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All About the Metagame

In preparation for the second massively multiplayer Metagame, Local No. 12 details the origin of the game, talks about some of its unique design challenges, and hopefully convinces you to take part in the game at GDC.

Eric Zimmerman, Blogger

February 26, 2012

15 Min Read

Even though this article is posted under Eric’s Gamasutra identity, it was written by all three members of Local No. 12: Colleen Macklin, John Sharp, & Eric Zimmerman. Typical Eric - trying to steal the spotlight!

Which is more like a sport?

Which game is more complex: Shadow of the Colossus or the Sims?
Which is more of a sport: StarCraft or Street Fighter II?
Which will get you laid if you mention it: Fez or Sword & Sworcery EP?

The Metagame is back.

The card game created by Local No. 12 (Colleen Macklin, John Sharp, and myself) will be running all five days at the Game Developers Conference 2012 next week. In preparation for the second massively multiplayer Metagame, we wanted to post this article to detail the origin of the game, talk about some of its unique design challenges, and perhaps to convince you to take part in the game at GDC this year.


The Metagame is a card game where you argue and debate about videogames. Some of the cards feature illustrations of classic and contemporary videogames – like trading cards for games. Others feature comparison statements, like “Which gives players more freedom?” or “Which tells a better story?”

Like a deck of standard playing cards, the Metagame is less of a single game and more of a flexible game system: you can play a lot of games with a set of Metagame cards. We have published rules for several parlor-style games, although the Metagame also works a large-scale social game. At this point, we’ve sold more than 1,000 decks through the Metagame website. We’ve heard many stories of the Metagame being used in high school and college classroom. Someone from Microsoft even told us that the cards are used in the interview process with game design candidates.

The premiere of the game last year at GDC included well over 2,500 players, or about 15% of conference attendees. It was kind of amazing to see the game being played in the halls between sessions, during lunch meetings, at show floor booths, and at parties and bars throughout the conference. We were so blown away by the reception of the game that we decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of full decks so that people could get their own.

Since then it’s been a busy year for Local No. 12. We formalized the company, commissioned 130 illustrations, and self-published the first Metagame Videogame Edition. We created a Culture Edition that goes beyond videogames into film, music, literature, and other forms of media and entertainment. This month we're launching our first Videogame Expansion Pack.

Bringing the game back to GDC this year, we’ve printed enough cards to double last year’s game. No less than 30,000 GDC Edition Metagame cards are on their way to the Moscone Center. We definitely want to thank our sponsors – BBC, Loot Drop, Microsoft, Parsons The New School for Design, and our partners IGDA to fund this massive printing project and make the game happen again.


So how do you play? Each Metagame deck contains two kinds of cards. Game cards and comparison cards:

Content and Comparison Cards

To start playing, visit the IGDA booth and pick up a starter deck of six cards. Then, challenge another player (someone else with a “metagame” sticker on their conference badge) with a game card and a comparison card that you think make a killer combo.

The player you challenged responds with a game card of their own, and then each of you has two minutes to argue your side of the comparison.

Any nearby bystanders act as judges and vote on the most persuasive argument. The winner takes a card at random from the loser’s entire collection.

During GDC, you can get a free bonus card for each new player you bring into the game. And on the final day of the conference, the players that have collected the most game cards with a star on them can enter a final Metagame smackdown tournament for real-world prizes.


Designing real-world massively multiplayer games has some unique challenges. Between the three of us, we’ve created dozens of unique large-scale social games over the years. It’s an incredibly challenging and fascinating game design format, and we’ve learned a number of lessons that are applicable to larger game design problems.

It’s easy to make a real-world conference game, but it’s hard to make a truly successful one. We’ve had so many spectacular failures over the years, and the success of the Metagame builds directly on the years of game design research we’ve accumulated. The principles below are the foundation of the Metagame’s design success. They might seem obvious in isolation, but getting them all to work together elegantly in a design is actually quite a feat.

1. Simplicity is Key. Above all else, a massively multiplayer real-world game needs to be simple to play. Attendees at conferences are generally busy and distracted, and they don’t have time to sit down and study complex rules. This is even true of players at conferences made for playing games, like Come Out and Play. You just can’t rely on clever rules to give the game experience complexity – you have to rely on the space, your players, or some other intrinsic element of the context. Our goal with the Metagame is to make it simple enough for players to learn just by watching others play. The more streamlined the rules, the more likely players are to embrace the game.

