Asymmetric design is the art and science of making factions unique and play out differently from each other. It’s a subject that’s difficult to critique since asymmetry is a spectrum; RTS games tackle asymmetric design in different ways and to varying extents. Some don’t even bother at all, and that’s perfectly okay. If you look at Supreme Commander or World in Conflict, those games work fine with mirrored factions and it’s debatable whether having unique factions would even improve those games. Either way, the point of this discussion is to investigate how to approach asymmetric design and what to avoid if it’s to be implemented in an RTS game.
Asymmetric design is important for two reasons; firstly it’s to add variation to an RTS game to help prevent it from becoming repetitive. Secondly, it allows for the different factions to cater to different player preferences, this can be in terms of play styles as well as the art and lore. Devouring your enemies with the Zerg Swarm will appeal to some while controlling the mystical and high-tech Protoss will interest others. Since these races are such opposites, it wouldn’t make sense to have the same units and abilities between them, immersive factions require asymmetry to bring them to life. The gameplay quirks should be thematic to the background of the race; Zerg’s gameplay embraces the swarm by having cheap, mass able units with creep spreading throughout the map. Likewise, it’s intuitive for a Zerg Drone to transform into a spawning pool, but it would be strange trying to comprehend a Terran SCV turning into a Barracks.
How the factions vary from each other should be relevant to the focus and the mechanics of an RTS. If a game is built around micro and unit control, such as Company of Heroes, the factions should have unique units and abilities, rather than different methods of economy and production. Alternatively, if an RTS game is focused more on production, such as StarCraft, it makes sense for the three races to have different methods of producing units and teching. RTS games need to play to their strengths; if a game has fantastic combat, don’t distract players from it by having one faction with a convoluted economy. The Necrons in Dawn of War only have a single resource while all others have two, it’s confusing and makes map control less important for the Necrons.
Designing asymmetric factions shouldn’t involve stripping away components in order balance other features, but rather what can be altered or added to create fun new interactions and interesting player decisions. Company of Heroes is a franchise successful for its tactical use of combined arms, yet some of the factions don’t have access to core mechanics such as machine gun teams, mortars and mines, which just makes them less tactically diverse. An example of where Company of Heroes 2 does asymmetry well is how every faction has access to a tank destroyer, yet they all have distinct profiles that make them feel unique. Controlling a Jackson is a different experience to using a Jagdpanzer IV or a Firefly. Bad asymmetry is giving the Oberkommando West five levels of veterency so they’re objectively stronger late game, whilst proper asymmetry is making all factions balanced late game but through unique ways such as Zerg’s rapid tech switching compared to Terran’s Muling.
Asymmetric design aims to add variation, but an RTS doesn’t need asymmetry to have variety, and a game with unique factions can be monotonous. It’s more important to design factions that are diverse and have different play styles and viable strategies within themselves. Often factions are designed around having particular strengths and weaknesses such as stronger aircraft, or additional mobility. This can be a problematic approach to faction design because it shoehorns that faction into specific play styles which limits player options and results in matchups becoming predictable and repetitive. Mirror matchups can suffer from this the most, dull mirror matchups plague many otherwise great RTS. Strengths and weaknesses can be bad for gameplay, but they can also be great, so long as it’s fair, creates proper counter play and doesn’t cripple the flow of the game. GLA Tunnels or Zerg Creep Spread grant extra mobility, but these are fair because they can be denied by their opponents which create a point of contention for the players.
If not implemented carefully, asymmetry can become a nightmare when it comes to balancing different types of maps, game modes and skill levels. In Company of Heroes, OKW and British lack proper garrison clearing tools such as flame throwers and mortars, so they suffer when playing on urban maps. The British do technically have both a Flamer and a Mortar, but their implementation is gimmicky and inaccessible which prevents it from being a consistent counter. StarCraft 2 is affected the most by rigid map design, where a particular map formula is required to balance out how vastly different the factions are. For example, all main bases need a defensive chokepoint to balance out Zergling mobility, whilst base locations need to be densely packed together to balance out Terran Medivac drops. For better or for worse, it’s ultimately a core component of StarCraft’s gameplay and it’s balanced out accordingly. The important takeaway here is that asymmetry requires foresight to understand how design decisions require careful implementation of maps and game modes. Unlike StarCraft, Company of Heroes 2 suffers from this oversight by having inconsistent map design combined with the design flaws of their factions.
It’s essential that asymmetric design isn’t overdone, more isn’t always better and many games have fallen victim to excessive and unnecessary asymmetry. The best way to approach asymmetric design is to think critically about the focus of an RTS game, what’s the core experience going to involve and how is that going to be fun for the players? That essence should be taken and diversified across the units and factions, not to dilute, but to reiterate upon it. Dawn of War 2 handles asymmetry brilliantly because it knows when it’s okay to step back and mix in units and abilities that are shared throughout the other factions. Melee units such as Banshees, Slugga Boys and Hormagaunts all fill the same role, yet they have distinct statistics, abilities and upgrades which makes them play out differently from each other. Whilst at the same time, the Shuriken Cannon is practically identical to a Devastator Heavy Bolter, and a Bright Lance Platform is no different to Lascannon Havocs.
Asymmetric design in RTS isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s a tool that needs to be used carefully to improve gameplay, rather than harm it by making factions one-dimensional. The aim isn’t to make factions different; it’s to create a wider range of mechanics, strategic decisions and fun micro which gives a game more life and allows players to find a faction which appeals to them. RTS games should aim to achieve this whilst remaining fair for all factions regardless of skill level, game mode, and stages throughout the match, relying upon maps designed to embrace and balance the varying characteristics.