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In October of 2009, Gearbox Software released the game Borderlands, after years in development. A surprise success, Borderlands has gone on to spawn two sequels, a Telltale Games Adventure series and a Chinese-exclusive online MMO, titled Borderlands Online. Regardless of the opinions of Gearbox Software, it is clear that the Borderlands series has struck a chord with the gaming community.

Perhaps the reason for it is beyond the surface of the product—the madcap, dark humor and the Mad Max stylized aesthetic. Borderlands is the first game in a long time to really shake things up in terms of video game genres, namely how it was a “new” style of role-playing game: a co-operative action-RPG. Borrowing the characteristics of the popular run and gun shooter Left 4 Dead, Borderlands pits four characters together at a time as they shoot, kill, and loot hundreds upon hundreds of gun combinations on the planet Pandora.

The bigger point, however, is the use of co-op and multiplayer within a role-playing game—a sort of taboo subject among role-playing aficionados. The roots of role-playing games are founded in the tabletop experience, with co-op play being an integral part of the game and its progression. For many though, the definition of role-playing video games excludes the ability for co-op or multiplayer. This has led to the separate classification of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, or MMORPGs.

This article is not about MMOs, however, as those online RPGs are a separate discussion in and of itself. What should be discussed is how games such as Borderlands, among others, have slowly been evolving our perceptions of role-playing games further, while simultaneously influencing other genres with their design. Co-op play is increasing in popularity in role-playing video games, and titles like Borderlands are at the forefront of either an emerging genre in RPGs or a pre-existing genre that has long been dormant.

To fully understand how, we need to look back at the history of multiplayer in RPGs.  Most computer and console RPGs have been primarily a single player experience by definition, and it is mostly due to design. The book Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design, describes role-playing games as having a developed storyline structure and setting, with players having complete control of their party at all times. Many games, from the classic SSI Goldbox titles to Square and Enix games, tend to follow this paradigm to the letter; the player has complete control over their experience based on their choices, characters, equipment, and progression. As we have mentioned previously, the plotline is unaffected, but players also control the narrative tone of some of these games as well.

The full control of a role-playing game experience of course varies between a person’s preferences. Fans of dungeon crawlers like Wizardry, for example, look for specific design choices when choosing a game to play, and having full control of the player’s party, character classes, equipment, formation, and inventory is paramount of the genre. It has been argued previously how the etymology of role-playing games is difficult to pin down, so the best solution would be to divide games through genre by design, not by country of origin. For a game like Borderlands, such classification can be difficult at first glance.

Many don’t consider it a RPG in any form, instead a first-person shooter with RPG elements attached. While there is a growing number of games outside of the RPG genre incorporating such elements into their design, Borderlands follows a more standard design philosophy found in most RPG games, from open world design, to non-linear character progression. Players have complete control over the optimization and growth of their character, right down to the weapons and abilities they use in combat. Borderlands also borrows many elements often seen in modern role-playing games, namely aesthetic design of inventory—multi-colored, multi-tiered items based on rarity—uniqueness of character classes, quest-based mission structure, and character rewards and progression.

Shadow of Yserbius is one of the early Graphical MUDs, and provided an online component and hub for players called "The Tavern" allowed the creation of user guilds and contests.

Shadow of Yserbius is one of the early Graphical MUDs, and provided an online component and hub for players called “The Tavern” allowed the creation of user guilds and contests.

So the question of Borderlands being a RPG should be no question. The question now, however, is why multiplayer is a big deal here. The advent of co-op multiplayer being present in role-playing video games has been a part of the growth of the RPG genre since the 1970s. Many Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs, would be the first proto co-op RPG games ever created. Primarily text-based and really a product of the adventure-game genre, MUDs are nonetheless important to the growth of multi-player role-playing, with Graphical MUDs considered the grandfather of the modern MMO.

Another game, Gauntlet, would revolutionize co-op play in arcades. The first ever multi-player dungeon crawl, Gauntlet would allow four players, each a different character class, to navigate a large, maze-like structure while fighting hordes of enemies. Borrowing some RPG elements from rogue-likes and combining it with arcade cabinet design, Gauntlet was innovative for its time and would be another forerunner for co-op role-playing games.

While Graphical MUDs began an interest in co-op role-playing, the concept took a leap forward during the mid-1990s. This was during the rapid decline of the CRPG market, while on consoles, RPGs such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy were thriving. A few games would provide co-op multiplayer for the first time in a RPG, but the honor for the first successful attempt at co-op gameplay can be traced back to the SNES title Secret of Mana by Square, in 1993.

