Ecologies of Play

This is an extended reply to a comment raised in connection with Are Videogames Made of Rules? If you haven’t read this earlier piece, you might want to start there.

BloxelsDear Bart,

What is it that we take a rule to be? Is it a wording, is it a practice, is it a formal constraint? This ambiguity about what we mean by ‘rule’ lies at the heart of the difference between the argument I developed in Are Videogames Made of Rules? and the counter-argument you provided at length in the comments. What I hope to do here is clarify my position by responding to your extremely detailed counter, and hopefully shed some light on what it might mean for anything to be ‘made of rules’.

I always appreciate it when you engage with my arguments because you have an unswerving desire to take off all the panelling and poke around with the interior workings. Sometimes, you even put it back together again afterwards! I wish peer reviewers were as interested in engaging with my arguments as you are, but alas the practices of the academy have strayed about as far from virtuous discourse as could be imagined.

Let me break down your observations and respond to different points one at a time, in the hope that this will bring out the points of interest in both our positions.

1. You’re answering your question as though it was being stated as ‘Are games made entirely of rules?’

I don't think this is quite right: no-one makes that particular claim, which is clearly excessive. But you’re correct that there is another aspect of the claim that ought to be unveiled. I don’t think the missing term is ‘entirely’ but perhaps ‘fundamentally’. If games were ‘fundamentally made of rules’ it would mean that everything game-like was comprised of rules (plus whatever else those rules worked on, including such diverse things as players, dice, polygonal models, tensor arrays and so forth). My claim here is that this is only true in so much as the fundamental (=impossible to remove) element of elements are translatable into rules. That still gives a special status for rules – but that status ceases to be ontological (i.e. about the nature of the existence of games). This point is so subtle I didn’t draw attention to it, since I really didn’t think anyone was going to engage with this piece. But I was apparently mistaken!

2. You discuss ‘games’ as though this is synonymous with examples of individual games, but ‘games’ and ‘a game’ are significantly different in the context of your question.

This is such a clever observation it may exceed my ability to do it justice! Broadly, you are correct to say this but my usage is not accidental, it is merely not explained in this piece. ‘Games’ for me is a term that broadly means [Superset(game)]. I don't have time here to expand this point (although I will return to this later this year…) beyond saying that ‘games’ for me is just a term for the set of all sets of whatever is called ‘a game’. But your objection still has bite: that superset can’t be directly identified with individual games, which are ‘merely’ elements in that superset. But, and here’s the key point, the superset is not amenable to access in any other way since it inherently denies the attempts at unification implicit to every attempt to provide a master definition of ‘game’. I ought to be more careful about how I draw those lines, and I thank you for making me think about this more carefully.

3. There’s an elision of important differences going on in your argument between the nature of a game meant to be played by people sitting in a room together with the human rulesmaster and a game meant to be played by strangers separated in time and space from each other and from a potentially non-human rulesmaster.

Here we may disagree. I accept the broad point, in that the possibility space of the former is on-paper much larger than the latter, but how locked down or open a game is to on-the-fly modification isn’t necessarily a function of tabletop versus otherwise. MUDs are the obvious examples of videogames with far more variability than any non-RPG tabletop game.

So I don't think I’m eliding those differences, as I don’t see this split in quite the same way. But you are surely correct that the subtleties of distinction here are something I largely brush under the carpet for brevity. But that’s what comments like yours are so good at teasing out of the woodwork!

On to your commentaries on my objections:

But games (as generally understood) do include rules of play as a required feature for comprehensible interaction with a product intended to entertain, so in that sense, games are made of rules.

I don’t think that can be right... the presence of rules is no evidence of constitution. Every car ships with a manual but you would not be tempted to say an automobile was ‘made of instructions’. This may sound flippant, but the point is not: I am saying rules are intimately tied to games as a discourse involved in their play. That discourse has most force in its role of helping players acquire (or apply) the player practices required to play any game artefact in the manner ‘intended’. But just because of this, I am suggesting that those player practices are constitutive of games; the rules are the helpful discourse surrounding those practices, but are not constitutive, per se.

