Understanding Single-Player Co-Op With ‘Quadrilateral Cowboy’
Developer Brendon Chung opens up about overcoming his own programming naivety to nail an emerging gameplay trend.
A "single player cooperative game" probably sounds like an oxymoron, but chances are you've played one at some point. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has you playing – well, working – with yourself to achieve a goal by allowing you to control two characters independently of each other. The Talos Principle has a time-bending mechanic where you create a clone and perform tasks to help your future self. Even a certain little game named Grand Theft Auto V allows you to swap between characters on the fly in order to best suit your current situation.
It's a fascinating concept, and one that has brought about many cool ideas. However, it also has its fair share of design issues that are tough to solve. Brendon Chung is a solo indie game developer working under the name Blendo Games. He is currently working on a game called Quadrilateral Cowboy, announced back in 2013, which incorporates some of these single player co-op ideas. After a quick chat about how awesome Cities: Skylines is (very), we talked about his new game and his own single-player co-op ideas have come to fruition.
A 2013 trailer for 'Quadrilateral Cowboy'
VICE: First of all, just give me a rundown of what Quadribal... Quadrilateral Cowboy is. Ugh, it's still hard to say quickly, even after two years.
Brendon Chung: (Laughs) Quadrilateral Cowboy is a cyberpunk game set in an alternate-future 1980s where you and your crew are hired to plan out heists and do corporate sabotage – steal contracts, break into servers, things like that.
And it's a single player co-op game?
Yeah, it's a single-player game and it does have co-op elements to it. It begins as a fairly traditional single-player campaign where you're tasked to do an objective, and then you're kind of let loose into this world. At some point your crew gains technology to do heists together. So basically you have three people and you plan out all three of them moving in tandem.
So it starts off with you controlling one character at a time until you've got their mechanics down, and then they come together later on?
Right, exactly. The game is built on this idea of programming fundamentals where you have to do some scripting in a command terminal. Basically I wanted the game to be played by people who don't have any background in that field. And so I wanted the learning curve to be as shallow as possible to bring them up to speed. So I figured the co-op stuff was best saved until later until they got a footing in the game.
Is there a worry that it'll be too hard for people without that knowledge?
It was a concern of mine for a bit, but then I took the game to a few expos and conventions and shows and had random people play it, and it was really cool! I brought it to a few PAX shows and inevitably there comes a moment where a ten-year-old kid will jump on the keyboard and start playing it... and they just got through the missions. It was really heartening to see that, because typically my experience has been when I give my spiel to different players, the reaction I get is "Ahh, this game's not really for me, I don't have any programming knowledge, so this isn't gonna be a good fit for me." But I find that when they do sit down and play it, they kinda just get it, and there's something empowering about that.
Would you agree that single player co-op is a concept that has only properly emerged in the past few years?
Umm... no. I mean there have certainly been high-profile titles recently that have used that, but if you look back you find games that have played with these ideas. When we were trying to figure out how to do the co-op stuff for this game we looked at some older titles, like The Lost Vikings.
Oh yeah, of course.
It (single-player co-op) has definitely gained prominence recently, though.
Especially when it comes to "time bending". Swapping between characters and having them do stuff independently of you. Do you put that down to advances in technology, or something else?
I'd say "not really", but only because I, myself... I'm a self-taught programmer, and I do all the programming for my games, but programming is definitely not my strong point! So even as someone who's not a mega-amazing programmer, I'm still able to get away with doing this implementation of co-op stuff. As for why we're seeing a lot of it lately, I have this theory that ideas come in waves. Like when I started Quadrilateral Cowboy I was excited because there were not really many cyberpunk-themed titles at that time. And now we have a handful of them. I'm not saying we all copied each other; we just started at the same time. For some reason there was something in the air, and you see the exact same thing with the space-sim genre. A buddy of mine started working on his because there were none at that time, and now there's like 20 of them.
Did you always have this concept, or has it changed over time? Because last time I spoke to you about Quadrilateral Cowboy, you said you were hoping to release in 2013. It's still not out. Have you increased the game's scope, or have you just been taking your time?
