Debunking Asymmetry

street-fighter-2-7

Note: I consider this article to be out-of-date. I have written a newer article on the subject which much better reflects my updated views. However, I’ve kept this article up, because of the excellent comments section (definitely check that out).

Like anyone else who grew up playing videogames, I have a great romance for “videogame-style asymmetry”.  What I’m referring to with “videogame-style asymmetry” is a quality that games such as StarCraft or Street Fighter have, where you “choose your character” or “choose your race” before the game even begins.

This kind of asymmetry is so beloved for a number of reasons, all of which I understand on a deep level, having experienced and immersed myself in it for my entire life.  However, after years of grappling with it, I’ve disappointingly come to realize that this kind of asymmetry is less than ideal for game design.  I am sad to have come to this conclusion, but I’m comforted by the fact that as always, I’m only talking about guidelines for ideal game design.  So, this doesn’t mean you can never make a game with videogame-style asymmetry, it just means that if you do, you should understand the costs.

I should qualify that this is distinct from “inherent asymmetry”, as is the case in the children’s game of “tag” (where one person is “it” and the other must escape), or even the popular videogame Counter-Strike.  To illustrate, in Counter-Strike, one team is always “the terrorists”, and they have a distinct objective.  The other team is always “the counter-terrorists”, and they always have a different objective than the terrorists.  It’s not as though teams select whether they’d like their team to be Terrorist or Counter-Terrorist and you could end up with a mirror match or something; there are no CS “matchups”.  And CS still has high levels of asymmetry due to the fact that you can choose your guns, which means it might be SMG versus Shotgun (although in practice, most of the time it’s M4 versus AK).

Beyond that, though, There aren’t many popular examples of more “strong” inherent asymmetry.  One that comes to mind is the boardgame 2 de Mayo, a two-player game wherein one player is the French, who have tons of forces pouring in from all directions on the map, and the Spanish, who have limited forces in the middle.  They have asymmetrical amounts of power, but also asymmetrical objectives: the Spanish simply have to survive at all until the last round in order to win.

Red are Spanish, Blue are French.

2 de Mayo: Red are Spanish, Blue are French.  Each have a roughly equal shot at winning due to asymmetrical win conditions.

The difference between “inherent asymmetry” and “videogame asymmetry” (maybe a better, albeit less-catchy term for it might be “componential asymmetry”) is that with inherent asymmetry, you don’t get to “configure the game”.  Sure, you can choose who will be the French/Spanish, or you can choose who will be “It” in tag, but it’s more like choosing who goes first than the process of selecting a character in Street Fighter.

Interestingly, each “matchup” in, say, Street Fighter, should be looked at as a distinct “inherently asymmetrical game”.  So actually, when you build a game with four characters, you’ve actually built ten “inherently asymmetrical” games in one (4 choose 2 = 6, plus 4 for the mirror matches).

With that said, please understand that this article is about videogame-style asymmetry – componential asymmetry – and not at all about inherent asymmetry like in 2 de Mayo.  So, whenever you see me saying “asymmetry” from here on out, assume I mean “videogame-style, pre-game asymmetry”, unless I specify otherwise.

 

 

My Problems with Asymmetry

Before I go about with the debunking, I should first list my general problems with asymmetry.

  • It forces the player to “play designer”.  When you have to make a non-strategic choice that has strategic ramifications, it creates tremendous cognitive dissonance.  “Should I pick the thing that I think is the best, or should I pick the thing that seems like it would be the most fair, or should I pick the thing that seems the most exciting, or should I just pick the thing randomly?”  Ultimately, the player is not free to simply play the game – they must first make decisions about what the game will be.  Other configuration options like choosing stages/maps/item settings/timings make the problem even worse.  In these situations, the player is under tremendous pressure to skirt some weird line between “doing what’s best for the game” and “doing what’s best for me as a player who wants to win”.
  • It tends to cause games to be vastly less elegant than they otherwise could be.  If you make a fighting game with just 4 characters, what you’ve actually done is create ten different games.  Each matchup is a distinct game.  For this reason, as well as others, I can only think of a few asymmetrical games that don’t have a ridiculous amount of content.  Most asymmetrical games – fighting games, card games, real-time strategy games, etc – have truly insane amounts of content.  At the time of this writing, League of Legends has a whopping 115 champions, each with four unique spells and a passive ability, not to mention unique stats.  Having to step into a game like that, or even a fighting game with 30 characters, is crazy.  It’s way too much stuff to have to learn, it causes individual elements to lose contrast, and…
  • It generally causes games to be vastly harder to balance than they should be.  In videogames, instead of pushing towards “balance”, we instead push towards “an acceptable tier list“.  This is to say that there shouldn’t be anyone in God tier(characters so powerful that you can only ever justify playing them), and there shouldn’t be anyone in trash tier (you can NEVER justify playing them because they suck).  But we accept everything else.  It’s just peachy that some characters are flatly better than others, and the reason we’ve accepted this is because with as much information as we cram into these systems, we just can’t really do much better than that.  In fact it’s a tremendous feat that we’re able to get a game with 30 characters to not have a trash/god tier.
  • It constrains dynamics.  Great games, as they are being played, emerge into a massive beautiful and mysterious web of dynamics – a resource is expanding over here, which is tied to some other resource over there, which is dependent on player one taking this action right now, which is possible because he took another action six turns ago, which in turn opens the door for a huge resource gain for player two three turns from now.  Because of this, only a few turns/seconds into most good games, you already have naturally emerging asymmetrical forces at work.  You can think of a player’s set of powers and resources halfway through the game as a “character” that grew out of the system.
    Videogame-style asymmetry, however, gives players a “quick start”, starting you with “forced” asymmetry that you chose before the game even began (i.e., it’s not a strategic decision).  The cost is that the game dynamics are constrained the entire game by a decision you made before the game even began, and they’re forced, not emergent.  That emergent character is now constrained by something you chose before the game even began.
  • It’s a smokescreen, making it harder for designers to really judge the quality of their system, which results in worse systems.  Videogame asymmetry makes a somewhat boring system seem more interesting.  If Street Fighter 2 only had one character, Ryu, then I think that the designers would realize that they probably need to make the system itself a bit more elastic and interesting.  But, since there is a forced-dynamic obfuscating the system itself – now it’s Ryu versus Zangief, I wonder how those two things push up against each other! – it’s harder to see that the system itself is kind of flat.
    Further, there’s a psychological trick that asymmetry pulls on you.  While you’re playing as one character, there’s a bit of a grass-is-greener thing, where you imagine other characters to be more interesting.  Not consciously, but in the back of your mind, that “wonderment” at not just seeing other characters in action, but how they will interact with THIS character, is compelling in a somewhat cheap way.  Even if you’re just going to choose Ryu and never play anyone else, you’re still going to play against other characters, so this effect takes place.
    I think that the above psychological effect is highly noticable with the card game Dominion.  While Dominion isn’t asymmetrical in the way I’ve been describing, it does have a “customizable” card market.  You swap cards in and out, and during the game, you get to combine them and see all kinds of effects happen when they’re put together.  Eventually, you reach a point where you’ve kind of combined everything, and then you either need to get an expansion, or quit.  So in a sense, asymmetry (or customizable-ness) ends up really just being a strange kind of “asset tour”.  You want to see all of the things.
  • It’s just not necessary and therefore shouldn’t be used, which I intend to prove throughout this article.  It dramatically increases the cost of production, and needlessly decreases elegance.  One quick and simple way to put it is this: if asymmetrical forces are necessary for your game to work, then you should disable mirror matches.  If asymmetrical forces aren’t necessary, then you shouldn’t include them.

 

The Status Quo on Asymmetry

Based on my experience and research, the generally agreed upon opinion right now is that Videogame asymmetry is almost always a “plus” in game design.  Indeed, it has many qualities that seem highly desirable, so this point of view isn’t surprising, even if it’s ultimately mostly wrong.

We can begin with one of the world’s most vocal champions of asymmetry, game designer David Sirlin, who has been striving to bring videogame-style asymmetry to boardgames with his games like Puzzle Strike and Yomi, as well as his game Flash Duel, which is essentially Reiner Knizia’s En Garde, but with asymmetrical characters added.  From his Sirlin Games “manifesto” page (Note: this page has since been removed from the site):

“It’s boring when every player starts with the same set of moves. All my games are asymmetric, meaning you can choose from 20 characters, each with a different set of moves and powers.”

While I have huge respect for David Sirlin, much of his writing, and his ability to design games (go check out Puzzle Strike if you haven’t already), the first line seems to me like an obvious over-statement.  He can’t really be saying that every non-asymmetrical game is boring, can he?  Keep in mind, I’m certainly not saying that “all games with asymmetry are boring”, or anything even close to that.  Only that it’s less than ideal and has problems.

Most designers don’t go quite as far as to say that symmetrical games are boring, however they do generally echo the idea that asymmetrical games are “less boring”.  Jon Shafer wrote an article for Gamasutra about asymmetry, which mostly echoes David Sirlin’s point of view, although makes a few caveats saying “not all games can be asymmetrical”, with the implication being that if they could all be asymmetrical, they would of course be better for it.

Or listen to this Three Moves Ahead podcast episode, wherein Troy Goodfellow, Tom Chick, and Julian Murdock muse about asymmetry in games.  While they don’t get too deeply into theoretical specifics, the mutually agreement that “asymmetry is better” is clear throughout.  Interestingly, the most telling moment is at one point when one of them said,

“Last year we had Halo Wars which was asymmetrical, and End War, which was symmetrical, and End War was… just a better game.  Which surprised me.”

This was followed by about two or three seconds of dead air, before someone chimed in to essentially change the subject.  Basically, it’s obvious to all of them here that even if End War really was better, that’s obviously just some fluke, some bit of meaningless trivia.  It’s surprising that a symmetrical game would be better than an asymmetrical one!

So overall, the status quo point of view is clear:  ASYMMETRY GOOD.  On why asymmetry is good, well… that’s a bit more fuzzy, although there are certainly some given reasons.  I will now go through some of the specific reasons and debunk them.  They are listed (roughly) in order of how common the defenses are, with Defense #1 being the most common defense.

 

Defense #1: Variety / Replay Value

I’m coupling “replay value” with “variety” in with this section, because I think they’re very closely related.  Essentially the argument here is, if a game doesn’t have asymmetrical forces, then it’s going to get stale after awhile, because you can’t try the game from a new angle with new powers or whatever.  Or put another way, if a game does have asymmetrical forces, it’s much more likely to have increased variety.

It’s easy to understand this claim.  If you are playing Street Fighter, and you’re starting to get bored playing as Ryu, well, you could always switch to Blanka, or E. Honda, or any other character, and get a different experience.

The problem is that this is a short-term solution that comes with all of the negative effects that I listed in the “problems” section of this article.  But the real myth here is that variety / replay value can only come from asymmetry.  You can create – and people have created – symmetrical games that are every bit as replayable, varied and interesting as any StarCraft or Street Fighter, but which is also way more well-balanced.

A quick example would be the great boardgame Puerto Rico, which quickly unfolds into natural, emergent asymmetry.  Puerto Rico uses a deep, interesting system that unfolds into a wide array of interesting outcomes, combined with some very light input randomness, with nothing even close to resembling videogame asymmetry.

Puerto Rico

 

Defense #2:  “Flavor”

There’s much talk about flavor – about different asymmetrical forces “feeling” different in a significant way, and the assumption is that this can only be achieved through asymmetry.  While I agree that it certainly is achieved through well-built asymmetry, my point would simply be that any great game, symmetrical or asymmetrical, would already provide a wide range of flavors for different strategies. For instance, this bit from Jon Shafer’s Gamasutra article on asymmetry:

The Zerg and Terrans could maintain their excellent art direction, but if they had basically the same units with the same abilities, only with different coats of paint, it would no longer feel like StarCraft. The Zerg are an organic swarm – their units should be more numerous and should have unique abilities like burrowing out of the ground.

So, “feel” also seems to be a major defense, and it’s not just “thematic” feel, but also mechanical.  I agree that the Zerg do mechanically feel different to play than the Protoss, and that’s of value.  The question is, can that kind of “feel” only be captured with asymmetry?

 starcraft-2

Unless you are speaking purely thematically, I think it’s without doubt that asymmetry is not actually needed to have this kind of “different feel”.  Good symmetrical games have enough strategic space so that players can exhibit vastly different playstyles.  For instance in the game of Go, playing more defensively and shooting for influence (a loose spreading of many weak stones around the board, often closer to the center) feels very different than a player who is more concerned with winning fights now and grabbing territory (and those are just two obvious examples; a more serious Go player can give you better ones, I’m sure).

Even if you look at an asymmetrical game such as StarCraft, you can already have vastly different playstyles even in a mirror match.  Maybe in a Terran vs. Terran match, one player chooses to put a lot of pressure on with harassment, or another playstyle could involve using lots of air units, or rushing.

A great example of how to do non-asymmetrical flavor is something like heroes in Warcraft III.  If the game was only Human vs. Human, there would still be plenty of emergent asymmetry in hero choice.  If you get an Archmage first, and I get a Mountain King, that’s a significant difference that really feels different.  If you get a second hero and I don’t, that makes it even more different.  And this game wasn’t even designed to be single-matchup; imagine a game like that that was.

In just the way that these designers are talking about how different races or characters need to have a strong sense of “flavor”, taking on different strategies also needs to have a strong sense of flavor – needs to feel different.  Actually, I think that the “feeling different” is just a byproduct of them being different, which is obviously important.  So if your game has strategies that really are different, then why do you need asymmetry?

