The term “couch co-op” breaks my heart. It’s not that I have distaste for new words, or that I can’t accept language’s constant evolution. But saying “couch co-op” implies that old-school, in-person multiplayer is now an exception and not the rule. It means the gaming landscape has shifted and gathering people around the same TV is simply not the standard way to play anymore.
And that breaks my heart because I love playing video games with others in-person more than any other way. Plus, “couch co-op” sounds somehow diminutive for the joyous activity I have so many fond memories of. To me, what “couch co-op” actually refers to is just plain co-op: the original multiplayer. But traditional, in-person play has become increasingly rare as online multiplayer has become the new normal.
There are certainly reasons for the change in emphasis to online play. The rise of first-person shooters to a dominant genre in games has made screen real estate particularly precious. I’d speculate that the majority of FPS players probably don’t prefer sharing screens with friends even during cooperative modes, and it’s likely unthinkable to some for a competitive game. (“Screen looking” used to be a dirty word, only to be used accusatorially.)
Today’s insanely intricate and detailed HD graphics—combined with hardware limitations—have surely contributed to the change as well. Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U, for example, looks silky smooth and unbelievably gorgeous in a single-player mode. But start a two-player race in splitscreen and the visuals take a noticeable dip as the console struggles to render two separate views at once. Step it up to four players and you’ll see further degradation as the frame-rate plummets tremendously.
It’s taxing on a console’s hardware to render HD visuals two, three, or four times over, so 3D games in splitscreen are rarely capable of looking as good as they did through a single viewpoint. If developers want their game to look amazing in multiplayer, it stands to reason that building for online play avoids facing this limitation.
Each of the big console makers also have their own paid services for online play: Xbox Live, PSN, and...uh, whatever Nintendo is doing with the Switch, eventually. These companies are more likely to incentivize development of online modes and features, as these components make their subscription offerings more appealing. What's more, couch co-op means multiple players using a single copy of a game, while online modes generally mean one copy of the game for each player—so online multiplayer is better for the publisher's bottom line.
The saddest aspect of local multiplayer largely being left behind though, is the distressingly awful state of public discourse in online gaming. Gaming culture's status quo of constant harassment towards minorities, LGBTQ folks, and women is still tangibly experienced in online games, with most platforms impotent and feckless in the face of a pervasively toxic player culture. Playing a game with random people online just isn’t worth the dealing with the vitriol for a sizable swath of gamers, as this Polygon article calls out.
Look, I'll just come right out and say it: online multiplayer in general—and co-op in particular—just isn't as good as playing in-person. Online is certainly a good substitute when getting together in the same physical location is not an option, but does anybody actually prefer it? I could be in the minority here, but I'd never choose to play with friends online when we could be in the same room. And yet that's becoming an increasingly rare option. Rare enough that we’ve made up a new word for it.
By the way, I've got my GameCube here. Who wants to play some Super Mario Strikers?