The concept has been very... fluid. The game kinda decides what it wants to be. I know that sounds kinda flighty, but it just chooses its own direction and I'm just trying to follow where it goes.
Whatever you feel like on the day.
Yeah, exactly. First-person games are very greedy for content, and this game is considerably larger in scope than my other first-person stuff, Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone. So it has taken a bit of time.
This one will take a bit longer than Thirty Flights of Loving's 13-or-something minutes to complete, I imagine?
(Laughs) I'd say so.
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What drew you to the single-player co-op idea in the first place?
The premise of the game is that your crew runs these heists on corporations, and the thing that kept nagging me was that you are a crew of three ladies, but you're always doing a single-person job. There was just a bit of a disconnect there, so at the very beginning of the project I was thinking that maybe there can be some sort of weird simultaneous co-op thing between all the characters. Then I immediately shelved that idea, because it's way too technically demanding and beyond my skillset. So I banished it to a little text file and it just sat there for a long time. But then last year I started working with a level designer, Tynan Wales, and he worked with me for about six months or so. He's now working with Fullbright on Tacoma.
Every morning he would come in with new ideas, and one morning he said, "Hey Brendon, wouldn't it be interesting if there were some sort of co-op thing where three characters could work together?" And what he described was exactly what I had had in mind, so I figured that was a sign that there was something juicy there. We tried a really quick prototype and it was incredibly satisfying to see your teammates move through the world while you were doing your job. The thing that surprised me the most when we got it going is that there was something really wonderful about watching the characters move around the screen. They had this very human quality to them. You see yourself looking at paintings and the titles of books on the bookshelf. There's something wonderful about watching you watch someone else that really appealed to me.
I think the main problem with single-player co-op is that period where you have to wait for everything to happen or catch up with you. How have you overcome that?
We have a solution. Right now, one of your inventory items is a bottle of pills, and they speed up time, so instead of waiting around you can fast-forward to the time you want.
You say that's one solution you've got, so have you got other ideas?
(Laughs) The idea is getting a better programmer than me to do it. Right now I'm trying to find a better way of doing it, it's not the most elegant solution, it's more of a Band-Aid than anything. It's a very challenging problem, and it's brought to light for me why this idea has not been that well explored. It has very specific design issues that are tough to solve.
I guess the only real way is to design a level so everything happens exactly in time with each other, but then you can't account for the player not doing everything fast enough.
Yeah... This kind of design opens the door for all sorts of weird time paradoxes, and things that should not be physically possible. The folks (Capybara Games) who did Super Time Force, they did a really wonderful talk at the Game Developers Conference about how they handled these issues. Their talk was really amazing because I wanna say it delved into some quantum theory, which is kinda awesome.
You've been talking about how you're not an amazing programmer, but your career has been pretty good so far. And you were doing some development live streams for a while, too – what was your reasoning behind doing that? Just to reveal some of the process?
Yeah! Part of it is when I was growing up in school and interested in game development, this is something I wish was available to me at that stage. So I hope this is a nice little something for people who are in that same position. And another reason is that I find when I live stream it's helpful for myself. There's an audience I can bounce ideas off of, and during streams I've gotten a lot of advice and tips from people about the things I was doing. Plus, it really keeps you on the ball in terms of not being lazy.
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The audience probably helps deter you from procrastination.
Yes, definitely. There's a performance quality to it where you're on stage and have to perform at the best of your abilities.
I imagine many developers would be wary of releasing their work like that to the public.
For sure, but I guess for me I have no shame in my development process. I know what I'm good at and what I'm not good at, so I'm comfortable in my own skin. When I release the game, it will be open source, so the code itself isn't precious to me.
So have you got a solid release date for Quadrilateral Cowboy now?
I am aiming for this year. It's shaping up, it's getting pretty complete at this point.
Cool! I'm looking forward to playing it. Thanks for your time, Brendon.
Alright! Yeah, thanks for talking.
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Find more information about Brendon's work, including Quadrilateral Cowboy, at the Blendo Games website.
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