Secret of Mana was an action-RPG spearheaded by Koichi Ishii, one of the original designers of the original Final Fantasy, and programmed by Nasir Gebelli, another member of the Square “A-Team.” The primary innovation found in Secret of Mana was not an original part of its design; the game features three playable characters, and it was decided mid-way through development to make all three playable. This could only be achieved with a multitap device for the Super Nintendo, but this allowed three players to play Secret of Mana at once.

This innovation was well received by critics. Electronic Gaming Monthly lauded the multiplayer as a major innovation and an addictive part of the game. Kelly Rickards of Diehard GameFan noted the multiplayer of Secret of Mana “made the game.” Edge Magazine stated that Secret of Mana “includes some of the best game design and features ever seen: simultaneous three player action, the best combat system ever designed, the best player interface ever designed, a superb control system, and yes, some of the most engrossing and rewarding gameplay yet.”

The success of Secret of Mana did not start a craze for co-op role-playing games, but it did prove that RPGs are a viable market for such features. Three years later, in 1996, the PC would have similar success with the dungeon-crawler Diablo, which included the first online-multiplayer component for a role-playing game, a full year before the first commercial MMO, Ultima Online, would be released. Diablo, much like Secret of Mana, would be a critical success, with many reviewers praising the multiplayer component again for breathing new life into the genre.

Since these two games, many other RPGs have attempted to incorporate multiplayer into their design. Baldur’s Gate by BioWare is perhaps the most famous example at the time, but from the early 2000’s to around 2008, multiplayer components in RPGs have been noticeably absent from the experience. The reasons for this can only be speculated on, but it is possible that the MMO market is partially to blame. It is arguable that the major success of MMOs such as World of Warcraft, Everquest and Guild Wars created a distinction of the genres—similar to the classifications players put on RPGs today. This distinction, that a MMO is the only way to include multiplayer in an RPG, would remain prevalent to this very day.

Another possible reason is the rising tide of DRM. While some companies like BioWare included multiplayer for their RPGs, the games relied heavily on fan-made campaigns instead of expansion packs to generate content. Since the early to late 2000s, DRM for PC games has steadily increased, making modifications to games difficult without available toolkits to players. Combine this with the amount of control publishers have over their products that has led to many fan-made multiplayer campaigns impossible for most RPGs, so the feature of online, co-op play became redundant.

The resurgence since the release Borderlands, in 2009, however, has shown that co-op role-playing is far from dead. Since 2009, several game series have been built upon the same framework, becoming co-op focused, action-oriented RPGs of different stripes. Most famously is perhaps Dead Island, which mimics several aspects of both MMOs and Borderlands design through its skill trees and loot distribution system, while offering their own spin on character progression. Despite both titles being firmly in the action RPG camp, both game have become synonymous with this new style of gameplay for RPGs, an alternative to MMOs as being a smaller-scale, multiplayer experience.

Other games have followed suit on this pathway as of late, with co-op becoming a selling point in some cases. Last year, Divinity: Original Sin was released to much critical acclaim, with one of the major selling points being the optional co-op gameplay mixed with a real time tactical interface. Original Sin is just one of several games in recent years to not only include co-op gameplay, but encourage its use through gameplay means. Titles such as inXiles Hunted: The Demons Forge, the Sacred series and Dungeon Defenders would be some of these examples of utilizing multiplayer, while other titles in the same vein as Diablo have also emerged; Torchlight in 2009 and Magicka in 2011 would be some examples of a return to the hack-and-slash co-op play for the PC.

Games such as Shadowrun Returns offer home-made campaigns as part of their gameplay experience, a return to the old BioWare style of having modular scenarios for multiple players to be downloaded for use. BioWare has also continued to provide multiplayer; both Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition give players a controlled option for multiplayer but provide adequate role-playing choices within it—such as character progression, weapon loadouts, and real-time action-roleplaying in a co-op environment.

It is clear that co-op play is becoming popular again in role-playing circles. Much like the roots of role-playing video games has with the tabletop realm, multiplayer being a part of RPGs should be a natural progression of the genre as a whole. Titles like Borderlands become the benchmark of an emerging sub-genre: co-op role-playing games. This is an innovation welcome for sure, as RPGs continue to evolve beyond the parameters we expect from them.

 What co-op RPGs can you think of that I may have missed? If you have any question or comments, please leave them below or contact me on twitter @LinksOcarina. See you next time on Playing Roles. 

Robert Grosso

Staff Writer

A game playing, college teaching, erudite-minded scholar who happens to write some articles every so often. Have worked as a journalist, critic, educator and blogger for over five years now, with articles published (as user editorials) on Game Revolution and Giant Bomb as well as a contributor for the websites Angry Bananas and Blistered Thumbs. Now making TechRaptor my home.