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P2 Press Start: A Classification of Multiplayer Experiences

In this paper, we propose a set of categories for the classification of multiplayer experiences in games, that is, the kind of games where you might have a "P2" (i.e. "player 2") press the Start button in order to commence playing. It should be noted straightaway that the second player's proximity to the first player (when he pushes the button) is immaterial. In case you were unsure about that.

Genres are commonplace for video games. The overall type of game is usually well known, except in certain peculiar cases, like Space Giraffe, Flower, and Flywrench, where the developer was thinking so far outside of the box that he landed in a totally different box.

Ahem. However, while genres of games are a well understood domain, classifications ("genre" is such a tawdry term) of the strictly multiplayer aspects of a game have not been explored so deeply, as far as our research into our peers' work has shown.

In the following sections, we will describe the classification we have devised.

Before we go too much further, we must mention the distinctive term "multiplayer experience" we have chosen to use. It is simply to allow for more specificity within a single game. For example, one particular game may have both a cooperative mode and a competitive mode, but each mode is a different "multiplayer experience". Still, we may use the term "multiplayer game" interchangeably.

At the highest level, we have determined five categories for multiplayer experiences, upon which the rest of this paper will expound: Cooperative, Competitive, Backhanded, Performance, and Sandbox.

Cooperative multiplayer experiences

Loosely speaking, cooperative games involve two or more players working towards a mutually beneficial or shared goal. The spirit of the game is to help your partner. Furthermore, we impose the restriction that the common goal not involve defeating some other human player, as those will obviously be discussed in the competitive classification.

Within cooperative games, we have discovered several sub-categories.


In Sidekick games, the second player's involvement in the game is relegated to some ancillary role. Typically in such games, an abysmal failure on P2's part will not likely result in P1's likewise failure. In fact, in extreme cases, P1 may not even notice.

Fable II allows you to jump into another's world as some weird temporary character who doesn't really matter. If you die... eh, who cares?

In Death Spank, you can play as the weezurd. This one is a little tricky, though, because the wizard can still take damage, potentially putting Death Spank in danger from his inaction or ineptitude.

Along similar lines, a lesser-known feature of Secret of Mana allows a second player to play as one of your allies. We totally played this with our sisters when we were kids, and let us tell you: it enhances the game quite a bit.

We would be remiss not to mention Super Mario Galaxy, where the second player can be helpful by using the remote to pin enemies and so on, but if they simply leave--for example, to make a roast beef sandwich--the first player may not even notice. Depending on P2's skill, P1 may actually breathe a sigh of relief (discreetly, so as not to invoke the wrath of a significant other).

Mutually Rewarding

Mutually Rewarding games benefit all players substantially and permanently for playing together. For instance, by working together, you can get better loot. That's loot you get to keep, so it's really in your best interest to be helpful. Sure, there are plenty of games where you play with other people and collectively get some number added to some permanent record, but one could argue that a key point of one of these Mutually Rewarding games is to succeed through having more useful people.

All of these games fit kind of the same pattern: Fable III, Borderlands, and, of course, Diablo II. You team up, you take on bigger badder bossier budes (ahem: dudes), and rake in the loot.

"Horde" mode

By this point, this type needs little explanation. You work with friends to take on wave after wave of enemies. Teamwork (or at least, strength in numbers) is key to staying alive for longer.

Isn't it crazy how Gears of War 2 basically invented a genre of multiplayer game? The authors of this paper believe that's an impressive feat. Perhaps there's some older game that really had the seminal idea, but one can (and usually does) make a strong argument that Epic popularized and polished it.

And the copycats followed. Don't get me wrong, most of these are rather well executed, but if we're being frank here, they're still twists on the original. Halo ODST and Reach's Firefight and Left 4 Dead's Survival mode are strong contenders, while we find Borderlands' Mad Moxxie's Underdome to be a seriously tedious and ungrateful one. Monday Night Combat has a Blitz mode that is fine, though inferior to their competitive offering. We have also read that the Nazi Zombies mode in the Call of Duty franchise is a competent execution of Horde mode.

Homogeneous Campaign

In the traditional, default sense of the term "cooperative", games have campaign modes to be played with more than one player helping each other to reach the end. In the Homogeneous Campaign, all players assume identical roles and usually have similar capabilities. As one effect of this, if you play twice, you may not have a drastically different experience.

The games in this list are numerous, as we have found it to be by far the most common cooperative gameplay experience. Many shooters, such as Left 4 Dead and Halo, clearly fit into this category. All players play as one of the surviors or Master Chief, all doing about the same thing.

