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by Jon Shafer on 01/11/13 03:54:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.

Asymmetry between players is one of the designer’s best – and most challenging – tools. Not only does it spice up the experience of playing the game, when implemented well it also greatly enhances replayability. Let’s look in detail at the impact it can have, along with why it’s sometimes so hard to incorporate.


What Does Asymmetry Add?

The more new experiences a game can provide players the more replayable it is. One of the best ways to expand that variety is with asymmetric factions. In the original Civilization all of the civs were identical, so outside of one’s imagination there was no reason to ever play anyone but the default. In Civilization 5 this is no longer the case, and the goal of the design team was to have factions that were unique enough to all be worth playing, but not so much so that these differences stole the show from the core mechanics.

Other games fully embrace asymmetry, and almost make experiencing the unique aspects of each side the game. In the old strategy game Master of Magic, each faction was very different – and also fairly imbalanced. But most players shrugged this off because it’s a game about using magic in interesting and “fun” (read: broken) ways. Had Master of Magic been perfectly balanced it likely would have lost much of what made it charming.

Aside from just keeping a game on people’s hard drives longer, asymmetry can also enhance strategic decisions. If all sides play the same way, then the optimal response in an identical situation will always be the same. In Civilization 1, if the player finds him or herself next to a weak, unfriendly rival the right response is basically always to build an invasion force and attack. Once players have figured this out, any true strategy that had once existed vanishes. (One might say that this is mainly an issue of balancing, but there’s no doubt that asymmetry at least helps deflect problems like this!)

While it’s not chunky mechanical design, “feel” is another area where asymmetry can pay large dividends. The three races in Blizzard’s Starcraft series are obviously visually distinct, but their unique mechanics are just as important. 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. Their art plus their asymmetric traits is what makes them among the most memorable factions in all of gaming.



The Challenges of Utilizing Asymmetry

One of the toughest problems for me to tackle as a designer of complex strategy titles is finding ways to incorporate asymmetry without breaking what’s already in-place. The fewer moving parts a design has the easier it is to ensure good pacing and balance. This is doubly true when asymmetry is a factor, because it means each side is essentially playing its own slightly-different version of the game.

Last year I had a great discussion with the brilliant David Sirlin about the value and appropriateness of asymmetry. I felt that a sufficiently well-designed game of a certain complexity didn’t need it, and it might in fact be harmful. But David argued that asymmetry makes every game better – it’s just that implementing it properly can be immensely difficult.

I can certainly see David’s case, although I do still believe that there are some games where incorporating asymmetry is unfeasible given the constraints of the real world. If every faction in a Civilization title were as unique as the races in Starcraft, the end result would be an absolutely broken mess. Certainly players would love the extra variety, but a great many would be turned off by the inevitably abysmal pacing and balance. (Heck, some people would argue that’s already the case for the Civ games – well, if you’re one of those people just imagine if it were ten times worse!)

Pacing and balance are certainly important, but my bigger concern with asymmetry in complex strategy games is its potential to lock players into completely obvious and uninteresting paths. “Oh, so the Mongols are the warmonger race? Okay, why should I even bother doing anything else?”

It’s already a tall order to produce a game filled with tough strategic decisions from start to finish. If you have very unique factions then you’re basically multiplying your workload that many more times. Okay, so you have the culture game and the military game balanced with one another and they’re both interesting. You’ve even made it so that switching gears is possible and you always have to consider the best option available. Alright, now make sure that’s true for the warlike Mongols. And the maritime Japanese. And the industrious Germans. Yikes!

Many games aren’t faced with a spiraling complexity of this sort, and for those a great deal of asymmetry probably makes sense. But every project has a limited amount of time and resources. Do you want a more complex game, or a more asymmetric game? Ultimately the designer has to make that call knowing that this decision shapes the direction for every facet of the game.

- Jon

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Bart Stewart
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"[M]y bigger concern with asymmetry in complex strategy games is its potential to lock players into completely obvious and uninteresting paths. 'Oh, so the Mongols are the warmonger race? Okay, why should I even bother doing anything else?'"