The only remaining answer is “to support the theme/fantasy” – to make it feel like that scene from Starship Troopers.  Obviously, this is not a game design motivation, so it can’t be used to defend asymmetry’s role in ideal game design.

 

Defense #3: “Personal Expression”

The idea here is that players find a character that matches their “playstyle”, which we are to understand already existed on some level before the player ever played the game, and this game, being asymmetrical, allows them to express themselves more truly because of this.  So for instance, a very aggressive or impatient player might find that a rushdown character allows him to play the way he wants, or a person who is generally pensive might prefer a more defensive character.

My counter to this one is that I simply don’t even accept that this is really a thing.  I do not think that a person necessarily comes to a game with a “playstyle” before they even know how to play.  It does not make sense that a person would have such a thing.  It needs to be demonstrated that this actually exists.  At what point does it develop?  Was it there before they ever played?  I have a hard time believing that I could have a natural playstyle in some strange abstract game that I haven’t played or even heard of yet.  I suppose I could see it happening a bit for a player in two games that are similar, like if they went from Street Fighter to Super Smash Brothers or something, but hopefully going forward, fewer games will be so similar to each other.

But even if you do somehow “inherently” have a “rushdown personality” or something, a great game should have a wide range of creative strategy that allows you to express that.

Finally, though – even if this phenomenon really did exist, it conflicts with getting good at a thing anyway.  If you’re trying to play optimally, you can’t just keep doing what you “felt like doing before you even played the game”.  Playing games is about the creative search for more optimal moves, and good players know to try to ignore their own biases and that often times, getting good involves doing the counter-intuitive.

 

Defense #4:  “More is Better”

This is different from variety, in that it doesn’t actually care about the game experience at all.  This simply means, on the back of your box you can brag about having “50 characters!!!!“, which can seem like a good thing to many people.

By “many people”, I am mostly referring to young children, people trying to market to young children, and adults with the minds of young children.  I don’t think most decent game designers give this much credence, since it’s pretty obviously stupid.

At least, on paper.  I think that after 30 years of the more-is-better arms race, a lot of totally solid designers – myself included – have had their perspective a bit warped in terms of amount of content.  Videogames are expected to have a certain amount of content to be “a real game”, and asymmetry is often one of the ways that designers fulfill this quota, many times, unwittingly.  I think we all have to take a serious self-assessment of the damage that living through the past 30 years has done to us.  Especially since so many of us played Magic: The Gathering as kids.  That can’t have had good effects.

Mugen is mostly a gag game, thank god.

Mugen is mostly a gag game, thank god.

Defense #5:  “Easier to Learn”

I also listened to a recent Game Design Roundtable podcast episode that featured Mr. Sirlin, where he mentioned that in asymmetrical games, “the player really only has to learn one side”, suggesting that that games are easier to learn, since you technically only have to learn one character to “play”.

I put the words “play” in quotes, because if you don’t know the character you’re playing against as well, then you’re really just inputting moves into a black box and it’s spitting out a win or a loss – you can’t possibly understand what you’re doing or form strategies.

And unless you “restrict the game to 1 or 2 characters”, in which case the game isn’t really asymmetrical, you actually have to learn all of the characters to really play.

For example, I’ve been playing a bit of League of Legends recently, largely for research purposes, but also because I’m pretty desperate for a decently well-made modern nz online pokies competitive game.  The claim that I only have to learn one character in this game is obviously pure trash – I’m trying to play that way and it isn’t working out so well.  I’m frequently killed by a character ability that I had no idea existed, or I waste a key spell on a character that has a way of getting out of it, etc.

Asymmetry lets you learn how to “control your character” perhaps more quickly, but “controlling your character” and “playing the game” are two different things, the latter involving “forming strategy” which is only possible if you know the other characters’ abilities.

 

Defense #6:  “Metagaming”

I played a ton of Warcraft III back in the day, and I can tell you: arguing about different races, heroes, and units is way more fun than actually playing the game.  I think that this statement is true or close to true for a lot of popular online multiplayer videogames.  Arguing about “tier lists” and such probably takes up at least as much time as does playing the game for many players.

Then there’s stuff like “popular strategies”, where some build or set of tactics becomes well-known and copied throughout the world, and then people start to develop counter-strategies, which themselves become popular, and so on.  This is a pretty cool thing, for sure, and an important part of a game’s “life”.

However, this isn’t at all a unique thing to asymmetrical games.  Research professional / high-level Go replays and commentaries online and you’ll see that it’s got all the same stuff going on as does League of Legends or StarCraft.

There’s just one thing that comes to mind that asymmetrical games provide for a “metagame” that symmetrical games don’t, and it’s a really ugly, horrible quality: “counter-picking”.  You see, not only are some characters squarely better than others in asymmetrical games, but some have significantly high win rates versus specific characters.  So, you can “counter-pick” your opponent by choosing a character that is better than that character.  This results in all kinds of weird, ugly meta-game rules, starting with a blind first pick, and then stuff like “the loser gets to change character and the winner can’t”.  So, this bouncing back and forth of picking, counter-picking, and counter-counter picking is actually optimal play.  Horrible.

 

Benefits

I’m not saying you should never use asymmetry in your games.  There are some real, tangible reasons to use asymmetry, it’s just that almost none of them are good game design reasons.  However, I’m willing to accept that there could be some good game design reasons out there; it’s just that none of them have been used yet.

So here are some of the not game design related, but still good reasons to use asymmetry.

For one thing, asymmetrical forces can be really helpful in building a world/theme/setting, which sometimes can be of great value to a company that’s trying to get people attached to its products.

There may be some very technical thing that’s specific to your game system that no one has really seen before.  Some have talked about using characters as difficulty modes, which is a bit weird, but could work in a party game or something.

Asymmetrical forces could be used to create a smokescreen for a lackluster game.  Let’s face it: most games we make just aren’t all that great.  Sometimes having a “character select” might be just the sauce you need to get people to play your game even for a little while.  They played your game for a couple weeks, you made a sale – everybody’s happy.

Or, you just want to.  You, like me, have a great romance for asymmetrical forces, having been brought up in a world that romanticizes them.  I understand that, and there’s a really good chance that I’ll design an asymmetrical game or two in my lifetime.

Actually, wait – I made 100 Rogues, which has asymmetrical characters, didn’t I?  Huh.  And the funny thing is, I didn’t understand any of this back in 2008 when I started working on that game.  So I’m not saying don’t make asymmetrical games.  I just want people to understand the costs and benefits of doing so.

Oh, and if you have any good counter-points, I would love for you to convert me to a pro-asymmetry position.

 

  • Greg Costikyan

    Forcing a player to make an uneducated, asymmetrical decision from game start, as most MMOs and many RTS games do, is indeed a harsh tax on new players, and probably not desirable. But perfectly symmetrical games, unless of great strategic depth, tend to produce default strategies; Tic-Tac-Toe being the canonical example, but even something deeper, like Hex, has the same issue. You can certainly have a game that starts perfectly symmetrical but breaks that symmetry quickly: Card distribution in Agricola, or initial commodity purchases in Medici come to mind. Asymmetry is certainly harder to balance; but it fosters a divergence in strategy, and therefore more engaging gameplay. I do think it’s a useful design technique. Not essential for every game, but useful for some.

  • Caveat #1: Someone brought up Cosmic Encounter.
    I would say that this game does not actually have the kind of asymmetry
    that I’m talking about. If you were allowed to choose your race in the
    beginning, it would sort of not work, since the races are imbalanced by
    design. Being able to choose between the two races you’re dealt in the
    beginning is basically just equivalent to a “mulligan”, in case you got
    that one race you HATE or something. Plus, CE is really a party game
    anyway that’s super random, so you can kind of get away with a lot of
    noise and sillyness.

  • Rowan Idris Carmichael

    Based on previous articles most games in a genre are essentially the same game…

    How would such a thing as a “playstyle” come to be, well past experience with games with similar mechanics and ideas that are reconstructed in a different, but related manner. You’ve essentially forgotten your own answer to your own question.

    It would be interesting to see the general fantasystrike community take on this since a lot of people there know this idea very well.

  • Based on the reactions I’ve gotten from fantasystrike in the past I have a feeling this article wouldn’t go over well at all. But if you want to post it, feel free. I think when I post my own stuff there it adds like 10% to the hatred.

    I’m actually not clear on what you’re saying in your 2nd paragraph, could you re-state that?

  • gartman

    I’ll more than likely never reply back to this because i was just redditing, (by the way, you were posted on /r/GameDesign), and i dont have an account. But Chess, a game that has lived for a really long time, has now grown stagnant due to a lack of this meta gaming. Theres no more opportunity to change up strategies, as there is just a very small few strategies that will make you win.

  • Pupnik

    If you want to have a real exciting game of CE, play double powers (our particular rules are, pick two from five, other players at the table may veto any combination of powers).

    Have you played Dune/Rex? That’s another game that benefits very directly from assymetric design.

  • Blake Reynolds

    If you want to make this argument fairly, you might consider that chess, though stagnating at high levels of play, has endured a couple centuries of serious, serious play.

    If you’re saying the possibility space is getting a little cramped, and you’re claiming that is by virtue of its being symmetrical, I would invite you to consider how many decades Street Fighter II will hold up to the same stress-test by top level players.

    Something tells me its lifespan, asymmetrical or no, would not even last 50 years. Sure, other street fighters sort of reset the wheel, which creates a sort of “iron lung” effect for the system, but if you look at just one ruleset, assume its as balanced as it can be, I don’t think it’ll outlast chess by virtue of it having asymmetry. And the only reason it wouldn’t be solved in a month is because asymmetry is keeping it alive. Ryu vs. ryu wouldn’t last a hundredth of as long as chess has.

    My point is, chess has its problems, but it’s mostly because it’s a folk game. I comes from an era before game design was considered a serious discipline akin to composing or painting. It still kind of isn’t.
    Chess isn’t flawed BECAUSE it’s symmetrical. It’s flawed for a lot of reasons.

    Second, look no further than Go. almost 100% symmetrical(besides picking who goes first) and 3000 years in, it’s still going strong.

  • Blake Reynolds

    A brief expansion on your point about StarCraft “flavor.” I find the statement “if the zerg don’t have lots of little units, it wouldn’t feel like starcraft!” to be really childish and tautological. What do you MEAN “feel like starcraft?” Also, it represents an unwillingness to think outside the box. What if, say, all players start as terran, but as the game emerges, certain tech choices can introduce “zerg parasites?” and one side has infested soldiers or makes a zerg genetic monster lab which produces zerglings, making the one side effectively “zergified?” What if blizzard chose emergent asymmetry on the outset and that was what we knew Starcraft to be? Then what if starcraft 2 introduced asymmetrical forces? Would you say it “doesn’t feel like starcraft?” as an argument?

  • Leartes

    I’m usually lurking fantasystrike and I have to say, I like this article a lot more compared to the others. You give the reader space for his own opinion instead of using a hammer to drive in a screw.
    Regardless of me liking the article, I disagree with it. I also wrote this on your forum, but I will try to give a summary of my train of thought here as well.

    I think there are genres where it is impossible to reach the same replay-value with symmetric design like with asymmetric design without targeting a different audience. As examples fighting games and realtime strategy games like starcraft come to mind.
    I believe that it is impossible to make a game for people that like gameplay as it is displayed in starcraft with only one symmetric race.
    The reason for that is, if you have only one match-up this match-up has to offer more than all match-ups we currently have in starcraft. To achieve this your single race has to have more options to do things. More viable strategic path that are different enough from other path to be interesting. I think you have to pack too much complexity into this single race. It will be harder to learn than any race we currently have, the one match-up will be hard as hard to learn as several match-ups in other games and it will be less appealing than what we can do with asymmetric forces.

  • Joshua Hayes

    Do you think the Civilization series suffers from this kind of asymmetry? Thematically, it has strong reasons to include asymmetry. Do you think Civ would be a “better” game if it removed asymmetry?

    Thinking more about it, it would be easy to use different colors and names and such to represent different nations and get a fairly strong theme differentiation – and anyway, they only have like 5 unique things anyway, so there isn’t much asymmetry to begin with. Relatively, of course.

  • Dasick

    In Hearts of Iron, the only difference between nations is the starting location. When you consider the kinds of effects geography has on everything, a civ with symmetric civs would still make sense if there is strong geographical incentive to do this thing or that.

  • Yeah, I don’t think Civ really needs the asymmetry at all. I think it’s just kind of there because videogames have asymmetry. In fact it would be pretty cool if you could get some more emergent asymmetry based on your geographic location / climate (as happened in the real world!). Like one civ started next to gems, so they have some building that other civs can’t make, for instance.

  • Dasick

    There are a couple of benefits you didn’t cover, but I posted them in the dinofarm forums thread on [URL=”http://www.dinofarmgames.com/forum/index.php?threads/in-game-asymmetry.466/page-9#post-5895″]In-Game Asymmetry[/URL].

    Anyways, while I do agree that the way asymmetric match-ups are used is problematic, the same can be said about most things in videogames – randomization, scores, completion (ie game end condition) etc – doesn’t mean those can’t be used properly. What if videogame asymmetry is just as abused?

    For example, many asymmetric games start out being designed with asymmetry in mind, which leads to the lack of a designated main mode and ‘design your own game’ feel. But what if a game is designed with a main mode, and then the different match-ups are just variants people can play? What if instead of counter-picking, players agree on a game to play beforehand? Blizzard spent a decade balancing 3 races that are supposed to just fit together, but why not spend that time balancing 6 match-ups, ex making ZvT zerg different than a ZvP zerg in order to eliminate ‘fix one thing break two somewhere else’ effect?

