Asymmetrical Gameplay: Gimmick or Revolution?

by Josh Snyder

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There is a lot to see and do in South Park: The Stick of Truth, for one player.

One of the most agonizing decisions a gamer is forced to make after completing a game is deciding what game to play next. Such was the situation I found myself in recently, and as I scanned my collection, over and over again, my wife kept suggesting one title – South Park: The Stick of Truth. We are both big fans of the TV show, and as Theory of Gaming’s own Nick Olsen said in his review, fans will get far more mileage out of the title than non-fans. And so my wife and I got comfy on the couch, as if we were about to watch an episode of the show.

After the initial cut-scenes and tutorial levels, I explored the town of South Park at a slow, plodding pace. My wife quickly began to grow bored, as I was content to explore and not advance the plot, and she needed something to keep her engaged. Suddenly, she stopped me, pointing at an object hanging in a tree.

“What’s that thing? Shoot it!”

I took out my trusty bow and shot it down. It was a Chinpokomon – a reference to an early episode of South Park which riffed on the idea of Pokemon. A window popped up informing me that I had just found the first of thirty hidden Chinpokomon, and in a typical satirical South Park fashion, the game parodied Pokemon by eagerly encouraging me to catch them all.

“Wait – there’s 29 more of these?” my wife asked. “We have to get them all!”

As I continued to explore, she would occasionally point out a hidden path or breakable wall that might house one of the collectibles, and as I saw how engaged she was with even the simplest of tasks, I started to wonder – why can’t she play a larger role in the game? When it comes to gaming cred my wife is no slouch – surely she would enjoy herself more if there was some way she could participate, even if it wasn’t the traditional two-player cooperative play common in many modern games.

And as I look out at the current crop of games heading toward the Xbox One and PS4, and see the same games but with slightly more pixels and higher-resolution textures, I wonder if asymmetrical gameplay should be a significant part of the eighth generation of video games.

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Although plenty of fun, the cooperative mode in Dead Rising 2 does little more than simply copy the single player experience for a second player.

A Different Perspective

Asymmetrical gameplay refers to a form of multiplayer in which each person has either varied roles or perspectives on the same game. It’s different from traditional co-operative gameplay – in most cases, such as Dead Rising 2, the second player simply becomes a copy of the first, and each has the same access to the same resources and can manipulate the world in the same way. Asymmetrical gameplay differs in that each player is not a copy of the other, and they may not have access to the same resources and may be able to manipulate the game world in different ways, or not at all.

Asymmetrical gameplay is unique and under-utilized for one simple reason – nature tends to favor symmetry. Most lifeforms can be split down the middle to produce two identical halves (trust me on this – do not try it for yourself). As humans evolved, we learned to appreciate symmetry since it was so common in nature, and we incorporated it into our various art forms. Symmetry is often found in building architecture and paintings, and on intricate Persian rugs and interior designs, as well as in non-visual mediums, such as music. More importantly for this discussion, symmetry is found in level and gameplay design. It is the preferred method of game design, as it helps the player obtain their bearings in a new, unfamiliar world.

But asymmetrical design has its advantages. The multiplayer level Zanzibar from Halo 2 was asymmetrical, which meant that players had to learn the entire map, and how to utilize its strengths and weaknesses for a number of different scenarios. Compare this to possibly the most famous symmetrical level in any game, 2-Fort from Team Fortress. The majority of players never pay attention to which of the two forts they spawned in, because the other one is nearly identical, and the same tactics apply there as well as on their side. Because of it’s asymmetrical layout, players had to learn the map Zanzibar in a way that 2-Fort simply did not demand. The Dustbowl map in Team Fortress also provides another example of asymmetrical level design.

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Up to five players can play New Super Mario Bros. U at the same time, but the experience for those players will be different.

A New, Super Idea

Asymmetry in level design may not be a new trend, but in terms of gameplay it’s relatively new. No company has embraced the idea quite like Nintendo, and the WiiU console was seemingly built with asymmetrical gameplay in mind. Launch title New Super Mario Bros. U used the gamepad, a controller with a large, tablet-like touch screen in the middle, to offer asymmetrical gameplay. Players using the regular Wii-remote configuration played the game the same way they always have, but in certain modes the player with the gamepad could touch the screen to place blocks to either help or hinder their friends. It may be a crude example, but this illustrates how two people can be participate in the same game at the same time as the other player, yet each one can take away different, tailored experiences.

But Nintendo certainly wasn’t the first developer to implement this idea, and if the definition is broadened, asymmetry can be found in a number of games. I’ll never forget the first time I played Team Fortress 2 as the medic. During my time with the first entry in the franchise, I played exclusively as a scout. For the sequel, I started out as a soldier, sometimes trying my hand at the engineer or heavy weapons expert. With all four of these classes, scout, soldier, engineer and heavy weapons, the primary function is relatively similar – kill your opponent,  defend your base and complete a specific objective. Each class has wildly different tools to accomplish this, but the end-result is similar.

However, the medic is different. The goal of the medic may ultimately be to kill the enemy and defend the base, but that is an indirect goal. The direct goal is to keep the other players on the team alive. A common interaction for the medic is not to shoot a gun at an enemy or capture a flag – it is to shoot a teammate with a healing gun so they can take out the enemy.

