Asymmetry in Games

 

asymmetry

A few years ago, I had written an article called “Debunking Asymmetry“. I think that that piece makes some mistakes about how it framed some of the problems of asymmetric forces in games.

Quickly, a definition – “asymmetry”, in this context, refers to the player or players having different abilities from the start of a match. A Street Fighter II character, a StarCraft race, or a Magic: The Gathering deck all would qualify (for the purpose of this article, I will just use “character” to refer to any of these, as a shorthand).

For clarity, let’s say that emergent asymmetry – i.e., I’ve captured all of your pawns and you haven’t captured any of mine – does not qualify for the purposes of this article. There are also other kinds of inherent asymmetry, as in any game where one side is “on offense” and one side is “on defense”, such as Counter-Strike, or the board game 2 de Mayo. Neither of those are what I want to address here today, mostly because I don’t see those as a problem.

What needs to be discussed is what I’ll call “videogame-style asymmetry”, which has the property of allowing players to choose their asymmetric force before what we would normally think of as the true “match” begins.

In this article, I will explain the problems with videogame-style asymmetry, as well as offer some solutions as to how we can get its benefits without the pitfalls.

 

Current Thinking

First, let’s talk about what we currently do and why we do it. Where did this idea that you “pick a guy” before a game begins come from in the first place? Chess, Go, and other ancient abstracts don’t have that feature. A football or baseball player doesn’t have the ability to choose “which character” he will be before the game begins. Arguably, a coach or team manager is doing something similar, and that might be one of the first examples of this taking place. However, it’s still not quite the same sort of thing as “picking a character”; a sports team manager is negotiating for the best players he can get, not picking between a bunch of strategically-equal forces based on his preferences, experimentation, or other whims.

Regardless of where it came from and how it came to be, it’s now become a dominant design pattern for videogames of every stripe. Why is that? After studying this and speaking to many on the topic, here are the primary reasons I hear over and over again.

  1. Adds variety”. The number one word people will utter when you ask them why a game needs characters is “variety”. Basically the idea here is, without the asymmetrical forces, the game would get stale too quickly. Some even believe that “the more variety, the better”, and would advocate for perpetual addition of content to a game system.
  2. “Makes Learning The Game Easier”. This one’s pretty straightforward: if you section off parts of the game into “characters”, and allow players to just play as one character, they only have to learn that single character to get into the game.
  3. Supports Different Play-styles”. Players do have different “play-styles” – the kinds of decisions they make, whether they’re more or less aggressive, and so on. The claim here is, you can choose a character that supports your play style, and the argument is that this is a good thing.
  4. “Supports Different Player Preferences”. Let’s say you love StarCraft, but you hate the Terran units – you just find them really boring to play as for some reason. Well, now you can just play as Zerg or Protoss and never have to play as the Terrans.

 

Rebuttals

I have issues with almost all of those points made above, or issues with some of the underlying assumptions of some of those points.