  • Yeah, but what’s the reason for you having to pack all that complexity into one single race? Maybe the foundation of the RTS genre is already flawed to begin with and you need to re-think it from the ground up. If you cannot possibly make an elegant game in this genre, something is probably wrong? I mean, it’s somehow a weird thing to have “complexity” (I mean inherent complexity of the rules) as a desirable trait. Yet, RTS games seem to have that. RPGs, too.

    Lower complexity could still mean more depth, but the thing probably wouldn’t be called an RTS anymore. So, yeah… you’re probably right! It’s just that the “target audience” for RTS games seems to be something weird then, too. Like an audience, that is just there because designers haven’t even tried to re-think the genre standards and built a whole following around this thing.

  • Yeah, a lot of the comments, in my opinion, display a lack of imagination about games in general. A lot of people think of videogames as pretty much just *being* “the RTS”, “the FPS”, “the RPG”, etc, whereas my point would be that we can go beyond that and do vastly better things. However, we can’t do that if anytime anything is suggested, we try to cram it back into the RTS box, or whatever.

  • Raph Koster

    The biggest classic use of asymmetry at the player level is, of course, differing positions on a team. In sports this is usually used for an ostensibly symmetrical game between teams, but in practice, due to the difficulty of team balancing, this virtually never occurs. (Team balancing given limited resources is an NP-Hard problem). And the metagaming stuff therefore springs up almost instantly.

    I think you undersell picking quite a lot. It goes on hugely in sports. Fantasy Football is a game BUILT on picking. I don’t think it’s ugly; it’s actually rather beautiful, systemically speaking.

    Another place where we see it is in the notion of “roles on a team” transplanted to other arenas. Examples include team-based shooters, which are basically sports. But then you get asymmetrical (as a whole) games like say RPGs. A team-vs-dungeon game, for example, offers asymmetrical player roles right off the bat. From there it is not a huge leap to allowing players to try to tackle the dungeon solo, with the class of their choice. It is indeed essentially a multiplier on the dungeon content.

    However, I think you undersell the validity of the “playstyle” argument in scenarios like that. The research starting at Bartle and now including Nick Yee and Jason VandenBerghe argues very strongly that personality types do indeed lead to preferred playstyles. Theory of Fun provides a cognitive learning argument why this is so. That said, Theory of Fun also concurs with you that players ought to do the exercise of playing the styles that do not suit as well because there is more to learn.

    But if the asymmetrical roles do not exist, this won’t happen very much. The only way to offer these as emergent strategies rather than explicit choices is to provide the player with the capability to execute ALL the differing class strategies with one character. This will almost certainly result in them following the path of least resistance and falling back on known strategies. In fact, in team games without defined roles, we almost always observe players sorting themselves into differing roles that play to their strengths. Depending on the affordances of the game, this may well mean that they have less or different verbs *in a practical sense* though i suppose you’d call that emergent.

    Which leads to another potential benefit of offering the roles, which is simply as a difficulty choice… you gloss over this very briefly, but consider the effect of tackling a game like Dishonored “stealth only.” Dishonored would probably work just fine with two classes. In fact, it’d actually be a real UI convenience if you could turn off all the abilities that can cause you to screw up a stealth-only run through a mistimed button press. Really, what is the difference in raw mechanical terms from a chess handicap?

    All in all, I think the disadvantages you cite in adding this new layer of complexity are all absolutely right. I would never counsel someone to starting out as a designer to tackle multiple player roles in their first few projects. But I think that for someone who knows what they are doing, it’s another tool in the toolbox.

    There are some systems that just cannot be modelled without having players be given the ability to customize. Military sims of various types come to mind, where “load outs” or unit choices are effectively really just establishing an “off-board” first link in your supply chain.

    In the end, I think of it in abstract terms. (In my game grammar model, it does not matter whether an opponent is a computer or a human). You have a set of rules, and statistical variation in the content is what creates a varied set of challenges. In a true symmetric game, all statistical variations are created by the accumulated sequence of choices. In “overall” asymmetric games (fox and geese is my canonical example) the two sides are playing “different games” but still have the same type of statistical variation: the accumulated choices of players.

    In a game where one player or another can customize, that is now an additional location in the model where statistical variation can exist. If it is performed by solely the opponent in a videogame, it’s exactly equivalent to varying levels. Topology changes, opponent forces change, etc. The player, of course, has their accumulated set of choices.

    Now flip it. If you have static opponent abilities, and their statistical variation is provided only by their accumulated choices… and the player has the ability to customize, all that has happened is that the PLAYER is providing “game levels” that the static opponent is playing against. In other words, a static dungeon that you can tackle with four classes is exactly the same as a game of Galaga with one player ship type and four opponent ship types in different mixes on different screens.

    Finally, you have customization on both sides. The game is more varied for both sides… And yes, it’s insanely combinatorial. 🙂

  • Thanks for the huge and thoughtful comment.

    >>This will almost certainly result in them following the path of least resistance and falling back on known strategies.

    If that consistently works, then obviously what you have is a dominant strategy, and a game in need of a balance patch. So my response would be that a well-balanced game would FORCE players to leave their comfort zones in order to excel.

    I should also clarify that I have no problem with variants, and that includes difficulty modes. However I think that we can draw a distinction between a single-player game that has a Hard and Easy character, and SF-style asymmetry in a competitive game.

    >>I would never counsel someone to starting out as a designer to tackle multiple player roles in their first few projects.

    I actually feel the opposite way. I feel like the easiest thing to do is to create a kind of loose system and then artificially inject some “replay value” with asymmetrical characters. The hardest thing in the world to do is to create one solid system with one matchup that has all the qualities we’re looking for in games.

  • Dasick

    A stealth only run of Dishonored is really flat and boring compared to the emergent interactions of lethal methods. Sure, if someone has a personality for stealth-only, it’s still better, but it doesn’t really compare to other stealth games on the market (well, maybe. “stealth” stealth games tend to be pretty anti-emergence). There may be different personalities that are attracted to different things, but can you really placate them by throwing a bone while the other personality gets a steak?

  • Raph Koster

    I wouldn’t advise it just bc it is harder. I don’t expect someone’s first few games to be any good anyway. 🙂

    As far as the dominant strategy thing… I think that is a misread. There is a big difference between a player’s preferred heuristic and an objectively dominant strategy. Most players do not play for optimality.

  • Raph Koster

    Yes, you totally can. MMOs are ample evidence of this (bones for crafters, role players, decorators, and steak for combatants)

  • Sirlin

    I think this is the worst article you’ve written yet. Your points about the negatives of asymmetry are laughable how bad they are and you clearly do not understand the benefits. (For one, the built-in strengths and weakness of asymmetric sides create interesting dynamics that can’t exist when everyone has access to everything. Secondly regarding having to learn only part of a system yet getting participate in a more richly complicated one than would be possible in a symmetric game–you really failed on understanding the HUGE difference between learning to play a character, something that could take months in Guilty Gear, and learning the basics of what an opponent’s character does, something that takes like a day. Evidence: it’s extremely hard to switch who your main character is yet very easy to go up against many different opponent characters and do reasonably well.)

    You probably shouldn’t be writing about this given how far out of your depth you are. Or better yet you should be asking questions rather than making the many terrible and wrong statements you make here. It’s scary to me that known designers like Raph Koster or Greg Costikyan would take this seriously, as if it’s valid at all. I will leave it to others to eviscerate the article in the comments. It’s just not worth time to go over how deeply flawed this article is when I should be designing asymmetric games instead.

  • Raph Koster

    PS not that I ADVOCATE doing so, as anyone who knows my work knows. 🙂

  • Jeroen D Stout

    I find this article is written from an interesting perspective, but one I cannot sympathise much with.

    The choice of race/characters is not a decision without strategy. Seeing teams select their DotA characters, banning opponent choices, is already strategy. Ending with two DotA teams which are not equal means they have to deploy strategies which counter the opponent’s found within their own chosen field; which creates tension by itself. The game has started in the character selection screen and requires both teams to have a large knowledge of the game and a specialisation in more than a handful of characters. It requires a strategic choices outside of the game.

    I also see the choice of race in Starcraft as a personal specialisation. The tension is large from having to learn three match-ups (assuming you only play one race). Indeed a mirror match-up can still diverge but it can not have a from-the-start inherent difference to the game; unless the tech choice is made at minute 1 and irrevocable. The downside to a tech choice also is that one player would presumably know all the tech choices; which means there is less specialisation. And if this specialisation is there in the shape of choosing one style over the other, he may as well chose a ‘race’ rather than a ‘style’. The race also limits the game, which I see as a good thing; we can do a ‘muta switch’ to quickly have an air comeback; but not suddenly jump into the mechanics of another race. That more limited scope means we react to fewer but more well-trained options.

    It seems many of the things you see as unimportant or downsides seem more beneficial to me. Indeed, to me it is exciting to realise a player has to know multiple match-ups to get higher up. Yes, it may be that this is not ‘elegant’ or ‘efficient’ – I can see the sentiment but hardly can say I share this sort of cold view of it. “How will he fare against Protoss, having mostly trained for playing Terran?” is an exciting tournament question. Knowing to expect a typical Terran strategy one match, a typical Protoss one the next is also exciting; knowing I do or do not have to wall in is exciting, too. Meanwhile I can specialise in the specifics of one race (which is exciting) which I know the others will want to hard-counter by having knowledge of what I may know (which is exciting). It is exciting to not expect a Zerg tactic while playing Protoss tactics; or vice-versa.

    Of course I agree ‘more is better’ is not an inherently good thing; it is also certainly not easier to learn. You are right the metagame exists with both; which means the argument goes neither way.

    It does come down to having X-matchups, in Starcraft’s case six. Hang it, I say, I find that an interesting amount exactly because players have to master three of them thoroughly. One cannot come by in Starcraft knowing only one match-up. It is more a triathlon; not as elegant, but impressive in a different way. Certainly I enjoy the vast learning curve of Starcraft. It could be less complex (two races/one races) or more (four races); three happens to be the number. And for me it works.

    I hasten to add I see no problem with symmetrical games. I do think some of what you see as problems are to me the plus points of asymmetrical games. Describing one expecting the benefits of the other is ruinous, of course.

  • Thanks for writing this Keith. It goes without saying, but asymmetry is a topic I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about. David and I debated at length by email before we chatted about it on the podcast, and my views on the subject continue to evolve.

    Ultimately, the entertainment we derive from games comes from experiencing something different. Whether that’s pure exploration or the thrill of mastery, as players we’re always looking for new angles. And as soon as that joy is exhausted we’re done with a game. Even if you win every time, it’s not quite the same as winning only two-thirds of the time against stiff competition.

    This extended process can be achieved via narrative (most JRPGs, factions in Starcraft), symmetry that is also extremely balanced (Go), or asymmetry (Puzzle Strike).

    Narrative is the easiest tool and touches on the ‘Flavor defense’ you cite. This isn’t essential, but some players just enjoy having things ‘feel’ different, gameplay completely aside. Purely mechanical designers completely discount this element, but it’s very real and doing so is a mistake. Call it ‘fake design’ if you’d like, but I have no need for tools which serve only make designers proud, rather than resulting in genuine enjoyment from players.

    The ideal is the game that is also perfectly balanced and can hold up over centuries. This is naturally asymmetric (as PERFECT balance requires this) but how many people are actually CAPABLE of designing such a game? I’d go so far as to say it’s impossible – at least intentionally.

    Go and Chess are not ‘perfect’ games, but they have elements which allow them to hold up over centuries. The key element is flexibility, where players can develop meta-strategies which evolve over time. Not every designer seeks to achieve that, but a good many do, but how many succeed?

    At the end of the day I’m a pragmatist, and my goal is the best game I can ACTUALLY create. To repeat myself, theory is only useful in this field when it can be APPLIED. ‘Game design’ is anything that results in someone having fun with a game. Mechanics are an important element for many people, but they remain only one element of the puzzle.

    – Jon

  • I recently posted some of my articles on GamersGlobal (one of the biggest German gaming sites). I got quite some positive feedback, which was nice, but there were a few comments for which I’m picking one representative now and translating it:

    “Without story, setting and atmosphere games are abstract, and therefore leave no room for innovation and are generally samey.”

    1. I never said you shouldn’t have setting or atmosphere. But that’s the usual reaction to “stories hurt games”.

    2. This comment clearly shows how videogamers think in terms of game mechanics. They have NO idea, what is even possible. Because 99 % of videogames only ever differ in terms of superficial things, they believe that this is indeed the only way to differ. They don’t even know that there could be something new on a mechanical level.

  • “For one, the built-in strengths and weakness of asymmetric sides create
    interesting dynamics that can’t exist when everyone has access to
    everything.”

    As the article states, a symmetrical game can and will obviously create emergent asymmetrical situations all the time. And from there on you can have these same dynamics. Only that they have emerged from your strategic decisions and not from a “quick start jump” straight into the middle of an already running game. And don’t try to say that these situations couldn’t be “as dynamic” as in asymmetric games. That’s not the fault of symmetry but of a flawed design that doesn’t enforce creativity to begin with.

    “you really failed on understanding the HUGE difference between learning
    to play a character […] and learning the basics of what an opponent’s character does”

    Well, that’s arguing semantics. You have made it clearer in your post now than during the podcast: You said “understanding” and then “learning the basics”. Which is something different than claiming only having to “learn part of the game” in general. You indeed have to _learn_ the rules of your possible opponents to play reasonably well. Building understanding is a whole different affair and it’s simply unfair to blame the article for not answering a post you made after the article was even posted.

    The second paragraph of your comment is basically just a hollow bunch of words, throwing around known designers in between. What’s that even supposed to do by the way? If the article is so full of crap and they are clever people, then they will obviously not be influenced by it. So, I guess it’s probably just a little trolling.

  • “Whether that’s pure exploration or the thrill of mastery”

    I think Keith would go (and goes) further and clearly seperates these values on a fundamental level of forms of interactive systems. A system, wherein the player is to explore the rules (i.e. he doesn’t know them for a start), then that is essentially a “toy”. And it should in fact follow totally different principles and there need to be totally different guidelines for these types of systems. For example “elegance” is not nearly as important for a “toy” as for a “game” (in fact, it might even be a bad thing).

    Keith tries to develop guidelines for what he calls “games”, contests of decision-making. Those would be best described by your mentioned “thrill of mastery”. It’s an inherent value of these games that they should allow for the pursuit of mastery.

    Sure, it’s a matter of defining terms, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that his theory is not aimed at all interactive systems or all the different “tastes” out there. And I think that’s actually one of its strengths. It is specific, and that’s something we’re mostly lacking in the videogame world.

  • Blake Reynolds

    The only one making bald, baseless assertions here is you.

    Anyway, it’s not EITHER Ryu vs. Blanka OR “everyone has access to the same stuff.” In the late stages of a chess game, one guy can have a queen and no bishops, the other could have no queen and both bishops. Both people don’t have the “Same stuff” but the asymmetry was emergent, and was reached from an evolving strategic narrative.

    Or there could be a fighter in which you start with a mirror match, but certain mechanisms during the match cause players to morph and change, ending with a different set of resources. If you think outside the box, there are suddenly a lot more options.

    As to your guilty gear point, you could learn to “get by” learning a bunch of characters’ movesets in less time than you spent to master 1 character, but I hope you’re not arguing that you wouldn’t be significantly better at your main character(and the game as a whole) if you actually did master all characters. That much is pretty obvious, which makes Keith’s point valid.

    Anyway, you spend about 90% of your article saying how unqualified Keith is to speak, and 10% presenting arguments as to how. Arguments I think I’ve refuted. correct me if I’m wrong.

  • I understand that there are different classification methods, and that there are a variety of products that folks label as “video games.” But to be quite frank, I don’t care about definitions. People like to put things inside simple boxes, but nothing in life is quite that simple.

    At least in my book, SimCity, Final Fantasy, Civ and League of Legends are all in the same bucket. And if that’s the battle people want to fight then I’ll gladly bow out. Interactive entertainment is broader than that – and THAT’S the field *I* work in.

    – Jon

  • Dasick

    Even if they’re in the same bucket, they stress different aspects. For example, League of Legends and Civ are more about mastery than FF and SimCity are, and this reflects in their design and the trade-offs they make. There’s certainly a mastery element to them as well, but it’s not the majority shareholder so to speak.

  • Dasick

    I’m not certain what is the link you’re drawing between perfect balance and asymmetry? or do you mean ‘naturally asymmetric’ in the sense that asymmetry unfolds during the course of the game?

  • Guest

    Yeah, perhaps there are several small buckets inside the big bucket. It’s not mutually exclusive to have interactive entertainment and sub-categories. And these don’t even need to be “simple boxes”. They can be quite complex ones.

  • Dasick:

    Which I totally agree with. But dismissing FF and SimCity ENTIRELY as ‘not games’ is not something I’m on board with. EVERY game relies on ‘feel’ to some extent. Go and SimCity aren’t fighting over the exact same turf, but it’s not like comparing genres as disparate as movies and music.

    Some people will never touch Go with a stick regardless of the symmetric, strategic goodness that lies within. And that’s fine. Doesn’t mean it isn’t a game, nor that those folks don’t ‘like’ games.

    – Jon

  • Oh, that’s obviously true. They are both in the “interactive systems” category. But I think it’s very useful to have a further categorization. We should evaluate specific systems by specific criteria.

    Also, nobody is “dismissing” them. Something being “not a game” is not a value judgement at all.

  • padi

    bridled asymmetry can confer a sense of security to the designer against a single dominant strategy developing, or maybe just more direction re: how to prevent that. if i want my game to have at least 3 main styles of play, i can reinforce this by limiting players from the outset to options that lean toward one or the other style.

    so if i let players “tech into” snake style abilities or spider style abilities during play i run the risk that, for example, snake style for the opening then some specific spider style abilities at the end becomes the only viable strategy; then at high levels the game will essentially be a symmetrical test of tactics rather than a grand strategy game.

    of course the solution is just to make the symmetrical game better. but i’ll only live once and gosh darn it i’d rather make a game with exactly three strategies (which hopefully branch out into more if i do it right) than be paranoid that it will degrade into having only one. so in this way having 3 character choices might, in the long term, make less work for me as the designer. but yes this is quite anecdotal and just some thoughts rather than some kind of objective argument.

    aside: auro starts with an ability selection, the ramifications of which a new player can’t really understand. would it be more symmetrical to start the players with just the basic knockback for a floor so they can make some inference as to what additional power they want?

    aside 2, perhaps equally inane: sirlin’s chess 2 approaches the draw death and over-studied opening plays of chess in a couple of ways which are completely independent of its asymmetry (blind capture bidding, midline invasion win condition). the different armies alone would widen the opening book but not subvert it, because it’s still chess which is small branch and perfect info. so the advocacy of asymmetry must not be directly tied to the interest of making a grand strategy game worth playing forever, and if that is one’s principle or only interest then he might concede tread with care re: incorporating asymmetry. of course i can’t speak for him but i just mean to point out the possibility of “arguing past” each other because of different priorities.

  • The reality of life is that regardless of what we’re talking about we’re always working within a spectrum, and calling SimCity a ‘toy’ and Go a ‘game’ is irrelevant when it comes to the end result. Breaking games down and analyzing them can absolutely be helpful – particularly for the designer – but allowing those definitions to blind us is a huge mistake.

    Sure, not everything is in the same category. People find both kickball and Chess fun, but that doesn’t mean they’re ‘the same’. But I don’t think I need to explain why the two are actually different. If we were talking about something like Skylanders then there’s a much bigger debate to be had. But I’m PRETTY sure that’s not what anyone is thinking of here.

    Saying that certain lessons that apply to Final Fantasy and SimCity don’t also apply to other ‘games’ doesn’t make sense. A ton of people enjoy Civ and Starcraft BECAUSE the factions are different. Does that make them ‘not games’? Of course not. And as such, arguing that asymmetry isn’t good, even when “only talking about guidelines for ideal game design” doesn’t make sense. We’re obviously still talking about games, so what are we actually debating here?

    The implication, intentional or otherwise, is that certain things are worthy the game designer’s (or worse, player’s) time, while others are not. I hope that everyone is able to step back and avoid falling into this trap in a genuine attempt to simplify, clarify and better oneself.

    Now then… if someone would like to debate the differences between Go and SKYLANDERS… well, feel free to open THAT can of worms!

    – Jon

  • Dasick

    What you say about the meta – “It requires a strategic choices outside of the game.” – is something that is not positive. First of all, games are meant to be
    self-contained microcosms that allow us to practice and learn in a safe,
    controlled environment. The line between what is and isn’t an
    acceptable out-of-game action is blurry, and the exploration of this
    bound isn’t something anyone wants.

    Second of all, this “strategic” choice that you make before the game, despite being just one choice, has a profound effect on the rest of the game. If a player’s main character gets banned, that player is crippled right from the start, which can lead into a snowballing situation before the game even begins. The meta-counter to this is simple – just branch out, but here’s the problem. Now your top players are a bunch of generalists instead of being specialists. I think that a player that specializes in one character can deliver a much more captivating performance than a player that branches out.

    Also, ‘style’ is something that naturally emerges, not just in completely symmetric games, but also in games with asymmetry. You can often hear casters (and see for yourself) that different players even of the same race, in the same match-up prefer this or that set of strategies. Does that mean that even the 3-race SC needs to be broken down further until everyone has a unique race to fit their style, something like a CCG? Even if that was best, balancing requirements are too huge.

    Other than this, I more or less agree. Good post!

  • Dasick

    The idea that people like Civ or Starcraft because they have different factions is… strange, because there are games out there that do this kind of wild asymmetry better. I know that 3 unique races is Starcraft’s gimmick, but I think the real selling point is how incredibly balanced and supported it is, since there are RTSes with more unique factions out there. And by 4x standards Civ’s civs aren’t really that different. There are other kinds of games which rely on differences in factions and characters.

    Anyways, I’m pretty certain the guidelines being established here refer specifically to strategy games, where balance and depth are essential for the core experience to be the best it is. I don’t really agree with Keith that ‘asymmetry must go’, but I definitely think that it’s most common forms cause all sorts of problems.

    Speaking of asymmetry and strategy games, I know that ATG is going to have a lot of factions. Are all factions going to be present in a single match, like in Hearts of Iron, or would it be more like civ?

    PS. Nice try, but skylanders isn’t that out there. If you really want a debate, go with “Kinetic Novels” next time.

  • Nahil

    “First of all, games are meant to be self-contained microcosms that allow us to practice and learn in a safe, controlled environment. The line between what is and isn’t an acceptable out-of-game action is blurry, and the exploration of this bound isn’t something anyone wants.”

    Are either of these provable facts? Are games meant to be self-contained? Is the exploration of that bound really something no one wants? Jeroen D Stout seems to want it…

  • >aside: auro starts with an ability selection,

    Not anymore. The main game mode, match mode, does not allow ability selection. They are randomly distributed (The same distribution to both players). Only Trials mode, which is essentially Practice Mode, allows you to choose.

  • Jeroen D Stout

    I must own I used ‘outside of the game’ as a short-hand; what is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the game depends on a great many factors. Team games, DotA or a team Starcraft single-elimination best-of-7, do depend on factors which are not in the game in the strict sense that Blizzard did not put them in; but of course are part of the game in any wider sense; ‘Starcraft as she is played.’

    I think you are more than right that the exploration is not desirable, at least not in any competitive context. I am not saying we would be interested in football players ‘gaming’ the weather to get opportunities (at least; it ought to be ‘coped with’ rather than ‘exploited’). But I would say many are interested in the play of ‘you had no chance to practice against Terran because most of the players were Protoss’ or ‘I have been watching the stream of your previous games and know your build orders’. And in that sense, also, ‘your team always uses hero X, we are going to block him and see if you can cope with it’ and ‘I will veto Neo Planet S because you are Terran.’ It is not exploration because within the context of sports it is ‘accepted’ (I say with self-aware quotes) as a very strategic set of decisions.

    I would say that in a team game the players are expected to, as a team, deal with any of the situations which may arise; that includes any combination of 150 heroes and various blocks. Exactly the problem you describe is what makes it exciting for some; there is never perfect coverage, so you try and play the other team as much as just the game. Becoming a generalist damages you in the long run, so you have to work with finite means. In a badly designed game, this has a huge fail ratio; in a well-designed game a lower one. Problematically the better the players are, I imagine, the lower their fail ratio; and the good players do not play all games.

    The idea of subdividing races in SC further is fair; Warcraft had more races and hypothetically you could have an RTS with a DotA-like amount of races, up to 150. The question is what you want to make; the 150-race game would never be casual; at the same time, a DotA-like with fixed heroes may not have enough variation for some seasoned players.

    I would say wisdom is knowing your audience; both players, at-home audiences and casters. Asymmetrical and ‘pre-game’ choices such as veto’s are powerful parts to use at your peril; they add ‘hard’ specialisation and potential misses in training. Those can be exciting to some audiences and not to others, too. I cannot say I understand, in full, how different audiences work and see things, at all.

  • Raph Koster

    I think that’s way too harsh. I don’t agree with quite a lot of the article (see my response) but many of Keith’s core points are extremely valid:

    * it adds combinatorial complexity
    * it adds a big content multiplier
    * it can make the game harder to approach
    * it can lead to bad choices made out of ignorance when the player first starts

    These are all absolutely true, and I know you know them from experience! 🙂

  • Rowan Idris Carmichael

    “If you want to make this argument fairly, you might consider that chess, though stagnating at high levels of play, has endured a couple centuries of serious, serious play.”

    To make that argument fairly, you’ve got to understand that our relationship with games and media was fundamentally different even 50 years ago. Centuries though, it’s not comparable

    It’s a great game, but if in an alternative history somehow chess was invented yesterday, and street fighter magically was playable when chess was, chess would not be given a second look.

  • Dasick

    I’m approaching this from a competitive, play-to-win mindset. If a game is it’s own self-contained universe, then I can just shut off all considerations other than the goal of winning, and this won’t affect anything outside the game. However, if what is and isn’t part of the game starts getting blurry, and a lot of conflict happens over what is and isn’t acceptable, ie cheating. Unless the bounds of a game are clearly defined, you start having things like exploiting visibility bugs, screenwatching, and listening for other players’ key inputs, kissing up to judges, abusing tournament structures, getting outside help, keyboard and controller modifications, outside macros, distracting the enemy player etc etc. Some people say this is cheating, some say it isn’t, but either way it’s a problem because now instead of just focusing 100% on winning the game i have to bother with winning it properly, which nullifies one of the greatest advantages of digital games.