Leaving shooters aside, we also find that most brawlers, like TMNT, Shank, Scott Pilgrim, and Double Dragon have you do the exact same sort of thing!

Despite the fact that Castle Crashers has different characters (red knight, green knight, etc.) you can play as, we found that the experience is generally similar enough to be under the Homogeneous threshold.

Consider, too, the typical cooperative shmup (NB: not "schmuck"). One of our favorites, Ikaruga, is also a Homogeneous Campaign game. We believe the fact that this pattern appears across genres helps validate our findings.

Heterogeneous campaign

Philosophically, we have rigorously proven (in a different paper, of course) that a homogeneous thing can only exist in a world also containing a heterogeneous thing. As you might guess, in these experiences, the game lays out clearly distinct roles for players. Please read the previous sentence again, and put emphasis on the word "game". The game must set forth these roles, not the players. None of this meta-game nonsense.

This is such a rare breed that we've only been able to come up with a few examples. First up is Gears of War 2, which splits you and your partner up at various points. Conceivably, you could play the game multiple times and experience some significantly different sections of the gameplay.

Resident Evil 5 does a similar thing with Chris and Sheva. There are certain parts in the campaign where Chris hoists Sheva up to some other area, so a person playing as one will necessarily not experience all parts of the campaign. We hypothesize that the Sheva AI is so poor because it only ever plays Chris in its free time.

How could we ignore Ilo Milo? Well, we couldn't, so we didn't. It's basically the perfect specimen of this beast. Ilo and Milo have different roles in the level, and depending on which you are, you have no choice but to carry out your separate function.

Geometry Wars 2 has a particularly original coop idea: a mode where one person moves the ship and the other aims and shoots. By nature of this tight coupling, it also falls into this next category...

Synchronized Gaming

Oh boy, these are our favorites. There is a class of multiplayer experience we call Synchronized Gaming, where players one and two have to work very closely together to succeed. One might argue that any kind of cooperation could be construed as working closely together, but we have objective data showing that there is a line that some games cross and others dare not.

One of the best examples we discovered is Splosion Man. If you've ever tried to play that with friends you will easily see how the cooperative levels force your players not only to have adequate platforming skills but also correct timing and coordination to do things like bouncing off of each other. Good luck beating any levels with 3 or 4 players. Just good luck.

One could claim that Portal 2 requires close coordination, even though they removed a lot of the trickier timing aspects that were prevalent in the first game. In an unprecedented show of ambivalence and laziness, we will leave it up to the readers to decide whether this is "in" or "out".

We nearly forgot to mention We Love Katamari's cooperative mode, where both players control the same katamari, but each only pushes either the left or the right. To go forward, both have to push forward; to turn right, the left side player has to push forward and the right side player has to stay still or reverse. They might as well call it "Holler At Your Partner Mode."

However, there is one certain game that fits this category so closely as to be called the epitome of synchronized gaming. You likely have never even heard of it. It is the game called Schizoid, which released for XBLA some years back. In Schizoid, an orange and a blue player eliminate all blue and orange enemies, where the orange player is vulnerable to blue enemies but can destroy orange enemies, and vice versa. Succeeding at this game requires some kind of telepathic link. It might not have been developed with humans in mind.

Competitive multiplayer

And so we leave the land of cooperative games and move into competitive ones, where, even if you are playing with one of those extra special player twos, you are playing against other human beings. We find this to be an important distinction to make, since doing things with other people is fundamentally different than doing them with a robot. Not that we don't love robots, of course...

Direct Antagonism

We have chosen to use the overly complicated term "Direct Antagonism" for the type of competitive gaming that comes to mind immediately: shooting other dudes in the face until they die, and consequently racking up a sweet kill/death spread. As you'll see later, we've found other, subtler ways to compete, and this type stands in direct contrast to them.

All your first person shooter staples live here: Halo, Call of Duty, Gears of War, and the like.

We also found upon inspection that games like the Super Smash Bros series and Powerstone also have you working your frenzied butt off to eliminate all the competition and be--how do you say it?--"top dog".

Tactical Antagonism

With Tactical Antagonism, we make a subjective distinction from Direct Antagonism games in the sense that they require a higher degree of teamwork, strategy, or tactics to succeed. They tend to be a bit slower paced and involve more thinking in general. Sorry, did we say "subjective?" We meant to say "rigorously proven."

From our exhaustive testing, we gathered hard experimental data that conclusively classifies Battlefield Bad Company 2 as a more tactical game. After just a few matches, it was evident that you can't just run out there and shoot bullets randomly. And those same bullets kill you with alarming speed, so care must be taken to work with your friends.

