You may have heard the term "Asymmetric game" thrown around a lot lately. It's the current hotness, with games like Evolve, Fable Legends, and a huge number of the Nintendo Wii U games marketing themselves based on their asymmetry. Let's take this opportunity to explore exactly what it means, and what we can learn from it while it is in the spotlight.
If you are unfamiliar with the term, an asymmetric game is any multiplayer game in which all players are playing at the same time, but at least one of the players is playing in a different way than the others. If that sounds vague and fairly broad to you... well... it does to me too. At what point does one player's experience differ enough from another's to count as asymmetric?
Let's take Evolve as an example. One player begins as a monster, and must eat wildlife to grow stronger. They are actively avoiding the other players until they get strong enough to defeat them. The other players are playing a more traditional FPS style of game play, and they are trying to work together to find the monster and kill him before he is able to get strong enough to kill their team.
Interestingly, there seems to be a spectrum of asymmetrical games. Take free-to-play game called Nosgoth, or the acclaimed Left 4 Dead games. In these games, one team plays as a group of vampires or special zombies, which require more stealth-based and up-close styles of combat, while the other group plays as hunters or survivors, who have a more traditional FPS style of gameplay.
Are all of these games asymmetric? Does Evolve's 1v4 style of gameplay make it more asymmetric than the 4v4s? Is the intermediate goal of "evolving" enough of a difference to set Evolve in a different class of game? Perhaps, rather than looking at if a game is or is not asymmetrical, it might be more useful to discuss it in terms of how asymmetrical it is, rather than if it fits into the definition.
Lets look at games in other genres. Starcraft, Unholy War (a personal favorite), or any other RTS that has different factions all pose a different playing experience based on which faction you pick. Trying to pull off a Zerg rush is a very different experience than defending against one while trying to use a Ghost to nuke past defenses. What about Mortal Kombat, Super Smash Brothers, or any other fighting game with different characters? Different characters may play very differently based on the unique tools at their disposal. Just ask anyone who has ever played against Metaknight in Brawl using any other character... those are very different experiences. Is it fair to say that these games are also asymmetrical, but maybe less so then Nintendo Land's mini games?
What exactly makes a game asymmetric?
The reason that this thought is important to us, or rather, accepting that asymmetry may be a spectrum rather than a classification, is because of how we apply it. For example, we might draw some conclusions based on the fact that players want asymmetric games. Consider the following:
Players want to experience more from their games. They want different characters in fighting games, different factions in RTS games, and different styles in FPSs. This may be due to wanting to express themselves in the game (ala Johnny), or they may enjoy discovering which character/faction/team is stronger (ala Spike), or, maybe they just want to experience the same core game in a multitude of ways, like a player who gets tired of a specific game, buts immediately buys the sequel (Timmy).
By considering these things, we as game designers may put more asymmetry into our games, rather than saying "I'm not making an asymmetric game" and ending the conversation there. Because we realize that it is a spectrum, we give ourselves permission to add a little bit of asymmetry without trying to determine if we are an asymmetric game.
Even though board games started asymmetric games as far back as Dungeons and Dragons, it is interesting to note that this concept hasn't been fully explored. Many games have dipped their toes into this space, with games like Werewolf or Resistance offering one team with increased knowledge and options. I would consider these games to have slight asymmetry. Others, like D&D, go all out and have different players playing completely different games essentially, and are on the complete other end of the spectrum. Trying to think of examples that are more in the middle is more difficult... the first that springs to my mind is the XCOM board game, in which all four players are responsible for different aspects of the game.
By looking at it as a spectrum, we as designers may be led to new and innovative design space simply by moving our game along that spectrum and seeing where it takes us. I'm excited to see how this might impact future board games.
In the meantime, feel free to tell us some of your favorite asymmetric games in the comments!