Game Design Lessons from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure
What the iconic franchise can teach us about asymmetric design
Explaining the lore — and the fan appeal — behind JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (JJBA) here feels like a Herculean task. Also, there have been many folks over the years who have done a much better job of it than I could. But for the sake of the argument here, I do need to cover off the basics.
JJBA is a franchise that follows people with powers called “stands”. Each stand manifests itself differently and gives its user a special ability. Said ability can directly impact the user, the world around them, or some combination of the two. Only a stand can defeat another stand — and any damage inflicted on a stand is transferred directly to its user.
Stands were introduced from series 3, and has since become a global phenomenon; it’s become even more popular in the United States recently due to the the anime being dubbed.
Now, before we explore the question of asymmetrical design and how JJBA relates to it, let’s take a step back and take a closer look at what sets this franchise apart from other popular anime.
To begin with, it’s worth pointing out that JJBA isn’t the first anime centered around conflict and fighting; this is, indeed, a pretty common trope of the genre. But as the series developed, JJBA stood out from other anime based on it approach to combat.
Battles are typically decisive, in the sense that they end either with outright death or a knockout. Outside of using stand powers, though, no character can take an otherwise fatal blow and keep on fighting. Combat in JJBA tends to come about due to one of the following scenarios:
- Someone is forced to fight because they have been separated or trapped by the enemy
- The first person to figure out the enemy’s power must fight and prevent that person from attacking their friends
- Two or more people are caught by someone more powerful and they must team up to take the enemy down
While fights in JJBA can go on for minutes at a time — like any anime — there’s a lot more to it than simply watching a couple of folks punch each other. Combat usually pivots on the first character who delivers a major blow. When the stand powers are thrown into the mix, each fight is less about who wins, and more about how they win. If you’re wondering how all of this relates to asymmetrical design, let’s now connect the two concepts.
What is asymmetrical design?
The first point to be made about asymmetrical design is that we typically see it in games with abstracted gameplay. On one end of the scale are games where players can choose different guns or character builds. And on the other end exist fighting games and card games where players have a wide range of move-sets and options.
What makes asymmetrical design so fascinating (and challenging for designers) is that you’re dealing with abilities and options that don’t necessarily have an obvious 1–1 counter (for example, “fire counters water”). In this context, you might be wondering how something like “asymmetrical balance” is actually possible — isn’t it a contradiction in terms? How can inherently imbalanced elements be brought into balance?
The answer — and this is something we see in JJBA — is that perfect balance isn’t possible, and it’s perhaps not what designers should be striving for at any rate. There’s a different way.
Gaining the advantage
Obviously, JJBA wasn’t written with game design in mind (although there have been several JJBA games released over the years). However, when looking at the anime itself, we can see several design elements that directly relate to good game design, especially when it comes to balancing asymmetrical character traits or capabilities.
The first point is an important one — everyone is overpowered in the right circumstance. In the anime, most fights are settled when one person uses their stand in a way that the opponent was not expecting, thus throwing them off balance. The very same principle can apply in a good, asymmetrically-designed game. If you’re playing as the Zerg in StarCraft, for example, each of your in-game units might be underpowered when compared to the enemy — but you have the ability to outnumber your opponent and build a clear advantage.
In other genres (fighting, for example), every faction or character has some unique factor or specialization that makes them stand out from everyone else. And, as with the anime, fighting against another character is largely about being the first one to leverage your own unique traits to gain an advantage. If you’re playing a fighting game where your core capability is in ranged combat, and your enemy gets up close and personal, you’re going to be at a clear disadvantage.
If that ranged fighter is under the control of a skilled player, they might be able to overcome that disadvantageous position — but it’s still going to be tough. What’s key here, though, is that the opponent’s advantage isn’t “universal” — it’s only relevant in a particular circumstance. And that takes us to the next point.
Given what I’ve outlined so far, it’s worth noting that the flow-on effects can be difficult for designers to work around. Despite each character being overpowered in their own way, no one should have the advantage all the time. In the case of JJBA, every stand has some kind of limitation (close-ranged, long-ranged, time limit, conditional, etcetera). The main character in series 4 can literally rebuild or repair anything he punches, with the limitation being that his stand is close-ranged, and it can’t repair its user’s damage.
One common design philosophy behind asymmetrical design is that a player should have a reasonable expectation of winning around 50% of the time on chance alone. If player A has the counter to player B, then their chance of winning should be slightly increased — all things being equal. But of course, all things aren’t equal, which brings us to the next factor at play: the skill level of both parties. If I’m the best player in the game using the best long-ranged weapon and you get up close to me (thus undercutting these inherent advantages), should my actual skill level still allow me to overcome your obvious advantage here? Well, if the person with the in-game advantage always wins, then we’re saying player skill is irrelevant — but if they lose, that may call into question the design’s balance.
To return to an earlier point: it’s impossible to achieve complete balance when you’re dealing with options that are inherently asymmetrical. But this is where it becomes important to consider that the gamespace must accommodate all the options.
What do I mean by this?
Well, in the past, I’ve discussed the idea of “false choices” — when a choice is either so good that nobody will take anything else, or so bad that taking it leaves you at a massive disadvantage.
Although you may want every choice to have its moment in the spotlight, a good approach to asymmetrical game design demands that you don’t completely invalidate any option made available to players.
In previous posts I’ve done, we’ve talked about the concept of “false choices” — when a choice is either so good that no one will talk anything else, or it’s so bad that taking it makes you worse in the process. In some respects, solid asymmetrical game design should attempt to lay the groundwork for a more emergent approach — that is where the player creates new options (and advantages) the designer didn’t explicitly plan for (Breath of the Wild is actually a good example of this, if you consider some of the completely out-of-the-box solutions some players have come up with to beat certain Shrines).
Returning to JJBA, I notice that although fights are settled using stands in a creative way, this creativity often encompasses clever use of the environment in ways that nobody could have guessed originally.
Striking a balance
Asymmetrical balance isn’t something we see often these days outside of CCGs, MOBAs, and fighting games. But when done well, it can lead to some incredible titles. Left 4 Dead was one of my favorite games thanks to the clever way it built a compelling experience around an asymmetrical landscape between four human cooperators and swarms of the infected.
I think it’s important to remember that, as a designer, it’s worth thinking outside the box in order to get asymmetrical design balance right. It’s also important to step back and look at “breakages” in the design with a critical eye — there’s a difference between an enemy being too powerful because the player hasn’t yet figured out a suitable strategy to combat it versus the enemy being so overwhelmingly powerful that no strategy will ever counter it.
I want to leave you with a question, as I often do: can you think of innovative takes on asymmetrical game design?