...your question refers to ‘games’ in the plural, and your argument points out (correctly, I think) that games as an ecosystem for playing certainly do seem to include components that aren’t just about dictating how to play. But an ecosystem for play is certainly not the same thing as a game, which is the direct experience that will be had by most persons engaging in structured play.

This is a fascinating claim in itself, and I love the whole idea of ‘an ecosystem for playing’, which you derive from my arguments. Miguel Sicart, in Play Matters, also talks about ecologies of play (drawing against actor-network theory), and it is one of the more engaging aspects of his book. This distinction between ‘games’ (as an ecosystem for playing) and ‘a game’ is extremely subtle and intriguing. As a game designer, I am always trying to leverage my experience as a play ecologist, and vice versa! The ecosystem for playing could be taken as the set of all player practices plus the set of all toys or components that can be played with – and that is a very different way of thinking about games and play than attempting to found an ironclad definition.

…’a game,’ for most individual games, can perhaps fairly be said to be ‘made of rules’ in that formal rules comprise a good majority of the stuff that defines that particular game.

Here I am obligated to explain why treating player practices as constitutive is a more robust interpretation than treating rules as such. And the clearest answer I can offer is that any player can learn to play any game without any access to the rules, provided another player is available to induct them into the practices of the game. The fewer new practices they must acquire, the easier this is.

For a tabletop game, the rulebook this set of practices eventually becomes can be seen as a static snapshot of the player practices of the design team in respect of the game, discussing how their game is played. That each group of players will inevitably vary those player practices is one of the reasons I am suggesting we treat player practices as constitutive of games rather than rules, because the rules as written remain the same but the games being played with those rules can be quite diverse – even if all you take into account is the differences in interpretation and not greater variations like house rules. I don’t think any two groups of players engaging with a Fantasy Flight game are playing the same way, as the rules often leave open a certain number of ambiguous points that the players have to negotiate and settle on their own.

For videogames, the distance between the rules and the player practices is even greater and we have two possible claims for what the rules might be: they could be the game design documentation (in so much as it is accurate to the game artefact) or they could be the programmed code of that artefact. I hope it’s clear that the former option won’t hold up. Most game design documentation is only a scaffold (albeit a tremendously helpful one – it’s one of the two things my company has specialised in producing). The latter option is more challenging to refute. My claim here is that programmed code constitutes rules for the computer but not for the player. This is one sense in which “Videogames are made of rules” – but since the computer does not play the game we must at least concede that this sense is substantially different from what that phrase would usually be taken to mean.

Now the program code is an important part of any videogame. In this piece, it is ‘what the players play with’, like the board and pawns and cards are ‘what the players play with’ at the tabletop. But I am claiming it is misleading to say “videogames are made of rules” because my general argument about what “games are made of” applies to videogames too. The rules in a tabletop game are a translation of the player practices; the programmed rules in a videogame are also a translation of this kind – indeed, multiple translations: the programmer translates the intended player practices and artefactual properties into symbolic code, then the compiler translates that into machine code. The machine code is a set of rules for the computer, of course, but not in any game-significant sense. Because of the translations, I say that the developers of a game are players-by-proxy in the game that all players play with a videogame artefact. That might be the most revolutionary claim I’m making here – and I don't expect many people to follow me on this. But I do want to assert the validity of this understanding.

I wonder whether considering this argument – being clear about whether your assertion refers to ‘games’ or ‘a game’ – might help to strengthen your argument.

This is one of the most intriguing assertions in your comment, one that builds on this distinction between ‘play ecosystems’ and individual game experiences. But I hope it’s clear that individual game experiences are comprised of player practices and the artefacts played with just as much as play ecosystems are. What the play ecosystem has over and above this are the development circumstances that place additional constraints upon what can be played. The play ecosystem offers a more complete picture – but I still contend my argument applies to those individual play experiences as well.

If your goal is to argue that any randomly-selected individual game is mostly not made of rules, I think that’s going to be much the harder (and more interesting) sell.

I hope in the preceding remarks I have had a reasonable shot at making that sale! I appreciate that no-one is obligated to follow me into my rabbit hole… but anyone who does will not find anything substantially out of place with my way of arranging things. And it gives a much clearer perspective on both ‘games’ and any particular ‘game’ by entirely setting aside individual definitions of ‘game’ as merely aesthetic statements (as I introduced many years back now with Implicit Game Aesthetics).

