Chi-Coder: Asymmetrical Multiplayer Is Evolving.

So yeah, that blog title just happened.  I’ve been thinking a lot about asymmetrical multiplayer games.  More specifically I’ve been thinking about how exciting the idea of asymmetrical multiplayer is.  Many games have done asymmetrical multiplayer in the past, but we’re still just scratching the surface of what’s possible.

What is asymmetrical multiplayer?

The actual term asymmetrical multiplayer is fairly new, but it represents a concept that’s been around for quite a while.  An asymmetrical multiplayer game is typically thought of as one in which individual players or teams play the game in fundamentally different ways.  Evolve, as an example, pits a team of class based players against a single player acting as a giant monster.  The team based gameplay of the grouped players is fundamentally different in nature from the gameplay of the single monster player.  Harkening back to the days of pen and paper D&D, a group of players act as the adventurers while one player acts as the dungeon master.  They’re all playing the same game, but they’re definitely not playing the same way.

As I said before, this idea isn’t new, and it’s really not terribly innovative on it’s own.  As I mentioned above, D&D has been an asymmetrical multiplayer experience since the 70’s.  Even in video games there are many examples of asymmetrical multiplayer.  Evolve is literally Turtle Rock Studios’ evolution of the asymmetrical gameplay featured in their Left 4 Dead series.  The Battlefield series has also been known for featuring a commander mode which allows one player to view an overhead map of the action and pass intel to the players on the ground.  If asymmetrical multiplayer isn’t new, nor is it terribly innovative, why bother talking about it now?  I bring it up now because the future of asymmetrical multiplayer goes far beyond just different modes of play.

You Don’t Know Jack about the future of asymmetrical multiplayer.

Allow me a digression for a minute, I promise we’ll circle back around.  Last year I listed my top 5 favorite games of 2014.  If I had instead created a list of games called ‘Oh My God this is so brilliant, it changes EVERYTHING’ there would have only been one entry, the Jackbox Party Pack.  For the uninitiated, the Jackbox Party Pack is a group of local multiplayer games played using a combination of a typical living-room TV screen and the cell phones of all the players involved.  The beauty of the Jackbox Party Pack comes in it’s simplicity.  One player must purchase the game for either the PC, or a console.  That player simply runs the game on the TV and the other players join by simply going to the Jackbox website and typing in a four digit code provided on the TV.  From that point the game is navigated almost exclusively via cell phone.  Phones act as buzzers for a trivia game, they replace pen and paper for a Boulderdash style lying game, and they even act as canvases for a Pictionary drawing game.  Most of the games can be played by 8 or more people and since it seems like pretty much everyone these days has a smart phone with a web browser it couldn’t be easier to join in.  There’s no app to download, not account to create, players simply break out the phone enter a quick code and they’re playing.  I played the Jackbox Party Pack over the Christmas holiday and it was a total eureka moment for me.

I told you that I’d bring it back around.

Up to this point asymmetrical multiplayer has been limited to games being played on the same (or similar) devices.  Even though Evolve features some pretty different types of gameplay, at their core they’re still fairly similar.  They’re both action games that feature movement and reflex skills, etc…  What would happen if Evolve was more than that though?  What if your grandpa could sit in his lazy-boy and help by viewing an overhead map on his phone.  He wouldn’t feel inadequate because he hasn’t been raised to have nano-second type reflexes or because he hasn’t memorized the position of A, B, X, Y on a controller that’s been in his had since he was 4.  The point here is that smart phones completely break the chains of asymmetrical multiplayer and provide everyone a chance to participate in a game, regardless of their skill level or even the amount of controllers in the room.

The combination of smartphone and TV allow for some incredible combinations which, up to this point, have gone largely untapped.  Because of the true mobility of smart phones players don’t even need to be in the same room, or even the same state.  Here’s just one scenario I imagined…

In the Dark Souls series a player can use an item to summon another player (typically a stranger) to their world, usually to help kill a tough boss.  What if those same items could be used to instead ping a friends cell phone?  Instead of summoning another player, your friend’s phone would get a message to go to a website.  On said site the friend could watch your health bar in real time and activate a spell to heal when necessary.  They wouldn’t need to own the game, nor would they need to render the actual 3D scene on their phone, they’d just view a simple interface that shows the health of the player and a heal button.  If the player with the phone also owns the game, maybe they would get some type of bonus for helping someone out.  So when you’re sitting on the bus and you can’t play Dark Souls 3 why not help out some other people?  When you get home you’ll have some extra souls and items in your inventory.

Maybe you like the above idea, maybe not.  Regardless it’s one of about a bazillion different possibilities.  Everything from enhancing normal couch multiplayer games like fighters, to creating large party experiences, to extending single player games in new and interesting ways.  The idea of smart phones extending and enhancing games is one that’s gone largely untouched up to this point (I know, Watch Dogs did it).  I can’t be the only one who saw played the Jackbox Party Pack and realized the potential for using smart phones for more than just Candy Crush and Clash of Clans though.