In the current era of design trends we often forget how compelling gameplay, in the same vein as a story, relies on the framework built by context, the cumulative effect of our efforts throughout a campaign, or a cleverly addictive loop of mechanics.
It’s the idea that being skilled at the gameplay isn’t enough, a player must interlace their quick-witted maneuvers with an overall vision for masterful execution of the gameplay: The Metagame
This Meta is built upon an understanding of the game as a holistic playing field, every small detail (including glitching, like bunnyhopping) helping to create a thoughtful and well-trained player’s advantage in combat and mechanics. Teams are either made or broken through their choreographed adaptability and pattern recognition instincts forged from years of experience.
A polarizing metagame can often cause strife or toxicity among friends or the community at large, as what works at a high level of play is not always satisfying for more casual playstyles. As games continue to seamlessly integrate matchmaking that blends playstyles into a unified user-base, they also strive to find a sweet spot in order to find a harmonious balance. Small scale games like DOTA2 try to achieve this with league brackets and seasonal balancing sessions: the meta of yesterday is not necessarily the meta of today. Newcomers can often find this obtuse and perplexing, intimidating players out of the game as power creep drives over-wrought complexity like ivy choking a tree.
In a return to form of the previous decade, design trends have moved back toward the simplified familiarity of elimination matches from classics like Counter-Strike, while delicately pairing them at scale with open worlds previously not possible: Battle Royale is born. It’s a genre that strives for a more broadly accessible fast-pace, emphasizing reflexive decision making against the backdrop of thoughtful play. Using chaos as the great equalizer, talented players may have an easier route to victory, but the greater sandbox ensures they do not do so with impunity.
In contrast, survival games make for a much slower style that generates an endless supply of campfire stories; fledgling alliances, like a volatile cocktail of fire and gasoline, built on the razor’s edge of distrust and paranoia. Relying on weeks of natural human behavior, these games focus on building momentum as they push out territorial expansion to an inevitable rubber-banding of resources leading to a crescendo: raids and large scale clan skirmishes.
But in these games the meta is an abstract concept, an ethereal grasp of hard-won knowledge and hidden secrets. It is not a tangible force the uninitiated can leverage until they’ve accumulated enough experience, making for a compelling investment for players to keep returning to, but easily usurped when the newest iteration makes clever tweaks to the formula.
The metagame is an implicit concept instead of an explicit one, hybrid games, being two genres fused together, turn this on its head, shifting the metagame back from an implicit to an explicit model. Tactical shooters like Rainbow Six used to feature a planning phase for approaching possible scenarios, and this is a tactic utilized by player teams even in the absence of in-game tools or mechanisms. Elsewhere, Natural Selection 2 gave us real-time strategy elements that served to give individual combat scenarios a greater meaning in the battle for success, visualizing hard-won struggles or flawless offensives as intuitive feedback
While hybrid games don’t necessarily lack the mysterious qualities of games with implicit meta, they help new players grasp that the game has intersecting systems, encouraging mentorship of newcomers by veteran players. It’s clear that players aren’t just thrill-seekers, they crave rich gameplay mechanics that allow them to carve a useful place for their own individual play-styles. If a developer can cater to that desire, then we may have the chance to move past serialized flavor-of-the-week streamer favorites and return to games with a stronger, enduring legacy.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice