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Friday, October 19, 2012

Symmetry, Asymmetry and Strategy

There's no review this week, and one reason is that I've gotten pulled back into StarCraft 2, as well as Pokemon Black Version (for which I make no apologies). I tend to not review more mainstream games, for reasons I've addressed previously, but when I was thinking about what draws me to these games (aside from  the fact that they're tailor made to be hideously addictive) I started thinking a lot about the symmetry and asymmetry in play. For both, I'll be addressing primarily the multiplayer element, since that's where this is most visible.

The symmetry in the games is about options. In all cases, all players have the same options. For Starcraft, that's at the start of the match, when you select your race and begin building units. The choices you make limit your later choices, but all players have the same choices at the start of the match. For Pokemon, this starts way earlier, in the metagame. When you're playing, either side COULD have any given Pokemon with any given move set. Depending on the level of play it's rare that two teams be exactly identical, just as in Starcraft  2 the players likely won't have exactly the same build order and army composition.

It's important that you have the same options, but also important that you likely won't make the same decisions as your enemies. Given that, solid asymmetrical gameplay relies on being able to make different choices and still have numerous different viable strategies - that is, asymmetrical gameplay must be balanced to be fun, and it turns out balance is really hard to do in asymmetrical games.

For SC2, the game is presumably balanced at the start of each match; the metagame is about which strategies are possible, effective, and therefore likely, and how they might be combated. Like chess, you can bring in a lot of knowledge about what's possible or not, but the starting pieces are always the same: one base, six workers. The balance is built into the game, even down to matchmaking pitting you against players of similar skill. Each of the three races you can choose is balanced; though you can certainly make choices after picking a race that are worse than other choices you might have made, no race is dominant over either of the others, and there's no dominant (best) strategy for any race over any other.

For Pokemon, you absolutely cannot presume balance at the start of a match. At the beginning of a match, each player's understanding about the metagame and patience in constructing a solid team is already evident. A game of Pokemon could begin with one player with a full team of six all at the highest possible level versus a team of one at the lowest possible level. This is unbalanced asymmetry. Pokemon provides a few tools for balance, like scaling teams to the same level, but because some moves, stat distributions, team compositions, and even Pokemon are categorically worse than others, this only partially addresses the problem. Magikarp simply has fewer move options and worse stats than Gyarados; Slash is in almost every way a better move than Scratch. Imbalance is built into the game, and arguably the multiplayer metagame suffers for it. Players have attempted to solve this themselves through a number of means, notably limiting the use of certain Pokemon in certain competitions. Pokemon are often divided into "tiers," where battles of a certain tier preclude the use of Pokemon from higher (but usually not lower) tiers. However, these tiers are not official and participation in them is voluntary. Friends tend to have to agree on whether their teams are balanced enough that a fight can be considered fair. If combat were the only social aspect of Pokemon this might be a serious downside; however, trading and various minigames are other strong reasons to play with friends. Though the metagame can be quite exacting and strenuous, the game is geared towards a more casual audience.

In looking at how these games achieve balance in their asymmetry, I started asking myself: why? Why are so many games, from Mortal Kombat to Mario Kart, asymmetrical in their competition? Why do we want asymmetrical challenges in our multiplayer? Symmetrical games like chess can still have an insane amount of variation between games, so why seek asymmetry when it's substantially more difficult to balance?

Asymmetrical games can have a lot of room for unexpected scenarios and outcomes. In Starcraft, that's realizing as you're at the enemy's front gates with your whole army that he's got a raiding party back at you base too small and fast to be worth sending your army back for, but too big for the defenses you've got set up. In Pokemon, it's getting surprised when an enemy your Pokemon is strong against has an unexpected move that knocks you out in one hit. In a symmetrical game, there's usually one starting position, or only a handful; in asymmetrical games, there's usually a number of them, sometimes an inexhaustible number. Even when that number is quite finite, as in Starcraft, negotiating the strengths and weaknesses of each unit against the others, or making a plan when an opponent has gained more resources and a larger army, means individual encounters are rarely identical. What all this amounts to, and what's often great about such games, are the kinds of stories people can tell out of them. Super Smash Bros. may be a game with a lot of asymmetry and randomness, and questionable balance, but it's fun talking about that time when you got a hammer and knocked your enemy directly into a bomb that had just appeared in the sky. Maybe the 30% accuracy, one-hit kill move Fissure in Pokemon isn't considered practical in the metagame, but if you kill half your opponent's team with three consecutive hits you'll be proud of it. Asymmetry creates complicated metagames and complex strategies, it creates probabilities and expectations, and it creates excellent, memorable moments when those expectations are upset by a new strategy or random chance. Carefully examined and balanced, asymmetry creates a fantastic amount of diverse game experiences within a single system; it's an incredibly powerful tool, and it's worth thinking about how it's used in the games you love - or how it might be used in the games you create.

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