Barrage – Asymmetrical Multiplayer is Awesome

In Left4Dead 2, the general consensus amongst low-skill players is that the special infected players in versus are overpowered. Amongst high-skill players, that the humans are overpowered. In Nosgoth, low-skill players will tell you the vampires are overpowered. Higher skilled players will speak to the contrary. Here, in Primal Carnage, the paradigm is pretty much the same as in the other two cases, likely due to the fact that humans are cunning and versatile creatures capable of using a huge variety of lethal implements, whereas more bestial entities such as zombies, vampires, and dinosaurs tend to be locked into a method of combat that aligns with their physical properties. In other words, the skill level of the person holding the gun generally holds more sway over the balance of the game than the skill level of the person who doesn’t.

That doesn’t matter, though. It doesn’t matter that the humans are generally going to have the higher skill ceiling, because when a multiplayer environment forces players to take turns so that each player experiences both sides of a conflict, no matter how asymmetrical they are, the game remains generally balanced. This is the beautiful of asymmetrical multiplayer games.

For the sake of clarity, let’s define this concept. True asymmetrical multiplayer exists in any environment where one team or entity is restricted to wildly different gameplay from that of their opponents. In other words, games in which gameplay is purely class-based are right out.

Some sources, such as Wikipedia, may claim that any class-based shooter which has the slightest amount of difference between teams qualifies as an asymmetrical game. For example, Battlefield 3 and 4. The only differences between teams in these games are the infantry and vehicle spawning points, and their objectives, sometimes. As this is only asymmetrical in that it is a basic attack/defense scenario, I find the definition more fitting of games that bear a clear distinction.

Asymmetrical multiplayer environments have brought us a ton of creativity and unique experiences. In addition to the aforementioned titles, there’s also Evolve, the four humans vs. one monster shooter. While repetitive and unfortunately burdened with DLC, it was a great idea and it was executed well. There’s Natural Selection I and II, and Tremulous, all three of which pit teams of humans and aliens against each other, and all three of which have generated cult followings. Dying Light featured a mode in which one powered-up zombie player had to protect several nests of eggs from a group of humans. Star Wars Battlefront I and II had completely different classes and vehicles available to the light and dark sides.

Unfortunately, I’ve just named nearly every single significant contributor to true asymmetrical gameplay. It’s not a terribly popular concept, but why is that? This concept is a goldmine of fun game design!

Asymmetrical design empowers developers to create nearly any kind of scenario they could possibly dream up. I don’t want to complain about the trend of humans versus zombies, vampires, aliens and dinosaurs, because the games that we have are awesome, but there’s a ton of space to explore. So far, every major asymmetrical multiplayer game has been a shooter. Why not execute this concept with another genre? A real time strategy game where one side has an overwhelming force available to them from the moment the round starts, and the other side has to strategically configure defenses ahead of time. A tower defense where one player is devoted wholly to the creation of an army of creeps that can overwhelm an opposing player’s structures. A puzzle game where a powerful, mastermind villain has to ruin a group of adventurers’ attempts to match 3 their way to victory.

As long as the players in these games take turns playing on each side, so that each player faces the same set challenges, the game will have a foundational balance. Only by borking the balance so hard that one side wins every time or almost every time can the concept be ruined, and that would likely be an easy problem to solve through number tweaking. The playing field would remain fair.

The key in the value of asymmetrical multiplayer is that it pulls us away from the generic. It’s composed entirely of unique experiences. Merely “playing as the bad guy” is common, now, but playing as the alien, the monster, the archvillain? These are still relatively new experiences that deserve to be further explored. And if you haven’t thoroughly explored the games I’ve already mentioned, now is a great time.

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