Reversing asymmetrical games

 Posted by (Visited 5512 times)  Game talk
Aug 202007
 

Anti-TD is a fun take on Tower Defense games: you play the never-ending march of invaders, and the computer places the towers.

I’ve talked a lot in the past about how games can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. Symmetrical games are ones where the capabilities of the player are comparable to the capabilities of the opponent: tennis, Quake, chess. Asymmetrical games are ones where the player and the opponent have differing games to play. This latter form really flourished with the advent of computers, but examples do exist from prior; for example, baseball or cricket can be viewed as alternating rounds of asymmetrical gameplay, and board games like Fox & Geese are asymmetrical.

There’s a lot of interesting potential in reversing classic computer games. A long time ago I did a board game spin on the classic game Pengo, where other players took the role of monsters. The best known “reversed asymmetrical” computer game is probably the Dungeon Keeper series. Recent inclusions would be that new take on Pac-Man where some players play ghosts. But picture Tempest or Space Invaders where you play the aliens, or Lemmings where you are trying to kill ’em all, or…

One interesting thing the exercise quickly reveals is that we’re relied heavily on computers simply having infinite resources and patience, rather than smarts.

  22 Responses to “Reversing asymmetrical games”

  1. Third paragraph:

    “or Lemmings where you are trying to kill ‘em all, or…”

    …Or what? (I do this all the time, skip ahead in the article to the part I’m more interested in writing, and forget to go finish the boring sentence I was writing!)

    Raph, I find it interesting that, as you said, you’ve mentioned “asymmetrical gameplay” many times in your writings; and you’ve worked on and around many MMO designs; but I haven’t seen ever really seen you combine these ideas. I haven’t seen any MMOs anywhere that really appear to do asymmetrical gameplay.

    The closest example I can think of is the old Microsoft multiplayer space sim Allegiance – each team had a Commander, who was essentially playing a space-based RTS; but his “units “weren’t AIs, they were other players, who are playing a space shooter, and who he simply gave orders to. Another, imaginary example: an MMO where half of the playerbase are playing multiplayer GTA (stealing cars and mugging people on the street); while the other half of the playerbase are playing City of Heroes (trying to find and thwart the thug players).

    Obviously those are very rough examples – gameplay like this would be very difficult to design and balance well. But I think that, if done carefully, the result would enrich the gameplay so much (more of the game “content” would be player-driven), that I’m always surprised that I haven’t seen any other MMOs trying to do something like this. Any idea why this is?

  2. Balance in multi-player asymmetric games is really hard (I can’t think of many asymmetric games with more than 2 players off hand). Balance in massively multi-player asymmetric games is way hard and would probably be better implemented by an asymmetric business model. For example, players could pay, and be rewarded, for running a dungeon, a town, or an area. The question could be whether the game operator considers this supplementary customer service support, or offering a distinct game experience.

    IQpierce – The Allegiance example you cite is a game with distinct roles, not what would usually be described as asymmetric play.

    Note: Dome / Quake / FPS’s generally are asymmetric in single-player mode and symmetric in multi-player.

  3. Raph, I find it interesting that, as you said, you’ve mentioned “asymmetrical gameplay” many times in your writings; and you’ve worked on and around many MMO designs; but I haven’t seen ever really seen you combine these ideas. I haven’t seen any MMOs anywhere that really appear to do asymmetrical gameplay.

    All PvE MMOs are asymmetrical. Monsters and players have different goals and capabilities.

    Your Allegiance example is something else entirely. That’s more a case where players are playing different games altogether that happen to interact by sharing some goals. I call that “parallel” gameplay, and you can have symmetric and asymmetric parallel games.

    The CoH variant you describe is indeed an asymmetric game, though.

  4. (I can’t think of many asymmetric games with more than 2 players off hand).

    Starcraft is the most obvious example.