  1. “Adds Variety”. We already have non-asymmetric games that are interesting for years – look to designer boardgames like Puerto Rico or Through the Desert or even ancient abstracts like Chess and Go for examples. Many of these games are interesting and have plenty of variety purely as a result of having relatively strong rulesets.
    The underlying assumption with the “variety” claim seems to be that a system on its own – without a bunch of “content” – just can’t be interesting. People advocating this view seem to be unable to imagine just a gameplay system that itself is deep and has tons of emergent variety for years. This is understandable; we are still in the early days of “interactive system design”, and frankly, most of the systems we make aren’t very interesting – they do need something – asymmetry, tech gimmicks, an important social message, in order to maintain an adult’s attention for very long. However, it’s not hard for me to imagine that we will get far better at this discipline in the years to come.
  2. “Makes learning the game easier”. I’ll grant that this point has some merit. However, the way we do things now, videogame-style asymmetry seems to have a net negative effect on ease-of-learning, mostly due to the invitation it sends designers that reads, “please, add way too much content to this system!” It’s great that you kinda only have to learn to play as one character to get into a game, but to really play a game you do ultimately need to learn *all* of its rules – not just your character, and most of these games have a lot of characters. So in practice, this might mean an easier on-ramp, but a much longer road.
    I should also mention that you don’t need videogame-style asymmetry to get this effect. You can wall off some features in a “tutorial” mode (which could be skippable) and ramp up, even without asymmetry.
  3. “Supports Different Play-Styles”. A symmetric game can do this, too. Any sufficiently deep game with enough strategic possibility space is going to support different play-styles.
    Finally… are we really sure it’s even a good thing to “support the player’s play-style”? To me it seems as though much of what games are about is learning, often times learning highly counter-intuitive strategy in order to get better. So, let’s say you’re a naturally aggressive “rush-down” type of player. Well, sometimes in a strategy game, you have to go against that – you have to learn not to do that thing you have a propensity to do sometimes. I think trying to cater to someone’s playstyle is kind of similar to catering to players who have low skill. Players should be pursuing optimal play, regardless of their personality – and in that pursuit, their personality will still come through in the kinds of errors and novel moves they make.
  4. “Supports different player preferences”. This argument is also pretty easy to take apart. What if I “prefer” not to play against a Ryu – does that mean I shouldn’t have to? What if I “prefer” the enemy Ryu to only shoot fireballs at me? What if I prefer to only play against players who are vastly worse than me at the game? I think there is a role for “options” in a game, but they should be things like turning on or off music, or changing the window size. You should not be able to turn on and off various parts of the system itself. You have a favorite character, sure, and I can see how it could be framed as a negative thing that you can’t always play that character. But there are tons of kinds of things that “only sometimes happen” in every system, some of which you might love, but only happen infrequently. Perhaps you have a favorite monster, or a favorite combo – should you just be allowed to experience that one narrow “favorite thing” over and over? Beyond the fact that such a scenario makes very little sense in the context of a strategy game, isn’t it pretty likely that “supporting a player’s preference” and letting them have one chunk of the system over and over again every game is the fastest way for them to get bored with that thing?
    I think some of this is due to the “videogames are broken toys” influence; we’re used to being able to play with our strategy games. The idea of a finely-tuned and optimized strategy game which would fall apart if we start messing with the rulesets is somewhat alien to us in the world of videogames.
    Finally, this “players can just avoid playing with the parts of your game they don’t like” aspect also invites designers to be more lax about adding mediocre or even bad content to their games. After all, if players don’t like it, they can just not play with it! There are a few problems with this idea, but the simplest to explain here is the fact that your “crappy characters” become basically traps. Someone’s going to play that crappy character not knowing he’s the crappy character, and that’s a big waste of time for that player.

Those are my rebuttals to the claims of why we should use videogame-style asymmetry that I’ve heard. But I have other problems with the design pattern as well.

 

How do you choose?

chars

One argument against asymmetry that I find increasingly convincing over the years is this: how do you choose which character to play? Let’s assume that you have some fighting game, with a few dozen characters. Let’s also assume that these characters are basically balanced (kind of a big assumption, but bear with me). Also assume that you have to make the “first” pick – like you can’t just “counter-pick” your opponent or anything like that.

This choice puts players in a position where they have to decide between several conflicting interests. Usually, it comes down to some mixture of these two: should I play as the character that I think would give me the best chance to win, or should I play as the character that I think would result in my having the best experience? Essentially, having to choose between trying to win as a player, or trying to craft the experience as a designer.

Here’s where people tend to make a big mistake, which is to think that this is an “interesting decision”. But interesting decisions in strategy games are decisions between two strategies, or tactics, not deciding between a strategy and some external thing, such as, “would it be fun to do that?”

In my view, it is absolutely a designer’s job to ensure that players are never put in that position. The “strong thing” should always be the “fun thing”. Most players already accept this concept when it comes to in-game interactions.

