The metagame is the evolution of gameplay strategies outside of the game itself, including the gathering of game knowledge from external sources and players studying others’ strategies.The progress of the metagame represents the players exploring the multitude of strategic opportunities a deep game (“hardcore” deep, not “casual” deep) presents. Only deep games have rewarding metagames.
The metagame strips away all but the ludic elements of the game. All fluff, be it story or even the transitions between levels in platformers, is skipped over because it does not contribute to the strategy-space of the game. As soon as a part of the game’s story is tied to a game mechanic, awareness of the metagame will erode the narrative elements until the player is left with only a conception of the mechanic as a piece of the game rules.
Company of Heroes (prior to the release of the first expansion, Opposing Fronts) was a great “RTS” game. It had a relatively rich metagame that shifted over time based on swapping replays of interesting matches and talking on forums about strategy. Many different strategies had their time in the spotlight. For a while the game was a contest of who could get to the end-game heavy tanks, the Pershing for Allies and the King Tiger for the Germans, and harness their power the fastest. Some serious patching completely changed the fabric of the game, leading to infantry-heavy strats dominating. The brief era of pioneer-spam saw many frustrated players until it was patched. The strategy-space was fairly well-explored by the time Opposing Fronts released, but people were still playing the game plenty and finding new and creative ways to win—even after many months no one had reduced the game to a simple spam strat for any meaningful amount of time. The metagame was vibrant and, though not as deep as a elder statesman like Starcraft, provided me with many hours of entertainment in itself.[In retrospect, this is not a good example because I make it seem as if the metagame should rely on changes to the game rules--a game with a deep metagame does not need such changes to remain interesting. In a way, patching changes the game enough to force the player to recalculate their view of the metagame. This doesn't really correlate to adding depth, just moves the players to a different part of the proverbial strategy pool. -Ev]
There is Fun in Games Sans Metagames
But not every game has a healthy metagame—or any metagame at all. For some games, metagaming ruins the gameplay. A player may enjoy playing through a game in a natural, unaided fashion for one and only one time. Brenda Braithwaite’s Train is an example of this: once the player understand the game, the meaning of the game is significantly altered and the game is compromised as a game, though perhaps not as a piece of art. Entering such a game with a very attainable degree of metagame knowledge renders the game uninteresting. Learning about the game outside of the game itself breaks the natural process of exploration that some games rely upon. These games cannot be good games of strategy. Strategic thinking is not a primary goal of such a game, or, if the game does aim to have serious depth, the game mechanics are not well-designed. [Knowledge of the "twist" in Train does change the gameplay--I was way too aggressive by stating that the game is compromised by multiple playthroughs. The real point here is that some games don't focus on strategy and don't need depth to be fun or affecting. -Ev]
I am not decrying games that do not have meaningful metagames. Such games have other roles to play in the pantheon of entertainment. They are entertaining in a decidedly limited (though that limit may not necessarily be low) fashion, like a good action movie might be. This doesn’t mean that they are inferior or to be frowned upon. They can lead to as much, if not more, entertainment than a serious game in the hands of certain players. They’re games that most players can sit down and enjoy, they simply are not games to be taken seriously by the player as a game. They played “casually”. Players do not study such games and they are given no real reason to study. A player will proceed through the game in 10, 20, maybe as many as 40 hours—perhaps even playing through a few times—and then disregard the game because the game is “finished”. Most games are like this, and the vast majority of people who play games spend the vast majority of their time playing such “casual” games.
(I put “casual” in quotes for a good reason. I do not mean to relabel or reinterpret the idea of casual gaming, but in comparison with the kind of gaming that goes on in metagame-intensive games, players approach less deep games in a decidedly casual way.)
“Hardcore” is not Serious
Themepark MMOs almost universally are not serious games. A game is not a serious game simply because it requires a significant time investment to reach some goal. Themepark MMOs are very long multiplayer games—they are “casual” games that have more content than most others and an environment of social competition that urges players to continue playing through grinds and boredom.
“Hardcore” games are not necessarily serious games. Games that punish excessively and reward sparingly—games that make mundane goals ridiculously difficult to achieve (I’m thinking primarily of bullet-hell games and games like Flail), are not necessarily serious games, either. Difficulty does not dictate if a game is serious.
A game’s strategic depth—having more to learn about strategy within the game—as signaled through its metagame indicates if it is a serious game.
MMOs bother me because they delay a player’s participation in any kind of meaningful metagame for a month or two while their character levels. I don’t want to arbitrarily wait a month before being able to experience the fullness of the game. Even when I do get there, the metagame is often a flat expanse of memorizing raid strats and FOTM builds. PvP is the only facet of MMOs that usually offers much strategy worth considering, but this strategy is often overwhelmed by gear differentials, and gear differential breaks down into time spent, not techniques learned and mastered. MMOs are a composition of many different games—but most of these games are “casual” or casual.
I’m primarily interested in bringing a serious game mentality to MMO design. In this way MMOs can become almost endless in playability as a game as well as a social experience. Not only would a serious MMO offer plenty of content to players at different skill levels, it would offer years of material to learn and recontextualize content.
Around serious games societies bloom. A substantial game provides a common ground for diverse players with unique goals to come together for a common cause. This will build communities that are tighter and stronger than themepark MMO communities. A serious MMO does not need to have 100,000 subscribers to stay around, because a group of 10,000 dedicated players could sustain the game. There would not be much tourism and turn-over from such a game, because it presents a deep and unique opportunity that is differentiated from other games in the genre. Serious games cannot be a rehashed with success, because the mechanics must be well thought-out and maintained to promote a strong metagame.
It’s not easy to design serious games, but I think that serious MMOs can make money. They will definitely be better for players—more fun for longer—than the current trend.