2012 will be the year “asymmetric gaming” entered the interaction design conversation.
Introduced by Nintendo this year, asymmetric gaming is poised to shake up video-game design forever. The concept is bound to resonate beyond the game industry, through consumer electronics and interaction design in general. Why now? As core technologies like wireless video streaming and tablets have become cheap and commonplace, the market is ripe for a change in the way we interact in play and work. This is a strong indication that interaction designers should begin considering the vast array of innovative possibilities in asymmetric solutions
Asymmetric gameplay goes mainstream
Nintendo properly unveiled their new 'asymmetric gameplay' console, the awkwardly named “Wii U,” at this year’s E3 Expo. The concept is old, but Nintendo hopes to breathe new life into it with a new kind of gamepad, sporting both traditional controls and a 7-inch touchscreen.
[caption id="attachment_1372468" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="The Wii U controller is loaded with sensors and cool tech: accelerometer, gyroscope, speakers and mic, front-facing camera, IR sensor, touchscreen, analog joystick, stylus input, face and trigger buttons, bluetooth and NFC connectivity."][/caption]
So what is asymmetric gaming, anyway? Well, it’s hard to describe without sounding technical, but the gist of it is providing players different control schemes and specialized objectives in the same game scenario. This is a departure from traditional console game mechanics. Most current games involve a discrete set of roles and strategies, and these are enabled and governed by a single (symmetrical) set of controllers. By introducing a new kind of controller and screen into this mix, Wii U opens up the possibilities for new roles and perspectives, and therefore new kinds of gameplay – asymmetric in nature
Here’s a an example of a Wii U asymmetric game:
[caption id="attachment_1372472" align="aligncenter" width="620" caption="In this 5 player mini-game, one player holds the tablet controller while the other 4 players run around with standard Wiimotes. Each team has different goals and perspective of the same game world. This kind of mechanism is different because it does not assume a parallel relationship between the game and the gamer(s). Nintendo hopes it will inspire game developers to break the mold of traditional design and pave the way for true multi-platform experiences."][/caption]
The concept (originally previewed a year ago) certainly caught the attention of competitors like Sony, Microsoft, and even Apple, all of which heavily bet on similar technologies. Microsoft announced Xbox SmartGlass, a software platform to control the Xbox with a phone or tablet. Sony advertised the Playstation Vita’s (Sony’s latest portable console) ability to play the same games as the Playstation 3. Apple is working hard on embedding its AirPlay video streaming technology to all its devices. In fact, it seems very likely that the much-anticipated Apple TV set will use a combination of iPad and Siri as its main control schemes.
Extending asymmetric concepts beyond games
Asymmetric interaction paradigms have clear relevance in non-game contexts as well. For example, a group of users might collaborate and communicate in real-time to accomplish a common task, using interfaces specifically tailored to their individual role.
Television and space launch control rooms, remote controlled camera rigs and remote surgery installations are all examples of asymmetric systems. In these cases, users will tackle a common problem from radically distinct angles and specialized control schemes, while physically together.
One could argue that any group of connected people with different roles, different user interfaces and common goals technically form ad hoc asymmetric systems. Those systems do not fit the definition I am proposing.
For instance, co-workers co-editing a Google Doc are not interacting asymmetrically. In this case, the technology is used as a crutch to overcome constraints like distance, and the tool itself is does not change to support the role and/or context of the user. True asymmetric tools should enhance the individual capabilities of a group of people who are physically together, resulting in outstanding performance. Simply put, asymmetric systems should embody the 1+1=3 principle.
The high price of asymmetric design
The problems with asymmetric interface systems are predictable: they are expensive and technically complex to implement. They also may suffer inevitable issues of latency, performance, and hardware and software compatibility. On the design end, crafting specialized UIs on different platforms results in increased development time and resources. In effect, only highly technical and high-stakes projects requiring a lot of actors and perfect choreography would justify their existence.
The smaller problems, the ones we design for in our regular practice, usually don’t qualify. Consequently, most design solutions out there are symmetrical, and interaction designers eventually accept it as a formal standard: the user asks the interface to do something; the interface does its job and gives the user feedback; the user processes that feedback and issues a new order… and so forth, in a never-ending --hopefully virtuous -- dialogue.
Now is the time for asymmetric solutions
There is a true need for easily implementable and cheap asymmetric design solutions. The good news is, the technology required for asymmetric systems is becoming more accessible. Instantaneous and wireless exchange of rich information between portable devices and cheap hardware make it possible to design asymmetric systems and not worry about implementation as much. Look back at what happened when the Wii and the Kinect came out. Tinkerers and MIT geeks immediately embraced it and beautiful applications quickly surfaced, some with powerful real-world potential.
Think about the innovative possibilities. Start thinking asymmetrically as an exercise when crafting highly specialized systems. I personally can't wait to get my hands on a Wii U, and to start experimenting.