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August 20, 2017

The Future of Co-op

Let's look at Starcraft 2 Co-op and its future. The co-op mode started as a smaller experiment, but it soon became a large part of Starcraft 2, quickly rising to be as popular as competitive ladder. Blizzard is continuously releasing new maps, commanders and mutators. Those are the very things you would expect to be added to keep players interested. Weekly mutations are very fun, and they too bring players back each week.

But could there be done something more for this mode? I'll go through things that could help grow the co-op mode, enhance the player's experience, and keep players interested. Some of these features were asked for, some not; some are simple to implement, and some might be out of the scope of Starcraft 2.

1. Divided community

Although the playerbase for co-op is big, the community is divided and overshadowed by the competitive multiplayer. The casual focus doesn't help as well. The discussions are split up between battlenet forums, reddit, teamliquid and chat services like discord. There are few ways in which Blizzard could help. For example EU forums don't have co-op section at all. What could help is to link NA co-op forum to EU. In one stroke adding a new forum and merging those communities together. Another thing is that Blizzard should post their official posts regarding co-op into co-op forums. It often happened that co-op updates were posted to the general forums, which have nothing to do with co-op. Additionally, more frequent community updates and interaction with the community on co-op forums would further help it grow.

  • Update: Blizzard seems to be posting in the correct forums now. Even if the updates on their progress and other communication are not as often as I would like. The co-op subreddit is also gaining traction, which helps focusing co-op content. 

2. Leaderboards

Blizzard co-op team has been working on those for a long time. They will bring a competitive aspect to the originally casual mode. I'm interested in what they will come up with, but I'm not expecting a lot. From what I could see in the editor, it seems the score will be a combination of the main objective time and the bonus objective time. Players are supposedly to be ranked with each commander, when they play all maps. Will it keep people interested? Perhaps. It depends on how often are leaderboards cleared and if there are any rewards.

3. PvP

The weekly mutation with 1v1 in co-op was very fun. Yet, I haven't expected co-op team to seriously consider adding it. But from looking at the editor data, it seems they are (or were) working on something. It might not be straight up 1v1 or 2v2 mode, but instead a part of something else. It can't be balanced, but it could be very fun.

4. Observing

With adding more competitive aspects to the co-op mode, the observing would be a good addition. Considering replays have been added, this is not a priority. 

5. Post 90 progression

The feeling of progression is essential to the co-op mode. Yet when players hit level 90, there is nothing at all. Players don't even see their useless XP points being added. An argument can be made that not a lot of players have reached maximum level. But there is still plenty of those who did. And co-op is bleeding those players who were the most dedicated.

I'm definitely against any additional power being added post 90 level. But any progression would help. Even levels without any rewards are significantly better than nothing. Ideally there would be cosmetic rewards added such as portraits, borders, emotes, decals or even some skins for heroic units.

  • Update (August 24, 2017): Blizzard has added additional mastery levels up to 1000. Rewards are a small number of emoticons and a portrait. This is a good change. But the rewards could be expanded a little bit.

6. Increasing diversity

Diversity increases replayability of this mode, and decreases the need for additional content. To further increase the diversity of co-op mode, there should be two goals when designing new commanders or changing current ones.

First, each commander should have several different and viable playstyles. A good example is Raynor who can go either bio, mech or a combination of those. Vorazun has dark templar/corsair, dark archons/zealot or voidrays. Artanis has phoenix/zealot, tempest/zealot or gateway/robo. Some of those compositions are not optimal, but they are distinct and to some degree viable. Other commanders should be improved in this aspect. Alarak's robo build is inferior to Ascendant build. We have also missed the opportunity for Tal'darim Destroyers (voidray variant). Stukov mech is still too weak. The Fenix ground is not in the best state right now either.

Secondly, commanders should have abilities that significantly affect their ally's gameplay. Good examples are excess gas from Swann's drones, Karax's chronoboost, repair and barrier, Artanis's Guardian Shell, Kerrigan's Omega Networks and other abilities to a lesser degree. Playing with these commanders as an ally makes your game different and adds to your experience - further increasing the diversity of the co-op mode. A poor example would be Kerrigan's bonus damage from creep. While it helps the ally, it doesn't affect his gameplay significantly. 

