Asymmetrical Multiplayer

I’ve got a Wii U, and I’ve had one since launch. Some people might scoff at that; hey, that’s cool. I generally play single player offerings on my Mac and use my consoles for party games. I have had an XBox 360 for 2 years and haven’t played it more than 6 or 7 times. Of the games I own, Nintendo Land probably gets the most time. Its big thing that it tries to push is asymmetrical multiplayer.

For those who don’t know what this relatively new term is supposed to mean, let me explain. Because one player has the game pad, which is basically a controller with its own screen, and everyone else has a wii remote, there are a lot of options open to make the game pad player function differently than the others. One of our favorite mini-games in Nintendo Land is called “Animal Crossing: Sweet Day.” In it, the game pad player controls two guards at once, and uses them to try to capture the other players before they gather a certain quota of candy. Because the game pad player has their own screen, they can go anywhere secretly, unlike in typical split-screen games.


I bring all this up because I think Nintendo is on to something with their asymmetric gameplay. Online multiplayer games have always done stuff like this, but there’s something awesome about all being in the middle of a room yelling at each other.

When we went to Indie Press Day, we got to watch a whole lot of people play Travail. We had two computers set up next to each other, and one of my favorite things about the event was cheering on whoever happened to be trying the game at the moment. There was a certain special moment when someone asked “can we play together?” I answered no, of course. But that little question and watching all these players got me thinking.

Travail’s at its most fun when you laugh together about how dumb Bones is being. The fact that he’s unpredictable but it’s “no sweat” to die is a big part of the game. Oh you idiot, you ran off the cliff. As such, the time reversal is key to keeping the game happy and not frustrating. I had thought about multiplayer options before, but really wasn’t sure how it would work. Two characters running at once? What if someone wants to reverse time? How does the camera work? It would have to be online-only. But time reversal just couldn’t happen. So you’d have to maybe remove reversal, but then the game wouldn’t really be all that fun. So I scrapped multiplayer, or at least put it aside.

But then watching people play and playing Nintendo Land gave me an idea. There are several distinct inputs that you perform as a player in Travail. Left-click for paths, right-click for walls, tap for jumps or to trip Bones, etc. Sometimes you’re switching between each so quickly it can be hard to keep them all straight. Oops, I drew a wall when I wanted a path! That can be funny, but also a bit overwhelming.

What if another player is drawing the walls, and you’re only handling the paths? Theoretically you could accomplish many harder tasks together, and likely would drive each other crazy at certain points. “Why did you put the wall there?” This kind of exponentially increases what’s fun about Travail in the first place. Not only do you have to wonder what Bones is going to do, you also need to deal with other players who may actively impede you!

An thus has resulted our own asymmetrical multiplayer. Each player gets their own pencil and can draw whichever mechanics are assigned to them, via a simple menu. To do this, I added keyboard support (use arrows to move the pencil around) and Xbox controller support. It seems fun so far, but I haven’t played it with anyone yet!

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