2. Get the word out. What if you designed a great game but no one shows up to play? You have to make sure that people know about your game in advance, and that you have strategies for acquiring players during the event where your game is taking place. In the case of the Metagame, we use social media to spread the word, encouraging players to tweet their victories with the #metagame hashtag. We also partnered with the IGDA and we’re using their high-visibility booth as our headquarters. We’re giving out starter decks in advance wherever we can (including to all of the hard-working GDC Conference Associates). Perhaps most importantly, we have integrated virality into the game design: you get a bonus card every time you recruit a new player.

3. Logistics are a bitch. The physical elements of your game, from the materials that you are asking players to carry around to the locations where you are asking them to show up, can make or break a design. Just remember that during a busy conference, no one is going to obsessively check an obscure website just to keep track of their team’s score. If you need your players to know about the overall game state, for example, make it a spectacle – a huge screen or chart – that can act as an advertisement to potential new players. And keep the required physical materials to a minimum. In the Metagame, we have put the rules on a single card that comes with the starter deck. And the public debates become a kind of decentralized spectacle, drawing people into the game who aren’t yet playing.

4. Design for an ecosystem. In a given social context, half of your players will be super-casual, playing once or twice before losing interest. About 5-10 percent will be hardcore “generals,” and the rest fall somewhere in between. You need to make sure that your game is fun even if someone plays just a little bit, but that you also have ways to reward players that get highly involved. Although the Metagame may seem to provide only casual play, in testing we found that the debating mechanic can get quite hardcore. The Metagame also supports dedicated players because you decide your level of involvement – you can play and recruit as much as you want. The tournament at the end is only open to players who have collected tons of cards over the course of the conference and is meant to reward those players who have played and won many times.

5. Playtest like hell. Everyone knows that you have to playtest games in development, but figuring out how to playtest a massively multiplayer real-world game is particularly tricky. For months, we carried decks of photocopied prototype cards to parties and events, refining the challenge mechanics, hand size, and makeup of the card deck. We ran several large-scale playtests, including an incredibly unsuccessful version at Indiecade 2010. Each test, we refined the game rules, game materials, and (for the larger tests) strategies for virally spreading the game.

6. Know thy players. Leveraging the social dynamics already in place at an event is a great way to ensure broad uptake of the game. GDC attendees are gamers. And gamers love to argue and debate about games. The core mechanic of the Metagame – discussing games – is something that our audience was already doing, and it wasn’t a big step for them to get competitive about it. We also targeted what we had correctly identified as our hardcore player base – the 400 Conference Associates who volunteer to work at the GDC. Like lastyear, , we will hand out starter decks at CA orientation the night before the conference starts. These super-enthusiastic players provide the critical mass to get the game going.

7. Make it catchy. Lastly, your game needs to seem interesting from the outside and hook your players into staying and going deeper. The cards themselves – cleverly illustrated trading cards for your favorite videogames – are irresistible to game developers. The only way to get more of them is to win debates or recruit more players, and in this way the Metagame becomes a social virus that takes root and spreads in the social body of the GDC.


The Metagame has a strange and convoluted history. It originally began as a project for Wired Magazine – the 2006 “games issue” that Will Wright guest edited. Eric was asked to contribute something, and his suggestion was to create a playable game for the magazine – a fold-out boardgame about videogames. Eric then brought game designer Frank Lantz into the project, and the two of them created The Metagame as a paper boardgame experience.

Somewhat inspired by the Glass Bead Game from Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi, players of this original version navigated a visual web of videogames, strategically modifying modular statements like “Asteroids is more visually beautiful than Gran Turismo” to make them true. After completing the game, the magazine unfortunately decided to drop it from the issue (even though they did include a visual timeline that closely resembled a boardgame).

But Eric and Frank loved their game, and convinced GDC to let them run a session the following year where two teams of players competed head to head as they argued and debated game aesthetics. Programmer and designer Veronique Brossier created a Flash tool for the event, which was something like a cross between a formal debate tournament and the gong show. Here’s a great writeup about the session that Scott John Segal did for Joystiq. In case you’re curious, the winning team was the unlikely menage-a-tois of Jonathan Blow, Warren Spector, and Tracy Fullerton, beating out Jesper Juul, Clint Hocking, and Marc LeBlanc.

Game Journalist Stephen Totillo attended the GDC session and liked it so much that he put it on MTV. That fall he helped arrange a video gameshow version of the Metagame experience. Frank and Eric hosted the shoot at the offices of Eric’s company Gamelab, and contestants included game journalists N’Gai Croal and Heather Chaplin. The entire event is still viewable at MTV.com.

