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One question I get on a fairly regular basis during my game development career is, ‘What is a meta-game?’ There are actually two kinda similar but pretty distinct things we refer to as ‘Meta-game’. And in this edition of Farlands, a series about video games and video game design, I’m going to talk about both and explain what they are.
Meta-game is a term that can be broadly defined as ‘a game beyond the game’. However, depending on the context, it can mean one of two things:
- The first one I like to call ‘Mechanical Meta-Game’ - a set of systems and mechanics created specifically by developers to wrap it around the main gameplay.
- The second one I like to call ‘Emergent Meta-Game’, and this is the way players mostly use the term, the meta-game being strategies that transcend the rules and systems of a game, by, well, emerging from them via player interaction.
First, let’s talk about the Mechanical Meta-Game. Every game has a set of systems, mechanics, entities and loops that can be defined as the ‘core gameplay’. For example, Hearthstone’s core gameplay is the battle between you and the opponent with a chosen class or deck. In Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood the main gameplay is going around the open-world, taking and completing missions where you engage with the core mechanics of stealth, navigation and combat. There are different kind of missions, from assassination to chase ones, from main ones to side ones, but they all utilize the core gameplay one way or another.
Meta-game systems, however, don’t. They’re looping systems that wrap themselves around the core gameplay - they can affect it, but they don’t take part in it. Let’s take Hearthstone’s daily quest system, for example. Each day you receive a quest. The quest gives you gold. You can use that gold to make a purchase, usually a card pack. That card pack then gives you cards that you can use to build your decks, that will help you complete more quests. That’s Hearthstone’s mechanical meta-game.
While the quests provide goals to be done during the matches, and the rewards of the meta-game loop are helpful for the core gameplay, the systems don’t actually utilize the in-game matches directly in any way. And you can do that loop, well, indefinitely. Now, stuff like Arena and Tavern Brawl are essentially on the same level as the ranked/casual matches - they’re alternative modes of the core gameplay, but not part of a meta-game system.
In Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood we have the Brotherhood meta-game loop. You can find Assassin Recruits in the world and recruit them to call upon when needed. But the main way to upgrade the Recruits to eventually initiate them into the Order is to participate in the meta-game of sending them around Europe to get XP and also additional rewards for you. The economy system where buying things in the city will make you money over-time is also essentially a meta-game.
Basically, most mechanical meta-games revolve around some sort of progression or economy that wrap around the core gameplay without directly utilizing it.
These systems are usually created with the purpose of providing additional mid and long-term goals to the players, to keep them engaged with the core gameplay for longer.
Now, let’s talk about the Emergent Meta-Game. This type of meta-game is specific mostly to competitive games, and is about strategies that players utilize and knowledge of those strategies to define your actions.
As an example, if in Hearthstone, at the moment of writing this, you go against a mage, chances are you’re going to face one of the specific archetypes players use currently:
- Control Mage, a deck that tries to delay damage with spells until it gets to the big hitters like Frost Lich Jaina and Dragoncaller Alana.
- Odd Mage, an aggressive archetype that uses Baku and therefore can utilize only odd cards.
- Elemental Mage, a mostly minion-based deck revolving around elemental synergy.
Knowing that this might be one of these archetypes, you then play accordingly as you figure out in your first turns what the opponent’s deck is and how to best utilize your own to beat theirs. You might even face a mirror match and utilize the same archetype.
So, knowing the current meta means to keep playing over and over until you start seeing repeating patterns. Or, well, with the current age of internet, go to a site that tracks that sort of stuff, depending on the game. The thing is, though, emergent meta-game lives and changes over time. A couple years ago it was hard to find a Warrior that wasn’t a Pirate one, but nowadays more control archetypes have resurged, from Dead Man’s Hand Warrior to Odd Quest Taunt Warrior. Yeah, the name’s a handful.
The meta is represented in a variety of different ways depending on the game genre, from timing and army composition in strategy games to team equipment and approach routes in team shooter games. The important aspect is the knowledge of what the opponent might be doing to figure it out and apply correct counters.
The cycle of a meta-game can be divided in four phases.
Phase 1: Experimentation
This is the moment when everything is new, people are going wild with strategies and approaches, and getting really creative.
Phase 2: Stabilization
During the experimentation stage, some very efficient strategies would have been found and become oftenly used. What would then follow is the process of finding counters to those strategies, and maybe even counters to those counters. The established strategies would also start to figure out how to defend better against the counters. Basically this is the stage when everything tries to balance itself out.
Phase 3: Meta Solved
Eventually, though, comes a point when all strategies are known, counters to them too, and it mostly becomes a matter of skill and meta knowledge to stay competitive. It’s inadvisable though for a game to stay in this phase for long, since it can become quite stale for a big number of people. Which is why the next step is very important.
Phase 4: The Shake Up
A reset of the meta, basically. Can be manifested in the following forms:
- Somebody manages to find a strong strategy that was overlooked in the experimentation and stabilization stage, thus shaking up the meta.
- A balance patch was released, meaning that a lot of old strategies might become inefficient.
- A new expansion, or otherwise prominent new game components, is released, introducing new unknown elements.
The shake up sends the meta back to the start of the cycle - the experimentation stage, though the length of the that and stabilization depends on how powerful the shake up was.
To keep the meta healthy and players engaged, it is important for the cycle to restart pretty regularly. I’ve noticed that a lot of games took to their liking to do a medium-sized shake-up approximately every three months and a huge shake up every year or so, though of course it depends on the game and its community.
So, to recap, a meta-game is a game beyond the game - a loop wrapping itself around the core gameplay experience. It can take form of systems created by developers, or strategies used by players, and the latter one needs regular shake ups to prevent the meta from becoming stale, which can lead to loss of interest in the game among a hefty part of the player base.
Thank you all for watching, I hope you found this video useful. If you have any comments, feel free to leave them below.
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SPECIAL THANK YOU TO
- Commissar Doggo
- Iggy Zuk
- Paolo di Stefano
- Volodymyr Bortyuk
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