This is made worse by the fact that in the real world, characters aren’t all balanced with each other, and the player always is best with one to a small handful of characters. Both of these facts add up to the player having to make that kind of a “good choice or fun choice” decision.

Even if one were to say something like, forget what’s fun – play to win! Pick strategically! The “strategy” layer here is exceedingly thin and solvable. You know nothing about how the match is going to go – you have to pick this gigantic chunk of game-state information all up front, completely blind, so you just have to pick based on very simple criteria (who are the best characters / the characters I am best with).

 

If It’s Important, Why Is It Optional?

This is one of the most comedic aspects of this discussion. Defenders of videogame-style asymmetry will tell you that their game needs the 10, 20, 50 or however many characters it has. If that’s true, then why is it that me and my friend can do nothing but Ryu mirror matches?

Is the argument there “well, yeah, you can do that, but then you’re choosing to do something more boring”? If so, why are you even letting me do it? There is no guarantee that players will have any idea that that’s “more boring”; they may just think that that’s a perfectly fine way to play the game (and shouldn’t it be?), in which case they’re just getting a worse experience out of your game, for no fault of their own.

Maybe that seems like an extreme case, but how about this: most players only play 2-4 characters or so. That means if you have two players who play against each other, at best (assuming no character overlap between the two characters), these two players are only experiencing 25% of the game. I would guess that most of the time, for most players (obviously serious tournament players excluded here), 80-90% of a fighting game’s characters simply don’t even get used. That doesn’t sound like very efficient design to me.

To re-state my point succinctly: if the “variety” granted from asymmetry is so crucially important, why can it be so easily ignored? Why isn’t it just a rule, the way health (a feature we all know actually is critical) is?

 

Content-Hungry

This problem is not necessarily inherent to videogame-style asymmetry, but in practice, the temptation to add too much content seems to be too great for most designers. Today’s games have dozens, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of asymmetric characters, each with their own “learn-my-rules-too” tax. Each of these characters also comes with an exponential rise in the difficulty of balancing the game, too.

One problem is that something about the way this design pattern works makes designers think about characters as something other than rules. So, some work goes into developing the system, but then there’s a ton of work on characters – the “content”, if you will.

This propensity to see content as separate from the system is harmful, incorrect, and I think largely aided by videogame-style asymmetry (as well as a good dose of thinking like a toy designer). Strategy games don’t have “content” – they have the system: a core mechanism, a goal, the supporting mechanisms it needs, and nothing else (read more about this in my book Clockwork Game Design, or watch episode 5 of 3 Minute Game Design).

Of course, the annoying irony here is that many of those games – Magic: The Gathering probably being the best poster-boy for this problem – really don’t have much going on in terms of their actual gameplay system. They need a constant influx of new content in order to stay alive – so you get a “10,000 in 1 Fun Pak” of extremely shallow games, rather than one deep game (I’ve referred to it as “width” before).

 

Solutions

Before I get into solutions, one thing that I do see happening often in criticism of my writing is that readers tend to imagine my solutions and suggestions sort of slapped onto existing designs. To be clear: what I am going to advocate wouldn’t work for StarCraft, Street Fighter, DotA, MtG, etc. What I am advocating would be something that would need to be there from the ground up and it would need to be designed around. The kinds of systems we would end up with ultimately as a result of this suggestion would necessarily be significantly different in many ways from any of the kinds of games we have right now.

Without further delay, here is what I recommend designers do with asymmetrical games in the future.

Asymmetric Game Design Guideline, Part 1
Forced random characters

Here’s how it works. You hit a “play the game” button, a character is chosen for you randomly, and the game starts. For a single-player game, leaving (because you don’t like what you rolled) is a loss (which of course means you need some kind of single-player elo system, but to be honest, you need that anyway). This has a lot of benefits.