  • Dasick

    If you consider banning and counterpicking to be part of the game, then those are some pretty bad strategical choices. First of all, the level of the back-and-forth interplay and the depth of the context completely pale in comparison to every other moment of the match. During the game I can counter an opposing player through a myriad of subtle minor decisions. Maybe my opponent in lane is a super carry, and I counter that by playing aggressively – in this case, this isn’t just one decision, this is two opposing many-shaped complex strategies, ie game-long sets of decisions. My opponent can get last hits, pick-up spare jungle creeps, roam, pick up kills, co-operate with the jungler to pick up creep stacks. At the same time I can zone, deny creeps and kills, avoid fights, push the tower, co-ordinate with my jungler to kill the carry. And these are compound actions, meaning each one is composed of hundreds of other mini decisions, and the validity of each one is tied very closely to everything else in the game – the position of my team and their team, health values, items, towers up, cooldowns, runes, creep waves and positions, levels and gold, and hero selection. Notice how hero selection is the only thing in that list that is static, unchanging and very one dimensional – it does not belong. Seeing a player getting countered through clever play and co-ordination is deeper and more satisfying to watch than counter-picking and banning ever could be.

    As for the ‘did he train or didn’t he’ in Starcraft, it’s kind of a moot point that proves nothing, that is another problem associated with asymmetry, how hard it is actually to compare what is and isn’t fair. If he loses, yea, of course he lost, he had to train against those other match-ups. If he wins, yah of course he did, his race/that match-up is highly skewed.

  • padi

    i’m only concerned with games in the sense keith uses, but please go ahead and convince him of the reality of life cause god forbid there’s any place on the internet where we can discuss the design philosophy of a specific style of game without having to include final fucking fantasy.

  • Leartes

    I’m not that experienced in fighters, but often I find that people are much better when they focus on a few things (a hand full of main characters in dota for example) and learning only the basics for the rest of the cast. Your training time is a resource in your preparation for the tournament. It is limited and you should not waste it trying to master everyone.
    In a well designed game it is impossible to truely master a single character. It is very rare that you shadowfiend improves by playing something else instead of playing shadowfiend. The same holds true for sc2 or wc3. Say you are pretty good terran in all match-ups, you will usually improve more playing 100 more matches as terran than playing other races. If you have a bad match-up, say your tvz sucks, then you are better of playing terran vs friends that main zerg.

  • Jeroen D Stout

    What can I say—I disagree, I find the play of picking and counter-picking interesting exactly because it creates one long-term difference. I.e., how will you cope with or without X. It creates a context for the entire match which remains for a long time; longer than the variables you mention.

    For sport games what you find something which ‘does not belong’ for me is an inherently exciting part of the sport exactly because it creates a context within which players have to operate. The moment-to-moment elements you name are exciting, but ‘let me see you do that without hero X’ creates a new dimension.

    It seems to me what you find almost objectively wrong is something I find personally rather interesting.

  • Blake Reynolds

    right but, time restrictions aside, the argument is that if you had to choose, in your case, between 100 terran games or mastering all 3 races and 33 terran games, you’d choose 100 terran games. That’s not what I’m arguing. I’m arguing that nobody would argue that if you could play those 100 games AND have the other 2 races mastered you’d be all the better for it. Which is why, again, Keith’s point stands.

  • Leartes

    I don’t really see the point stand if you base it on impossible assumptions. I thought the general point of the games keith wants to make is that you can learn your life long. That it is impossible to master them.
    If you can work on your terran for your whole life there is no option to work on the other races as well for equal time….

    It is common in games to select a subset of all gamestates and specialize on that and do better compared to playing the whole game. Openings in chess come to mind, the pick-stage in dota (picking IS part of the game – oftentimes the most interesting part) or race and build-orders in what we call rts.
    This is not always a problem. You have to be careful, I don’t want to make sometihing memorizable like chess-openings. But that can be ok as well if it is part of the skillset you want to test.

  • Leartes

    You take this position a lot, ‘people are not creative enough to break out of the box and make real innovation’. While I do think it is true, this doesn’t change anything about the games we have, the game we play. Maybe it is backward thinking to you, to make a game in any of the known categories. I think it is perfectly valid for people to make a rts like we know and commonly understand rts. It is ok to make a deck-builder, worker-placement-game or other well explored types.
    A general theory of game-design should hold true for the majority of the known types. And it should help make improvements while sticking in any of those known types.

    I think this is possible. We don’t have to kick everything we know out and make some other stuff. We can have a theory that both promotes evolution of known genre as well as introduction of knew genre.

    Therefore I don’t agree that lack of imagination is a problem here. If you can’t apply a theory in many known scenarios it is not general at all.

    EDIT:
    Another common point you have is, ‘the majority of games is bad’. While I agree that most games are bad, I disagree on the reasons. I think almost all games are badly executed. Usually there are pretty obvious improvements possible. I think in most cases it is to expensive to fix them (I don’t think designers are too stupid to see them).
    Thus good design seems to be more about preventing costly mistakes before they come up, then about having a crazy new idea.

  • John K

    Interesting read as ever.

    The comment about picking heroes mid match in Warcraft III versus picking a race in Starcraft got me thinking though.

    If you include setup as part of playing the game then the difference is just /when/ during the match you get to do it, so don’t make it it’s own special thing (videogame asymmetry) include the choice in your game design properly.

    If someone makes a decision early in the game, would you want them having 100 choices? Would you want it to potentially screw them for the rest of the game? Probably not. How about from a few choices that could be corrected for later? Much more reasonable.

    Like the opening move in chess, you cannot know what your opponent is about to do by you already have a plan in your head.

  • Hecatom

    LMAO, you are an idiot and don’t know what you are talking about, stay free

  • d3v

    Except Sirlin does have a point. In competitive play, what will happen is that people will simply default to the most efficient strategy to win. If you’ve read Sirlin’s book “Playing to Win”, you’d know that this is an acceptable mindset for approaching these games. Innovation and emergence are second only to winning. In fact, we’ve already seen something off this. Back in the early nineties, there were hacked versions of Street Fighter II (the so called “Rainbow” or “Koryu” editions) that allowed you to change character mid match (among other hacks). However, the accepted way to play the game would be to simply switch to Ken due to how powerful the other glitches made him.

    Meanwhile, we’ve seen games where the built in strengths and weakness have actually created interesting dynamics as Sirlin has stated. Take a look at Marvel vs. Capcom 2. You can have a situation one player has a very good rushdown team (Magneto/Sentinel/Psylocke) against one who has one of the best keepaway teams (Storm/Sentinel/Cyclops). You now have the classic dichotomy of rushdown vs. keepaway taken to its most extreme example. It now becomes a battle of two natural opposites, something you would never see in a symmetrical game simply because the need to win would drive the player to go towards the most efficient strategy over any sort of innovation or personal playstyle preference.

  • d3v

    We’ve already seen an example of this “following the path of least resistance” in fighting games. Remember the hacked versions of Street Fighter II? The one that let you change characters mid match by pressing a button. It turns out that one single strategy (switching to Ken and then filling the screen with fireballs, maxing the game’s fireball limit) is the best strategy. So any attempt at playing the game at a high, competitive level simply devolves into switching to Ken ASAP and filling the screen.

  • Raph Koster

    Well, that actually IS a dominant strategy. (“Dominant strategy” = one that is objectively better). A path of least resistance (or my technical term, “player’s preferred heuristic”) is more like a strategy that isn’t objectively better, but that has worked pretty consistently for a GIVEN player, and which fits well with their preferences. Like, always picking Chun-Li.

  • Raph Koster

    “what will happen is that people will simply default to the most efficient strategy to win”

    Actually, what will happen is that SOME people will. Those who are “playing to win” in Sirlin’s sense, AND who are aware of, or have invested enough time to discover, the dominant strategy, AND are capable of executing it.

  • ” It now becomes a battle of two natural opposites, something you would never see in a symmetrical game simply because the need to win would drive the player to go towards the most efficient strategy”

    It would never happen in a *flawed* symmetrical game, that has a dominant strategy and therefore isn’t properly balanced.

  • d3v

    Of course, this will end up dominating competitive play and, thanks to todays internet, will end up trickling down to even the casual players.

  • Naomi Clark

    Wow, another very thought-provoking article, Keith. Although I probably have that variety of positive opinion because I like your articles mostly as tests of thinking-through-things, and don’t feel the need to defend my own design choices vs. your models, or I might be as annoyed as Dave Sirlin & the fantasystrike crew. There’s clearly *something* interesting about asymmetry that’s not just the “paper over flaws” usage, the things that aren’t as worth talking about IMHO (“flavor” and “smokescreen complexity” and all that) — if there wasn’t really some nugget of value in there, I don’t think it would be a rich enough design space for the explorations that Dave has been doing for years and building skilled communities around. So what is that nugget? I really appreciate the flesh-stripping sirocco wind of your analysis to try and get at that.

    So here’s what I think it is: tactical asymmetry (as distinguished from goal asymmetry, as in Fox & Geese or 2 De Mayo) is a more direct route to “crunchy” and “wet” gameplay experiences as opposed to “smooth” and “dry.” These are ridiculous terms, but at least they are words to get at what we’re describing (praise Costik!) plus a bunch of us designy types actually use them and some people reading might even know what I mean.

    “Crunchy” — a very complex combinatorial possibility space arising from the interplay of many elements. Hard but not impossible to get in an elegant and streamlined way. Go isn’t crunchy because the elements that produce its incredible complexity are quintessentially simple; Chess is more crunchy than Go because there are six different pieces. Obviously crunchiness can be abused as a content multiplier or obfuscator that doesn’t necessarily make for a better skill chain, but those abuses aren’t particularly interesting to me. Crunchy spaces also tend to have a higher barrier to entry (not a “low floor”) at least initially, or require graduated scaffolding of some sort, but once you’re past it, it doesn’t necessarily take as long for you to become competitive as it would for say, Go — skill development past initial understanding is independent of crunchiness, and as noted, the “exciting flavor” of crunchiness can be a motivator for new players. So why do we want to explore crunchy space? Because it requires a different kind of skill than mastering a smooth space, one with more pre-determined moving parts; your brain has to engage the possibilities of a crunchy space differently. The rest of reality contains many, many crunchy spaces to master, and relatively few smooth ones (which are always embedded in other, larger and more crunchy contexts, and may just be delineated as spaces in an attempt to simply/abstract) so it’s a natural type of skill and space for us to try and model in games.

    Do you need tactical asymmetry (maybe particularly “picking”) to get crunchiness? No, and I’m sure you can think of symmetrical games that have a lot of crunchiness, many possible tactics and elements and moving parts to pick from. I think asymmetrical picking is an attempt to “slice” crunchy spaces to become more manageable and elude boringly-dominant strategies, which has already been mentioned quite a bit in comments. For one thing, Dave is right when he talks about “learning one side” — the player has a limited palette of choices to master, and doesn’t actually need to understand opponents’ choices in the SAME depth as their own. (Again, this may be a design goal which some games fail at — if you HAVE to understand every possible opponent’s choices & strategies in the same depth, then clearly what Dave talks about is failing, but it’s not a necessary failure; it may just be a drawback of how say, LoL is constructed.) For another thing, plenty of people in comments have pointed out that a crunchy space can devolve quickly to a dominant strategy, leaving most of the crunch untouched — it’s difficult to balance all those crunchy pieces. With asymmetrical picking, the balance problem is sliced to matchups, which is theoretically easier to consider; if Character A always beats Character B, then you can take that on in isolation rather than iteratively, iteratively, iteratively weeding out the kind of dominant devolution which could result if all players have access to all strategies / elements / moves in every match. (At least I think this is easier to consider — I would have to leave it to actual asymmetrical-balancing masters like Dave to discuss that more, and they probably have.)

    It’s theoretically possible to design a very crunchy symmetrical space that’s extremely well-balanced with a minimum of dominant strategies, has a low floor for entry, and doesn’t require this kind of slicing. It’s just a very high bar to reach, and I don’t even know if we have very many examples.

    “Wet” — a space with many contingent circumstances to deal with arising from the system, not necessarily arising from chance but from complexity. (And maybe from some usage of chance, i.e. input randomness as you mention in Puerto Rico.) This may correlate with how hard a system is to solve; Go definitely feels more wet to me than Chess because of the kind of unpredictable complexity that arises. In both Go and Chess, the source of contingency lies entirely in the actions of the other player; Go is wetter because the shape of the board (by which I mean piece placement, not the grid, obvs) is so difficult to predict and arises from interactions of opposing choices.

