In order for a game to be entertaining, it must be competitively balanced. Some might argue that a game that is too easy can be fun in its own way, as the player is free to exercise complete authority over the game world. This is a valid argument, as it is not down to an individual to declare definitively how others must enjoy their game. However, there is evidence that players consider games that provide them with a challenge to be more satisfying to play, or rather, more fun to play; Jesper Juul in The Art of Failure describes a survey he gave to players of a game, and those who liked the game most were those who struggled to complete it a little, but not a lot. Players who completed the game without difficulty tended to give it a lower rating. The implications are clear: A game that achieves the broadest amount of satisfaction among players must have its difficulty balanced such that it provides challenge to experienced players without alienating the inexperienced ones. The simplest way to achieve this is through the application of difficulty levels, allowing the player to decide what level of challenge on a scale the software-based game systems will provide them.
Some games take this “Difficulty Scale” to literal extremes.
Pictured: Super Smash Bros. for Wii U
But when gameplay exists in a player-versus-player environment, such considerations are much more difficult to apply. This is where competitive symmetry enters the game design process. Competitive symmetry is exactly what it sounds like: A game is made competitively fair by giving all players equal access to the same advantages. Character abilities, access to equipment, even positioning and repositioning of the player character in the game environment is presented equally to all players. Games that utilize competitive symmetry could be said to have the most claim to fairness, as the only difference between individual player’s ability to compete is respective skill levels and environmental factors. Competitive asymmetry is also possible, but much more difficult to achieve, as it requires a great deal more testing to ensure that two sets of advantages and disadvantages confer an equal chance of victory to two players of equivalent skill. Given the constantly-evolving state of competitive metagames and fluctuating, if not downright subjective, levels of player ability, a well-balanced, competitively asymmetrical game may exist only in theory.
Starcraft and its sequel may be the most triumphant example of competitive asymmetry in gaming.
The relative ease of competitively balancing a game via symmetry can be demonstrated with extremely simple game design. Let’s design a game that can be played on paper, and let’s title it “The Circle Game.” Draw a perfectly symmetrical circle on a piece of paper. Next, put a star in the exact center of it and two diametrically opposed starting points on the circle’s edge. Each player is now given a freshly sharpened pencil. The object of the game is for each player to draw a line from the starting point to the star in the middle. After a three-second countdown from a neutral third-party, the first player to complete a radial line from their starting point to the star wins. This game is competitively symmetrical because all players start an equal distance from the goal point and have access to identical tools. The game remains “interesting” in spite of its simplicity, however, due to player skill, which here are factors such as reaction time after the countdown has elapsed, ability to maintain and utilize their tool, and grasping the theoretical concept that the shortest and fastest distance between two points is a straight line.
This game environment is competitively symmetrical because both players are given equal preference, but remains interesting because both players may have differing skill.
Now draw another circle, but with a square in the right half of the larger circle, directly in the path of the right player’s starting point. Neither player is allowed to cross this square, but this is only a problem to the right player because they are the only one who is impeded by it. In this example, the game is no longer competitive because, unless the left player is particularly unskilled, they will always win because the game environment gives them clear preference. In order for the game to once again become competitively fair, the right player must be given the ability to cross the square.
This asymmetrical game environment is only competitively fair if the right player is given the ability to cross the square impeding its path.
Now draw another circle, but this time add an additional square in its left half. Both players still have the same abilities they had in the last example; the right player may cross the square, but the left player may not. Because the environment has changed but the rules have not, and the rules were previously altered to give the right player the ability to overcome a significant disadvantage, the left player now finds themselves at a severe disadvantage. The game environment has once again become symmetrical, but the game itself has not because the players are not conferred equal ability. The left player must be given equivalent abilities as the right player for the game to have competitive symmetry.
In this example, the game appears to be competitively symmetrical, but is not because the right player has a significant ability advantage over its opponent in the game environment.
But let’s say you want your game to be more interesting by having equal but separate and distinct abilities conferred to each player. Draw another circle (this is the last one, I promise) and put two squares on either side of it, but this time color the squares in. Color the left square red, and the right square blue. The left player has the ability to cross red squares, and the right player has ability to cross blue squares. This gives each player unique abilities, yet still equal in power to his or her opponent, and both players must traverse equal, but not identical, hardships to reach a win condition. You can even switch the positions of the squares or the players, but by keeping the player’s abilities the same the game remains competitively asymmetrical because the game environment has been designed in such a way that the player’s abilities do not give them an unfair advantage. This is an extremely simplified design, but gives the basic idea of what game developers like Blizzard try to accomplish in competitively asymmetrical games such as Starcraft.
