Finding a T, E, A and M, in "Multiplayer"

Any get-together with my grad-school friends always involves a gantlet of getting my ass kicked at beer pong, then darts, bowling, pool, and finally rock-paper-scissors. All for chugs. It's definitely a competitive multiplayer experience, one with no ragequitting.

"Sorry guys," I've said more than once, hucking the paddle into the net and fishing the ball out of my cup of Coors Light. "Can't find the time to work on my beer pong shot."

After about five years of ceaseless competition, we spontaneously developed a new mode. We called it "Man in the Mirror." The objective: Working as a team, hit as many three-point shots as possible during the song "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson. It's governed by some strange rules, with point multipliers for streaks. I'm happy to share the rules, but that's not the point. I was on the court with two good friends, both of them former college basketball players, and instead of someone getting destroyed we were all playing like hell and still having a good time.

Chris would feed me the ball and I'd square up. "I just want to contribute," I'd think to myself. And, relaxed, the shots would finally start going in. After our earlier tries stalled at 58, we got to 67 and celebrated with genuine, palm-bruising high fives.

Thanks for sitting through that reverie; I find it applicable to the online experience in sports video games these days. After years largely governed by one experience, kick or get the crap kicked out of you online, the leading simulation titles - except for baseball and college football - have adopted cooperative online modes, representing considerable investments in development time and post-release support.

It began with EA Sports' FIFA series in 2007, which this year will bring goalkeepers into its Online Team Play mode for a true, 11-a-side match, either against the computer or teams of other live players. EA's NHL and NHL 2K and NBA 2K quickly followed, the latter being the first to offer the potential for having all players on both sides controlled by users.

Madden NFL finally got into the act with two-man cooperative team play last year, then bolstered its offering to three-to-a-side in Madden NFL 11, with each player controlling a different personnel unit, and accruing perks in a system comparable to what you see in online multiplayer shooters.

"The first year we did it, I wouldn't call it an experiment, but in a sense we were testing those waters," said Yuri Bialoskursky, a designer on the Madden team. "The intent was to create a space online for users where they didn't feel as intimidated by going there. You could go with a buddy, he can show you the ropes. In our current online team play, it's you and two of your buddies. It's still competitive, but at the same time, it's a safe place where you're not going to get blown out of the water."

Finding a T, E, A and M, in "Multiplayer"

Bialoskursky is quick to point out that "I can't stand the term ‘casual'," and doesn't consider his game's cooperative mode to be that. "The approach wasn't to dumb it down. We wanted to design a mode so that it was accessible to everyone, and the most important thing you want to do is present the information in a way that everybody can understand it, whether you're experienced or a beginner."

In Online Team Play, a player can control the quarterback (and offensive line), another handles the running backs, and a third may switch among the receiving personnel. On defense, the units are defensive line, linebacker and defensive backs. With fewer than three players, one may elect to switch off among all CPU-controlled personnel.

So Madden 11's player specialization partially divides the game to its component tasks - rushing the passer, running the ball, defending and catching passes. That allows a player whose overall game, like mine in one-on-one basketball, to still contribute in a competitive situation, without limiting higher skilled players.

"One of the things we found out, early in playtesting, ... was that people enjoyed having the ability to focus on a specific area and not have to worry about all the other stuff," Bialoskursky said. "It worked to our benefit. Not only do people feel more ownership, they're also creating trust that they can feel in other teammates."

American football is a game with an intense team ethic, one that really hasn't been represented in video games until now. Trust is a key component of that - every man is in there doing his job, and in a game that's a series of set pieces, it's virtually impossible for a player to step outside of that role, hog the ball and grab all the glory for himself.

Soccer, as a free-flowing sport with a continuously contested objective, is a different story. It perhaps requires more trust than American football because of the potential for a rogue teammate to stray all over the pitch.

Finding a T, E, A and M, in "Multiplayer"

Gary Paterson, FIFA 11's creative director, says players in the game's online team play mode typically rush to grab the striker or central midfielder positions, as they cover the most ground and are involved in more of the passing and attacking. That said, with the longest established cooperative community in sports gaming, FIFA players do a good job of policing themselves, kicking pests who aren't committed to playing properly, and establishing fair-play reputations that encourage others to play against them.

In cooperative modes of FIFA, the hardcore competitors, Paterson says, are as likely to be focused on playing the game the right way as they are winning, and enjoy the unique challenge of managing and communicating among more teammates than can be had in any other game right now. "Keeping 10 people positioned correctly and working together takes a lot of communication," Paterson said. "And 10 people equals 10 times more of the stakes. It's a challenge, but with the greater challenge comes a greater sense of achievement and greater emotion."

This year, FIFA 11 will add the ability to play as a goalkeeper, bringing a new set of responsibilities and expectations to a cooperative team. There will be three levels of goalkeeper play - two levels of CPU assistance, plus a fully manual mode. Online clubs may choose to play in CPU-keeper matches only until they find sides with human goalkeepers playing under the same mode. And some may avoid playing keeper because of the potential drawbacks, especially handling a new position. "One mistake and you can get punished," Paterson said, "but one mistake as a central midfielder, not so much. So there's a risk and reward for people who put themselves in goal."

In the end, FIFA, Madden and other games are taking meaningful steps toward supporting and encouraging team play without babying the concept. Maybe it's not overdue - the infrastructure supporting cooperative multiplayer is quite different, and perhaps could only be built in the current era of technology and connectivity. But it is a long time coming, and restores a team concept to games that have been individual expressions, of skill or failure, for most of their history online.

"The sense of achievement you get when you score goal, as a team - the emotion, the sense of the achievement, you did that together," Paterson said. "And when you play co-op games, there is a greater sense of achievement and camaraderie, and fun, of doing that together."

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.