Asymmetrical Game Design
How to find the balance
When it comes to delivering unique multiplayer experiences, asymmetrical game design is both one of the best and one of the worst approaches. To be more specific: it can be difficult to figure out how to create a sense of balance when the fundamental goal of asymmetrical game design is to achieve deliberate imbalance. It’s certainly a big design challenge, and it warrants a specific focus.
Partial versus full asymmetry
Let’s start by taking a step back and looking at today’s multiplayer experiences: these are mostly built upon some form of asymmetry. What this means is that while each player might be operating from the same fundamental rules or gameplay elements, there are in-built variations in the game that spice things up by creating deliberate asymmetry between players. Fighting games, team-based shooters, and even MOBAs are examples of this.
Partial asymmetry provides a basis for the designer to balance gameplay around a single loop and then add tweaks on top. Working from such a baseline allows creators to imagine different ways to “stretch” the design in order to create different characters, builds, and so on.
Full asymmetry, on the other hand, is where you have players taking advantage of completely different gameplay loops while they are engaging with each other at the same time. I can think of a handful of games that went this route: Left 4 Dead, Natural Selection, Evolve, and Dead by Daylight come to mind. I’m sure there are other examples, too. In this context, full asymmetry provides a unique experience for different groups of players. Typically, group A has to complete some kind of task while group B is attempting to stop them. In Natural Selection’s case, both groups are trying to kill each other, but they each have different game mechanics available to them to achieve this goal.
Both kinds of asymmetry can lead to genuinely unique and innovative game experiences — however, the effort that goes into making these titles feel appropriately “balanced” (so that neither group on either side of the asymmetrical divide feels inherently disadvantaged), can be never-ending.
When things don’t add up
There’s a lot to unpack here — definitely more than is possible in a single article. But if I take the single biggest challenge as a focal point, it would be this: how do you, as a developer, balance player choices that have no directly-comparable elements?
When you play a collectible card game (CCG) that contains different factions/builds, each of these purposely contains choices and options that are unique. If I’m playing Hearthstone, I don’t expect the mage to start buffing cards like the paladin and vice-versa. This is why so much work is done when it comes to balancing the stats of unit cards and mana cost, because they’re universal across all factions.
But unique gameplay elements are different, because there is no 1:1 relation between different options. From a design standpoint, is it more beneficial to teleport around or summon minions, for example? The problem with that question is that it’s not possible to answer in a vacuum. A more concrete example might be the asymmetrical gameplay present in titles like Left 4 Dead and Dead by Daylight. Here, there are two very different gameplay loops occurring simultaneously. Changing the stats or dynamics of one group could negatively impact the other — thus removing (or reducing) the incentive for people to join a particular side.
So, how to address this problem? Well, ultimately, I think the answer is related to how one group is able to respond to the other; the interplay between asymmetrical groups.
It’s not about numbers
When thinking about this interplay between different groups in an asymmetrical gameplay context, it’s important to consider the impact that individual tactics have in-game. For example, if a particular tactic is available that enables players to quickly win every time (and that’s easy to pull off), it could imbalance the game to the point where it’s broken. On the other hand, an ultra-powerful tactic that requires a great deal of work to execute might be fine because it acts as a reward for players learning — and perhaps mastering — the game.
When thinking about the design of these gameplay mechanics, the important point is that it’s not about ensuring a perfect 1:1 balance between two asymmetrical sides. Rather, it’s more about enabling a stable back-and-forth involving a reasonable action-and-response flow.
(Ed: This reminds me of the way many asymmetrical multiplayer games contain a kind of “rock-paper-scissors” attribute that might affect weapons, items, or even special abilities. Although each side of the asymmetrical divide might have different specific capabilities, it’s actually possible to design a sensible back-and-forth system that allows for an asymmetrical “conversation” to happen. I think this is actually one thing that works really well in games like Apex Legends and other well-balanced online shooters).
One of the biggest design issues in the original Left 4 Dead was that the zombies (who formed a single, asymmetrical group) were far too weak when it came to facing a well-coordinated team of survivors (the players were, of course, the opposing group, with their own unique abilities). There were some natural dead-ends here: the zombies were simply unable to respond to a group of survivors who were hunkered down, for example. Valve’s answer in Left 4 Dead 2 was to introduce new, special kinds of zombies that were deliberately designed to break up a survivor group (the spitter, jockey, and charger).
Consider what Valve did there. They could have just raised the stats on the original game’s zombies, making them more powerful — but this wouldn’t have solved the problem. It wasn’t about numbers per se, it was a fundamental design issue related to the interaction between game mechanics/abilities on two sides of the asymmetrical divide.
The skill meta
There’s another important element here that needs to be mentioned: player skill level. No matter what systems you design, you’re always going to be dealing with many players experiencing the game at different levels of skill and experience. Certain design features might not seem balanced to novices, but might be perfectly acceptable to high-level players.
There are at least some remedies to this, though: tutorials and matchmaking are good starting points. On the latter point, it’s important to point out that you never want both experts and newcomers grouped together in a quick match, because in that case, neither group is going to have a good time. It’s important to consider how to appropriately funnel players of different skill levels down paths that make sense for them, because you don’t want to be in the position of adjusting the core game mechanics just to suit a novice audience — this could easily lead to major imbalances at high-level play (and vice-versa).
Speaking of this, Dead by Daylight is something of a curious case here. When you play as a beginner, the killer has a major advantage (especially if they are experienced). But a team of expert survivors — with fully upgraded perks — will have a much easier time. This is perhaps a case where the nature of the game changes in a fun and interesting way as players of different skill levels are brought together.
Actually, speaking of different skill levels, it’s worth noting that you should pay attention to games that assign a “leader” to a group — always make sure you give players the option to decline or pass the baton. One of the most stressful things I experienced when playing Natural Selection 2 was being assigned the commander role and having no idea what I was doing.
Asymmetrical game design is very difficult to successfully pull off; and again, I think that’s why so few games go this route. When it works — as in Left 4 Dead — it can provide a truly awesome, unique multiplayer experience.
I hope you enjoyed this article. I’d like to leave you with a question (please feel free to comment below): can you think of some great examples of asymmetrical gameplay, and perhaps some not so great ones?