  5. Lemmings is an interesting example, since at the time, its setup was diametrically opposite the more common space-invaders model. It’s actually pretty close to Anti-TD, in that you are trying to herd your lemmings past a bunch of traps to the exit…

  6. The computer does not qualify as a symmetric/asymmetric opponent per se. The “computer player” doesn’t exist, it is the rules of the game, not an opponent. The player might imagine an opponent there when playing computer-based chess because he already knows the rulebook and therefor conceptuatlize the additional rules that the AI represents as an entity, but it isn’t. Computer-based chess is a new game which merges the rules from the rulebook and the additional AI rules.

    E.g. Lemmings 2-player mode is highly symmetric. The lemmings are just the pieces moving according to the rules of the game.

  7. The monster play in LotR Online is a great example of what you guys are talking about…

    David Sirlin would argue that any PvP game where either of the two players are able to acrue in-game advantages through repeated play is probably asymetric. Read his diatribe/rant about WoW PvP if you’re interested.

  8. I think that if the computer can make decisions that a player could make, and if it can surprise you sometimes with its strategies or its decisions, then it deserves to be thought of as an opponent.

  9. As part of the game grammar, I DO view the computer as an opponent, in the same way that I view randomness as an opponent when you roll dice. An opponent need not have reasoning; it is merely a black box that throws challenges at you.

  10. Starcraft is the most obvious example.

    Raph, I would argue that the asymmetry in Starcraft is fairly shallow. By that definition, any WW II game is asymmetric as the units on each side are a bit different. The categories of units are usually the same (or very close). To me, this is not asymmetric game design.

    Asymmetric design is seen by asymmetric game play – through fundamentally different actions available to players.

  11. As part of the game grammar, I DO view the computer as an opponent, in the same way that I view randomness as an opponent when you roll dice. An opponent need not have reasoning; it is merely a black box that throws challenges at you.

    But then you’re missing the ability to out think an opponent. You don’t get the yomi that Sirlin talks about in ‘Playing to Win’. Again, you make different strategies against a human opponent than you would against the computer: you’re suddenly playing Rock/Paper/Scissors or Poker instead of dice games.

    Asymetric RPS is another great game (RPS with different payouts depending on what you win with). However, probably not asymetric in the meaning you are using.

  12. An opponent need not have reasoning; it is merely a black box that throws challenges at you.

    But then you’re missing the ability to out think an opponent. You don’t get the yomi that Sirlin talks about in ‘Playing to Win’. Again, you make different strategies against a human opponent than you would against the computer: you’re suddenly playing Rock/Paper/Scissors or Poker instead of dice games.

    I said “need not.” 🙂 In general, the challenge is improved by having a human opponent that you reach high levels of yomi with. The pattern presented by the computer, after all, is simpler. It is more predictable, and therefore is more easily understood, and thence defeated, and thence grokked, and then grows boring.

    What a human brings to the table is a far far more complex black box with more varied output, and importantly sequences of outputs.

    Both computer and human opponents share the characteristic that your actions can influence what they do next. (In most computer opponents, it either doesn’t, or it influences it in rigid predictable ways).

  13. Raph, I would argue that the asymmetry in Starcraft is fairly shallow. By that definition, any WW II game is asymmetric as the units on each side are a bit different. The categories of units are usually the same (or very close). To me, this is not asymmetric game design.

    I agree that it’s not as deep as something like Fox & Geese, but I’d say that the differences are more than just statistical…

  14. Both computer and human opponents share the characteristic that your actions can influence what they do next. (In most computer opponents, it either doesn’t, or it influences it in rigid predictable ways).

    I think the biggest difference between computers and players is that computers as a rule cannot under any circumstances generate different output with the same input (and I include random seeds in this). A human on the other hand is as a rule a little bit insane, and will react in a slightly different way to every action.

    On the subject of asymmetric game play.. most modern online mmorpg’s offer different classes for players to play. Are these classes, under the same context as Starcraft being asymmetric, grounds to classify these mmorpg’s as asymmetric? Sorry if i’m confused on that, but maybe the definition needs to be narrowed a bit more? If there is a definition.

