What 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.
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!