Overcooked: How Design Builds Teamwork

As Multiplayer games grew in popularity, they had to cater to different groups of gamers – people with varying skill levels, playstyles and comfort levels only to be pushed headfirst into an online soup. with a hundred foreigners and guns. While trying to design for the “ideal average” gamer, multiplayer game designers can address these challenges:

  • Cast a wide net: How can I create a game that is easy for newcomers to play but still difficult for experienced players?
  • Keep things interesting: How can I ensure that players don’t slip into predefined roles during gameplay, resulting in repetitive gameplay?
  • “Multi” player: How can I create design systems that encourage players to work as a team?

There are countless ways games have addressed and solved these design issues, but today I want to focus on two gastronomic gems – Overcooked and Overcooked 2*. These games use design tricks and universally understood processes to create delightful levels where you can play with friends of any skill level while having fun. Above all, Overcoooked is a multiplayer game which is best experienced when you are in constant communication with your teammates.

* I will use Overcooked as a shorthand for both games in this story.

A restaurant open to all

Overcooked is a game where 1-4 players have to equip the kitchens and carry out the commands that appear on the screen by cutting ingredients, mixing and cooking them, and preparing food according to specifications. There is a simple intelligence in this choice of theme for the game. Everyone theoretically knows how to cook. By anchoring the world and the rules of the game in mental models that are familiar to us all, Overcooked is a game that all of us can play.

Even people inexperienced in the kitchen – like 8-year-olds – can follow the logic when the game says “tomato + lettuce = salad”. This rudimentary addition is essentially how players learn new in-game recipes, with pop-up windows conveying important information using a visual shortcut.

New recipes are taught to players using universally understood visual guides. Source: Author.

As pending orders pile up at the top of the screen, those same visual cues keep players focused on the next ingredient and the task at hand.

Commands in Overcooked include visual cues for the recipe (ingredients and steps). Source: Author.

Basic game controls are easy to grasp. Players move with the keyboard or analog stick and use a single “interact” button for every step of preparing a dish – collect ingredients, chop them, interact with plates and frying pans, dress the dish and make the delivery all using the same button. There are other buttons for dashing into the kitchen and (in Overcooked 2) for throwing ingredients to teammates, but they don’t create any barriers of mechanical complexity for casual or less skilled players.

With a universal theme and simple controls, Overcooked expands its reach and is accessible to players of a wide variety of skill levels. The challenge now is to don’t make cooking a chore keeping players on their toes and always talking to each other.

Chaotic kitchens designed for teamwork

Because it has easy-to-understand controls and game rules, Overcooked runs the risk of its players falling into pre-defined roles and maximizing gameplay fun, i.e. “You make the pizza, I m ‘takes care of fish and chips’. To avoid this monotony, Overcooked levels are designed for players to work together to some degree.

This can be seen from the first level. A huge counter in the middle blocks the ingredient and stockpot cutting station. Here’s what it would look like if a cook tried to make the whole dish of onion soup…

Scared of heights. Source: Author.

…and here’s what it would look like if the counter in the middle was used to pass ingredients back and forth while the two players worked on the dishes together.

Designed for teamwork. Source: Author.

Overcooked’s level layouts still encourage players to talk, divide tasks, and make a game plan rather than just defaulting to dish A or dish B from muscle memory. What else, the layout of the kitchen often changes halfway to one levelrequiring players to keep talking to each other and assessing the changing environment.

For example, a galley on a pirate ship flips upside down when it enters rough waters…

Port! No, starboard! OK, back to Port… Source: Author.

…an earthquake makes half of the kitchen temporarily inaccessible…

On rocky ground. Source: Author.

… and a kitchen is actually two trucks driving on the highway.

I take takeout. Source: Author.

By designing levels that encourage teamwork and having those levels change over time, Overcooked inspires players to endlessly change, split, and combine their roles while happily chatting with each other.

Timers and Incentives

It’s not enough for a game’s level design to encourage teamwork – even if those levels are built with empathy, there’s always a chance that players will engage with them in a different way. It’s also important to provide players with incentives and goals that encourage them to work as a team.

Overcooked does two things here:

  • Each cooking task and customer order has a set timer that is visually communicated to the player.. If players prepare a dish once, it is possible to determine the duration of each stage and then improve it. They can also use this information to choose in which order to prepare the dishes (fast, prepare the dishes whose timers are closest to running out). The GIF below shows timers for slicing tomatoes in the foreground, cooking soup in the background, and customer orders stacked at the top of the screen.
Timers all around. Source: Author.
  • Players are rated on how quickly they can deliver dishes. This takes the form of restaurant tips in the game world: the faster players deliver a dish, the more tips they get.

By providing players with information (cooking timers) directly related to their goals (cooking the most dishes in the allotted time), Overcooked makes getting 1 star – the lowest rating to pass a level – almost too easy, while encouraging players to continue 3 stars. And getting 3 stars requires careful planning, adapting to changes, and talking to your teammate.

There are certain disincentives in play that also encourage teamwork. If players cook food for too long on the stove, it can catch fire. This results in a mad dash for the fire extinguisher and a more real-time reassignment of roles as players find the kitchen shifting around them again.

Hello darkness, old friend. Source: Author.

The randomness of dishwashing

Just when players think they’re working in harmony, spending every second chopping, frying, and cooking to achieve 3-star perfection, a pile of unwashed plates can taint their pristine plans.

Unlike everything else in Overcooked, unwashed plates not appearing with set timers, or at least the stopwatches are not communicated to the player. There is a set number of plates per level, and once players have used all the plates, they cannot deliver any more food unless they wash up. The dishwashing process itself has a timer, but players cannot predict when dirty plates will first appear.

Unwashed plates ruin the best-laid plans. Source: Author.

Since the dishes don’t follow the pleasant temporal cadence of cooking in Overcooked, players usually don’t have a dedicated “dishwasher” when they start a level. And that means on-the-fly communication and teamwork when the dreaded moment arrives, even if the communication is just a hasty shout “No YOU ​​are washing the plates this time!”.

Overcooked’s smiley, laid-back exterior hides clever design and incentive systems that all aim to encourage teamwork and communication. Players communicate while making plans to conquer each kitchen, and players continue to communicate while those plans go horribly wrong as unwashed dishes pile up or the kitchen suddenly splits in two.

Watch this video by Mark Brown if you’re interested in more design details for Overcooked.

For more information on game design, you can visit my medium profile read my other articles or follow me on twitter. Thanks for reading!


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Rozella J. Cook