  15. most modern online mmorpg’s offer different classes for players to play. Are these classes, under the same context as Starcraft being asymmetric, grounds to classify these mmorpg’s as asymmetric?

    Hmm. To recap the basics of the game grammar:

    Games can be seen as atomic little choices you make. At each point, you have an obstacle to overcome: it may be a physical coordination problem, a mental challenge, whatever. You have success and failure states (often more than one of each).

    Games are made out of games, in other words. You can consider a whole game as having that pattern, and you can consider killing one mob as having that pattern, and you can consider hitting the button on your controller to have that pattern.

    In all games, you attempt an action, followed by an “opponent” attempting an action. The action they perform is the feedback the system gives you. Hence “all games are turn-based,” or as Chris Crawford puts it, “interactivity is a conversation.” In allegedly real-time games on computers, the “turn length” is basically driven by the rate of the logic loop; not acting in time is a choice. In real-world games, it’s driven by the speed of human cognition and reaction times. Again, not acting in time is a choice.

    An asymmetric game is one where the array of possible verbs afforded to the player and the opponent are different. Note that the player and the opponent may have different statistical profiles, different preferences or weightings as to which verbs to choose, different topologies affecting their use of resources, and so on, while still having the same array of verbs.

    So in checkers, you and the opponent have the same verbs. In tennis, you have the same verbs. In a deathmatch FPS vs a bot, you and the opponent have the same verbs.

    In Fox & Geese, you do not. The verbs the fox has are different than the verbs the geese have. In Space Invaders, you and the computer have differing verbs as well. In fact, you and the opponent in both these cases have different objectives, different goals.

    So, in the case of the RPG with differing classes — in the PvE case, you are playing a broadly asymmetric game against the computer regardless of whether you have multiple classes or not. You are playing parallel to other players — they have broadly the same goals as you do (level up) — against the same opponent. There may be a meta-goal which is to level up faster, in which case they are playing a parallel symmetric game against YOU.

    In the case of PvP combat, the game is symmetrical, but the array of verbs and statistical variation can be quite significant, and depending on how deep you are looking, you will start to find asymmetries because the verbs may vary on a lower level (“I can heal myself, you can’t”) even though the high-level game (“reduce opponent’s HP to zero”) is identical.

  16. I said “need not.” 🙂 In general, the challenge is improved by having a human opponent that you reach high levels of yomi with. The pattern presented by the computer, after all, is simpler. It is more predictable, and therefore is more easily understood, and thence defeated, and thence grokked, and then grows boring.

    What a human brings to the table is a far far more complex black box with more varied output, and importantly sequences of outputs.

    Both computer and human opponents share the characteristic that your actions can influence what they do next. (In most computer opponents, it either doesn’t, or it influences it in rigid predictable ways).

    I would argue in many instances of PvE games, that there is a human opponent, and that human opponent is the designer of the game. A well written game teaches you the vocabulary of the game and then varies that design in a yomi-like manner.

    This does not necessarily apply in PvP games where the 2nd P is a computer AI. I think this is because, in general, computer AI design is a harder problem than game environment design.

  17. moo: I think that if the computer can make decisions that a player could make, and if it can surprise you sometimes with its strategies or its decisions, then it deserves to be thought of as an opponent.

    Ok, but in that case you will have to accept that a precanned adventure game as a whole is an opponent the first time you play it. Right?

  18. I would argue in many instances of PvE games, that there is a human opponent, and that human opponent is the designer of the game. A well written game teaches you the vocabulary of the game and then varies that design in a yomi-like manner.

    The way I would phrase that is the the designer (or more specifically, the ludeme-designer, not necessarily the interactive experience designer) creates models which serve as opponents. He’s not your opponent, but he does teach you the vocabulary and so on, as you said.

    As a parallel example, consider rock climbing. It’s a PvE game, and you might be doing it alongside someone else. Someone might sculpt a cliff for you to climb, intentionally offering specific challenges, but of course cliffs arise naturally as well, without designed intent. The guy who sculpts a cliff or marks a trail is not your opponent.