  • We avoid the situation where players have to choose between something that’s strategically strong and something that would be fun.
  • Players are forced to experience 100% of your game, rather than some small percentage of it.
  • No need to make up weird tournament rules about counter-picking (this would also be helped by my second part of the guideline).
  • It’s faster. Even if you only spend a few seconds picking a character, if you play 1000 matches, that adds up!

Forced random characters is quick and elegant. It’s really not totally unprecedented either. Boardgames like Agricola deal you random cards at the start of the game which sort of create a “character”. League of Legends also has a popular mod called “ARAM” – All Random All Middle, which gives you a random character that you’re forced to play. They give you a little bit of wiggle room with it (you can sometimes “re-roll” and you can also trade with other players), but even without the wiggle room it’d work just fine – and League wasn’t even built with ARAM in mind!

 

Asymmetric Game Design Guideline, Part 2
Few characters

To clarify: only as many characters as your system actually needs to function. Of course, you should consider that this number might be “one” – don’t commit to asymmetry just for its own sake. But start out with just three or four, and then scale up as necessary. If you’re reaching numbers higher than 20 or so, something might be wrong. Less than ten seems like a decent guideline. Here’s why

  • With < 10 characters, the chances of you actually balancing your game go from “impossible” to “still not guaranteed, but possible with tons of effort”.
  • Learning the entire game is pretty easy! You don’t have to play the game for months before you stop losing games because you didn’t even know a card existed.

 

Conclusion

Before I conclude, I’d like to mention a rebuttal that a colleague of mine gave me the other day on this topic. Basically, his argument was, “if you force random, it makes the game way harder to learn, because now players have to learn to play all the characters before they can play competently”. There are at least four methods that I would employ that would stop that from being an actual problem:

  • Few characters (guideline 2) limits the number of things players have to learn. If you have a game with 4 characters, it’s really not that bad that you have to learn all four.
  • Elegant design in general. People are used to thinking about a “character” as a set of 20-50 unique moves with tons of unique hitboxes, all of which would amount to probably 5-10 pages of rules that you have to learn. We can design simple-yet-deep (elegant) characters that are easy to learn, but difficult to master, and that’s what we should be doing.
  • Low execution barrier. I’ve talked before about execution in games and why it’s something to be concerned about. I can see why, if you’re thinking about forced random in Street Fighter, you’d be intimidated. Now you have to learn all these weird different inputs that are physically hard to do and require training of your hands. This entire concept – that some moves should be hard to input correctly – is something that needs to be slammed in the trash bin of videogame history immediately.
  • Tutorial Mode. You can have the game start a player out by only giving him access to one character, or two, then three, then four, and so on.

 

If designers create games with these two guidelines in mind (as I plan to, going forward, and actually already have done with Auro), we will end up with games that are easier to learn, possible to balance, and without any of the weird “counter picking” or “playing designer” problems that asymmetric games currently have.

Even if I haven’t sold you on the idea, I’d love for readers to do a thought experiment with it for a moment. What if you had to design a game with, say, four characters, and forced random? What other kinds of decisions would you make to support that? My feeling is, these guidelines will help designers do what they already should be doing: creating deep, elegant systems of gameplay that are easy to learn, but difficult to master.

 

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  • alastair_jack

    If you really want lots of characters they could all have the same rules, but you just pick you’re favorite appearance/skin/model/sprite/tileset. That way you can still have graphical variety/customization if you want it.

  • Yeah. Actually, Riot makes most of its money off of skins. So instead of 100 characters with 5 skins each, they could have had 10 characters with 50 skins each. I mean, there is definitely a visual clarity issue you start running into there, but it’d be no worse than the visual clarity issue League has now.

  • jeremyhoffman

    II cannot understand your rebuttal of the variety that assymetry provides. The existence of good games without asymmetry, like Puerto Rico, doesn’t prove that asymmetry doesn’t improve any games ever.

