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What Makes Social Games Social?

February 17, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

Symmetrical vs. Asymmetrical

Perhaps the best example for understanding this heuristic is the formation of social connections in Facebook versus Twitter.

Facebook social relationships are symmetric: I ask to be your friend and you must agree in turn for the relationship to exist:

  • Core social unit: "Friend"
  • Pros:
    • Mutual acknowledgement breeds trust
    • Allows for deeper sharing
  • Cons:
    • Site interaction limited to friends
    • Friend relationships require (sometimes complex) management tools

Twitter social relationships are asymmetric: I can "follow" anyone I want, without their reciprocation:

  • Core social unit: "Follower"
  • Pros:
    • Allows for widespread broadcasting
    • Facilitates rapid dissemination of information
  • Cons:
    • Less investment in core social unit
    • Can be less private or more spammy because communication filters are less sophisticated

Examples of symmetric social interactions in online gaming include friending, neighbor systems, gifting, trading, and private chat on an individual scale and parties, alliances, and manual multiplayer matchmaking on a group scale. Asymmetric social interactions include following, broadcasting, tweeting, and blogging on an individual scale and public quests, factions, and random matchmaking on a group scale.

Let's take a deeper look at a few examples of symmetric and asymmetric relationships in online games.

Symmetric Interactions

A classic example of a symmetric relationship in online gaming is the MMORPG party. Forming a party in an MMORPG requires explicit consent from both the inviter and the invitee, the assumption being that the inviter wants control of who exactly he or she goes adventuring with.

While this means the invitee is sometimes subjected to a disappointing lack of invites (or a pile of ignored requests) it does mean the inviter can separate the wheat from the chaff in composing their party. This ultimately results in a deeper bond between party members, creating a tangible "us vs. them" mentality during PvE, bringing out effective class combos and facilitating the trade of level appropriate items and information.

Although Facebook games are less known for such symmetric relationships, they do exist in many of the platform's games. The neighbor system prevalent in games like FarmVille, for example, is a symmetrical social relationship. Even players who are in same game and are already FB friends still need to become "neighbors." This additional social hurdle creates an ongoing "friends with benefits" interaction where players send more gifts to each other and help each other unlock "social gates" (e.g., "You need five friends to staff this building," or "You need 10 keys to unlock this door").

Friend ladder in Cityville.

Asymmetric Interactions

Facebook games also feature numerous asymmetric social interactions. Instead of neighbor systems, many games simply add your Facebook social graph directly to your playspace without requiring the permission of your friends (e.g., Bejeweled Blitz). In our Kabam game Dragons of Atlantis, players can select any Facebook friend to serve as a general in their army, even if they're not actively playing the game.

These types of relationships are admittedly shallower than the neighbor system above, but because they are so broad, they lower barriers to interaction and create a high-density of ties among the games' players. In the Bejeweled Blitz example, it's too important to let the player see his friends' high scores to ask them for symmetry. The game just wouldn't work without a highly visible leaderboard. In the Dragons of Atlantis example, invite a non-playing friend to be a general has the advantage of exposing the game to potential new players in a personalized way via a wall-to-wall feed.

Asymmetric relationships also exist in MMOs. A great example of this is the "public quest" feature in Warhammer Online. This type of group PvE was specifically designed to avoid the normal hurdles of symmetrical party formation by automatically creating a transient party of all players who are near a public quest site. If a dragon is terrorizing the area, for example, anyone who comes within a certain range is automatically considered to be participating in the public quest to kill it. Players can quickly and easily get a taste of group play and then go their own ways afterwards. The low social barrier allows for more frequent cooperation, even if it means forgoing usual party staples like chat and item trading.

Strong Tie vs. Loose Tie

Symmetry vs. Asymmetry describes how relationships form but doesn't necessarily dictate how they evolve. For example, people who meet in the "Long-term Relationships Only" area of an online dating site are more likely to get married than those in "Casual Encounters" -- but that's not always the case. Ultimately the relationship depends on what happens after the first meeting. Strong tie vs. Loose Tie is a simple heuristic for gauging the evolution of a social relationship with a focus on depth of interaction.

Examples of strong-tie gaming relationships range from 1:1 scale (two-player co-op play and RPG parties) to group scale (guilds, alliances and leagues). Examples of loose-tie relationships also range from 1:1 (in-game neighbors, for example) to group scale (factions, classes, and tournaments).

Factions vs. Guilds

Strong ties are usually symmetric -- which makes sense as the requirement for symmetry usually means the relationship was designed for deeper sharing. Conversely, loose-tie relationships are usually, though not always, asymmetric.

A look at guilds versus factions provides a classic example of strong versus loose ties in MMORPGs. A player usually chooses a faction at the very beginning of a game on his own (i.e., asymmetrically). The faction relationship plays a role in determining core aspects of the player's experience, like which classes are available to him, where he will spending his time adventuring, and what quests he will encounter. Socially, it works as a broad glue, separating "us" from "them" or the "good guys" from the "bad guys." So even if a player meets someone whom he has nothing else in common with, their common faction can still be a jumping off point for their relationship.

Guilds are quite different. They usually don't affect a player's core experience so fundamentally, nor are they as critical in the early game. But once a player gets involved in a good guild (via symmetric acceptance), the social benefits it offers can literally be game changing. Guilds are where players trade items, learn optimal strategies and tactics, receive buffs and other benefits and, most of all, make friends. I can tell you a variety of personal things about the folks in my Chronicles of Merlin alliance (i.e., guild), despite not knowing any of their names or having ever met them. We even have our own Facebook page and interact with one another outside the game.

Alliance leaderboard in Chronicles of Merlin.

Factions vs. Neighbors

Loose-tie relationships aren't always asymmetric. Facebook neighbors, mentioned above, are in fact a good example of symmetric loose ties. The neighbor relationship is primarily designed for sharing gifts and small amounts of viral currencies, not for extensive chatting, strategizing, or cooperation. The reason for symmetry in this case is simply to better leverage the virality of the Facebook platform. Forcing players to confirm neighbor relationships engages them in sending requests to each other, an important behavior to encourage early in the players' lifetimes.

Class specialization

Loose ties don't always equate to low game impact. As mentioned above, factions can play a major role in shaping a player's experience. Another ubiquitous (to RPGs at least) example of a loose-tie relationship is class specialization. Class specialization is certainly social; it forces interdependence in group combat and defines the classic MMO tank/healer/DPS triad.

But it isn't a strong tie. Just because I'm a mage and you're a mage doesn't mean we're going to be fast friends. Rather, like factions, class specialization is a broad, constant factor in shaping gameplay outcomes. Interestingly, because class specialization is asymmetric (no one consents to my class choice), you can end up with too many players of one class. Although most games are balanced such that this does not occur on a global level, most of us have experienced the unfortunate PvP battle where our side was repeatedly mowed down due to a lack of "___" or too many "___" (fill in the blank with any of the roles: tank/healer/DPS).

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