Now we come to a specific objection that requires some redirect...

Your arguments use D&D (more generally, pre-video tabletop games) as an example, and that’s fair; it’s a game, but it has a large quantity of input supplied on the spot from human players. But you then use D&D as a template for judging other games, and because they also have human input you conclude that all games are like D&D (because all games have human input) and thus all games, like D&D, are mostly not ‘made of’ rules.

I don’t think this is quite the line my argument is developed upon, but it is a clear point in my argument where additional clarification is required. The point is not about the near infinite agency of tabletop RPGs – if it were, everything would be a pale shadow of that. The point about D&D I was making here is that the ways that it was played were not specified by the rules at all, but grew out of different cultures of play (different player practices). Thus contemporary tabletop RPGs descend from the role-play lineage that stresses the taking on of a fictional role, and some computer RPGs are, at the very least, inspired by this style of play. Conversely, roguelike games descend from the rule-play, dungeon bash approach which was all about murderizing monsters for treasure (an approach that was also more likely to engage with permanent death, a feature the roguelikes have tended to inherit). These wildly different play cultures, the player practices of which continue to have lineage descendants even now, were not in any way specified by the rules of D&D.

You might want to object that this is a special case, that the play of videogames is more tightly constrained by the programmed artefact, and hence the rules. But that’s not exactly what you find when you look. Spawn camping is not prevented by any formal rules of online games, it is a normative constraint of the community of players. We can express that as a rule – but it is not manifested as a rule in that community but as a practice. Players know what not to do and why – but ask them to put that into words (to translate it into rules) and you will get myriad versions. The practices are consistent. The rule is an afterthought.

What about single player games? Let’s take a classic style Resident Evil. It is in no way part of the rules of these games that two players pad pass (“you do the fighting”), or that you creep save by returning often to the safe room, or that you speed run and never save. Those are the actual player practices. They are informed by the construction of the programmed artefact, of course, but my claim is that it is what players actually do – both with and against the intentions of the developer – that constitutes the games being played with Resident Evil.

Now for the crucial finishing move: the construction of the programmed artefact is also a product of player practices, those acquired by the developer from other games that they then conserve and modify to make their own game. That Resident Evil can be translated into rules is an undeniable fact. My claim is only that it is the player practices that comprise the game – both as-played, and as-made. Any rules we would care to state are best understood as translations of those player practices.

This is the line of argument I'm developing here. It’s subtle, and it won’t appeal to everyone. But it is an extremely robust position.

Humans in a room together can make up a lot of things as they go. But to deliver the required perception of fairness (which I know is a whole other subject of interest to you), a game must be defined as composed mostly of rules that are stable, that are enforced equitably for all players, and that can be applied automatically by a computer program. (See ‘code is law.’) The farther you go from humans-in-a-room to MMORPG, the more that individual game is indeed ‘made of rules,’ because it has to be in order to achieve its intended function. The more that players are separated and unable to agree on rules ad hoc, the more the rules must be codified and enforced as written... and thus the greater percentage of ‘the game’ is constituted by the rules.

My claim is that this perception of fairness is rooted in normative practices that are translatable into rules but are neither enforced nor learned not practiced as rules in any tangible sense of this term. Yes, the programmed artefact is a key part of the propagation and enforcement of those practices. But the artefact is a translation of the normative practices imagined by the developers translated into ‘computer rules’ (code), which are not game rules in any viable sense, and they are only ‘law’ by analogy to physical laws, which are only ‘law’ by analogy in the first place! The players learn these practices from either direct engagement with the artefact itself, or from reading translations into rules in FAQs, wikis etc. The artefact is immutable under standard conditions, sure, but it is not made of rules – or at least, not in the sense of game rules. It is made of machine code, which are rules for computers, but these rules are not even remotely like game rules, and no FAQ, wiki, or player can give a translation of these that would make sense of their actual play.

You make one final point of great interest...

I further suspect that it’s acceptable to think that most games are made mostly of rules as a requirement for recognizability. I love Minecraft’s emergent outcomes probably more than most gamers. But I can still think it’s made mostly of rules or else it wouldn't be recognizable as Minecraft.