    Your argument is akin to this:
    I say, “A chef can use different spices to create variety in dishes, even those that share the same basic ingredients, which makes eating more enjoyable for most people.”
    You rebutt, “Those people are wrong. A meal consisting of oats and milk has sated many appetites, no spices required. I can understand why people want spices now, but we’re still in the early of making oatmeal, and it’s not hard for me to imagine that we’ll get better at it.”

    I think you might be seeking some kind of Platonic ideal of fractically complex depth of a game. More power to you. I enjoy reading your study of gaming. But I feel like most of us just want to shuffle up two different decks of Magic and see what happens when they face off.

  • Ya I mean obviously if people are happy with “what already exists” then I encourage them to just keep doing that from now until the end of time. My work is not searching for a “Platonic ideal”, as you suggested, but rather “guidelines for better design”.

    Anyway, I feel as though you didn’t read the full article, because I don’t advocate dropping the concept of asymmetry. Let me know once you’ve gotten to what I actually am advocating, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

  • KammanderKhan

    An additonal solution to force random is balance the fun optimal with adding consequences to choose starting options first. Competitive games already do this in tournament format by implementing specific counter pick ruling. If designers gave a negative cosequence to choosing first, the starting player would get the benefit of pick their best/most enjoyable character but also incur a cost. The second player would have to choose a character to counter the first players choice, but also no debuff. Wouldnt entirely solve the problem, but also including the option of vetoing first choice would help. Basically it amounts to including starting options choice into after “the game” starts, thus incorporating that choice into the strategy, not basing that strategy off that choice.

  • CWheezy

    “I would guess that most of the time, for most players (obviously serious tournament players excluded here), 80-90% of a fighting game’s characters simply don’t even get used. That doesn’t sound like very efficient design to me.”

    Totally false, every character is used

  • Hey CWheezy, long time no see!

    Perhaps I should have re-worded that, because what I meant was that for a given player, they probably will only play 1-4 characters of the 20, 30, or however many there are. I’ll have to go back and edit that, thanks for the heads up.

  • JohnReinhardt

    Knowing a character’s rules and “learning the character” are two very different things. There’s a world of difference between knowing that Bison can combo me for big damage and being able to do that combo. Hell there’s a world of difference between knowing that Bison’s poke out ranges mine and the really deep, subconcious grokking of hit boxes that a bison player will have.

    In an asymetric game you do not “eventually” have to learn all of the characters. If the amount of learning you have to do to play Ryu is X and the amount of learning you have to do to learn to play against him is Y then X is many, many times greater than Y.

  • Worth noting that asymmetry in games is nothing new. Hnefatafl (Capture the King) and Halatafl (Fox and Geese) are two examples of ancient abstract boardgames that feature assymetry. Similar games developed (presumably) independently in Asia.

    As to where the idea comes from, I don’t think one needs to look farther than reality. In real life, armies did not set up with equal forces on the battlefield (if they did so, it was usually because of a miscalculation by both sides). A hunter and their prey are not equal. Both situations are a strong source of inspiration for games. And while inequality may not sound inherently interesting from a gameplay perspective, the underdog story is strongly entrenched in the human psyche to the extent that is a standard trope in both our society and storytelling stretching back to biblical times (e.g., “David and Goliath”) and beyond.

  • Raph Koster

    Your definition of asymmetry is different than mine. I use the term to refer to a case where the two players are playing different games towards different objectives. You’re using here mostly to refer to cases where two players are playing the same game but with varying tools and affordances.

    Since I view games as about learning and mastery, I view the idea of “ringing changes” on a set problem space to be critical. The more you can apply your learning across a varied landscape, the more the game is teaching you. In the case of most games, we do this by throwing statistical variation at the player via her opponents: increasing difficulty, differing landscapes or topologies, varying stats or capabilities. In a fighting game, this would mean different characters to fight against, and different layouts for arenas.

    But just as we expect a trained military person to be able to use the tools at hand to win a fight, since not all fights are fair, we also often vary the capabilities the player has, within a fairly narrow statistical band. In real life, this is challenges such as “fight using only your feet” or “use the furniture in the room” or whatever.

