Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Metagame: The New, The Old, The Community

Discovery vs. Being Told

It isn’t so much a phenomenon as it is a natural occurrence- since the dawn of gaming, a lack of explicit directions to reach the “win” state has been the norm. It happened on our beloved old Atari games, it happened in Super Mario, and it happens now in our shooter games. As it’s been said before, it’s much more engaging for a player to discover what to do rather than being told what to do.

Most people can easily determine Mario needs to get to the right-most point in the level within a certain timeframe. Most people can figure out in CTF that you the objective is to grab the enemy flag and bring it back to the friendly flag while it’s back at home. To many seasoned gamers, objectives come naturally- and to those new to gaming, it doesn’t take too long to figure out.

But at what point should a developer decide something needs instruction? When asking this question, there are two phrases that come to mind: “emergent gameplay” and “metagame”. Traditionally, both of these are products of the society of gamers themselves, not of the developer. 

Metagame and the Community

In competitive games, the metagame is largely decided upon by players through process of trial and error, a bit of max/min, and doing what works the best. This somewhat harkens back to the “Problem of Choice” when choices become problems with tangible solutions- this is the nature of competitive gaming. Players are more involved and care more about the meta game when they are the ones “discovering” it. All of the upsets, pleasant surprises, and feelings of validity while problem solving cease to exist if the players are told exactly what to do. Either way, you need people who care about the metagame.

What keeps any online game alive is people who care enough about the metagame to promote it and establish it as the “way” to play. To many gamers, strategy is what gives their own actions and the actions of others context and meaning. It makes people feel valuable, and gives them a sense of responsibility. As well, a metagame gives people a tangible means of communicating why they are losing or winning. For players of an online game, carrying out the responsibilities, being efficient, and proving their value to others- being “clutch” – is a large part of what constitutes “fun”- it validates the way they play the game. 

The Holy Trinity

Gary Gygex may have had something similar to “the holy trinity” (the healer, the tank, the damage dealer) in his mind when first creating Dungeons and Dragons, just likely not in such simple terms. Of course you had your Priests who healed, and Wizards who altered the vitals of his teammates as well as his enemies. Back in the old days of pen and paper dungeons and dragons, it was up to the dungeon master to craft a unique scenario for the players that would fit their play style and party composition- so choosing a role to play really was a choice.

When roleplaying games rolled over to computer games, there was no such thing as dynamic quests- at least at the beginning. The same dungeons spawned the same monsters at the same locations more or less. Even with random spawn times, there was a predictable way to counteract the encounters when the same monsters spawned. It is much more likely that the concept of the holy trinity was the result of gamers taking the idea of a choice and condensing it into a problem, because there was a pattern players could observe and take advantage of. The choice became a problem, and the holy trinity was born.

No matter how much class-based game developers try to break the holy trinity, it is still going to exist in their game, to some degree. Because no matter what, there is always going to be a class that is better at doing things than others are- if this wasn’t true, there would be no need for classes. Any game with classes can be looked at with the holy trinity in mind- we just gave the concept a tangible name. 

The Metagame of Tribes

The metagame in Tribes was crafted by players when looking at all the various tools and gadgets they had at their disposable, while also looking at the rules of the capture the flag game. The metagame of Tribes wasn’t clearly defined by the developers. Ideas like defending a base, capturing a flag, deploying and maintaining turrets, putting a player with the heaviest armor an the most hitpoints on the flag to guard it- these were all obvious to seasoned gamers and could be learned fairly fast. But the minute details of the metagame that is used in competitive Tribes- things such as timing a grab with a mortar clear from a teammate, or tossing the flag home right before dying, or “spewing” turrets as a farmer- these were much less obvious.

I for one can say personally I’ve had the most fun in Tribes when I’ve played and understood the metagame, as opposed to pubbing about. It’s really where the game shines, where a real sense of urgency and importance takes form. It’s definitely what I consider to be at the core of the essence of Tribes.

If a new FPZ game were to be made, would the older generation of Tribers care enough about the old meta enough to want to promote it and establish it? Would new players come to discover the meta on their own, therefore reinforcing its validity? The people who played back in the golden age of Tribes are now reaching middle age, have responsibilities, and likely don’t play games as often- and you can tell by the number of veterans still playing the game. Of course, trolling and unfaithful sequels hve probably not helped that at all. But in ways, I don’t blame the makers of T:V and T:A for trying to be different…

...Because they needed to pull in a newer generation of players, to mix up the meta a bit, to get people involved- to get people to care about something new and novel. They felt the need to provide new game mechanics so players would need to establish a new metagame. A metagame the community could care about and grow around.

The old gameplay is only cared about by people who had left the game, or by new players who can deal with being smacked around for a good deal of time- the players who put up with this do it for the challenge, and they can arguably find more fun in another game.

13 years after the release of Tribes 2, with just one public server, you have many players who are unaware of the metagame (or just don’t care), strolling about with their own personal agendas and goals (ex. kills by way of bomber)- and then you have the competitive community playing the metagame and actually getting things done efficiently.

Now, there is some grey area here- now and then a random pubber might be clutch by being at the right place at the right time, but this does not mean they knew what they were doing. On the other end of the spectrum, here are pubbers who slowly learn aspects of the metagame, enough to be functional and do a job for a team. And it goes without saying- younger players, and players of newer games can still discover and have fun in the old style Tribes- while they are a minority, they are surely not outliers in the dataset of all Tribes players. 

Final Thoughts

How much of the old competitive metagame should be adhered to in a new game? And how much should this metagame be explicitly told to the player, if it is not already obvious? Should a player discover the metagame for themselves? Should it be taught by the community by having it crammed down their throats by aggravated players? At one point does tutorial end and discovery begin? (Or vice versa.)

Where does this put us? Is a new-old Tribes game even worth it? Is the old Tribes meta too hardcore and too outdated, and too “tried-and-true” to appeal to younger generations of gamers who don't want to be told explicitly what to do? Is the meta game too set in stone and too predictable and not subject to change, to an extent where it is boring? If that was true, why does the game offer so much replayability- to the point where it is still played today?

These are all questions worth thinking about earnestly.

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