I have been playing a lot of Overwatch recently and I absolutely love that game, but there are some maps and game modes that require players to walk forever to reach where the action is taking place and this got me thinking about how asymmetric the game is and why is that a good thing?
What is asymmetry? Asymmetry generally refers to the fact that players have different experiences from the start of the game. This can be anything from choosing different characters with different stats and roles in Overwatch to choosing different roles in Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. Asymmetry can also be introduced through the level design, like in Overwatch's different game modes like Assault and Escort.
Some of the arguments that people make in favour of asymmetric games is that it adds variety to the game, makes it interesting and keeps it from going stale. It also supports different player preferences and player styles. It helps players in learning and getting into the game easy. But the same can be said for a well designed symmetric game. It will keep the players interested, support their different play styles and make it easy to learn the game.
Blizzard is doing a lot of right things to create an optimal experience for everyone from a casual gamer to a professional eSports gamer in Overwatch. They have thoughtfully balanced asymmetric character design as well as level design. Each character in Overwatch is vastly different from the others and favours different kinds of play styles from its players. Some characters, like Widowmaker and Hanzo require you to have the perfect vantage point to snipe and block the enemy team in, while some characters like Bastion require you to have the perfect defensive point to lay down suppression fire in Sentry mode. This prompts the truly interested players to learn the maps inside out so as to take advantage of these points and that is true for every FPS. Overwatch also makes sure that characters can only be where they are supposed to be and not reach places and locations in the map that would give them an unfair advantage.
Overwatch's asymmetric level design plays an important role in ensuring this as well. Overwatch has mainly two kinds of game modes, the first where one team is defending an objective and the other team is attacking the objective and the other is when both teams are vying for the same objective. The first type of game mode has a more asymmetric design while the second one is more symmetric. In the game modes like Assault or Escort, the attacking team has the initial advantage as they have multiple ways to approach the objective and they can flank it from any direction but as the game progresses, the defending team has the advantage as the attack is led to one straight path which can be easily blocked. This leads to some interesting moments in the game. Also, the games don't concentrate all the action on one location and have multiple choke points throughout the level and the action keeps moving around the level. Some of the asymmetry in the level is also introduced from where each player is spawned after they are killed. Overwatch does not use the fixed spawn point technique as this would not favour the asymmetric level design and they move towards having multiple spawn points throughout the level and choose to spawn players closer to the action.
But, this asymmetry is like a double edged sword for Overwatch as even though it introduces an interesting player dynamics for all sorts of players it prevents them from quickly iterating on new characters as every character needs to be balanced for the game in its current state to make sure they can't take advantage of the current level in unfair ways. This leads to Overwatch tuning their levels for new characters and releasing them at a much slower rate.
A game like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes uses asymmetry in the fact that players choose different roles to begin with. Only one player can see the bomb, while one or more players can see the bomb manual and they must cooperate to diffuse it in the given time. After a while, some of the puzzles in the game turn into a memory game, but Keep Talking handles this by upping the ante and adding more modules to the bomb as you progress through the levels.
In conclusion, asymmetric games being good is debatable. On the one hand, it make things interesting and caters to a myriad of player types but on the other hand it might lead to players having vastly different experiences and that can be a good or a bad thing. Designing a good asymmetric game involves balancing the game for different player types and running through the checklist that it gives everyone a fair and equal opportunity to win the game. Designers need to walk the very fine line of designing experiences that are focused on not just one type of player.