Here, you make a fascinating deeper claim – that it is the rules that constitute the identity of the game. I have great sympathy for this claim. But if you accept my argument that any attempt to describe Minecraft in rules is only a translation of its player practices, this point becomes the observation that it is the specific constraints upon which player practices develop – and the affordances these permit, upon which the player practices diversify – that constitute the identify of a game. And here, expressed in this arcane yet salient fashion, lies the very possibility of saying that something is “basically the same game.”

I thank you enormously for your deep engagement with my argument. I hope in developing a reply, you can see why your argument could not be persuasive for me. But it is more than entertaining for me to engage in these deep discussions: it helps me clarify what it is that I mean to say. And that is invaluable.

With grateful thanks,


Further discussion on these points is always welcome, so feel free to share your perspective in the comments.

What Are Little Games Made Of...?

Wooden Game PartsGenuinely surprised and delighted by the response last week’s Are Videogames Made of Rules? produced. I really expected it to sink without a trace. The discussions, which you can follow in the comments, have exceeded my available time – but I am not done talking about this by a long shot! I am planning some follow up pieces to explore some of the issues raised, but they will have to wait until later in the year.

Briefly, however, I’d like to stress that this is one of those pieces where I am arguing against myself – I had previously advanced a view that the fundamental building blocks of games were rules, and this included videogames (the algorithms of which can be understood as rules). Now that people such as Paul Gestwicki, Raph Koster, Chris De Leon, Patrick Davis, Bart Stewart, Petri Lankoski‏, and others have thrown in on the issue, I see there is much further to take this argument – both in terms of clarifying and solidifying its original direction, and in terms of important tangents as well.

A new serial is about to start over at Only a Game, but once that is wrangled I’ll definitely return to this issue and take it further. Many thanks to everyone who has waded in thus far!

Are Videogames Made of Rules?

World OptionsDoes it make sense to say that videogames are made of rules? We might say that about boardgames or playground games, but even in these cases it’s not clear ‘rules’ are enough. Ultimately, is there anything that underpins all kinds of games and gives them something like ‘atoms’, or is the whole notion of a some common element lying beneath all games suspect?