    You suggest repeatedly that the most unadulterated and “best design” source of wetness is from another player’s mind, the accumulated choices made during gameplay — and I think this is hard to dispute in some ways, since human minds are are incredibly complex producers of uncertainty. Therein the magic of yomi, donkey space, etc. Should we completely abandon all other sources of wetness, contingency? I think there’s a case to be made for additional locations creating more kinds of gameplay to pursue in deisgn exploration. As Raph already said, “In a game where one player or another can customize, that is now an additional location in the model where statistical variation can exist.” Randomly chosen maps (leaving out “choosing a map” for the time being) can create interesting contingencies to navigate (and more possible circumstances to master) — asymmetrical picking can similarly be seen as a limitation of the overall possibility space to create a particular set of contigencies, as Dasick was talking about in this comment: http://www.dinofarmgames.com/forum/index.php?threads/in-game-asymmetry.466/page-9#post-5895

    System-driven contingencies (“oh crap, it’s raining on game day!” or “after my golf opponent’s drive down the fairway, the wind shifted!”) aren’t necessarily a bad thing; maybe that’s not in dispute here. (You seem to be saying that Dominion relies too much on system contingencies, emergent combinations of cards that can be exhausted, and not enough on player-choice contingencies, but surely it’s possible to draw value from both for a really deep game?) What seems to be in contention is whether setup contingencies ought to be “picked” by players beforehand (leading to counter-picking and banning problems) or random (leading to favoring generalists) or eliminated completely, as in games that are always the same at setup. The thing is, I agree that varying setup creates higher learning curves, especially for new players (gotta learn how to play on a wet football field as well as a dry one!) but I really do believe that all sports (including tabletop games played at a high level) involve some degree of metagaming/preparation that influences setup and thus the contingent circumstances of the game. Even chess or go matches are sometimes negotiated as to the location, date, sequence or time of day of a match as a result; the demands of high-level play expand the scope of outcome-affecting decisions to the space before a game properly begins.

    So, why asymmetrical picking as a source for pre-game “wetness?” I don’t think this is a shortcut to wetness as much of a drive to make metagame decisions more overt, conscious parts of the process, such that they can be designed and discussed, and involve players (and not just players with coaches with years of experience at anticipating and negotiating setup contigencies!) It *does* blur the line between player and designer if you ask the player to make a setup decision — but while difficult for new players or when purposes of play veer between “play to win” and “play for fun,” I don’t think this kind of blurring should be excluded from design of high-level competition. Sport players — athletes, whether of the body+mind or just the mind+hands — have to consider setup decisions, or they have to employ coaches that do. The blurring, and the overt engagement of the blurring, is a positive move even if it’s forcing design into thorny weeds of “crap, how do we handle this counter-picking problem.” It’s a good challenge in the long run.

    All of this also relies on where you draw the bright line between “this is part of the game” and “this is part of the metagame,” of course. That’s already been mentioned a lot in the comments — I’m not entirely convinced that a character pick is actually of a completely different nature, a totally boring and constraining kind of choice, compared to deciding which hero to pick mid-match in Warcraft III. That’s also a massively constraining choice that prunes off many, many branches of possibility for the rest of the game; many good, well-balanced games have such decisive choices early in the game, although they can be compensated for by later choices. Is it not possible to compensate for a setup choice? It depends on what kinds of things you have prepared for, just like it depends on what kind of heroes you’ve prepared / anticipated for your opponent to pull out in the midst of a WC3 match. Again, metagame and preparation. Seems like these things exist on a continuum — constraining to less constraining, early to late — and especially for high-level play, it’s hard to say where the decisions affecting gameplay (like “I practiced a lot for this circumstance”) actually begin.

  • d3v

    So what happens then when something like this is found? Do you just patch the game (something competitive fighting game players might not accept – we’ve actually rejected patches and updates in the past)? What about the next dominant thing, do you patch that out as well? Face it, as long as multiple options exist, players will find the best one, especially in a community that actually celebrates these things. Might as well make a game with only a single option (something like a fully symmetrical Divekick).

  • Raph Koster

    It’s not that simple, really. For example, a dominant strategy may require practice and skill. Knowing the theory doesn’t translate magically into ability to execute it. A lot of stuff simply never trickles down. It’s long been known that optimal tactics in Starcraft embody an insane amount of speed that most people simply can’t do.

    It’s a mistake to presume top-tier competitive play is the experience of every player. You can choose to design solely for it, but I would never make the claim that you SHOULD do so for a game to be “good.” I’d argue that a game is even better if it supports both the top-tier play plus non-optimal players.

    What I am objecting here is the notion that everyone is like the elite players. It’s simply not true.

  • Comment of the year on my blog. Thanks, Naomi! 😀

    I love the wet and crunchy terms. Will definitely be appropriating them in the future. Costikyan first used them? I particularly love “wet” because it works well with my “sauces” metaphor. Sauces, such as randomness, mass complexity, or execution, necessarily make a system “wetter”.

    >It’s theoretically possible to design a very crunchy symmetrical space that’s extremely well-balanced with a minimum of dominant strategies, has a low floor for entry, and doesn’t require this kind of slicing. It’s just a very high bar to reach, and I don’t even know if we have very many examples.

    I agree with each point in this paragraph, but remember that I am concerned with establishing guidelines for *ideal* game design.

    Reading your last two paragraphs – I still don’t understand why the blurring of the line between player and designer is a good thing. From a strategic point of view, it’s a massive decision that you make with no information at all about what you’ll be facing in a match. Why would we want to front-load our games so hard?

  • Naomi Clark

    IDK if Greg used those terms, I was just praising him for encouraging us to always try to struggle towards more vocabulary, in that seminal “I have no words & I must design” essay. A lot of people have used crunchy, not so sure about wet/dry. Sometimes crunchy is used in opposition to “elegant” but I definitely disagree with that. It’s just harder to do really crunchy + elegant, but I think they’re different axes. You are completely right about the sauce thing — randomness, mass complexity, and execution are all “toolbox” ways of making things wetter, and so are things like “the real-life physics of a tennis ball hitting the surface of a court.”

    I understand your philosophy to be more like “an apple already has its own juicy wetness, and I want to create an apple, so I don’t want sauce all over it.” This is different than talking about the good amount, specific flavor, and usage of a particular sauce or combination of sauces. (BTW, I believe that even with labor sauce, there are better and worse flavors & usage — it doesn’t all just boil down to “you can create a sense of satisfaction by making someone do anything,” and the differences are in part what good “game feel” design is about — microdoses of labor. But that’s a whole other topic.)

    As for “ideal game design” — I do understand your project, it’s just that I think you’re cutting off noses to spite your face. A lot of experienced people are pointing out that we have *no idea* how to ascend to this particular peak — a very crunchy symmetrical game that is so well-balanced that it doesn’t fall repeatedly into pits of dominant-strategy. We can’t summon up examples, since the most long-lasting classic games are extremely smooth (Go) or a little crunchy and dry enough that they are now drying out (Chess). The scientist’s answer to the challenge is “well surely there must be a way to the top of that peak — we can’t just give up simply because it’s an unknown unknown.” Great! However, there are multiple paths to ascent. Over to one side, Sirlin and crew are investigating and climbing up a peak of trying to balance crunchy, asymmetrical games. It may not be “the highest peak,” but it’s worth appreciating their efforts because hey — you never know, from that vantage point it might become apparent that there’s actually a way to throw a grappling hook higher onto YOUR peak that you’d never have seen while staring directly at it. I know you actually probably appreciate that, but as so often, criticizing the ascent of some other peak rather than what you see as “the tallest one” is being read as a belittling attack on “Oh… that peak. Let’s mention smokescreens and flavor excuses, it’s also not the tallest one.”

    Last thing: blurring between player and designer. I agree with Raph here that there is no hard line between “before game” and “during game” — there are bright lines at best. You often have to make really crucial decisions early in a game with very little information on your opponent’s strategy, plans, hidden choices, etc. My point was that in a sports context (where among other things, we don’t worry about “new player experience” in quite the same way, to focus on high-level play) this boundary is even more blurred. *Someone* is going to be thinking about pre-game decisions and prep, and pre-game decisions are always going to influence the game, even when it comes to context of play, training, opponent study for Go or Chess. This is traditionally the province of coaches, and it’s something that sports institutions build up more and more rules and practices around (no doping, secret training, etc) as they develop. These huge decisions WILL come into play — therefore it’s not a bad thing to make some of the process overt, bring it more into the fold, and have players consciously involved in setup as part of the process that’s really out there in the open. Unlike training regimens and negotiations over play context, regulation equipment, and other domains of coaching, which players often aren’t aware of at all at the start of their learning.

  • Sure, patching might work if done right (if not you’ll just create new dominant strategies as you mentiond it, though).

    I mean, if such a thing really comes up, you have a balancing flaw in your game to begin with. Does Go clearly have a dominant strategy? No, it still – after thousands of years of play – allows for creativity in emergent situations. That’s also what you should (at least) strive for with a new desgn. Symmetrical games don’t HAVE to become stale. Only if they’re not done right.

  • Dasick

    Yeah remember that time when 3000 years ago, this chinese symmetrical game called “GO” came out, and someone discovered a dominant strategy so now all the matches play out the same.

    No, wait, that never happened. I guess you’re just gonna gloss over that a completely symmetrical game, with a hardcore play-to-win audience, has different, extreme, styles of play and it doesn’t even have proper openings solved for it.

  • Dasick

    I semi agree with your first point, even though you completely ignore anything Keith has written in the article, that actually preemptively anticipates that argument. Your second point is just bad. Anyone who upvoted you should feel bad (judging by anonymous upvotes, they already do).

    First of all, having to constantly learn new rules makes for a steeper learning curve for noobs. Even if you just have to learn what the differences are, that’s still a lot of rules when you do a “the more asymmetric the better” game. I mean, shit, a FUCKING DAY to learn the basics of a character? In the meantime, enjoy getting trashed by out of the blue bullshit you didn’t know about.

    At the other end of the pool, knowing your enemy is extremely important. Knowing the fears and weak-points is a huge boost in any match-up you’re having problem with, because you know when the enemy is weak systematically and psychologically, and when the enemy is strong (because you are the enemy). Seeing the strategies you pull of from their point-of-view is extremely eye-opening when it comes to pointing out your own weaknesses – and strengths.

  • >> We can’t summon up examples, since the most long-lasting classic games
    are extremely smooth (Go) or a little crunchy and dry enough that they
    are now drying out (Chess).

    What about Puerto Rico? Through the Desert? Chicago Express? Age of Steam? Agricola? If you open up the field to symmetrical games that have significant “sauces” like execution or randomness, you have way more games, such as Quake, or Race for the Galaxy. Those are just off the top of my head, there are way more out there, *despite* the fact that asymmetry has been the assumed “better” pattern for the last 20 years.

    And yes, I absolutely appreciate the peaks other designers are climbing. Despite Sirlin’s horrible attitude towards me and my writing, I play the crap out of his games and eagerly await his next projects.

    I’m really simply saying that from my vantage point, I see a flaw in the “asymmetrical” peak, and I’m trying to tell other people what I see. They should continue exploring it if they don’t find my arguments valid.

    Pre-game stuff matters in a game. Ok, sure… maybe what the person ate that day will affect their performance. To me it’s just totally weird to “sort of consider that part of the game”, which is what I think you’re saying? Like I should prescribe a diet for a player before they play my game… and that’s part of the “rules”, but, only sort of?

    I still really do not understand how “what a person thinks about before they play” or how they prepare is at all the game designer’s role. To me the game designer is creating the game, and the player plays it. Anything the player does outside of that time when they’re interacting with the set of rules, that’s totally up to the player. That’s why choosing characters is so weird to me.

  • Dasick

    “if Character A always beats Character B, then you can take that on in isolation”

    actually, you can’t. That’s a huge point of this article. every change you make to A or B affects the rest of the match-ups that involve them as well, and you always see this kind of cartoony situation in say, Starcraft, when a patch fixes one match-up and breaks the other.

    “but while difficult for new players or when purposes of play veer
    between “play to win” and “play for fun,” I don’t think this kind of
    blurring should be excluded from design of high-level competition.”

    I don’t really understand how is this a positive. It’s actually a source of internal (and external if it’s a team game) conflict, because playing to win and playing for fun should be the same in a successful design. After all, a victory condition is just the designer saying “this is how you should play the game to have the most fun”.

    “the player has a limited palette of choices to master, and doesn’t
    actually need to understand opponents’ choices in the SAME depth as
    their own”

    while you don’t have to be as good at the other match-ups as your own race of choice, it’s still something you have to play and learn. In starcraft, a lot of what you can/should do depends on the opponent’s race’s build orders, openings, timings, transitions etc. That’s stuff you gotta know if you want to get better, and it can get very specific at higher levels of play. There’s no better way to get into the enemy’s head than to actually see things from her point of view… and in this case, playing the other races. Again, not as much as you play your own race, but this makes the game harder to approach to the newbies

    “I’m not entirely convinced that a character pick is … a totally boring and constraining kind of choice”

    It would be interesting to know the reasons why you’re not convinced/convinced of the opposite.

  • Dasick

    I don’t really think you find the counter-picking itself exciting as much as you like the idea of seeing how different the game is. And I find those kinds of variations exciting myself. It’s just that I think it makes a shitty strategical choice because it asks you without any concrete context being given.

  • Nate Skiba

    But metagaming is part of a lot of games. First of all, for directly competitive sports, this asymmetry is the natural state. Think of a football match. Both teams have different strengths and weaknesses, and the coaches are darn well going to be analyzing those strengths and weaknesses and changing what they do based on that asymmetry.

    And while Go may be symmetrical, this kind of metagame still exists. In competitive Go, the game is not entirely self-contained, because the best competitors will be studying each others play and planning their own play accordingly. I’m not sure in any multiplayer competitive medium that the “ideal” of the totally self-contained game can ever be attained.

  • TehOwn

    “I have no need for tools which serve only [to] make designers proud, rather than resulting in genuine enjoyment from players.”
    ^ EXACTLY THIS! A THOUSAND TIMES OVER!I

  • The two are one in the same, btw. But go on.

  • CWheezy

    I put the words “play” in quotes, because if you don’t know the character you’re playing against as well, then you’re really just inputting moves into a black box and it’s spitting out a win or a loss – you can’t possibly understand what you’re doing or form strategies.

