuck playing Jar Jar Binks, for instance.
John Hodskinson, who has been working on the Lego games from the beginning, says that while the team was working on Lego Star Wars, they were looking at classic arcade games for inspiration. As I mentioned in our cover story, the original idea was that the onscreen prompt “press start” was actually written as “insert coin,” a nod to a familiar phrase to gamers of a certain age. The addition of drop-in, drop-out co-op was a natural extension of that arcade heritage, as well.
It also dovetailed quite nicely with the way people play with actual Lego products, Smith says. “Social play is one of the founding values of the Lego Company, and that’s where we were coming from in so many different dimensions. What was important to Lego were the values and attitudes of Lego; apply those to a video game and we would have confidence to create something that’s great. So social play was on our list of amazing things we needed to achieve and we obviously as gamers played co-op games together with our friends.”
Smith says he was surprised by something that now seems obvious: How families took to the game’s co-op core. “We initially conceived the co-op as being between friends, between siblings, two brothers playing together, but at the same time this was a time when many people involved in the project were noticing that they were for the first time starting to play games with their own children. Many people reach that age and they suddenly notice as game makers that they’re now making games to play with their children, they’re taking their games home and with their 3- or 4 year-olds, they’re actually getting that amazing experience of playing together with them and also observing how they’re playing. They’re paying incredibly close attention, the way only a parent can, to what they’re doing and how they’re learning. That definitely shaped the experience as we were making it. It was only after the game came out, and perhaps even a little while after it came out, that we realized many other people were playing the game in that way too.”
Even though cooperative play has been in each of the games from the outset, it has gone through some substantial changes throughout the years. One of the most obvious is the inclusion of split-screen multiplayer.
“Originally, we kept the players on the same screen, which had a lot of advantages,” Hodskinson says. “We only had to render one screen, which meant we didn’t lose frame rate, which is ideal. And we could control where the player goes for the purposes of streaming in the next area. It had many advantages. What it didn’t give us was the ability to use height in the levels. Whenever we did, we frequently found that players would drop off the bottom of the screen, and they’d automatically get dropped out, and then the game would recover, but in quite a glitchy way.
If you’ve played those early games, you know exactly what he’s talking about. Players are tethered to each other via an invisible cord, making every leap from platform to platform a crapshoot. If your partner isn’t paying attention to where you’re each located (either through lack of gaming experience or pure spite), it’s possible to prevent your partner from making any of those jumps.
That changed a few games later. “Up until Indy 2 [Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues] we had a co-op experience that was still with a single camera view,” Smith says. “It was with Indy 2 in response to a lot of feedback from older brothers restricted by their younger brothers, primarily, and the parents that had to listen to the squabble and intervene from time to time. In response to that, we introduced the ability for the characters to split up from each other.”
Traveller’s Tales wasn’t the first game to take this dynamic split-screen approach (ToeJam & Earl got there more than a decade earlier, for instance), but Indy 2 implemented it quite well. When players moved far away enough from one another, the screen would divide into two discreet windows. That allowed one player to sort out a block-pushing puzzle, for example, while the other wandered around and wrecked crates. When they got close enough again, the screen would snap back into one window. It was a fundamental shift, and as Hodskinson explained, it opened up level designs in significant ways.
Lego Star Wars III: The Clone Wars expanded the concept even further, giving each player a completely different view of the action. One player might be locked in a battle with a boss, while the other races down corridors and flips switches to provide support for their partner.
Co-op has only become more instrumental in the Lego games, and it’s evolved with the rest of them. Now, players are able to navigate huge hub worlds together or apart. It’s hard to imagine how impossible (and frustrating) it would be if you were glued to your partner while exploring Gotham City, Hogwarts, or Lego Marvel Super Heroes’ New York City. Fortunately, as the technology and game design have matured throughout the years, that’s something that we don’t need to worry about. Never fear: big brothers and little brothers still have plenty of ways they can grief each other. They’ll just have a little more room to do so.
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