Which brings us to the present. Trying to come up with a social game for GDC 2011, Local No. 12 decided to recycle the core gameplay of the Metagame and turn it into a massively multiplayer card game. The gameplay is still about comparing two games with a comparison statement (“Which game is deeper,” “Which game tells a better story,” etc.) – but the game was redesigned to use a personal collection of cards that can grow and change over time.

Boardgame to conference session to game show to CCG: The Metagame is a great example of how the logic of game rules can be ported and transported from context to context, changing each time, but somehow also remaining the same. Beyond the name of a game (“The Metagame”) and the identity that accrues around its surface materials, what is it that lets us say these clearly disparate games are all versions of the same thing – if indeed they are? Is it something about the rules and logic? The communities of players? A history within reported media? Or perhaps something more ineffable.


We wanted to end this extended profile of the Metagame with a few thoughts on what we like most about the game. One of our favorite things is that it blurs the line between game play and game scholarship, turning players temporarily into philosophers of game aesthetics as they debate or contemplate a particular comparison. It’s definitely a motivator for game literacy – we’ve seen many players doing research in order to figure out the right arguments to make for the cards in their hand.

But playing the Metagame well requires more than factual knowledge. When questions like “which game gives the player more freedom?” pop up, the debate of course is not merely about the specific games that players pick, but in fact about what “freedom” means in the context of a game. Does it mean that the game structure supports player expression? That the game supports casual through hardcore play? Or that the game subculture has produced more fan-created levels? Any game you might pick suggests a different argument to make.

All of the Local No. 12 members teach game design, and asking these kinds of questions is an important part of our classes. The Metagame formalizes these passionate discussions and debates and raises the stakes by providing a limited deck with collectible cards that end up trading hands between victors and losers. It’s our hope that the playful rhetoric inspired by the Metagame provides fuel for increased and deeper discussions of games and culture.

Possibly the most exciting thing about the Metagame is that it is not one game, but – as we mentioned earlier – a game system like a deck of cards, capable of being the raw materials for any number of games. Game designer Charles Pratt has written about the need for game designer to create not just games, but “tennis balls” – materials that players might pick up and use to create their own games. Creating a tennis ball like the Metagame is incredibly gratifying as a game designer it blurs the line between players and designers.

Thus far, we have designed and made available to the public five versions of the Metagame: Duel, Knockout, Snap Decision, Verdict and Massively Multiplayer Metagame (the version we’re running at GDC). Players have also created variants to suit their interests, level of game literacy, limitations on the number of players and other factors. Our variants and player variants can be found on the metagame website, http:/metaga.me.

To give a sense of the range, we’ll outline two variants: Verdict and Knockout. Verdict is a strategic game for two or more players and a judge. Each round, a handful of comparisons are randomly dealt in public view. Players take turns placing their cards on the comparisons and the judge then picks the winner of each comparison and players get points for each comparison they win.

In Verdict, there is no debating. The judge decides which card fits each comparison best and the players try to be the first to score seven comparisons. Verdict turns the usually social Metagame into something strategic. You have to decide which comparisons you want to play on, sometimes responding to another player’s game card and sometimes playing first on a comparison card in order to set the terms of the comparison. The silent play, as the judge ritually chooses the winner of each comparison creates an intense, strategic experience.

Knockout is completely different – a highly argumentative Metagame for five or more players. Each round, players argue why their content card should win the current comparison. The player who makes the worst argument gets knocked out and joins the judges and the last player remaining is the winner. Knockout really puts players on the spot – not only do you have to perform your argument, but each round everyone picks a new loser.

On the other hand, because you become a judge when you get knocked out, everyone stays involved until the end of the game, and the tables are turned as the “losing” player gains the authority to kick out other players.

More of our own game variants and player-created versions of Metagame games can be found at our website, metaga.me.


GDC 2011 Players

Just like last year, you can pick up your starter deck of six cards at the IGDA booth. The game lasts for entire conference – Monday March 5 through Friday March 9  – and ends with a tournament, Friday at 1pm at the IGDA booth.

We’ll also have decks and expansion sets available for sale in the GDC bookstore – thanks to the game hipsters at iam8bit. Big ups one more time to the GDC 2012 Metagame sponsors: BBC, Microsoft, Loot Drop, Parsons The New School for Design, and IGDA.

Click here for more info on the GDC 2012 Metagame, including complete rules.

See you in San Francisco!

Local No. 12

Colleen, Eric and John

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