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The Tenth Annual Game Design Think Tank
Project Horseshoe 2015
horseshoe Group Report:
Exploring Metagames and Metagame Systems
   
Participants:
Brad Hall  
Andy Ashcraft  
Facilitator:Jeff Pobst  
  download the PDF

Overview

We believe that those games that have had the longest lifespans and richest histories are so long-lived because of the metagames that have grown around them. These are games like popular sports, like Baseball, or more traditional games like Poker, Magic: The Gathering, and Chess.  We believe that metagames can (and should) be considered part of the complete design of a game.  We hope to produce a list of features and elements of games that can help metagames appear and thrive.

Defining “Metagame”

We have defined a game’s ‘Metagame’ as any interaction about the game that occurs between game sessions, including simple thought about the game.  That is, we include the act of anticipating and planning the cool things you’ll do when you next play as the simplest kind of metagame.  At the most complex, a metagame can include guilds and leagues that form around individual games.

Types of Metagames

As Game Designers, we are responsible for the players’ experience of our games.  This experience begins the first time a screenshot is seen and continues through the last joyful memory of the game.  The actual game-play is just a small portion in a larger experience.  This larger experience that surrounds the core game is the metagame.  It includes:

Watercooler Talk, youTube Videos, Walk-throughs

Sharing and discussing the game is the simplest social form of metagame.  This is where new strategies propagate through the player community.  There is more detail later in this report regarding building game features worth discussing.

Planning / Preparing for Play

The simplest solo form of metagame is the simple act of planning for play.  There may be actions that can be taken: training, preparing equipment, or simply anticipating the next session.

Gamified Experiences: Badges, Points and Achievements

This form of metagame has been used for games and outside of the games industry for all kinds of non-game related activities.  Frequent Flier Points are a common example.  Much has been written about this as ‘gamification’.

Tournaments and League Play (Organized Play)

This is an older form of social, competitive metagame.  The scale and scope ranges from local bowling leagues, through organizing raids on warcraft, to say, tracking the number of medals won in the Olympics.  These additional engagement structures are the enriched fields where the metagame can evolve and community can grow, mutually reinforced.  Please note that even the act of organizing a game session with friends is a valuable part of the metagame.

Social, Personality-based, and “Outside-the-Game” Strategies

An important part of a competitive metagame is knowing and exploiting everything possible about your opponent. Knowing what stadium your team is playing in, or what color deck your opponent is favoring can create opportunities for adjusting your in-game choices and strategies.

Economies: Trading, Markets, Auctions and Collecting

Acquiring, buying, selling and trading in-game resources (in in-game or out-of-game markets).  It could be online “gold”, or rare baseball cards.  These are ways people enjoy a game through the economic metagame.

Stat-Tracking:  Player Rankings, Leaderboards and Fantasy Sports

Ranking players based on measurable statistics: RBI’s, time spent in-game, or by the quality of their opponents.   Tracking these stats is a metagame in itself; fantasy sports has turned the metagame into an actual game.

What all Metagames Have In Common

Seeking personal improvement (skill, strategy, status, etc.) through anticipation of opponent behavior, generally via community. Contributors to the metagames are often collaboration-minded fans, beneficial for the game’s player culture in both influence and insight.

How Metagames Work

This section of the report elaborates on how in-game actions lead to interesting moments and strategies that then become fodder for the game’s metagame.  Please note that when we discuss ‘player-to-player’ behavior, this does not exclude single-player games because players can (and do) interact with each other outside of the confines of the game.

Basic actions and interactions form respective patterns of core gameplay and player-to-player (P2P) gameplay.  That is to say, when a player first learns a new game, they pay close attention to the actions that lead to successes, and then those actions become the building blocks of strategies.  However, because players are unique individuals, they do not all find the same strategies.

At the Meta layer, players anticipate challenging behavior (whether the opponent is another player, AI, or simply the game environment) based on their own strategies, and then adjust when they are surprised or challenged in a new way.

These strategies are communicated through the metagame to other players, who then build them into their own strategies before passing them on to others.  In this way, strategies evolve over time, leading to the possibility of out-dated strategies even when the core game has not changed.

This ‘Meta’ layer of constantly evolving strategies unifies both the core game and social (meta)game.  Of course, strategies (or the potential strategies) must be carefully balanced to prevent a game from becoming ‘solved’ - that is, for one strategy to become and remain dominant.

P2P interactions brings strategy dynamics to life, forming what is commonly referred to as the metagame (esp. in competitive games)  It is player interactions that make the game dynamics dynamic!

Additional engagement structures, such as forums, chat, twitch channel, etc. are the enriched fields where the metagame can evolve and community can grow, mutually reinforced by other players.  These provide self-sought, socially validated goals in the metagame layer.

Perceived values of rewards drive the “social metagame” - essentially metagame economy: players desire the glory they have earned for playing the game in a ‘better’ way than the players before them.

Why You Want A Metagame

A well-balanced metagame naturally drives social interaction among players. These interactions form and strengthen your player community, providing potential for viral growth. Players invested in the metagame assign more value to engagement structures, which keeps them involved as well as deepening their relationship with the game, community, and (ideally) developers. Beneficial relationships with players can yield greater support, raise the public image, and open the door for insightful, actionable feedback.

Designing Games for Metagames

This section proposes features that a game could have that will help a metagame thrive:

  • Asymmetry in some basic way.  This lies at the heart of what players think about, talk about and base their strategies on.  Players must be able to come up with what they feel is their own strategy for playing.
  • Ways for players to indirectly affect each other.  This enhances the asymmetry.
  • Persistence of choices, actions, skills and play-styles across multiple games or play sessions.  Persistence of earned rewards.
  • Transparency and availability of metrics augment community engagement, primarily around the metagame(s).
  • At least three strategies for success. More strategies means more complexity.
  • At least some amount of skill.  That is, games of chance have less to discuss.  Poker has a richer metagame than slot machines.
  • Ways to track the atomic player choices and mastery.  For example, the baseball stat-block (developed by Henry Chadwick in the late 1840’s) allowed that game’s metagame to flourish.  This is easier in the digital age.
  • Your game’s strategies should be allowed to evolve and unfold over time.  M:tG has a system of introducing new cards as they ‘retire’ older cards from tournament play.
  • A common language and means for sharing information and strategies.  These can evolve in the real-world, but designers can build them into the games.
  • A resource economy with multiple points of upward and downward pressures on each trackable, tradable resource.
  • Low levels of uncertainty with the mechanics of your economy.  Players should feel confident they know how things work.

Conclusion

The list above may seem like a recipe for a good game, a game players will talk about with their friends.  That is true, but that is also the very heart of what the metagame is.  We urge Designers to not only think about how to make their games worthy of discussion, but also think about the forms in which these discussions take place, and the artifacts that players will want to use as evidence of their mastery.

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1. Introduction
2. Workgroup Reports Overview
3. Generative Systems, Meaningful Cores
4. 7 Amazing Things You Can Do With Words: Qualities of a Massively Popular, Successful Text Experience
5. Of Minds and Mobs: Game Design for Shared Avatars and Other Weird Collectives
6. Designing Games for the Growing 35+ Market
7. Creating Emotionally Safe Workplaces in Game Development
8. The Impending Singularity and How to Use It
9. Exploring Metagames and Metagame Systems
10. Contrary Game Design: Subverting Player Expectations
11. Ranking and Rating Systems
12. Augmented Reality Theater As An Entertainment Destination
13. Best Practices for Design to Communicate with Other Disciplines
14. Obscene Player Names in Online Games
15. Schedule & Sponsors