    These challenges do not change the root objective nor the “physics” of the game; they’re just variants that handicap you and strengthen you in a mix of ways in order to give you a broader appreciation of the core ruleset. In other words, they call the core loop and objective into relief, educating you more on how it works.

    I view varying characters in a fighting game as exactly this. I would say the same about learning to cook using a frying pan versus an oven. Same objective, same core physics, varying interface and affordance.

    Because of this, I have no issues whatsoever with allowing people to choose characters in a fighting game. An expert player will work their way through and master ALL the characters. A player who can only fight effectively with one is betraying a weakness in their understanding of the system, a cognitive bias towards specific solution spaces.

    This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. The real world often DOES reward deep specialization.

    The above is dramatically more complex is we’re talking character classes or roles in a multiplayer game, needless to say; at that point teamwork is one of the major skills being taught and much of the above doesn’t apply.

  • JohnReinhardt

    Except the opposite is true. Expert players rarely master more than two or three characters and usually devote themselves to one character at a time.

  • Raph Koster

    They simply aren’t expert at the whole game. There’s no question someone who masters *all* the characters would be more expert, yes?

    (They’re certainly more expert than ME, who hasn’t mastered any. But that’s beside the point).

    Basically, they’re specialists. Which as I pointed out, the world rewards. Nothing wrong with specialization, especially in a competitive situation!

    They may also have found statistical imbalances in the game system which have ld them to choosing the two or three favored characters. That would depend heavily on the game.

  • Yeah, I don’t know what game you’re thinking of Raph where expert players master all the characters. However, the way you’re suggesting it works is the way I think it should happen – players using *all* of the system, not just some parts.

    I wonder what you think about my suggestion to used forced random to get that to happen.

  • Of course such a person would be more of an expert, I just don’t know that such people exist for something like Street Fighter or even StarCraft, where someone is a “pro level player” with all available asymmetric forces.

    If designers take on my proposal in the future, that will mean that what you’re saying is much, much more common. Players will in fact be experts with *all* of the game.

  • Raph Koster

    I wasn’t saying that people like that exist in fighting games. The fact that they don’t exist strikes me as absolutely normal. People optimize. If sticking to a few characters gives them the maximum odds of success, that’s what they will do. I don’t think that it undermines the general principle argument I am making at all.

    I would point out, however, that people intentionally choosing varying tools to attack the core problem absolutely do exist in many other fields where there is a “choice of tool” — musicians being one really excellent example. It is supercommon for musicians to deeply study one instrument, achieve above-average competency in a range of instruments, and use it all as a tool for deeply understanding the system of music. Virtually all musicians who study formally are obliged to learn the basics of drumming, of piano, and a few others things.

  • Raph Koster

    My take: It accomplishes some things, and hurts others. So, it makes it more likely to get an overview picture of the core system. It hurts scaffolding and on-ramping, damaging the learning cycle early on. It helps versatility, obviously. It hurts people who wants to specialize. And so on. Tradeoffs.

    In other words, putting the locus of variability on the tool seems perfectly valid to me, it just moves the variability from other areas. I would suspect that having the character AND the topology AND the stats all be varied at the same time might make it too hard for the player. A different way to do this that has a similar effect, in the case of a single-player game, would be to have missions or challenges that strongly favor one tactical set of options over another (“a sniper mission”, “a team mission,” etc) and that would be a softer way to force players to move across varying tools.

    Where we part ways is in thinking in terms of a formally “better” quality to one approach or another in this instance; I suspect the more accurate answer is “better for some games,” as it usually is.

  • Max Hospadaruk

    I don’t think your chef comparison holds much water. Players in street fighter cannot masterfully mix different amounts of Ryu and Vega to get a fresh new strategy that’s different from either. I think what he’s saying is more along the lines of this: if you want to have a cook-off, you’ll get better results if both cooks have access to all the spices (symmetrical start) rather than if you force the two cooks to each choose only a single spice and do their best with that one flavor (asymmetrical).

