Asymmetry and Holistic Design

Over the years, I’ve had some trouble expressing my point of view about pre-game asymmetric choices (characters, factions, etc) in games. Back in 2013 I wrote “Debunking Asymmetry“, which was my most clumsy attempt, and which awarded me over 100 comments, from notable game designers like Naomi Clark, Raph Koster, Greg Costikyan, Jon Schafer and David Sirlin. Two years later, in 2015, I attempted to clean up what it was I was trying to say, and wrote “Asymmetry in Games“. Basically the big clarification here was: I’m not against asymmetry at all. What I’m against is the ability for players to make their asymmetric choice before the game begins. But I don’t think this article made its case that well, either.

I think the issue runs a lot deeper than I previously understood. At the same time, I think I’ve matured a lot when it comes to my general approach to game-making and writing. In my older works I would often state things in a way that sounded a lot more “universal truth-y” than I really meant them. So let’s take another stab at this, and go a little bit deeper.


For the rest of the article I’ll be using the phrase “asymmetric choices” to refer to choices made before the match begins. Examples would be the DotA drafting phase, fighting game character select, MtG deck-building, choosing a race in StarCraft, and so on. Obviously all games have some asymmetry in their game state once the game starts, and some games also have “inherent asymmetry” (i.e. Counter-Strike with terrorist vs and counter-terrorists, or arguably Chess with Black vs. White given that one of these forces goes first and must play a bit differently). Neither of these kinds of asymmetry are what I’m focusing on in this article.

Before we get into my ideas, let me just state a bunch of ideas on this topic that I think most people already believe, and which I also largely agree with.

  1. Variety. “Adding” asymmetric characters to a game (I’ll explain the scare-quotes later) increases the “variety” for matches in a game system. There are a dozen or two characters, which means you have some much larger number of matchups.
  2. Toy-like value. There is a “toy-like” value of asymmetric choices: it allows players to “zoom in” on one small aspect of the system and explore it deeply. It also allows players to “play with” the system, either to create house rules or handicaps or other things. You can think of these asymmetric choices as being similar to arcade dipswitches or options in a custom game. These can widen the potential audience for the game as a larger number of people are able to find value in one of the potential rule arrangements.
  3. Onboarding value. Creates a very nice and clean way of doing incremental complexity: players can start off only playing Terran for their first 20 matches, and get used to that before having to get used to all the other units in the game.
  4. Personal Expression value. There is some degree of “this character/faction/deck represents something about me as a person”. The popularity of skins in games like League of Legends makes it undeniable that people value this quite highly in their games.
  5. Commercial “content” vector. This is more of a “business” value than a value that a game player or designer would explicitly care about, but now more than ever, games are extremely content-laden. Games have become more and more of a “store front” through which you can purchase more and more content for that game. Asymmetric character choices, particularly because of point #4, serve as an excellent vector for this content.

Let’s talk about “content”

I think the concept “content” actually contains within it most of my real objections here. I’ve tried writing about content in the past a bunch of times, and it’s really hard. I wrote a couple of drafts here where I started getting into the origins of videogames in the 1980s/1990s, at the height of Neoliberal ideology, but I don’t think I need to really go there to make my point. I will say that broadly our aesthetic preferences have been formed at least somewhat over the decades. We have all, to some extent, internalized the hype, the back-of-the-box claims that there is a very direct relationship between “value” and “amount of content“. All of our brains have been somewhat content-ified at this point.

I think about these two very distinct ways that we could think about games, particularly as game designers:

“Content and System” design approach – Because of the aforementioned “contentification” of our aesthetic preferences, and because of the facts that games’ existence is so tied up in the games industry, this is basically how we make videogames now, and it has been for a long time. You have your content, or your “componential rules” (this would be things like the specific units in an RTS), and you have your systemic rules (which would be stuff like the win condition, minerals as a resource, or rules determining how armor affects incoming damage). Content and Systemic Rules are mostly quite easy to delineate in most games, and this is because they have already been explicitly delineated from each other at every stage of the game’s life: during pre-production, production, in the marketing, and in how players think about the game.