    This doesn’t follow unfortunately, your overall strategy with a character doesn’t change (Zangief wants in, guile keeps out). Your tactics might change, but guile still throws sonic booms to keep them out. Developing a strategy is generally unrelated to the character you fight against

  • Samuel

    “What you say about the meta – “It requires a strategic choices outside of the game.” – is something that is not positive. First of all, games are meant to be self-contained microcosms that allow us to practice and learn in a safe, controlled environment. The line between what is and isn’t an
    acceptable out-of-game action is blurry, and the exploration of this
    bound isn’t something anyone wants.”

    Really? I like this. It’s positive in some cases for me. I don’t really think you should talk for everyone. It’s a bit like Keith’s search for an ‘ideal’ game. What’s ideal for him is not ideal for me. Like the basis of this entire article (I’m more on Sirlin’s side here).

    Some people like out-of-game stuff. League of Legends has a lot of out of game stuff. Dota 2 has some, a lot less than LoL but some nonetheless. I don’t think anyone has the right to say what is and isn’t fun when these games are proving that there’s a significant audience who DOES think it’s a positive thing.

  • In Street Fighter, sure. How about in League of Legends?

  • Dasick

    I’ve explained my stance more in the comments below, in response to Nahil. if you want to explain when it is positive and how, and how those cases outweigh the negative cases, you should probably chime in. Note, that as I said to Jeroen, meta shifts ARE exciting, I just think they should not be a ‘strategical player choice’.

    Anyways, your appeal to popularity is really out of place. A lot of things that are popular are bad for people, downright abusive even. Fast food for example, tobacco, gambling etc etc. And even if something is popular, doesn’t mean that emulating it will bring even a tiny shadow of the leader’s success, as WoW and it’s many killers* have proven.

  • Dasick

    Actually, if chess was released today, it would still be a pretty deep and elegant abstract game, even if compared to modern eurogames. It would certainly find an enthusiastic audience, just like Counter-Strike 1.6 still has a dedicated audience despite there being tons of “better” games.

    Also, your point doesn’t really have anything to do with the solution of the games, just it’s potential popularity. And even with today’s intensity of scrutiny, chess is limping on and Go is strutting around like it owns the place. I’m sorry but I just don’t see any modern videogame endure the same level of scrutiny before being solved.

  • TehOwn

    That is your opinion. Are you so arrogant that you think you can dictate what players enjoy? You’re not THAT successful. Go ask Will Wright.

  • CWheezy

    I haven’t played lol in a long time, but actually it still follows? If you are playing a carry, you do carry things like farming a lot, if you are playing a bruiser you are trying to stop the carry and initiating fights, things like that.

  • So… you’re arguing that it’s totally fine if some character you’re about to kill just disappears because he had a teleport ability you didn’t know about… or a character can kill you after he has died because he has that kind of ability… etc? I mean there are just so many abilities that you simply HAVE to know about and work around to play coherently at all.

  • k

    One advantage of asymmetry is that it jump-starts quite a bit of the engine building shortening matches to their more interactive parts.

    Your own example of Warcraft 3 heroes is pretty much the same as game asymmetry, except you have to spend some time on it at the start of the match.

    Would Starcraft really be better if it was symmetrical but you had to tech into zerg before you could field zerglings? (and similar delays for everything else so that a zergling rush is still viable with a bigger opportunity cost)

    Would fighting games be improved if you had to enter the grappler stance before you could become a grappler?

  • K

    This is also one of the advantages puzzle strike has over dominion. You could replicate the character powers in a symmetrical game but you’d be hard pressed to give a limited number of such powerful abilities so early without some serious special casing one way or the other.

  • CWheezy

    Actually I am not arguing that at all, because those things are unrelated to doing the job as a carry, brusier, etc. You have to know your own skills first and how they work. You don’t really care how some assassin’s jump works or how how main skill does damage, you just need to know that he wants to be in your face.

    That is how I played ashe, who I think is still effective? Ashe’s dynamic is simple. They want to be in your face to hug you, and ashe wants to keep all of them away. I didn’t really care whatever the new champion did, because my goal was the same.

  • Bucky

    I’d like to point out that the black box game is possible to learn strategies, they just tend to be on the level of “hold forwards and tap button C occasionally. If the game hasn’t ended after 30 seconds, switch to alternating between holding down and tapping C, hitting A+C simultaneously and tapping forwards. If it still hasn’t ended after 60 seconds, switch to mashing QCF+A.”

  • Shay Pierce

    Ugh.

    I don’t even understand the fundamental assumptions that this article is based on. What is “ideal game design”?

    I agree that there’s such a thing as “more or less elegant” game design. I, too, value elegance in game designs; playing my puzzle game “Connectrode” would (hopefully) make it obvious how very much I value elegance in game design. So yeah, elegance is a distinct and worthwhile property; and yes, less asymmetry usually results in greater elegance, while way-too-much-asymmetry is a hallmark of many inelegant game designs.

    So what?

    There’s no such thing as “correct” or “ideal” game design; there’s just rules of thumb, which may or may not apply to solving the problems of the specific game you’re designing, i.e. the specific experience you’re trying to give people. Even if there was objectively “good” game design, my goal isn’t to create the best game design; it’s to give people the best experience possible. Even if adding asymmetry to a game was some kind of game design form of “cheating” – a cheap trick to add superficial fun to the game (which it’s not) – it would still just be a tool, just one of many tools to create the kind of experience you want your player to have. (The “energy system” is one of the most cynically and grossly overused mechanics in game design thanks to social games, but I still wouldn’t say it’s a “bad” tool. It’s just an overused one, but it still might be exactly the tool you need for part of one particular game’s design.) Whether or not the game design is elegant is mostly academic and kinda masturbatory – the only type of person who would care about it is, well, the type of person who would read and comment on this article. We’re not designing to get pats on the back from our fellow game designers, we’re designing to give wonderful experience to people, people who care very little whether or not the fun they’re having comes from an “elegant” design.

    You’re a sculptor who’s decrying using a sledgehammer “because it’s so inelegant”. Cool, throw away whatever tools you want from your own toolbox, but don’t go around trying to convince other people to the same folly. To try another analogy: Art Spiegelman’s comic artwork isn’t very “elegant”; and the only people who think that makes it “bad” are other comic artists who are too obsessed with their craft.

    Finally I’d like to say that your dismissal of the value of self-expression through gameplay style is, to me, breathtaking in its audacity and obtuseness. I would challenge you to answer how a game would have ANY value to ANYONE whatsoever if it were a game that every player played in exactly the same way every time. (In fact I think a good “rule of thumb” for recognizing a good game design is that EVERY different person who plays it will play it a little differently from everyone else.) Even for puzzle games where the puzzles only have one solution, the players will (and should) go about trying and finding solutions using very different approaches from each other; these approaches will be distinct to each beautiful unique human personality.

    Yes people have a “play style” already when they approach any game, it’s called THEIR BRAIN, and letting the player use their brain (exercise it, explore it, and express its unique value in a new world and a new set of challenges) is at the fundamental core of the value of games. What the hell is the value of interactivity if everyone’s supposed to interact in exactly same way?

  • >>What is “ideal game design”?

    I agree that there’s such a thing as “more or less elegant” game design.

    You sort of answered your own question here. Basically by “ideal game design” I simply mean “good game design”, or “better” game design. I am concerned with establishing guidelines for better game design. I’m saying essentially the same thing as your “rules of thumb” thing.

    >>Even if there was objectively “good” game design, my goal isn’t to
    create the best game design; it’s to give people the best experience
    possible.

    These two things should be the same, otherwise your criteria for good game design are bad.

    >> I would challenge you to answer how a game would have ANY value to
    ANYONE whatsoever if it were a game that every player played in exactly
    the same way every time.

    My point was not that personal expression in games isn’t important – it is. All games need to have enough donkeyspace and room for creativity in play to allow for that. However, my point is that you don’t need asymmetry to do that, and I also don’t think we can put people’s creative tendencies into boxes that asymmetric choices would satisfy. Like this idea that some people are rushdown people, or whatever, that makes no sense to me.

  • Shay Pierce

    Yes but what I’m saying is that “rules of thumb” come with a recognition that it’s more complex than objectively “good” or “bad” game design. For instance, “don’t kill the player in a way that they couldn’t possibly have prevented” is a great game design rule of thumb, but “Limbo” decided to create a worthwhile experience in which that rule of thumb would have been horrible advice. Ignoring it was a “good” game design decision for that particular game, creating an experience that not everyone wants or would enjoy.

    Each tool in our toolbox has certain consequences to using it, and it’s worth documenting those consequences so that others think about them when they choose whether to use a tool. I like that your article is attempting to do this with asymmetry. But its overarching tone is a value judgment – “this is objectively worse than the alternative” – which I strongly object to.

    Even so, one of your conclusions I still disagree with is that this type of asymmetry doesn’t improve the variety and value of self-expression. I think it clearly does. Jack has an aggressive personality and twitch reflexes, so he tends to play rushdown in fighting games, and he sits down to TF2 and soon finds he loves the Scout class. Meanwhile Herbert has a thoughtful approach and slower reflexes. If he tried TF2 and the Scout class was the only one in the game, he would just stop playing that game – it just wouldn’t be “for him”. Luckily he instead finds he enjoys playing Engineer – because TF2 uses asymmetry to make a game “for everyone”… by having this asymmetric approach to classes, it supports personalities/playstyles that may have been uninterested in the game otherwise.

    You’re right that this comes with other downsides – in TF2, you DO get killed a lot with weapons and tactics you didn’t know existed; it makes for a casual, chaotic experience, and TF2 embraces those flaws, and is designed to maximize the fun of learning about those things as you keep playing. (For instance, always showing you a “kill cam” type shot telling you who killed you, from where, and with what weapon.) It’s totally inelegant, and it’s a great experience that millions of people love. But I think it’s clear that it supports more playstyles/personalities through its wide variety of asymmetric classes.

  • >Yes but what I’m saying is that “rules of thumb” come with a recognition
    that it’s more complex than objectively “good” or “bad” game design.

    I have pretty specific criteria which help me to be able to make value statements about potential guidelines.

    As to your thing about self-expression: I don’t blame you for feeling the way that you do, since based on the currently-existing evidence, it certainly *seems* as though asymmetry is the way to create greater range of player expression. My argument would just be that asymmetry has happened to be the predominant design pattern of the modern age of game design, and so most of the best games you’ve played *happen to be* asymmetrical. It’s actually their modern-ness (good-ness, really) that’s making it so, though. If people were to take a modern, advanced game design approach to a symmetrical game, I think you’d see just as wide, if not a wider range of personal expression.

    > but “Limbo” decided to create a worthwhile experience in which that rule of thumb would have been horrible advice.

    Well, this is kind of off topic, but I would say that if you’re putting Limbo, clearly a puzzle, in the same category you’d put Street Fighter or whatever, that’s probably why it’s impossible for you to have guidelines that are very useful. We have to split up “videogames” into smaller forms in order to create useful guidelines. Here’s my approach to that: http://keithburgun.net/system-of-forms/

  • Blake Reynolds

    I believe there is a ripple effect. That even if some players will never hit those high levels of play, and can still have fun at low levels of play, it still “feels” like what comes between them and mastering this system are just committing long execution patterns to memory. It “feels” like there is so much complexity that there is bound to be only a couple actually viable characters, or heroes, or strategies. There are so many little bells and whistles, so much inherent complexity to accommodate for “player style” or what have you, but ultimately, it’s about minimaxing DPS. It’s about “making a health bar go to zero.” This is an inherently shallow system that can only be sustained by what I like to call “iron lung game design.” More characters, longer combos, more unit types, etc. My point is, in these systems, even the uninitiated can “feel” how much potential energy a system has. Smash Bros’ flaws prevent it from reaching the echelon of GO, but Smash64 is similar to GO in that, when you first start, you can feel that there is something deep and emergent there. In this and in GO, when you play even at low levels of play, you can feel that the system is deep and elastic and allows for creativity.

  • Patrick Mackey

    Matches in go are much less divergent than matches in MVC3. This is really a misnomer. The same basic patterns of piece placement, whether you are on offense or on defense, is exactly the same. You need to place pieces in a very particular way in order to make eyes or trap enemy pieces and the technique for doing so efficiently is exactly the same regardless of whether you are on attack or defense.

    The same can not be said for rushdown versus zoning in MVC3. Everything from which types of movement are used, which types of defensive options are used, the way in which tools like X-Factor are employed, and the priority for when someone lands a hit are all different. Even the tools used to land a hit are different, the followups are different, and the mindset used to win are different.

    In Go, when you get in an advantageous situation, you close it out the same way every time (or you screw up).

    Additionally, you forget that Go is a solvable game, it is just that computers currently lack the computational ability to solve it. For very small go boards, it is a solved game.

    Please do research on go/weiqi before you post weak counterclaims.

  • Patrick Mackey

    Again, this is not really true. Go has aggressive and defensive openings, but they are not “really” different. They are not the same as Terran or Protoss in StarCraft or Ryu and Honda in Street Fighter. They have the same basic aim, the same tools, and the same mechanics for closing out advantage.

    Additionally, go is an extremely complicated game that is hard to play and easy to screw up. It takes a long time before you even recognize your mistakes. If you are playing without guides, I would say that the learning curve far outstretches that of any modern competitive game and it is basically impossible to ever be competitive for a normal person. Even with guides, go is very hard and only a tiny few people even reach dan levels in it compared to those that try it (not even really serious players, just “average”)

  • Patrick Mackey

    You don’t need to know this to play the game, though. If you want to improve, yes, you need to know that certain characters have certain tools, and as your understanding of the nuance of those tools increases, your ability to defeat them increases.

