Games are a broad category, something immediately apparent from any attempt to define them. When I was younger, I used to criticize sports like golf and running for ‘not being real sports’. My critique? You were competing against somebody only inasmuch as you were being compared to them. To use mild jargon, there is no way to interfere with your opponents. Now, of course, I know better, but it leads me to the thought of the number of different types of competition you can have in a game, and how that sets the tone.
The simplest type of competition is a comparative competition. You and an opponent complete the same action, and whoever does it better wins. What does better mean? It could mean:
- faster – like in a race
- for longer – holding your breath!
- more intensely – weight lifting
- for more iterations – drinking competition?
What are the advantages of a comparative competition? Well, for one, you don’t need that many rules. Specifically, there aren’t any interactional rules because there isn’t any interaction between players. No need for replays and rules about what constitutes a ‘foul’, or anything like that, because the idea isn’t really clear-cut: no interfering with your competitors.
Another type of competition is the interactive competition. In the interactive competition, you and an opponent compete directly against each other. Interactive competitions tend to be asymmetric with regards to any given action, but overall symmetric. For example, in many sports, you have defense and offense, and their actions are different. They may have different rules and different legal actions. But ultimately, the game is effectively symmetric; both teams can be on offense or difference, and can expect to be so about the same amount (or at least they have the same access to both sides).
However, there’s another type of asymmetry that’s important, and that’s asymmetry of power. To give two examples, in basketball, you have taller, stronger players, and you have smaller, nimble players. To simplify, the smaller, nimbler players tend to match up against each other, as do the taller, stronger players. However, they do not always match up like so. A similar scenario can be found in League of Legends, in which all lanes have 1 person per team, except for one lane which has 2 people in it. Now, often, those lanes match up against each other, in a 2v2 lane. A symmetric lane, then, is typically very even, and is about who can beat the other player. However, you can also have an asymmetric matchup, with a 2v1 lane and a 1v2 lane. In those cases, it’s not about the 2 beating the 1 (you can generally assume they will, just because of numbers). Instead, the competition is between teams, not individuals, as to whose ‘2’ beats the other team’s ‘1’ more.
Asymmetry of power is interesting in games when it is used strategically. For example, in basketball, you will often run a pick and roll, to force a slower, larger player to guard a quicker, smaller player. This allows for interesting plays involving the team. However, it is less interesting as a general rule. To put this into clear perspective, watching 1 pro basketball player play against another pro basketball player is very interesting. Watching 1 college basketball player play against another college basketball player? Also pretty interesting. Watching 1 pro and 1 college player against 1 pro and 1 college player? Also probably interesting. But having a competition between two pro players to see who can beat a college player harder? Probably not going to be entertaining for long.
Any game being designed needs to be clear what type of competition it is fostering, and be sure to introduce asymmetries of power carefully, or it becomes less interesting.