“Holistic” design approach – A more holistic model would not make any strong or clear distinction between the game’s content and the systemic rules. There aren’t a ton of popular examples of this in videogames, but in tabletop games you see a lot more games that seem more holistically designed. An example that comes to mind for me would be the card game Bohnanza. It has a large variety of cards in the game, but the game only works if you have exactly those cards operational in every match. You can’t just turn off some cards or add a bunch more in there willy-nilly without ruining the game balance and dynamics.

When more holistic tabletop games like Bohnanza have expansions, in most cases these expansions could really be looked at as more like “mods”, or a new edition of the game. If you ask me, the High Bohn expansion for Bohnanza is more like a “2.0 patch” to the game that basically just improves on the base game in almost every way. There are some new cards, but they get explicitly switched in for some of the existing cards, as a core part of the rules. So the line between what is “content” and what is “system” is still quite blurry, even with expansions for games like these.

Really, what I’ve been wanting to say all along is this: for strategy games, I think we should be experimenting a lot more with a holistic model. That’s really what my books and so much of my articles have been about over the years. The whole “Clockwork Game Design” concept is all about trying to look at games in a more holistic way.

Clockwork Game Design had its 7th anniversary recently

By holistic I don’t mean just look at the rules in some kind of space vacuum! Holistic doesn’t mean “formalist”. A holistic approach means that everything about the game matters: the art, the sound, the setting, the rules, the names of characters, the platform it’s released on, who you are, how you as a developer talk about your game—everything matters.

And it also means that all of the “content” matters, to the point where you can’t really draw the line between what is content and what is game anymore. Let’s imagine a game without content, and instead imagine a game that has “its necessary parts”.

Why holistic designs?

We’ve already granted some of the advantages of the “content” model. So what are the advantages of a more “holistic” design? The short answer is this: once you decide to do a holistic design, one where all the “content” is treated more like systemic rules, this forces you to do a bunch of other stuff that leads you to a bunch of better game design calls. It’s a setup that forces you to do the hard work of Game Design, where the content model puts a lot more responsibility on players to “figure out something that works”.

Let’s think for a moment about “roles”, in a game like League of Legends. Typically the roles are thought of as “which lane you to to”, which is okay, but it’s better to think about roles as more in terms of that character’s job in the game. Teams often need a tank, a jungler, someone to do burst damage, someone to do sustained damage, etc. I often think to myself that there are some League of Legends champions who do those jobs in a better (as in, better for the game’s health) way. For instance, the game is simply in a more interesting place when Thresh is the support (he has a hook, a push move, a lantern that other players can use to zip to his location, and a box he can place that damages and slows characters who walk through it) than when Sona is (who has basically a damage spell, a heal, a speed up move and a mass stun).

Then, I imagine a version of League of Legends where players hit a big shiny “PLAY” button, and are assigned roles (in  a way that makes sure each team has important roles filled), and a small set of random characters of that role-type are distributed. This small set would only include the very best characters. So now all those boring matches you played where there was some dumbass Udyr autoattacking everything to death, or where a Master Yi or Nasus went completely out of control and flattened the game, won’t happen.

The next obvious concern is, well, but if I get Character A randomly given to me, what if my lane opponent gets a character who is a strong counter to Character A (or vice versa)? It’s true, this would be a major problem if we literally threw the existing League of Legends characters into this random distribution system. It just wouldn’t work! So, you have to go back to the drawing board a little bit here and design characters in such a way that they don’t “counter” each other so much. And also, make sure that characters always, ALWAYS have some utility, even if they’re really behind. Such a game could not have “feast or famine” type characters like Master Yi or Katarina who are incredible if they get ahead and completely useless if they don’t. All characters would have to be useful — which yes, this means you’ll have to do a lot of Game Design. You’ll have to get creative and think of characters in a different, more holistic way.