  19. The classic asymetric wargame is Ogre. One player controls a dozen tanks and a score of infantry… The other player has just one unit, an unstoppable Bolo-class tank with a vicious AI. It can’t even be destroyed, just have its tracks shot off.

    The game is almost balanced, but it’s still a bit off, so all serious players do one round as the Ogre, one round as the conventional forces.

  20. […] got into a brief discussion with Raph Koster on his blog on reversing asymmetric games if you’re interested. I’ve of course gone widely off the original topic, which is quite interesting […]

  21. Recently, a guildie and I started discussing ways to integrate social networking gameplay (town/city-building) into a larger RvR game setting. I remembered this blog and came up with some interesting ideas.

    First off, the RvR game is seperate from the city-building game. Nobody is going to come by at 5am and burn your city down after spending 6 months getting a community together and establishing commerce, etc. Territorial control exists at the strategic placement level (destroyable/capturable, space stations for sci-fi, keeps/castles for fantasy, etc) and is a PvP-oriented activity. The assymetrical game is the relationship between cities and the current faction controlling the land the city sits on. We introduce elements of ‘winning the peace’ as well as the war with faction rulers and city mayors able to exert some limited influence on each other.

    Lets say a new faction has just taken over the region my town sits in. The new rulers impose a tax hike in the region to generate some revenues, hoping to quickly get some castles built and solidify control. In response, I can covertly funnel funds into insurgency which lowers the strength of local patrol spawns, hoping to make it easier for my prefered faction to recapture the area. The faction rulers then decrease security spending in the area, leaving lucrative trade caravans open to more frequent bandit activity. Merchants won’t be happy, putting pressure on me to cooperate more with our new overlords. This could go anywhere, and depends largely on the unpredictable habits and preferences of the people that make up the community in question.

    Things don’t always have to be negative, mind you. I could allocate funds into resource gathering, increasing the availability of iron for weapons and armor, or stone for fortifications (again, the specifics of how all that happens is beyond this example, but could be plugged into any number of systems). The faction can stimulate the economy in the area, lowering the cost of crafting consumables from the suppliers (money-sink crafting goods, not the raw resources). You could introduce a whole host of Civilization type settings in an assymetrical game there.

    The key, we agreed, was the amount of influence each had on the other should be fairly marginal. You shouldn’t be able to choke out a city with harsh sanctions, likewise the city shouldn’t be able to take an otherwise solidly controlled region and make it ripe for conquest. They have subtle ways of demonstrating their current level of cooperation with each other through interesting, but different mechanics. I also felt that for the system to work, you might need a regional level control (military governors or what-have-you), people who enjoy specifically the aspects of logistics and balancing the immediate security needs of the empire with the need to encourage economic growth, and the deft touch of politics to keep all of your local mayors (and the populaces they represent) happy. Harsh governors who get uncooperative towns (lost economic revenue, lost resource potential, despite high taxes, etc) might find themselves out of a job alongside those who were too eager to please and couldn’t get critical needs met. So there would be a third assymetrical game possible there, although I’m too tired to think of what the mechanics might look like.

    As for a much smaller scale example of Assymetric gameplay I enjoyed: Savage. It blended elements of RTS and FPS very nicely, I thought. One player on each team was the ‘commander’ (and could be impeaced by vote) who saw a top-down RTS version of the map. The commander would direct a few limited worker NPCs to gather gold/crystals and build structures, they determined what weapons and advancements to research, and otherwise played an RTS-like game. Simultaneously, the other players are on the ground seeing the full 3d immersive environment. They can help gather, build, or fight as they choose (sometimes to the aggravation of the commander, although a prerecorded voice saying ‘attack this unit’ and a giant beam of light from the sky is typically listened to more than all caps text spam :9). The commander could promote captains from among the other players, direct them to objectives, or give them gold if needed. They were playing the same game with the same goal….in totally different ways.

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