    However, you don’t need to know any of that to play the game, and roughly 50% or so of ranked players never arise to that level in League of Legends (bronze to mid-silver).

    I talked with a Riot employee during PAX and I told her my favorite character was Poppy, and she had no idea what Poppy even did mechanically. I am sure she still plays League and enjoys it.

  • Patrick Mackey

    Sirlin, I think this post hurts your credibility a lot.

    You have good points, but you shouldn’t let your emotional investment in something cloud discussion on it.

  • Mike Pureka

    Keith; I like reading your stuff, but I really feel like you have a pretty serious double standard for things you are arguing for and things you are arguing against. (You’re also kindof arrogant, but that seems to come with the territory if Mr. Sirlin is any example. 😉 )

    What really drove this home to me was your comment of ” I think you’d see just as wide, if not a wider range of personal expression.” – you think? But you can’t prove, because no one has done it. It seems as if the games you are “arguing against” get analyzed, but are being compared to a nonexistent ideal. Yes, you can hold up Go as an example if you want, but I don’t think anyone here, yourself included, intends to make a game that is anything like Go. Like it or not, almost everyone here is probably going to want to design something with more crunch (Loving the Crunchy/smooth/dry/wet vocabulary, will try to use it going forward.) Which means that really, you don’t have an example that proves that, to use another metaphor from here, the peak you are trying to climb is actually…there at all?

    I confess, I’m also extremely baffled by the “in the game”/”not in the game” discussion. How is choosing a character or a faction not an “in the game decision”? It certainly happens after I’ve loaded up the software. Certainly, it is a very early game decision, but I don’t think that’s relevant – does Starcraft change if, instead of picking a race before the match starts, you instead start with a single “omni-builder” unit which can build any of the three race’s starting structures, but is consumed in the process? I would argue that, really, it does not. So the problem here, perhaps, is not that these decisions are taking place “outside the game” (because moving them into the game doesn’t fix your complaint) but rather than they happen early, with limited (actually, essentially zero) information, and are irreversible. But I’m not entirely convinced that is actually the problem, in and of itself, either. It seems that, essentially, the problem is that these games are so complicated that “mastering” even a “slice” of them (a character, a champion, a faction) is such an undertaking that players become “locked in” to their choice, such that is is, essentially, made for them before the game starts. But I don’t see how this makes the game -worse- except from the perspective of “time to master”… but then again, Chess and Go take infinite amounts of time to Master as well.

    So I guess the question is – if you and your friend always play Ryu vs Guile, have you made the game better, by essentially eliminating the possibilities and out of game choices, or is the whole sprawling expanse of wonder and exploration that comes with having a large roster of selectable characters more interesting? I’m not sure there is a right answer here, even if you think there is an ideal.

  • >But you can’t prove, because no one has done it.

    Take the iOS strategy game OUTWITTERS. It *has* asymmetry, but it’s VERY light, and if you removed it it would actually be better.

    Anyway there’s a lot to go over here, but one thing I’m curious about is where you got the impression that I’m “arrogant” from the article?

  • Mike Pureka

    I’m afraid I’m not familiar with Outwitters, since I am not possessed of an iOS device.

    As for the arrogance, it’s an impression more than any specific statement, and I think it stems from the discussion in the comments, moreso than the article, but anyone who deals in “ideals” is in danger of it when dealing with people who don’t agree that their ideals are so ideal.

  • Rob Seater

    What do you think about games which embed the asymmetry into the very early stages of the game, almost as a pre-game mini-game? It has the potential to provide the best of both worlds, if implemented carefully.

    E.g.:
    The modular map is created/selected/generated and made visible in whole or in part. Then you are dealt 3 character/factions and must pick one of them. That choice can be purely based on optimizing win chance given the level, while still creating tactically interesting asymmetric pairings (and the thematic/identify benefits of letting players choose their play style). Balance is still work, but balance is always work,
    and the key is to balance characters to support different strategies, rather than letting them fall into RPS networks.

    After all, the interesting part of many games is when players have gotten themselves into very asymmetrical situations. While forcing that before the game begins has issues (as you point out), maybe the right strategy is to push it into the very early stages, to hit that interesting point as quickly as possible.

  • Destin

    One could argue that the games you mention outside of league are essentially symmetrical as both players have at the start access to the same choices of characters (even moreso than most board games as one player MUST go first in a board game, which can change strategies dramatically, whereas at least in fighting games people move simultaneously)

    The terran example you gave, or the WCIII double human is actually a very good counterpoint. By choosing which hero to play, they have made the game (very early) just as asymmetrical. Just because the choice was made during the match doesn’t change much. What if the first building you built decided your race, would the game suddenly by symmetrical? If in terran, one player plays very aggressive (which requires many decisions to be made much before intensive interaction with the other player occurs) , then the game has again become asymmetrical. The only way this wouldn’t be analogous to a fighting game character selection would be if the player was FORCED to choice a certain character.

    The smokescreen argument also seems a bit stretched. If this were the case, than single matchups would get horribly boring. Yet, at least with fighting games, we often find ourselves fighting the same character ALOT if our close friends play them. The level of depth in a very well designed games single character matchup can be amazing and keep these matchups interesting. In fact, now that I think about it, quite often mirror matches are the most boring matches in the game.

    A game that can put in 30 characters and make them truly different experiences in how they interact with others, and control themselves, will likely be more enjoyable than the same thing with only 15 in the long run. As for the more is better, perhaps a better argument would have been that don’t create more than you can put in, in a well developed game.

    Perhaps I could imagine a fighting game where there was only one character, and he had access to every move in the game that would normally be spread amongst other characters. Clearly, as some moves are just better variants of others, many would be categorically discarded. But in the end, you would be left with a few moves (perhaps more than your average fighter, perhaps not), that got chosen over all the others. Nash equilibriums would basically have both players using the same subset of moves. The designer would have to now attempt to create a huge amount of depth between the balance of the moves themselves, attempt to balance the moves that so many had purpose. Perhaps it is so difficult to create an extremely interesting mirror match because balancing out these moves is even more difficult than creating a complete character.

    Isn’t it possible that people who enjoy essentially different games could find pleasure in a medium that allowed them to somehow compete while using a different set of tools? Let’s make this even more extreme, with an idea I had for a game a while ago.

    What if in a head to head game one player was playing a puzzle game, essentially tetris or something of that ilk, while another was playing an old arcade shooter. The better the player of the shooter does, the more blocks or strange blocks the tetris player has to contend with. The better the tetris player plays, the more enemies show up on the shooter’s game. The tetris player could hate shooters, but he doesn’t have to play that. A good game could still be created between the two tetris players if a mirror match appears, but that doesn’t stop the alternatives.

    For my money, the strongest part of your argument is how exponentially harder it gets to balance in an enjoyable way games with huge numbers of static starting choices (leagues number of characters is why I don’t play it). Luckily, we have guilty gear.

  • >>One could argue that the games you mention outside of league are
    essentially symmetrical as both players have at the start access to the
    same choices of characters

    Ok so in that case, you’re considering the game to have already started before you make that choice. So then that sucks because technically it’s a strategic decision, yet, how can you be good at making it? How can there be any depth/ambiguity to this decision? Choosing a race is arbitrary by design.

  • Yeah the problem with the super-light kind of asymmetry that Civ has is that with 95% of the system being the same, there is some remaining 5% that’s always BEST. So yeah I think Civ doesn’t need that asymmetry at all. In fact it would be way better if during the game you could obtain those racial benefits in some way.

  • The issue is, if it’s at the start of the game, and it’s significant, you’re making a huge strategic choice, basically blind. You don’t want to front-load your game with the biggest decisions because that’s when the player has the least context for making a decision interesting.

    What does work is something like Small World where you’re constantly changing your powers – I have no problem with variable powers throughout a game.

  • Destin

    Well, picking a race or character is choosing a toolset. I believe your argument is that it was too front loaded, too much of the decision process lies in the first decision, which ideally is arbitrary. And this is true in a single match format. But what about a long set against the same player? If I am having trouble dealing with a player’s cammy’s rushdown as vega, can I not switch to ryu to gain access to his dragon punch? And then the opponent can in turn switch if he finds his cammy then inept. Then there is a level of yomi at the blind pick character select.

    I myself tend not to, but as this is a discussion of ideal situations, I didn’t want to preclude the possibility.

  • Yep, no problem with variants. I consider them distinct from what I mean by “asymmetry” here. I touched on this a bit near the beginning of the article.

  • Tegiminis

    To necro this article’s comments:

    You dismiss it offhand, but I wouldn’t be so reluctant to address the contrast between constant balance and asymmetry.

    There’s a notion of “constant moving imbalances” that is common in multiplayer balance discussions. You touch on it with your “strategy-counterstrategy” bit but you don’t really address it. Essentially, designers build slightly imbalanced games on purpose.

    Brood War – one of the most highly-regarded competitive games of all time – constantly underwent balance changes, even during the time when it was being touted as “the best balanced game of all time.” It wasn’t until the sequel was out and established did Brood War really eradicate the majority of its balance issues.

    While a lot of imbalance in asymmetry is not intentional (complex systems breed emergent behavior, after all), there are designers all over that build these sorts of natural backdoors into their games.

    Thus it acts almost as a way for a developer to continue this mechanical dialogue with the players long after the game is out. When the players discover the optimal strategy, developers change it, and players look for the new optimal. It’s a way to keep players engaged in the game beyond its natural lifespan.

    Also, what’s the difference between choosing which piece to move first in Chess and which character to pick in Street Fighter? Both are strategic picks made before any real strategy can be discerned, and both have long-lasting impacts on the game itself. While the overall chessboard is the same, different Chess pieces perform better against others in most tactical situations. You could say that Street Fighter is the same: the rules of the engine act as the chessboard, and each character is a piece to move.

  • It is not the case that most people even agree that “character to pick” is a strategic decision. If this were true, then people would *only* ever play character(s) in the top tier, doing anything else would be stupid. So the way it actually functions is more like choosing variants.

    Also, the difference between “first turn in any game” and asymmetry is that designers really can’t avoid the first turn problem, and they totally CAN avoid asymmetry.

  • Tegiminis

    I’m more comparing the pick of the character to being the “first turn problem,” since once you are in-match and the characters are picked you should have a general idea of what to expect.

    I do agree that counter-picking is not particularly fun, though.

  • poohshoes

    I quite enjoy the “asset tour” that is Dominion. The game is in fact centered around how fun it is to come up with a good strategy given an new set of inputs. A large flaw of many board games is either having obvious optimal way to play, or so many options that it’s hard to make a sensible plan. Dominion understands this flaw and builds a game that exposes the flaw in a way that flips it into an advantage. It even uses this central theme as a way to make it so the game is easy to learn the first time, yes there are lots of cards but you only need to know 10 of them.

  • Mike

    So I watched your youtube playlist and have been reading articles and something struck me.You like to use MtG, SF,and SC as examples of bad game design by virtue of excess content, output randomness, and asymmetry. However, all three of those are contests and not games.
    They are more about measuring who is best given the current state of the game rules than anything else. They all have a core set of rules that are enforced by the game engine rather than a referee. I think that is still a valid criticism of them. But I think that you should reexamine them from that standpoint and you’ll see the value added by the content, asymmetry, and execution.
    Those mechanics interact to wrap a metagame around the core game. And it all becomes a new sort of sport. You have evolving ideas of the best way to play and mindgames all wrapped around a contest aimed at measuring who ia best. But in these game contests, things like item knowledge for LoL or MtG and execution for SF take the place of weightlifting to prepare for arm wrestling.
    You seem to find value in portal as a puzzle or minecraft as a toy, so why is there not value in esport video games as contests?

  • They’re not contests, as they all have decision-making. When a contest has decision-making, it becomes a game.

    With that said, no videogames clearly align to any of my prescribed forms. Almost all videogames (Portal, Guitar Hero being some exceptions) are mish-moshes of several forms at once, to their disadvantage.

    But anyway, yeah. Are you suggesting there are no decisions to make in Street Fighter or MTG or SC? I mean, maybe that’s what you’re saying. I could almost accept that. I think there are ALMOST no actual decisions when you really get down to it – they’re all highly solvable if you just “know all the stuff”.

    As contests, the question would be, why is there all of this false choice shit here? The asymmetry stuff in particular is a VERY “toy-like” feature. Actually I’m starting a new article that kind of touches on the sentiment of your comment.

  • Conor

    With regards to creating a sense of personal expression with asymmetry, I agree that it is totally possible to have this in a symmetric game. I play a fair amount of pool which is a pretty symmetric game and people definitely have a personality and playstyle. People can play conservative or risky, some people go for only easy shots no matter what the gain of taking a little risk and others will attempt mad jump-shots which would win the game immediately if they could pull them off. This leads to some very different feeling match-ups and games. They can also play aggressive or defensive, do they pot everything as quick as possible or try and set up the table to block their opponent’s shots?

    I would say however, asymmetry does let the developer force some playstyles and personality on players. As pool is very symmetric most new players don’t really understand how the game can be played so most end up playing super-conservative super-aggressive. This is because it’s the most obvious way to play when you start out, “the aim is to sink all my balls so I’ll just sink that one that looks quite easy.” Making an asymmetric characters/teams/loadouts in a game can help show players the different ways the game can be played and force them to explore and experiment with mechanics, which i would say is a good thing.