You’ll have to think about “is it a positive thing for the game to have this character in the game?” rather than “is there possibly some human being out there who’d want to pick this character because they like them for some reason?” This is the fundamental question that I ask in game design, and it is a central tenet to the Clockwork Game Design idea, yet I often feel like a total space alien for wanting it at all.

A big and obvious thing to point out is this: if players can’t arbitrarily pick their characters, then you have to make all of the characters interesting and balanced and useful. You have to minimize “counter-picking”. You have to do a lot differently than we currently do it. So as always with my articles, I am *not* saying “just make a version of League of Legends with randomized characters”. It probably wouldn’t be possible to make that good or fair. What I am saying is, let’s design more games that are designed around randomized characters.

Continuing with systemic designing

I do see designers Doing Game Design when it comes to their systemic rules. I absolutely love to hear about the changes to the system of League of Legends that Riot makes all the time.  Their new dragon rules, their new jungle plants and things like this demonstrate “doing game design in a way that is trying to make the game more healthy”. They’re trying to make it deeper, more balanced, more often resulting in good games, more room for emergent complexity, more fresh, and so on. The bomb plant is not exciting because “oh wow, a new plant”, it’s exciting because it (at least in theory) makes the game better overall.

In my 2015 article I argued that we shouldn’t be letting people choose their asymmetric choice before the game begins. I think it was probably an over-statement. Of course it’s “fine” if players are making these choices in fighting games and even in a game like League of Legends. Like… in some sense, of course, the way we are doing this “works”.

But what it does mean is that as a designer, you have the comfort of knowing that if some character is too strong, too weak, too narrow, or just generally unhealthy for the game in some way, well, players can just not pick that character and it’s all good. It effectively marks a large chunk of the operational rules in a given match, and says “oh these? Yeah these are just some weird mod or something”. It puts this “asterisk” on every match. You now really have to look at the game over the course of hundreds of matches and throw out all the ones that were ruined by sub-optimal characters, hard counters, and other crappy interactions that are bound to happen when you have “50 Choose 2” number of choices.

The thing to get here, I think, is simply that the premise of “a bunch of optional characters” is operating on some axis totally independent of “what’s good for the game”. It’s operating more on the level of “what’s good for the product”. It widens the number of players who want to play a given game. And for multiplayer games, that’s a pretty reasonable thing to want. But I also think we generally go to far trying to widen our audiences. Maybe it’s okay for games to have a moderately sized audience, if we can get other advantages in exchange.

Every single time I’m faced with a “Choose your Character” screen, I am filled with bad feelings. I think most people already have to make the decision between “do I choose to explore more of the system? Or do I choose to play the character I’ve already played hundreds of times, increasing my chances of winning?” For me, as a game designer, it’s even worse because I’m also juggling the idea of “picking something that will lead to a healthy game”. I feel like I’m in a weird space, having to both pick “strategically” as a player, and also basically do game design work of identifying the healthiest characters for this individual match.

To clarify: I am not arguing for symmetrical games. I love the idea of characters having different starting conditions, different tools that they can use to achieve their goals. I just think that these should be incorporated systemically just as the other aspects of a game are.

On a purely selfish level, I can’t wait until more games experiment with more holistic designs, wherein the systemic design thought doesn’t stop when thinking about characters, factions and so on. In my view, it’s possible that when this model is deviated from, there will be other massive jumps in game design. Unfortunately, things have only seemed to be traveling in the opposite direction, with Gacha-ism being the most concentrated form of “pre-game asymmetry”/content-design ever devised. The economic pressures on game developers are such that we may have to wait for other conditions to change before it’s possible or reasonable to hope for any deviation from this design pattern. For the short term, I think we can only expect more: more characters, and something even more commodified and content-ified than even the current gachas. But perhaps I can convince a few hundred people who read this article to experiment with holistic designs in the meantime.


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