This diagram is competitively asymmetrical because both players have a differing starting point in the game environment and differing abilities to use in that environment, but an equal chance of winning.
Competitive symmetry is the easier, cleaner, less glamorous option game designers can choose to balance their games for player-versus-player gameplay, in contrast to the more theoretically complicated competitive asymmetry. This does not mean they are actually easy to make, only comparatively easier. Nintendo EAD Group No. 2’s recent release Splatoon shows how competitively symmetrical games can take shortcuts in game design and still result in a more exciting experience than drawing a line to the center of a circle.
Every single map released thus far in Splatoon’s competitive multiplayer mode has a clear line of symmetry in its architecture. While this might seem boring—players are essentially playing the same level doubled on itself, after all—in practice the way players interact with the levels results in a much more dynamic experience.
Splatoon’s multiplayer maps all possess clear lines of symmetry in their design.
Some shooter-type games are designed to be played in two-turn rounds, with one team trying to take a fortified position while the other tries to defend it, alternating turns so each team plays each role once a round. By starting both teams in identical halves of a whole map, the majority of Splatoon’s maps inadvertently invoke this style of competitive play.
Both teams begin the game on a high ground, facing towards the middle of the map, with a variety of snaking paths available leading inwards. When the game begins, players rocket towards the middle of the map, covering turf in their team color. Gameplay is relatively benign until they reach the line of symmetry at the map’s middle, when players on both teams suddenly encounter the other. A brief skirmish of character-splatting and territory-capturing occurs, and the superior team creates a line of scrimmage somewhere in their opponent’s half of the map where the momentum of the game is determined. This is where things get interesting: The team currently pressing into enemy territory is pushing an offensive into a version of their own map, trying to overcome the same defensive measures they would be using in their own map. When/if the defensive team can drive the offensive team out of their territory and move the line of scrimmage back across the line of symmetry, the roles reverse. Splatoon’s symmetrical maps, then, are not merely one half a map mirrored onto itself, but are two-round offensive/defensive-style shooting games where both matches in a round are running concurrently.
Players who are repelled by a specific strategy may find the shoe on the other foot very quickly.
Splatoon also demonstrates competitive symmetry in its arsenal. The game is atypical among shooters in that players are given a limited amount of control on what weapon loadouts they may bring into a match. In many other titles in the genre, particularly those of the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises, players are given a great deal of agency to choose what weapons and special abilities they may bring into a match. Splatoon mimics these aspects—every player enters every match with a weapon, an explosive, and some kind of special ability—but they are not allowed to mix-and-match them. If one player is using the Aerospray RG, then they also will be using the Ink Mine and the Inkstrike, and the same will be true for every other player using the Aerospray RG. The need for players to adjust strategies based on the unique choices of their opponents are reduced, though by no means eliminated, thus subverting the part of the metagame where players discern and exploit optimum weapon combinations, becoming symmetrical. Since every player is presented with the same strengths and weaknesses thanks to the static loadouts, the game can be balanced based on developer decisions rather than an evolving metagame. This once again demonstrates that competitive symmetry is less dynamic but easier to balance.
If you’re using the Aerospray RG, you’ll also be using the Ink Mine and the Inkstrike, and so will every other player choosing this as their weapon.
Splatoon’s symmetricality breaks down when players begin to outfit their Inkling characters, the one competitive area of the game where the player is allowed to express their individuality. Players are allowed to purchase and outfit their Inklings in three pieces of equipment: headgear, body clothing, and shoes. Each piece of equipment confers specific abilities on the Inkling who wears it, such as increased movement speed or ink recharge rate. But each piece of equipment can also be improved upon by wearing it in combat, whereupon it will “level up” and gain additional abilities. Ability upgrades are completely randomized, so the usefulness of an otherwise-identical piece of equipment between two players is going to come down to a decision made by a random number generator.
Equipment upgrades are randomly determined, representing the one aspect of Splatoon’s competitive game design that breaks its otherwise symmetrical approach.
Designing a game to be competitively symmetrical is the most time-efficient method of going about it. Designing an asymmetrical map or feature requires a solid understanding of the theory behind the design decision and extensive testing to ensure that a unique advantage conferred to one player is answered with a separate-but-equal advantage to another. A symmetrical design approach eliminates this necessity; an advantage, even a significant one, conferred to one player in a situation is not unfair, because other players will have that same advantage in an identical situation. This is frequently reflected in Splatoon, where one team’s inability to claim an area of the map may be tempered by the other team’s same inability to bypass certain defensive chokepoints and obstacles. Disputes in “unfairness” therefore always come down to player skill rather than poor environment design, and this may account for Splatoon’s reputation as a fun shooter as well as a good one.