    To stick with the analogy a bit longer, a chef using all the spices is like a well developed, interesting game system; it provides its own variety by being complex and interesting, and different chefs (players) can create a wide variety of dishes (strategies) from the same starting point. Limiting Chefs to a single spice each *will* likley provide a wide variety of dishes, but overall few of these dishes are likely to be as good as the ones originating from the former group.

    the takeaway, I think, was supposed to be not that this type of asymmetry doesn’t provide variety, but that a complex, well designed system provide a much better variety of more satisfying choices.

  • Max Hospadaruk

    from the article:

    ” There are also other kinds of inherent asymmetry, as in any game where one side is “on offense” and one side is “on defense”, such as Counter-Strike, or the board game 2 de Mayo. Neither of those are what I want to address here today, mostly because I don’t see those as a problem.”

    the games you mention and their inspirations fall into this category, which isn’t really the type of asymmetry being discussed in the bulk of the article.

  • Cole Wehrle

    I’m deeply ambivalent about asymmetry. My own designs usually push against it, but I think that there’s an important aspect of asymmetry that you are not discussing, especially when it comes to games like Dota2.

    Dota2 begins with a character draft. Teams take turn picking characters. In a sense, the drafting of the team are the first five moves the team makes. These moves have a very long strategic dimension. They go along way in determining the shape of the game without being too prospective. There’s a lot of depth in any match-up, but draft is definitely something that can be “won” and “lost.” That’s precisely what makes the draft so interesting.

    Now, as you mention, there is a colossal barrier to entry here. But, experienced Dota2 players have a pretty good working knowledge of all 110+ characters and how they interact with each other. Though they introduce a new character every year or so, Dota2 doesn’t require it–and even the patches have tended be stabilizing rather than revolutionary. (This is one thing that separates Dota2 from a lot of other mobas that are more content based).

  • Smash Brothers Melee requires you to know a few characters. To be exceptionally good with 1-2 and much better than average with another 2-3. This is out of a 26 character roster, but remember that part of what they were going for was escapism (a very different goal from your design philosophies). The fact that competitive smash exists inside of this party game is an amazing happenstance. If you were design a purely competitive smash like game, you probably wouldn’t have as many characters, but the idea that a game can try to accomplish multiple goals at once through the addition of content (game modes, characters, stages) is a different topic.

    I like the idea of encouraging people to learn multiple characters. Part of what creates this is the process of counter picking, which I don’t think you actually talked about very much in your post. Smash has such a unified set of inputs, with varying reactions, that learning another character is less of a problem than in street fighter. The timing and spacing is different, but you learn much of that by playing against other characters.

  • This is almost designing a second game on top of the first, one of additional rules to support the picking of additional characters/stages.

    This is certainly valid, but probably doesn’t support Keith’s goal of elegance through having few rules with a lot of complex interactions.

  • I think your choice to avoid asymmetry is well defended, but I think asymmetry deserves more credit than you give it. This is a similar criticism that I’ve had on other topics that you’ve presented. Where what you pursue is valuable, and gives you focus, but it is not the only valid approach.

    League of Legends, Starcraft, and Street Fighter have all sought to appeal to relatively large bases of players. The budget that went into Starcraft mandates that it has a large audience. The fact that it has a single player campaign, a casual multiplayer, a competitive multiplayer, and a professional scene could be criticized as trying to do too much. They have 6 matchups, which provide a variety to the game. This variety is almost certainly comes with a loss of elegance. But it means that people who enjoy 1 or 2 of the matchups still support the Starcraft scene. Buy the game. Watch the matches. Root for their favorite players.

    Their goal included sacrificing some elegance for popularity. And I don’t think that’s a completely bad thing. The popularity of a game adds a lot to its appeal for very legitimate reasons. Being able to talk about it with more people around you makes a game way more approachable. There are maybe 3 or 4 people in my life that I can talk to about Achron, but dozens that I can talk to about Starcraft.