Likewise, games like Team Fortress 2 and Monday Night Combat require a team with a wide variety of skills working together. In the latter case, there is also a tower defense component, which immediately makes it "tactical."

A brilliant fledgling researcher in our group presented us with a fantastic example that miraculously is not a shooter: the Worms series. They are characterized by deliberate, turn-based planning coupled with both skill and devious, ruthless intent towards the other players. Consideration must be taken about which opponent to eliminate next, the choice of weapon to use, risk/reward strategies, and wind velocity. Yes, wind velocity.

Hunter and Prey

A kind of subset of the tactical antagonism game type is what we are calling Hunter and Prey games. What distinguishes these from tactical games is that one person is put in the role of a hunter, and another is put in the position of his target. At first we were classifying these games differently, but, having found three distinct examples that fit the characteristics, we felt they deserved their own category.

In Demon's Souls, as we understand it from second-hand accounts (we were not good enough at games to get this far), one can enter another's world as a hunter and seek out the host player in order to slay him. There is an aspect of the Sidekick here, but it is more like an anti-sidekick that you don't willingly import.

One of our noble colleagues working in his own laboratory wrote a short paper about Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, the findings of which we are incorporating here without attribution (sorry, sucker!). This game falls into this category perfectly, with the additional twist that each player is both a hunter and a target. It seems like a game about comeuppance, a thing we hold near and dear to our hearts.

Finally, a recently published article about Spy Party caught our attention. It is a pure Hunter and Prey game with an incredibly compelling set of rules that we cannot wait to experiment with under controlled conditions in our totally professional lab.


You race around a track or something. Sometimes you also throw multicolored shells at people to slow them down. You are competing in a shared space to be better than others, though not necessarily by means of eliminating them foricbly. For that reason it is different from Direct Antagonism.

Examples... screw it, you don't need examples. It's a friggen' racing game.


In Direct Antagonism games, you directly try to eliminate opponents. In Inhibition games, you try to win by interfering with their gameplay. For example, placing obstacles, cluttering their playing field, slowing them down, or hexing them. It's important that these mechanics feature prominently in a game for it to be considered one of Inhibition.

Many puzzle games, such as Tetris Attack and Puzzle Fighter have this sort of gameplay, where if one player succeeds, he is rewarded by taking a huge dump on the other player's board. In games of Tetris Attack between skilled players, the opening salvo can drop a block the size of the game board itself as an obstacle!

Though we were not able to experiment properly with Lumines' Duels mode on XBLA, we have it on good authority that by doing well, you shrink the opponent's playing area, viciously squeezing the life out of him as you leech his power.

And of course it wouldn't be a blog by our research group if we didn't mention Geometry Wars' competitive King mode, where you have the ability to royally ruin your opponent's day by destroying the safe zones when he needs them most.


We found a type of competitive game where two people fight head to head. It may be said that these differ little from Direct Antagonism games, except that they have the distinct "feel" of a duel.

We include all manner of fighting game in this group. They epitomize what it means to duel. Furthermore, we noticed that Pokemon head to head competition is also basically a Duel.

Real Time Strategy

One might claim that RTS games are a form of duel. We found that they are somewhat differentiated by the myriad different ways that two players can compete, depending on the type of game and the playing style of the combatants. For example, both Tactical Antagonism and Interference play styles are totally valid. Maybe even Hunter and Prey types of games could occur.

No examples needed. RTS games!

Party games

Likewise, party games can come in many different forms, but all have a characteristic (and of course quantifiable) feel to them. They include a focus on mayhem and a strong element of luck involved in winning. In many cases, the purpose of the game is simply to have dumb fun with friends, not focus on being the best around. The devaluation of skill upsets some people, like us. It bugs us.

The Mario Party series, the various Wario Ware games, and Fuzion Frenzy are party games. Need we linger on them any more?

Perhaps a subgenre of Party games is Trivia games like You Don't Know Jack and the Scene It series. These are a little more competitive, but still very much a casual, social experience.

Indirect Competition

The final competitive game category we found is called Indirect Competition. These are games where you compete not head-to-head, but in scores. Score attack modes and leaderboards are the playing ground here. That being said, fierce, head-to-head competitions for scores can take place when players taunt back and forth as they rapidly beat each other's times.

From one, incorrect point of view, these are single player games, but the game already provides the framework and mechanisms for being competitive. After all, what is the purpose of leaderboards if not to compete?

We will just rattle off a few names. It's trivial to find a score more of them. Trials, Super Meat Boy, and of course, Geometry Wars.

Not cooperative, exactly, but Backhanded

We have now examined cooperative and competitive games in detail. Now it is time to uncover a landmark find. The multiplayer game experience we call Backhanded gaming mixes the best and worst of both worlds into something that is a kind of smelly hybrid.

