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The Pitfalls of Meta Game Design

Meta Game mechanics can do a lot to elevate a game's design, but there are common traps that designers have to avoid in order for this to work.

Meta Game Design is where a developer will add or change the player's experience of a game system over time with persistent elements and is a popular way to add replayability or reward someone for continuing to play a game. However this isn't an all perfect answer and can come back to hurt a game if it is used incorrectly. For today's post we're going to look at when it goes wrong in several ways.

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When it Works:

To start with we need to briefly explain some examples of where Meta Game Design works in order to show the contrast and the perfect example would be The Binding of Isaac and its enhanced edition: Rebirth.

The more someone plays through the game the more content is unlocked and used to enhanced subsequent play-throughs. The general path through the game doesn't change dramatically with exception to more levels further in, but how someone plays and their options will expand.

The idea is that Meta game design is used both as a form of progression and a reward for people who keep playing. The base game is already great and the added content from the Meta game is the icing on the cake.

Our next example is where the Meta game design is integrated directly into the game play and that is from X-Com and XCom Enemy Unknown. Both titles feature multiple systems of gameplay with the base building and research side and then the tactical gameplay.

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Good meta game design like in Isaac keeps the game fresh on repeated plays and rewards the player with additional content.

The base building and research are the Meta game for the tactical side and overtime will give you new options and weapons.

In this case the tactical gameplay doesn't change in the sense that you are doing something different, but it’s meant to increase your options and show a big difference between the beginning, middle and end of the game.

In both examples the Meta game is integrated into the gameplay and used from the start, but our first example of when it doesn't work are games that hang it over the player's head as a punishment and requirement.

Forced Repetition:

When Meta game design is used as a punishment or a reason to force replayability is a problem and two examples incidentally are from the same genre.  Defense Grid 2 and Unstoppable Gorg are tower defense games that feature Meta game progression.

In Defense Grid 2, as you play through the maps you will unlock items that can be attached to towers that provide unique bonuses. While in Unstoppable Gorg, every level that you beat while meeting certain conditions unlocks research points that can be attached to towers to improve their capabilities for all subsequent play. Both games feature different difficulty levels unlocked from the start but as you play through the games, you'll realize that the difficulty levels aren't balanced by player skill but by Meta game.

If content is available from the start then it should be possible for the player to achieve unless you explicitly tell the player otherwise. In Defender's Quest, the different difficulty levels per map tell you the levels of the enemies that you are going to fight and give you an idea of what your chance for success is. But playing through Defense Grid 2, even with a map full of towers I had basic enemies just run straight through to the core while playing on hard.

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In Rogue Legacy, the meta game progression is the only real form of progression and locks the player into it instead of enhancing the game.

If Meta game content is something that's figured into the balance of the game then it needs to show itself from the very start.

And more importantly, the player shouldn't have to repeat content because the Meta game finally lets them win but it should enhance their choices and give the game replayability.

Another point when Meta Game design doesn't work is when it's not improving the experience but a requirement of progression.

Future Progression:

Meta game progression is a great thing and when done properly can make a great game amazing. However when all progress is tied to the Meta game, it can make the game become very repetitive.

In both Rogue Legacy and Shattered Planet, the developers made the Meta game the primary source for progression in terms of content and the player's chance at winning. With Rogue Legacy, improving your mansion would permanently unlock bonuses and abilities to help you win while in Shattered Planet you can use resources to add permanent stat upgrades to your character of choice.

On paper these two modes sound amazing but there is a big problem with them. Because your progression is locked to the Meta-game, it means that you are tethered to it to have any chance at winning. Here's a counter example: In the Binding of Isaac the meta game unlocks new content that enhances the game, but you can still play and enjoy the game while that new content is locked and make progress at the same time. There is never a point in Isaac where you will unlock enough meta-game content to let you win but instead simply grows the game.

But in Rogue and Shattered, you literally can't play far into these titles on your basic setup and the Meta-game becomes a forced crutch. This goes back to tying too much of your game's progression to the Meta-game instead of to actually playing the game. What ends up happening is that instead of having unique runs where anything can happen, you'll play runs just to impact the Meta-game until you are far enough along to play "for real."

It's a similar problem that I saw with the rogue-like series Shiren the Wanderer where bonus dungeons required you to bring in upgraded gear to stand any chance in them. The issue is that instead of playing the game for progress, you have to go on enough runs until you have the gear to attempt that dungeon and if you fail then you are back to square one again with having to build your equipment back up.

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Here, the player's skill is being undermined by the forced use of meta game items in order to have any chance at playing the game on the higher difficulty.

Titles with a good meta-game design make what's there better but shouldn't be a requirement to enjoy the gameplay. FTL is another example of this as the new ships do alter how the game is played, but you can still have a good time playing with the starter ship and it's possible to win with it.

Icing on the Cake:

Good Meta-game design should not be the replacement of gameplay or progression in your title. Going back to talking about coming up with a good foundation for your game, if the base game is great then the meta-game design should make it better.

But there is the option to simply ignore meta-game design such as with Don't Starve where there is nothing held over or saved between plays. On one hand this gives the developer the freedom to make a very refined experience, but it can hurt replayability if the base game isn't varied enough between plays.

Persistent upgrades or content is excellent at providing someone with a carrot on a stick to go after but as we've talked about over the course of this post, you need to watch out for having too much of a good thing.

(Check out Game-Wisdom for posts, podcasts and daily videos on Game Design and the industry)

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