Is asymmetrical multiplayer trending?

By Peter Allen Clark

Last week’s release of Evolve gives one more game in a trend that seeks to unbalance the games we play — asymmetrical multiplayer.

The first big release of the year has done pretty well from critics and plenty more games that change up the multiplayer experience are on the way in the coming year or two.


Changing the formula?

Asymmetrical multiplayer games can have different definitions, so let's look at those that involve different numbers of players on either side and games that give competing players divergent styles.

Several of these titles testing the waters of asymmetrical multiplayer credit the play styles as an evolution of traditional competitive multiplayer.

More than stacking the numbers higher on one end of the map, game developers seem to want to provide changing roles for players. Their aim is surely to give a new experience and possibly to extend the life of a game.

We’ve always liked playing co-op games, but we also like competition, so Evolve is a really fun mix of the two.

As the most recent game to highly showcase this changing play style, developers of Evolve said that the title also extends to their philosophy in creating the new game. The studio, bought by Valve in 2008, crafted the popular cooperative shooter Left 4 Dead, but they claim that did not provide the foremost inspiration for their most recent game.

“The idea for Evolve actually pre-dates Left 4 Dead,” a member on the Evolve development team at Turtle Rock Studios told The Seriousness. ”We always thought it would be fun to have a cooperative game where you and your buddies could hunt huge, dangerous space monsters, except those monsters were controlled by another player.”

Instead, the idea came from a straightforward mash up of game modes.

“We’ve always liked playing co-op games, but we also like competition,” the development team member said, “so Evolve is a really fun mix of the two."

Killstrain led the announcements at December’s Playstation Experience. The Sony San Diego Studio game has the unique game set up of five versus two versus five.

“It’s a free-to-play, top-down action game with an unusual five-against-two-against-five competitive structure,” according to a Polygon article linked from the official Killstrain website. “Two teams of five humans compete to gather resources — and rack up kills — while a third team of mutants battles both teams in an attempt to spread their infection and add humans to their mutant ranks.”

  Killin' some strains. 

Killin' some strains. 

Killstrain seems to bend more towards the MOBA end of the spectrum in its gameplay, but the player roles definitely lean into this new asymmetrical multiplayer trend.


Not so different, you and I

Of course, this ‘new’ trend of unbalanced roles has some pretty deep roots. A few upcoming titles, and a canceled one, reached back into gaming’s past to come up with might prove a future standard of video game play.

Bioware Austin studio canceled their previously trumpeted Shadow Realms Feb. 9. It exemplified another type of asymmetrical gameplay.

“For inspiration on how to innovate, we took a look at the roots of the online multiplayer RPG game experience,” a blog post on the former game’s site read, explaining the gameplay.  Which is, of course, table top pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons.”

In Shadow Realms, four characters would cooperatively dungeon crawl through different eponymous realms.

Another player would serve as the “Shadowlord” character whose objective is to “stop the group of Heroes by haunting them, setting traps, casting spells, summoning monsters, and controlling any monster in the level,” according to the gameplay blog post.

That cancelled game sounds a good deal like the upcoming Xbox One exclusive, Fable Legends.

  Albion calls. So make some friends quick. 

Albion calls. So make some friends quick. 

In the return to Albion, the game will let four players tackle their way through a variety of adventures. According to a studio-produced video, Fable Legends will also task one player to play as the villain.

“You literally have a different perspective, you’re looking down on the world from above — commanding armies of creatures, setting up traps for heroes,” Ben Brooks said as the Lead Content Designer for Lionhead Studios.

These riffs on the original will also have some competition from the old guard itself.

Sword Coast Legends, scheduled for a Steam release in 2015, is a project led by Dungeons & Dragons company Wizards of the Coast. They teamed with N Space and Warframe developer Digital Extremes to bring the classic play system to modern video gaming.

“Sword Coast Legends … brings the role-playing dynamic between players and Dungeon Masters to life with DM Mode, a first-of-its-kind real-time experience in which Dungeon Masters guide players through unique customizable adventures,” the Sword Coast Legends website reads. “In DM Mode, the Dungeon Master engages players and empowers them to have fun in a way that suits the party best while creating a tailored, non-adversarial 4 with 1 experience that any RPG or pen-and-paper fan will enjoy.”

  "From the producer of Dragon Age: Orgins" You're kidding.

"From the producer of Dragon Age: Orgins" You're kidding.


So why now? Cooperative gameplay has surely been on the rise through the last generation. And last year's E3 was rife with expanding your friends' role in helping you complete the game. Could it be that this next phase of multiplayer is simply a further expansion of that idea with the tech to help usher it into home?

N Space President Dan Tudge told us the rise of the recent multiplayer exploration probably involved a mixture of all those elements and more.

People fall into the role of DM far faster than they do on the tabletop.

"Combining today’s game development tools with the internet has empowered development teams to create cooperative play experience they were unable to realize in the past," Tudge said over email. "Playing cooperatively with your friends is something the majority of us enjoy at an instinctual level. My children will play with their toys alone but given the chance they’d rather play with friends every time. As adults that desire to play with others doesn’t go away."

For N Space, Tudge said the development team thought it only natural to offer a multiplayer experience by creating a D&D game.

"We were all fans of D&D, having frequently played tabletop and classic PC games for our entire lives (I started playing in middle school in 1979)," Tudge said. "D&D had produced a lifetime of fond memories for us so when we started bouncing around the idea of making a video game where someone could create and manage an entire adventure for a group of players and we all immediately thought of D&D. It was the perfect opportunity to enable players to experience the true magic of playing D&D together in a video game."

Whatever the reason for the new trend, he said playtesting Sword Coast Legends has shown how quickly players adapt.

"People fall into the role of DM far faster than they do on the tabletop," Tudge said. "The accessibility of the real-time DM features have players changing encounters, placing traps, spawning monsters and creating quest NPCs within minutes. It isn’t long before they start planning a campaign."

Games have certainly tried this in the past, but the recent rash of the style proves more concerted than ever before. Of course, it’s unknown whether this will catch on with any games post-2016, but currently it's en vogue.