In Backhanded games, ostensibly your goal is cooperative: to beat some level or progress a story or whatnot. But, in a bizzar twist, the game also gives you tools to cruelly manipulate your teammate, lending a double purpose to the game.

The notion of this game type first grew in our brains when we played New Super Mario Brothers Wii. We tried hard to beat the levels, but our spouses kept doing things like jumping on us, picking us up, throwing us, and generally bugging the heck out of us. Clearly the game designers had more in mind than just clearing stages. Like divorice.

Little Big Planet is a similar sort of game. The two deadliest techniques are grabbing other players, which slows them down, and rushing ahead, which can slice them off of the screen, killing them quickly. Sometimes the frustration of playing with others makes our friendships feel tenuous at best.

Some years ago, we read a paper from Bungie about the upcoming release of Halo 3. They presented a novel approach to cooperative campaigning in which the scoring system very deliberately awarded points only to the person who fired the final bullet that killed a particular enemy.

By withholding any kind of "partial credit", they were able to imbue a traditionally cooperative experience with a vein of competition. A player could now employ many different strategies of kill stealing or making the other player do the bulk of the work.

Performance games

In recent years we have seen music games rise to massive mainstream appeal due to polish and popularization from Harmonix. We are calling them performance games because some specific ones are more about engaging in a routine of sorts than actually creating music.

Performance games usually have a strong Heterogeneous cooperative vibe, since different band members play different instruments, but also have aspects of Indirect Competition by high scores and Duel modes for head-to-head battling. Despite these relationships to other multiplayer game types, one cannot deny that they offer a distinctly unique, creative, social experience.

Examples, briefly
All the most popular Harmonix and Neversoft games in the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises of course belong to this category, but we also find Dance Dance Revolution, especially in its multiplayer arcade setup to be quite relevant. Who among us has not seen videos of DDR players eschewing perfect scores for the sake of style and coordination?

Sandbox games

Sandbox games are, almost by definition, open-ended. They are neither cooperative nor competitive, exactly. They are whatever you want them to be. But when the game allows it, they can be an incredible multiplayer experience. Sometimes the game offers some amount of structure in the form of missions, but the truly great ones have the players veering off in totally different, awesome directions.

Our research group has had ample play time with Burnout Paradise's Freeburn mode. You can engage in cooperative challenges involving anywhere from 2 - 16 people, or... just do whatever you want. Maybe you feel like having an impromptu race. Or maybe all of a sudden you want to have a barrel roll contest. Or, as is often the case, maybe people just want to drive into each other over and over again. Even within the confines of the racing genre, it is clearly a sandbox.

Red Dead Redemption has a similar Free Roam mode where a posse of cowboys can go on missions together or harass other gangs for fun. (AEM, 2010).

It will probably seem obvious upon consideration, but most Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs are a sort of sandbox. The goals are various in nature, ranging from dungeoning to more loosely defined guild-leading.

A true sandbox with currently no strong impositions by the game, Minecraft's multiplayer mode lets you and your friend build or destroy anything and everything in the world... together. Aww.

Though the game itself met with lukewarm success, we have found much praise given for Crackdown's mode, in which the entire city is basically your cavalier, brutal, anti-cop's playground. The sandbox contains all sorts of goodies to mess with, like toy cars, toy trucks, and toy rocket launchers.


We believe there are constantly emerging yet undiscovered classifications of multiplayer games, but that we have covered a vast majority of them in this paper. It is our hope that these categories will help you to resolve some obscure, contrived dilemma or argument someday.

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to SteezyXL, Occams, and Corduroy Turtle for fielding my research inquiries.
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About knutafone of us since 6:45 PM on 03.01.2010

I'm a dad in my thirties.
I work for MS on the Xbox, making features and fixing bugs.
I have a cat and two dogs.
I sometimes make Twitter bots: 1, 2, 3

Groundhog Day: Wave After Wave, This Is My Ocean
Obscurity: Nobody has ever heard of Lemmings

Currently playing
Stephen's Sausage Roll

Dark Souls
Geometry Wars 2
Burnout Paradise
Rayman (original, Origins, Legends)
Tetris Attack
Metroid Prime series
Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3
Descent 1-3
English Country Tune
The Witness

Other places you might find me: livestream (PC indie games and Dark Souls)
knutaf on YouTube
@_knutaf on Twitter
Occasionally, I am part of a podcast
I watch a fair bit of anime.
I sometimes listen to music.
Xbox LIVE:knutaf
PSN ID:knutaf
Steam ID:knutaf


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