Gaming: X Versus Y - Why Asymmetrical Multiplayer Is The Next Big Thing

One of our resident gaming masters tells us why he thinks asymmetrical multiplayer is the next big thing.

First things first, asymmetrical multiplayer doesn’t really convey the most clear of ideas, so it would be useful to clarify what exactly we are talking about today.  When I say “asymmetrical multiplayer,” I mean to describe a multiplayer game mode or type in which each team (or player, in some cases) is experiencing a play style that is significantly different from the others.  Hardly a new concept, asymmetrical multiplayer has been around for decades. Real-time strategy juggernaut Warcraft attempted it back in 1994.  Naturally, the technological limitations of its day prevented Warcraft: Orcs and Humans from having the level of asymmetry that its modern incarnations possess (Blizzard and Rain of Fire are totally the same spell, you aren’t fooling us, Blizzard Entertainment), but the basic concept was certainly there.

Modern technology, namely the prevalence of online multiplayer and cross-device functionality (think Wii U’s touchscreen Gamepad or tablet compatibility with Xbox’s SmartGlass) has seemed to reinvigorate an interest in these types of games.  Just look at some of the major upcoming releases across platforms – Turtle Rock Studio’s Evolve, Lionhead’s Fable Legends, and Bioware’s next new IP, Shadow Realms – all feature four-versus-one gameplay, where the “one” is experiencing entirely different gameplay from the others.  But why the sudden interest in gameplay of this type?  What makes today’s gamers’ expectations ripe for these sorts of experiences?

First, and perhaps most importantly, is a definite shift in multiplayer expectations.  Generally speaking, most competitive multiplayer games of the past offered pretty level playing fields, where the only differentiation between players was skill (and maybe internet speed).  Think back to the granddaddy of online shooters – Quake.  Every player entered the arena as an equal, equipped with a shotgun and some insatiable bloodlust.  Compare Quake to virtually any modern shooter, excepting those that are specifically marketing themselves as “Oldschool,” like Toxikk.  Modern shooters are rife with class systems, weapons that become more powerful as you use them in successive matches, perks and pay-to-win character boosts – all functionality that ultimately makes any two players less “equal.”  Now, this isn’t meant to be an admonishment of games like this, on the contrary, the explosive success of the Call of Duty franchise after 2007’s Modern Warfare, and the genre copycats that have followed it have clearly demonstrated that the average gamer loves persistent upgrades and a reduction in “equality.”  Therefore an argument can be made whereby gamers are more likely to accept a game in which the two teams are decidedly unequal.

Second, technology has created some incredible opportunities for advances in asymmetrical multiplayer.  Even the dying breed of “couch multiplayer” of our Nintendo Sixty Forefathers can be improved – imagine a split-screen cooperative multiplayer shooter in which you are discretely texted the name of one of your teammates, and a potential reward for betraying them – imagine the distrust and chaos this could create!  Why not take advantage of these incredible opportunities?  Why not utilize Xbox’s SmartGlass or Sony’s Vita integration to allow a single player to control the flow of a game, not unlike the Dungeon Masters of yore?  The ability to use multiple screens (even when they are simply separate televisions or monitors through online play) makes for some amazing advantages in asymmetrical multiplayer design.

Finally, if open world survival games like Day Z and Rust have taught us anything, it is that human players create far more immersive and emotional gameplay than our current technology’s AI can provide.  If this trend continues to gain traction, the quality of gameplay, regardless of genre, has the potential to be improved.  I can’t wait to see what tomorrow’s games will do with this concept.

-Patrick McDonald