Since Minecraft appeared in 2009, game developers have been becoming far more open to the idea of letting players control their own play experience. One of the distinctive features of Mojang’s all-conquering sandbox is the freedom the player has to determine the regime that governs their player experience – just building, exploring without monsters, struggle to survive, pursue adventure, and so forth. While options go back to the early strategy videogames, who inherit the flexibility of their tabletop predecessors, Minecraft's choices go further, changing the fundamental nature of the games being played. This has been a trend far wider than any one game: Bethesda’s Oblivion in 2006 ruffled some players’ feathers by providing a difficulty slider that could be changed whenever the player wanted, even if this voided all challenge as a result. This concept of player-controlled difficulty (which differs from choosing a difficulty at the start of a game that you must then abide by) has become increasingly widespread, for all that certain games, such as Vlambeer’s Nuclear Throne, build their player experience upon a static – and wickedly high! – degree of challenge.
As an example of these general trends in game design becoming more pervasive, consider 2012’s co-op pirate RPG Windward. At the start of each game, a screen appears (pictured above) from which the player decides upon the set up of the overarching conditions for what is about to be played. They can select whether other players can bring in already powered-up ships from other worlds, whether items scale-down to the level of the current area to keep the game challenging, choose whether the factions are already at war, determine the degree of the restrictions on capturing towns, and set their own difficulty level by tuning the strength of enemy ships and the pacing of combat. These choices are framed as ‘Options’. But clearly these decisions alter the rules of the game about to be played, and do so to a degree that in the 1980s and 90s would have been inconceivable to the videogame community.
Giving players control of fundamental aspects of how a game plays is a relatively new phenomenon, perhaps little more than a century old. Late Victorian boardgames and early twentieth century tabletop games offered variations in the rulebook that are equivalent to the options in a game like Windward or Minecraft. In tabletop games, what became known around the sixties as ‘house rules’ have always existed: players alter certain rules of a game they’ve been taught to satisfy their own player experience, then teach those rules to others. It is this that has created a great many of the established card games, as well as variations of many other games such as mah jong (the British version, for instance, has a concept of ‘special hands’ wildly alien to the traditional Chinese game). As already mentioned, early strategy videogames inherited some of this flexibility, but they kept the core idea of a tactical or strategic battle challenge and never flirted with, for instance, removing combat and letting the player simply explore. It is that kind of radical shift in the players’ choices that Minecraft pioneers.
Jesper Juul and Miguel Sicart asserted in the 2000s and 2010s that one of the unique qualities of videogames is the inflexibility of their rules. I have argued against that: as a relic of 8-but computer gaming, I’m extremely comfortable with changing the rules of games – I peeked and poked a great many games on the Commodore 64, for instance, usually to make it more plausible to complete them in something less than geological time. It is easier to change the rules of most videogames than, say, a professional sport. Also, I’d like to note that personally I'm thrilled when people hack my own games for their satisfaction, even when it breaks the experience I intended (trainers for Ghost Master, for instance): it shows they care about the game I made.
Of course, multiplayer online games – whether World of Warcraft or Pokémon GO – have tighter security. Players of the former, however, can appeal to Blizzard for desired changes to the rules with at least some possibility of being heard, while players of the latter are out of luck: Niantic have their hands full just keeping the 65 million player infrastructure working. Nonetheless, it cannot be considered a conceptual tenet of videogames that their rules are fixed, as Juul and Sicart suggest. Honestly, I don’t think there is anything ontologically unique about videogames... their apparent uniqueness says more about their players’ aesthetic values than the artefacts in question. If you are unconvinced, try comparing Sega’s electro-mechanical arcade games of the sixties with early arcade videogames in the next decade.
Now it makes a certain kind of logical sense to say a boardgame is ‘made of rules’ and that understanding can be extended to videogames. As I have suggested many time before, the game design practices of early videogames descended directly from those of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons or the Avalon Hill strategy games. But there is a cost to this description: the material components of those tabletop games are not made of rules... rules may constrain what appears on a D&D character sheet up to a point, but there is much that goes on in that regard which cannot reasonably be considered ‘rules’ – the description of the character for a start. An attempt to make rules the ‘atoms’ of games will come up against these loose ends, as well as the unavoidable fact that a polyhedral die is not a rule, for all that rules can be related to them.
The same problem extends to videogames. Suppose we try to accept the crude analogy that a game’s code is its ‘rules’. We are already on shaky ground when we think of a polygonal texture (which is part of the game’s code) as a ‘rule’. Moreover, just like dice are not rules, a game controller is not a rule, nor is a video display, an audio speaker, text duplicated in EFIGS languages, or the bits and bytes of a save game. There is much more to a game than the parts that lend themselves to being described in rules, however broadly we construe that term.
The unavoidable conclusion is, unless we take a very narrow view of what counts as a ‘game’ (and many do just this...), we must concede that games are not made of rules. Indeed, perhaps a better way of understanding the relationship between rules and games is not that rules are constitutive of games but that the constraints upon play within games can be readily expressed in a verbal translation we call ‘a rule’. In other words, rules can be understood as a translation of the practices that make up a game, and this includes both player practices (things the players do) and creator practices (such as those that lead to executable code in a videogame).
In tabletop games, this process of translating the play of a game into written rules was precisely how game designers both formalised what happened in the game they were creating, and later communicated that experience to its eventual players. Prototypes, however, rarely required written rules to be played, so these usually came later. Rulebooks were thus both ‘analogue game code’ and a tutorial – usually a very bad one. But the game itself, however that term is understood, consisted of players exercising player practices with the material components of the game (up to and including physical spaces, written descriptions, air modulated into words etc.).
Importantly, the actual player practices of the pre-videogame era differed from group to group, not just because of intentional ‘house rules’ but because the rulebook was already an imprecise translation of the creators’ player practices, and this brought in all the problems of translation. As the Italians say, “all translation is betrayal.” So the ‘game’ of Dungeons & Dragons from this perspective was not equivalent to the rulebook but rather the set of all player practices from all the groups that played it, which is why the same rulebook could inspire such radically different videogame lineages as the rule-play focussed Rogue-likes on the one hand or the role-play focussed The Elder Scrolls series on the other.
When we come to videogames, the most significant change is that one of the players is a computer or, perhaps more convincingly, the creators of the game artefact are surrogate players in every game played with it. I speak of ‘the game artefact’ here to preserve the idea that the games played are those conducted by the players engaging with the game artefact, which constrains that play in certain ways, but which can never entirely be in control of the games that happen when those artefacts are put into the hands of actual players (hence the concept of metagames). The game artefact is what links creators of any game artefact with their eventual players, and in videogames the computer device (console, PC, smartphone etc.) serves as a local proxy for those creators, echoing their intentions in so much as they are not modified by the players, hardware problems, porting coders etc. Because computers are such reliable mediators in this regard, rulebooks (manuals) have fallen by the wayside, along with the very need to express the player practices through translation into verbal rules.
Except, then we come to Minecraft’s regimes of play, Oblivion’s difficulty slider, or Windward’s ‘options’ – and these are rules once more, because there is a necessary translation without which the player could not understand what they were selecting. Go back to the wordings in the screenshot of Windward above: these precisely-termed ‘options’ patiently explain what checking a box will cause to happen. And these ‘options’ are rules, just like those in a tabletop rulebook. What they are not, of course, is atomic to the play of any of these games, since what makes possible any game (however that term is understood) is not so much the rules as it is the kind of being that has the capacity to play in the first place. A kind of being like humans, dogs, and birds that imagines itself in a world.
Games are not made of rules at all: games are made of players and the things they play with. Rules are simply one especially significant manner that players – including those particularly special players, the creator of any given game artefact – use to communicate their player practices to one another. But there is no atomic element at the base of all play and all games, neither rules, nor ‘ludemes’, nor mechanics, nor code... Play is the interrelation of beings who have the capacity to imagine with a world that permits them to exercise that faculty. If games are anything in relation to rules, they are the forms of play that are best suited to having the practices of their players translated into words.
Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome!

Metagame vs Structure

Metroid MapWhat is a metagame and how is it different from a game’s structure?

The structure of a game is the framework of the design that compels players to keep playing over the long term. There are numerous different game structures, including narrative structures (linear, branching, threaded), geographical (sequential, hub and level, open world), and in terms of character advancement (class and level, advantages/perks etc.). Conversely, the metagame is the social consequence of releasing a game into a community of players, an ever-changing set of tactical and strategic considerations that have to be taken into account if players are going to remain engaged with the games’ community.

Understanding the distinction between these two concepts is crucial to effective game design (although it isn’t strictly necessary to understand these concepts by these specific names, of course). In this piece, I hope to disentangle some confusions about the relationship between game structure and metagame, to emphasise the benefits to thinking carefully about both, and raise some concerns about the ‘monetisation metagame’. Any game designer worth their salt is already thinking about both structure and metagame, and it can be helpful to see where these terms come from, and how they relate to your own mental model for understanding games.

Game Structures

The first games with significant structures may well have been the strategy games that influenced Dungeons & Dragons (1974), from which the concept of ‘campaign’ was inherited and spread to the wider community through TSR’s underground hit. D&D’s use of ‘campaign’ as a narrative structure that linked individual scenarios into a dynamic story-telling medium was innovative, and extremely influential on videogames. But it was the invention of character advancement that was the real structural innovation of the first tabletop role-playing game, generating long-term play by asking players to acquire experience points (XP) in order to gain levels, and thus increase in both power and narrative potential. This structure provides a powerful and compelling player experience in part because it combines the strengths of narrative progression with the compulsion of ‘prizes’ to be won, all linked together in a reward schedule far more sophisticated that anything B.F. Skinner considered.

Around the same time, videogames were experimenting with very simplistic structures necessitated by their technological limitations. Early arcade games were built upon lives or a timer system: players played the game until they were out of lives, or until the timer ran out. This drove the microtransaction economy of the arcade: coin drops. When you ran out of lives, you put in another coin to start again and, after Atari’s Gauntlet (1985), to continue. On home computers and consoles, which were purchases at a fixed price, there was no need for such a frantic style, and the compact structure of the arcades quickly gave way to new fictional geographies that supported longer play times.

Games like the Stamper brother’s Atic Atac (1983) and Matthew Smith’s Jet Set Willy (1984) changed the way structure worked by opening up the geography of the game world for exploration. Later, with the addition of a primitive save function, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda and Metroid (both 1986) took this further by mediating how players progressed: special items could be collected that allowed the players to reach new areas, driving curiosity and supporting more compelling exploration play. Today, a significant proportion of AAA videogames have settled upon an open world structure descended from Grand Theft Auto (1997) and its key influence, Elite (1984), a format which from the earliest days combined the advancement systems of D&D with the fictional geographies of early home videogames. It is a powerful – but expensive to develop – combination.

As game designers, decisions about structure provide ways to get maximum value from minimum development expense. A good character advancement system can wring a lot of player hours out of the same core content, and an expansive geography can also provide similar benefits, either through reuse of tiled content or via procedural generation (or a combination of the two). Structural design decisions determine how long players will play a game before they feel it has been ‘completed’, and as such this crosses over into narrative design for most games. As a result, structure is the core of the game design process for a great many styles of game.


Whereas structural design is foundational to game design in general, metagame design is always player experience design at the level of the community. It is perhaps most commonly encountered in the sense of the distribution of tactics and strategies in a particular player community, but the term originally had an even wider sense when first used by Richard Garfield, designer of Magic: The Gathering, in a presentation at GDC in 2000:

Definition of Metagame: My definition of metagame is broad. It is how a game interfaces with life. A particular game, played with the exact same rules will mean different things to different people, and those differences are the metagame. The rules of poker may not change between a casino game, a neighborhood nickel-dime-quarter game, and a game played for matchsticks, but the player experience in these games will certainly change. The experience of roleplaying with a group of story oriented players and playing with some goal oriented power gamers is entirely different, even though the underlying rules being played with may be the same.

It is immediately apparent how the metagame is distinct from structure, since the structure is part of the internal design task of the development team, while the metagame is how the game interacts with its player community. It is a strictly an internal-external split that positions these two terms against one another. That Garfield coined the term is fitting since Magic: The Gathering is a superlative example of a metagame in action: the balance of cards used in player-constructed decks is constantly in flux as a result of the changes in the pool of available cards. One of the chief factors affecting a new card being considered for release by Wizards of the Coast are the effects on the metagame: is it going to shake things up and keep it interesting? Is it going to annoy too many players? Is it fatal to a particular style of play?

The name ‘metagame’ is well chosen: ‘meta’ from the Greek μετά meaning ‘after’ or ‘beyond’. The metagame happens both after a game is released, and is beyond its core design. There were, of course, metagames before Magic: The Gathering… Steve Jackson Games’s Car Wars (1980) supported a fascinating metagame via the Uncle Albert’s Auto Shop and Gunnery Stop faux advertisements in Autoduel Quarterly magazine. The designers of the game faced very similar issues to those Wizards of the Coast would encounter in terms of what the newly-created weapons and defensive options would do to the player tactics in their tabletop battle game. Today, we see significant metagames in MOBAs in the context of character choices and team balance, in choices of gym defenders in Niantic’s Pokémon Go AR game, and more or less anywhere that the player community bears an influence upon the further development of a game – which thanks to analytics, means almost everywhere.

For some reason (probably a blend of ignorance and an innocent coining of a ‘new’ term), Bungie called the campaign scoring in Halo 3 (2007) ‘the meta-game’. This should not be confused with metagames in Garfield’s sense, since Bungie’s ‘meta-game’ is in actuality structural in nature. It is not that this term is ‘wrong’ so much as it is not helpful. From Bungie’s perspective, it probably seemed as if the individual FPS battles were ‘the game’ and so any game layer above this could be called ‘the meta-game’. This does makes sense in terms of the original Greek term… it’s just not helpful because it is clearly just a matter of game structure. To insist on calling solely the real-time action ‘the game’ is to claim that Bungie doesn’t sell games at all, but rather software that happens to have games embedded inside. That’s strictly correct. But it’s not in any way helpful.

Designing for the metagame is a serious challenge, because you don’t know what you have until it’s out in the world. Even closed betas aren’t really a test for how this will pan out (although having this data is always an asset!) since what a subset of players do is radically distinct from what a wider community of players will end up doing. As game designers, we plan for the metagame – we want it if it's possible – and then we have to work hard to keep the meta from stagnating. Maintenance of the metagame is where the craft of game design and the art of community management collide, and successful companies are those that can make these different practices work together.

Monetisation as Metagame

A new set of circumstances for game design were created by the rise and flourishing of the free-to-play, microtransaction driven business model (circumstances quite unlike those fostered by the ‘free version, paid version’ freemium model it directly descends from). The monetisation strategies that developers pursue for acquiring revenue from microtransactions constitute a metagame, one that risks pitting the player and the developer against each other. It could be argued this was already the case for, say, Magic: The Gathering, which generated absurd revenue from its booster pack business model (a form of material microtransaction, you might say!).

What is apparent whichever way the lines are drawn is that games that published periodic expansions, sequels, or DLC like Car Wars or Super Smash Brothers used their metagames to maintain community interest in the brand, and thus support the fanbase. The fans bought the new games or expansions because they were enjoying playing the game, and the metagame maintenance was a service to the fanbase the developer provided in order to maintain a positive relationship and keep its core business strong. The developers best interests were served by this – but so too were the players’ best interests. It was a cybervirtuous relationship.

In monetisation by microtransaction (‘free to play’, but also more than this, since console games have recently discovered the ‘pay-and-pay-more’ business model), the metagame will cease to be a community service the moment the developer is making decisions based purely upon how best to extract value from the player community. For instance, while Niantic’s gym overhaul was healthy for Pokémon GO’s metagame, some players have alleged that the developer has choked the supply of healing items while simultaneously adding these to the (monetised) shop. This risks being perceived by players as a move against them in the monetisation metagame. After all, it can hardly be argued that Niantic were losing money on the 65 million player behemoth. (It is not clear whether this particular allegation is well-founded, but such is the perception of some players at the very least.)

Compare the arrangement of the new Raid battles in Pokémon GO, and the ticket system (Raid Passes) that drives it. A new feature was added to the game, expanding its play and giving players something new to do. To recoup the cost of developing and testing the system, Niantic sell Premium Passes in the game shop, which can effectively be purchased with real money. To ensure everyone gets to take part, they give one Raid Pass away for free every day. This system strikes an effective balance between providing value to the players, and ensuring Niantic’s work is financially compensated. There is no equivalent claim to be made about monetising healing items, which does not obviously add value to the player experience, although the accusation in this particular case hinges on whether Niantic intentionally reduced the supply of these items from free sources (otherwise, this is merely the provision of another purchase option in the shop).

Game development is expensive, and the companies that undertake it deserve to be compensated for the work they do. However, when the metagame strays into value extraction and away from community satisfaction, something has gone wrong. It is worth noting that this can be extremely damaging for a game – the addition of microtransactions to Overkill’s Payday 2 as a result of pressure from publisher 505 Games very nearly sank the franchise, until Starbreeze (who own Overkill) bought back the rights in a $30 million deal the likes of which the games industry had never seen before. Behind this unprecedented legal agreement was the intention to keep the player community happy with the game they were playing. There is always more money to made when you have a thriving community of contented players.

Metagames are important to the success of a game, both commercially and creatively. As such, the monetisation metagame is something that developers ought to be careful about playing. The most honourable question to ask about every proposed change should always be: “what extra value is the player getting for their money?” Whenever a change is introduced that is founded upon the question “what extra value are we extracting from the players?”, the monetisation metagame has turned toxic.

Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome!

Going to Gamescom

gamescomInternational Hobo Ltd will be at Europe’s biggest games industry event, Gamescom. We’re available for meetings on Wednesday 23rd and the morning of Thursday 24th of August.

We’re particular interested in meeting with:

  • Publishers looking for pre-dev game design support or audit
  • Publishers or Developers needing narrative or dialogue services
  • Anyone we already know, or who would like to meet us!

Get in touch through the usual channels (contact link in the sidebar here, if all else fails).

Look forward to seeing you in Cologne!