    I’m happy to be able to play a game as polished and well funded as Starcraft, even if it means that it is a little less elegant.

    Learning new information is also a very approachable way to improve. If you get killed by a hero’s ultimate in League of Legends you can look at what it does and know how you would react differently to it in the future. This makes the game way more digestible than if you had to figure out how to eek an extra 2% efficiency out of your positioning. It gives a clear path to improvement.

  • As far as I understand it, Starcraft could continue working exactly as it is under my suggestions, just by forcing players to pick random characters. I have objections for Starcraft, but not really based on it having too much content.

    I guess I don’t really see precisely what you’re arguing against in my article. Keep in mind, I’m not against asymmetry, I’m against the ability to pick, and I’m against insane levels of content.

  • It surprises me that you’re okay with forcing a random selection, when you’re so against things like random critical hits. If I happen to be better with one of the races (which will most likely be the case), then my chances of winning are severely affected by this roll of the die.

    I agree that the level of content in starcraft doesn’t feel overwhelming. They did a lot of work to cut extraneous units. When I play other RTS games I’m amazed by how same-y it all feels.

  • Here is the difference:

    – In a “forced random character” situation, the characters would all have to be balanced. That’s why my other guideline exists. So regardless of who you get, it’s fair. An analogue would be if there’s random map generation or other random starting conditions – they have to be fair no matter what.
    – In a “random critical hits” situation, one player simply does more damage to another; it’s unfair and skewing the outcome of the game due to randomness.

  • Anonymous Incognito

    Hi!
    I hope sometime you will realise small thing about chess. And all games.

    This game have no symmetry. At all.
    I mean after few first turn it get some position called Opening. Doen’t really matter, how it named, and really don’t need name, but you can google it to get some insight.
    Point is… Each player in every chess game have his own abilites, choises and posibilities.

    Chess Opening=Dota pick
    Indian defence=pick Pudge

    Same thing in every other game.
    What is really symmetrically? A hundred-meter race.

  • Joseph Perry

    I like this article (and the original one) a lot. I definitely had implicitly picked up the lesson “asymmetry = always good” and I appreciate how you broke it down into its actual effects on the depth and width of a game.

    I especially like the idea of different matchups being essentially different games, and this tidbit about choosing your character/race: “Essentially, having to choose between trying to win as a player, or trying to craft the experience as a designer.” Personally, the way this has played out for me in Smash has been exploring different matchups with friends, finding “good” ones (i.e. balanced/fun), and then playing those competitively among ourselves.

    My one bone to pick: players are *always* acting as designers. Your example of civilization is a good in-game illustration of this, but even with Go you’re choosing your opponent. If my goal were to simply win every time, I’d go teach it to a bunch of first-graders and then trounce them. If your game is fun to play, people will try to adjust their experience to be satisfying for themselves. This can be in-game via victory conditions, starting without pawns, and using cheats, or out-of-game via opponent selection and choosing what to play in the first place.

  • With Go you’re not always choosing your opponent. Ideally you have a matchmaking system giving you an opponent with as close to a 50% win chance as possible.

  • Joseph Perry

    But you have to choose to participate in that kind of matchmaking system, with the design goal of experiencing fair games.

    For a complete competitive pure game (i.e. PvP, interesting decisions to make, a fair chance for either player to win — what Go is and LoL and Starcraft are trying to be), you have convinced me that 1) yes, you need that kind of matchmaking system and 2) if you want asymmetry you have random selection race/character.

    I feel like how most of the broken-toys you call out (e.g. MtG) end up working out in the non-pro-tour world is that people (by finding certain matchups or house rules) settle on configurations that *are* competitive despite more advantageous options existing. Otherwise, nobody would play it. Heck, as you say, even Go needs an out-of-game agreement.