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.