I suggest that this argument has it exactly backwards. It's when all cultures/leaders are designed and implemented to be functionally equivalent that a strategic game gets less interesting, isn't it?

For the player, when all cultures are mechanically identical, there's no reason to try playing any one but the one initially selected (which might as well be done randomly). Symmetry also makes playing against opponents (human or AI) who select from strategic-culture choices less interesting -- all opponents will play basically the same way, and will do so for every replay. Asymmetric capabilities enhance replayability.

Designing for and implementing effective asymmetry is definitely conceptually harder. But if that's the price of making a better game, isn't that worth the effort?

Besides, that kind of challenge is what makes game design fun for the designer, no? ;)

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Asymmetry works badly when you give each side a "flavor". Like this side is shooty, this side is melee, etc. It works best when you just can't compare. Like Starcraft and Compagny of Heroes. There arent any equivalent to each unit on the other side. All different blocks that interact in very interesting way through gameplay elements like visibility, range, cover.

Greg Findlay
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I think that by adding asymmetry you inherently give each side a different flavor. That's kind of the point. It's when the asymmetry doesn't give enough flavor that it becomes boring. Games like StarCraft just do it on a deeper, more substantial level.

I do know what you mean though. I've frequently seen interviews or reviews using flavor as a buzz word when really the asymmetry doesn't add much to the game experience.

Kenneth Sinn
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I think asymmetry works differently in various games.
In Civ 2~5, the different leaders provide a nudge/suggestion for varied playstyles. Sure, you could play Mongols are a non-war race, but I think the intent of the leaders is to give players ideas on different ways to approach the game, particularly with 5 different victory conditions. I recall Civ 1 allowed players to pick their starting technologies. This is just a more "flavoured" way to do so.
I'll actually go out on a limb, and say that Civ is a lot more symmetric than asymmetric. Starcraft, and most fighting games, are vastly more asymmetric, and that leads to the very interesting match-ups and outside-the-box strategies.

Clement Tran
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Immediately i think about Chess, a game played almost perfectly symmetrical yet has been played and replayed for generations. I think there is plenty of truth to asymmetry allowing for variety in gameplay, but I would argue it still falls victim to optimal strategies. Its just a temporary solution while players are working through compositions to find optimal strategies.

Take starcraft 2 for instance which currently is being criticized as same and boring despite 3 distinct races. I guess what im trying to get at is to take full advantage of asymmetry design in something like races, you have to design the rest of the game mechanics to bolster it. Chess maintains flavor because at any given time there are many moves to be made whereas starcraft 2 'fails' because its design usually makes concentrating your forces on one part of the map favorable, limiting the variety in engagements.

Daniel Camozzato
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Your comment about chess is very interesting. Symmetry has a lot to do with the desire to make the game "fair" to all players. However, games like Starcraft 2 and Company of Heroes are at the same time seeking asymmetry and balance between the different factions. Is that even possible? Isn't the asymmetry you get, in the end, fake?

I agree that asymmetry still falls victim to optimal strategies, but I think the main strength of asymmetry is the creation of different models inside the game that the player can explore. What I mean is... Taking Shafer's Master of Magic example into consideration, the player has the opportunity to experience the same strategy game from different points of view. The fact that Master of Magic throws balance out of the window makes this even more evident - playing with a specific race / trait and magic selection makes for a very unique experience. In a sense, the objective of the game isn't even winning against the AI opponent, it is to explore and experience what it feels like to be a Warlord Fire Mage, or an Artificer Water Mage. I think it it is a bit of a simulationist approach (as opposed to the symmetric game, which has the "gamey" concern of fairness in mind).

Greg Findlay
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I find the best cases of asymmetry have some kind of linking element between the two sides. Something common to both sides that effects results in the same way. The more direct the relationship the easier it will be to balance the two sides.

In StarCraft's case time pressure is very strong, so by having resource collection rates be equivalent between each race they can use resource costs and build times as a more measurable way to balance units. The difficulty is that it's an indirect relationship so it's basically trial and error to get it right.