7. Infinite survival map

What Dead of Night was not, but should have been. An infinite survival many players would welcome. I think the positive sides of such map are clear - added replayablity, challenge, something different to experience. Let's look at some points important to such map.

  • Players have to be able to win
There has to be a way to finish the map, but there are good options for that. Mechanics like "click here to win" are not very elegant, but still can feel good. For example, if your main objective was to prepare for evacuation, the last command could be to order ships to lift off. You can stay behind to get save little more people that would otherwise got left behind. That was the case in my RTC entry.

But there doesn't have to be no "click to win" mechanic. Let's look at an alternative implementation of the "Last Stand", the mission that Temple of the Past is based on. Players have to defend against hybrid forces on one side of the map, and reach and destroy Zenith Stones on the other side. Zenith Stones are limiters for the Temple and have to be destroyed, that actually fits the lore better - destroying them is not optional. Players can destroy Zenith Stones as soon as possible, or they can wait and lure more hybrids on the planet. Both options make sense.

  • Fun
Sitting behind your wall of cannons and tanks indefinitely is not fun. The fun comes when players have to both attack and defend, or at least move forces around. In my RTC map, I required players to attack enemy heroic units, if they didn't want to be overwhelmed. The similar mechanic is in the "Temple of the Past" map, where players are required to attack Void Thrashers.

  • Performance
Performance is especially important on the infinite survival map. The map has to be made very carefully in regards to performance. It's tempting to attack players with a horde of units. But too many enemies will cause the game to be unresponsive. In the later stages stronger enemies are required instead of horde of weak ones. Close enemy spawns with straight pathing to your base are preferable. "Death of Night" map suffers from performance issues, because it throws at players a horde of weak enemies, which is demanding for pathing calculations. Also, the enemies spawn all around the map, and have to walk around your base to get to the entrances, which further intensify the problem.

  • Update: I made an extension to Temple of the Past. It can be played on NA arcade under the name "[MM] Temple of the Past". It shows how this map could be extended to provide additional challenges after the Temple is defended.

8. Third player

By this third player I don't mean three player co-op, which is often suggested. That has too significant performance issues, and it's not worth to develop new maps for. What I mean is an asymmetric design where the third player has some control of Amon's forces. This is a big change from the current co-op, and I don't expect to be done in Starcraft 2.

This has a big potential, but to make it perfect, it would require a lot of work. But even with a little work this could be made working and very fun. With one small change to co-op maps, and adding few triggers to the co-op dependency, equivalent to adding a new mutator, we can have something working. The third player could only gain control of units in regions being attacked, and of attack forces. A timed life would be added to attack forces, to prevent the third player from not attacking at all.

This would require a lot of work to make it polished. The third player could be able to adjust attack wave compositions to his own liking, rearrange defenses, use heroic units and abilities. But even the minimal version could be more interesting and easier to implement than working PvP. Given enough time we could even see Amon commanders, or perhaps in the next RTS.

  • Update: I have an arcade map "[2v1] Chain of Ascension" on NA server. It's a prototype of how 2v1 could work. It could use more work, but it's a very interesting concept.

Tiberium War's Global Conquest

9. Strategic layer

Beehive - The Second Campaign
Another way, how to move co-op forward and keep players engaged, is some form of strategic layer on top of normal missions. It's a way to tie missions together, give them more meaning, and add more sense of progression. What I tried to do with Beehive is a strategic map that a community or a team plays together to reach a common goal. From other games we can see Tiberium war's Global Conquest as an example of a strategic layer that was added later. There one player competes against AI opponents on global scale.

Rewards could include experience, achievements, decals, trophies, emotes or portraits. The potential of this is big and could keep players interested. I was originally hoping something like this would be in Warchests. Unfortunately, it was not the case.

There are several options how to implement such strategic layer, here are few examples:
  1. Small scale campaign for limited amount of players (Beehive).
  2. Domination style on big scale, where all players join forces together against Amon.
  3. Team based domination style, where two or more teams compete against each other. Player would join one team and help it to win. This can incorporate more advanced mechanics, where players can gain and move mutators, effectively reinforcing their territory.

Wrap up

Co-op mode fills the space between campaigns and competitive modes very well, but it also has a big potential to evolve into much more. I have no doubt that, if Blizzard ever makes another RTS, the co-op mode will be a major part of that game. Meanwhile, I hope the co-op mode in Starcraft 2 will continue to grow.

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