Asymmetry in Games



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

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

Debunking Asymmetry


Note: I consider this article to be out-of-date.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. Continue reading