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Letting Our Differences Bring Us Together

In this blog, I delve deep into the nature and philosophy of asymmetrical multiplayer and how it can be used to bring people together.

Perfection, as a concept, has always been strange to me. The implication that there exists a singular ‘best' ideal to aspire to challenges my belief that the greatest freedom one can have is to be oneself, without concession or omission. When you subscribe to such a belief, it’s a natural extension of that belief to celebrate the differences between people for the strengths they lend, as opposed to the weaknesses they bring. Imagine how boring life would be if we were all the same! Still we, as game developers, find ourselves shoving two completely different players into the same narrow spectrum of interaction.

Modern games are doing a better job of providing different roles for players to fill; the mechanical archetypes of tank, healer, and glass cannon have clawed their way from the MMO ghettos of old into the luxury high-rise of common gaming parlance. Going further, games like Left 4 Dead and Monaco make great strides towards true orthogonality in player abilities, but everyone involved is still fundamentally playing the same game. What I’m interested in is the idea that two people with completely different ideas about what the “perfect” game is can come together and have a fulfilling experience.

Asymmetry as a personal goal crystallized for me when I began dating my now-wife. We had - and still have - very different interests, but respected our differences enough to try and engage in activities the other enjoyed. For me, this took the form of trips to museums; for her, it was attempting to join me in video games. I say “attempting", because every time she’d ask if there was a game we could play together, I grimaced in shame because there really wasn’t. The closest we got was taking turns playing Spelunky; I could enjoy it the procedural challenge and she could enjoy it for the exploration and treasure hunting.

During those hours on the couch, passing the controller back and forth, I thought about other games I wished I could enjoy with my wife, who prefers a more methodical and thoughtful approach than I usually take. It became a sort of design challenge I would assign myself - to take a game I loved and design a role for a second, completely different player without making them and equal partner, as opposed to mechanically or thematically subordinate. It was a frustrating exercise until I cast off the shackles of genre conventions and realized that player two needn’t be a palette-swap of player 1. How could I get her to enjoy Dark Souls with me? Let’s suppose the second player takes on the role of the Soul, playing a Dr. Mario-esque game to refine the souls the combat player collects into usable currency. What about the Dirt rally series? Suppose player two is the manager, running through a visual-novel game to land promotions and sponsorship for the driver. Consider any number of action games where something exciting happens offscreen, to someone on your earpiece - what if that was another player? The player hacking doors so you can avoid key fetch quests, or dropping orbital strikes to provide cover? Surely that’s worthy of being more than just a line of text or particle effect.

But why would one take the effort to make such a game? On it’s face, it’s sort of a silly idea - to basically make two completely different games for the income of one. I’m no stranger to the realities of game development; of budgets and scoping, time and burndown. I know why such games aren’t made very often - it’s hard enough to tune for two similar-but-unique players, the complexity skyrockets when you basically make a second game on top of the first. Beyond that, anyone who has to get buy-in from a marketing department has a rough sell ahead of them, as traditionally-published large-budget games are still obsessed with grabbing a narrowing share of the 18-24 male demographic they’ve been chasing for the past twenty years.

Where does this leave us, then - the players who want to share a gameplay experience with someone who isn’t at our skill level, or even interested in the same genres as us? What of the massive market share of people, who would play more games if more games were made with them in mind? Consider the boyfriends, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, sons, or daughters that see their loved one playing a game that they are implicitly or explicitly excluded from. Even the coldest logic will see them as a lost customer. I feel it is our responsibility as developers to step outside of our usual industry tropes to bring people together.

We must not forget how uniquely suited to this goal our medium is, but the only way to make it happen is to believe from the start that it is possible and necessary - and to design it as such from the ground up. No other media can alter itself in situ to suit the viewer. If we are willing to break away from the limitations borrowed from other media that we have placed on ourselves, we become capable of making an experience that transcends simply being a fun game, but a pastime shared with those we care about. Knowing that we have that potential within us, how can we ignore it?

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