The healer class in any game that features one, from Team Fortress 2 to World of Warcraft, is an example of asymmetrical gameplay. The goals and objectives are different, the resources are different, yet each player is experiencing the same game at the same time.

Thinking Outside (and Inside) the Box

There are numerous benefits to asymmetrical gameplay that make it a worthwhile addition to just about any game. As I mentioned above, it offers unique perspectives and experiences for each player. If utilized properly, it could change the way gamers think about the medium. Symmetrical multiplayer only provides one point of view, one set of circumstances, and although each player can interpret those differently, they are still interpreting the same thing. Asymmetry allows players to see all sides of any game.

If anything, asymmetrical multiplayer should be utilized simply because more multiplayer is a great thing. Too often gamers think of multiplayer in traditionally single-player games as being forced, such as the competitive game modes for Dead Space 2 and BioShock 2. And those gamers are correct – Dead Space 2 never needed competitive multiplayer. But imagine if a second player could join the single-player campaign for BioShock 2, controlling a Little Sister or even acting as a Plasmid with a mind of its own, hacking cameras and turrets as the first player continues to fight off Splicers.

Asymmetrical multiplayer can also work to decrease the tension inherent in competitive or traditional cooperative multiplayer. My wife loves playing same-screen Borderlands 2 with me, but if I get killed by an enemy and go into “Fight For Your Life” mode, and she cannot get to me to revive me in time, she feels terrible, as if she is holding back the progress of the entire game. In reality, death in Borderlands 2 is a very minor setback, and if I get killed it was because I was most likely zoning out and not paying attention, but nevertheless, cooperative partners feel that tension. Games that rely heavily on cooperation, specifically games in which both players have the same access to the same resources, put that pressure on gamers who might otherwise just want to kick back and mindlessly shoot aliens in the face.

As if this growing list wasn’t enough, asymmetrical gameplay also adds longevity to a game, because there are literally two ways to play the game. Single-player affairs like Dead Space 2 would benefit because gamers would want to experience the same game twice, thereby eliminating the problem publishers have with short games being traded in immediately after launch. Give gamers a reason to come back for more, and they are less likely to trade their games in.

Applying Asymmetry Accordingly

Of course, in order to include asymmetrical gameplay, the proper resources and ideas must be in place from the initial development phase. Hardware may be the trickiest hurdle to overcome – the gamepad for the WiiU is the best example on the market today of how this mechanic can be incorporated into games seamlessly, but developers on other consoles shouldn’t shy away from the second screen idea, thanks to the proliferation of tablets. There is an enormous amount of potential in games that utilize a second screen for more than a map or a look into a player’s inventory.

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Battles in Dust 514 are brought about directly by the actions of players in EVE Online.

But if developers forego the second screen route, there are still ways to add in this expanded functionality. Games like the free-to-play first person shooter (FPS) Dust 514 demonstrate the possibilities of cross-game multiplayer – players in Dust 514 are hired by players of the MMO EVE Online to carry out a variety of tasks, most centering around acquiring land and wealth. For example – a person playing EVE Online who wishes to take over a section of land on a planet can call in a bombardment. At that point, gamers playing Dust 514 have the option of taking that job, and if they accept they head into battle and take the territory over for the EVE Online player. While it may not be same-screen multiplayer, this asymmetrical experience can act as a blueprint for other games to follow. A real-time strategy (RTS) game can incorporate a feature in which the first player can send one unit to infiltrate an enemy base, and the second player can control that infiltrator. The screen can split, so player two can control the infiltrator as if they were playing a FPS, while the first player continues to fortify their defenses in a typical RTS style. Or imagine a cooperative campaign in a future Portal game, a franchise which already toys with the notion of asymmetrical design and gameplay, in which one player can shoot portals but cannot move and must be physically carried by the other players, who can move but cannot shoot portals. It can be an entirely optional component – if gamers want to play games as a single-player only experience, then they can still complete the game with no issues. But with this type of multiplayer, a richer experience can be shared by all.

But it must be a richer experience – there are examples of asymmetrical gameplay that fall considerably short of achieving their goals. The most pressing example is the pseudo-multiplayer in Super Mario Galaxy 2. A second player can pick up a Wii remote and control a cursor on screen, which can simply freeze enemies or cause Mario to jump. In Nintendo’s defense, the mode was included for parents who want to help their children experience some of the more difficult content. But when playing with this mechanic with anyone other than a child, the experience is shallow and feels useless almost instantaneously. The point of asymmetrical gameplay isn’t that it exists, but that it offers a deeper experience for more than one person.

Never Wander Alone

The notions of multiplayer gaming need to be shattered, the boundaries redrawn. Video games should be an inclusive activity – by accomplishing a higher level of interaction among multiple people simultaneously, the medium will continue to distance itself from film and literature as the most diverse, interactive, fulfilling form of art available. Asymmetrical gameplay can not only offer a new experience that other mediums lack, but it can revitalize an industry that seems content for the time being to remake seventh generation games with higher resolution textures. Hopefully, when my wife sits down to play the next South Park game, I can do more than simply point at things. Hopefully, I can interact with the same world as her, and share that experience.