Real co-op: What Borderlands gets wrong and how Tetrapulse is trying to fix it
There's something wrong with so-called cooperative games these days, and The Amiable, developers of the upcoming indie co-op game Tetrapulse, think they know how to fix it.
“Don't get me wrong, I love Borderlands,” said David Laskey, lead programmer on Tetrapulse. “It's very good co-op and good fun, but the co-op is more like implied. You're just sort of playing in the same space. Rather than having an actual cooperative experience.”
So they set to work developing a new idea for a game that they classify as a hardcore cooperative experience, designed to make players work together rather than just play together.
Tetrapulse is designed specifically to be unaccomodating to players who don't want to work as a team.
Tetrapulse is a game for two to four players where you fight together against hordes of robot monsters as they try to overtake the planet. To activate the planetary defenses, you and your team need to bring your “Heartstone,” a large stone obelisk, to charge the planetary weapons.
The Heartstone is the key to the whole experience. In the game's mythos, the Heartstone is what provides energy for the planetary defenses and also the life force of its people. What that means in gameplay terms is that the Heartstone is a healing item. A big, heavy healing item that takes 4 players to move at full speed.
That's significant, because in Tetrapulse, the only ammo you have at your disposal is your own life force. Firing your weapon emits a giant neon beam that depletes your health to damage enemies, or transfers health to allies.
This makes the game more interesting than the standard run-and-gun cooperative game where the trigger is held down at all times and the ammo never runs dry. Try to run-and-gun in Tetrapulse and you'll run out of ammo and life at the same time.
Picking up the Heartstone recharges your health bar and allows you to keep up the fight, but you're unable to shoot, making you a vulnerable target. So it's easy to see why coordination is important for keeping the Heartstone nearby and keeping vulnerable friends protected. Laskey said they're deliberately making this a game in which you'll outright fail if you're not working with your teammates.
He described it as being the equivalent of SOCOM compared to Call of Duty. No matter how elegant the game design, you'll always have the type of player who wants to charge ahead and hold down the trigger carelessly. Tetrapulse isn't interested in catering to that player.
“We know that our game might not be for everyone,” said Laskey. “But we know that there’s a strong enough love for co-op that we think that the core audience is going to like it.”
The idea behind Tetrapulse is to create an experience where the players are constantly being given a stream of interesting choices that they have to make on the fly. Not only are you meant to be constantly shouting at your teammates to coordinate the next move, but you're also besieged by an endless stream of robots.
“It’s like Mouse from the first Matrix movie,” said Laskey. “You’re backed into a corner with a whole box of guns, and you’re just blasting away, but you’ve conveniently got your friends with you. And you’re all on your last stand constantly. [Tetrapulse has] that kind of driving energy and that pace, but in a friendly, positive mindset.”
It took a while to develop this interconnected design system though. Laskey said that at one point the team had grown frustrated with the entire project because early in development, players were able to shoot while holding on to the Heartstone, causing every player to simply march around, holding the Heartstone and blasting away with near impunity. The game was essentially broken, and they weren't sure how to fix it.
It was actually a visiting member of the Octodad team, Young Horses, who one day suggested not letting the player shoot when they were attached to the Heartstone.
“We’d always talked about it, and we’d never gotten around to implementing it,” he said. “And it literally took a matter of minutes to change, and instantly we were back huddled around the computer shouting and having fun again.”
This idea sort of typifies the Tetrapulse project. They're willing to chip away at the design of the game until the players have no choice but to rely on their teammates rather than themselves.
Because in the end, co-op games are better when the power of the individual is de-emphasized and the power of the group is magnified.
Tetrapulse is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter for continued development.