Every so often there is a 'gimmick' that catches my eye and I know that it will become much more than just a gimmick. When I was younger I was entranced by motion controls and 3D, and look where that is now. But what I think is going to be the next major development in non-competitive multiplayer gaming is asymmetrical Gaming.
Wow, that was a mouthful and an iffy sentence, so let's break down what I mean. So by non-competitive, I mean that it is not like a fighter or shooter game where everybody is on a level playing field and has a (relatively) equal chance to win, directly derived from your skill level. Multiplayer is obvious, hopefully you know what gaming is. (pause for laugh)
Finally, we get into asymmetrical. Asymmetry, as I define it for gaming, is a multiplayer experience (it has to be multiplayer) where the players have a different experience in how they see and/or play and/or understand the game. This can be in the mechanics of play, in a multiscreen experience, or even in what they players have in terms of understanding that other players do not. I think the best way to go through these ideas is to start with examples.
Basic Asymmetry in Games
Let's start with the basics, a few experiences in gaming that are asymmetrical but not the entire point of the game. In Super Mario Galaxy, you can have a second player playing alongside you. This player does not get a physical character, they are only able to point their wii remote at the television, pick up and shoot starbits and freeze enemies in the game. While not completely changing the game, it does make certain segments easier, changing how the game is played. Another game with simple asymmetry is Dungeons and Dragons. The players are only able to know what they are told and know what they roll, while the dungeon master is able to know everything that happens in the game. They also have different roles and different ways of experiencing the game.
Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes
This game is a great example for what I'm talking about. In the game, one player is a bomb diffusing technician who interacts with the bomb, turning it around in their hands and dealing with the modules on the bomb, while the other players are all bomb defusal experts, with sheets in front of them telling them how to solve each module. The Technician, the only one who can see the bomb, calls out what they see to the experts, who tell them what to do based on what they think the technician is facing. As you progress through the game, the time you have to solve each bomb becomes shorter, the puzzles become harder and the amount of things you need to solve increases in number, but through teamwork and a whole lot of talking, nobody will explode. Well hopefully anyways.
Breaking down what this game does, it's incredible as an example for asymmetry. Only one player can see the problem and only the other player can know the solution. Therefore, the only way to beat the game is by communicating. This presents itself as a kind of hidden knowledge aspect, where only one player knows something and must tell the other, except there is a dual hidden knowledge instead of only one player knowing extra. The other aspect of this game is the asymmetry of the gameplay. Only one player is technically 'playing' the game, as they are the only ones with a laptop. Everybody else playing has a copy of the manual. Thanks to these elements, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is an incredibly creative game that is really unique. (Available at http://www.keeptalkinggame.com/#buy for $14.99)
Where would we be talking about asymmetry in games without talking about how Nintendo had been innovating with it before anybody else. In 2012, Nintendo Land came out, to show off how the gamepad and wii remotes could be used for creative multiplayer games that give different competitive experiences. The game had 12 different mini-games included, but I want to focus on a couple that shine as examples of asymmetrical gameplay. One minigame, Mario Chase, has the gamepad player as Mario, running through an arena filled with obstacles, viewing the entire map from a top down perspective. The players with Wii remotes control Toads who, from a third person perspective, chase after Mario, seeing an indication of his distance from them. If the Toads catch Mario their team wins, but if Mario escapes capture until time runs out then the gamepad player wins. Not only do the players have different experiences, but they have different viewpoints of the game, making their experiences even more different.
The other game in Nintendo Land that has great asymmetry is Luigi's Ghost Mansion. The player with the gamepad plays a ghost who is trying to scare and knock out all of the other players, while they are chasing him down in the mansion, trying to get rid of his health by shining a flashlight on him. The twist is that the ghost character is invisible to the ghost hunters, and the flashlights have limited batteries. Thus the game becomes an invisible game of cat and mouse, with only the gamepad ghost knowing where he is at all times. The interesting part about this game is that both wii remote players and gamepad players play the game from the same perspective, top down, the only elements separating them are gameplay and hidden information. Nintendo, while not perfecting the formula, certainly was, as always, ahead of their time. (Where's Nintendo VR Regie? I'm calling you out on this one.)
(Nintendo Land is hard to find, since they pulled it from the eShop in 2013. Try a local game store near you if you want to get it!)
So where do we go from here? We have to keep creating new asymmetrical gameplay, innovating the genre, just like you would any mechanic, be it jumping or shooting. There is a new game in development currently called Dead by Daylight. In classic horror movie style, one player is a crazy musclebound serial killer (one of a number of different monsters), hunting down the other players who are just trying to survive and escape. The map is randomly generated, but the most interesting thing is how the developers have tailored the perspectives based on gameplay. The killer has a first person perspective, bringing the player closer into the experience and closing off their vision. To contract, the survivors have a third person perspective, so that while they are running around or hiding in the game, they can look around and find the killer, giving them additional information. While it is still in alpha, it already looks very promising.
Asymmetrical gameplay adds a lot to multiplayer games when you're not trying to be competitive. It gives you a different experience, mainly because the point of the game isn't necessarily being better than the other players, it is being the best at what your task is. It gives so much more creative freedom to not only the players, but the developers as well, ensuring that there is a lot more room for innovation. I can't wait to see where it goes from here.
A game designer, producer, production designer, writer and editor, Jason has dipped his toes into many creative fields, perhaps too many. He lives in Toronto, writing, making games and thinking about dogs. Follows Jason on Twitter at @jwestonwong.