You Just Lost the MetaGame

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on April 29, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Allow me to paint a picture for you:

You’ve just purchased a game and you’re generally pleased with the package.  The aesthetics strike a chord within you, you like the character design, the game seems easy enough to pickup and play or you just generally like it.  So you crack open the campaign, skirmish, arcade and training modes to see what the game has to offer.  After a while you get the feeling that this is one of those games that game journalists would describe as “easy to get into, difficult to master.”  So to plumb its hidden depths, you go online!

And suddenly everyone’s speaking a different language.  They’re not talking about which character or unit is the “best” or “does the most damage.”  That cheap tactic your friend uses, where they spam a certain move all the time, they don’t even mention it!  Instead it’s all about frame advantage, zoning, priority, kara cancels, micro, macro, actions per minute.  You play the game to see the fancy moves, build the best units, fire the coolest weapons, and everyone online seems to stick to very basic, no frills actions and deploy special maneuvers tactically, if they choose to do so at all.  What happened?

You just got metagamed.  That’s when, instead playing the game and making decisions based upon aesthetic, taste, or other narrative-based motivation, gameplay choices are made with a concerted analysis and definite understanding of the underlying mechanics.  This can be to a game’s benefit, where you suddenly find yourself enjoying a game on a much deeper and more satisfying level, or it can in some cases make a completely different game out of something you once thought familiar.

Which is, as a concept, something I’d only been peripherally aware of, and I imagine it might be the case for many other people.  Largely, if a game is considered “competitive” then it’s played on two distinct levels: one where you pick characters based upon “whatever” and do flashy moves on neat stages while deploying supers as frequently as they’re available.  That’s me.  I’m about one level above button-mashing, and am often beaten by my button-mashing sister.  I’m lucky if I can get one character down to the point that I know all their moves and combos.

Fighting games at the competitive level deal in a total analysis of the whole game, including the mechanical values arbitrarily assigned to each normal and special move, and how those moves impact tactics at a higher level than I can consider.  It isn’t about wanting to see a fireball or hadoken, it’s about the in-depth thought process that chooses when and why to deploy such tools with greater concern towards their effect.  And their effect may not even be damage; maybe you’re preventing an enemy from advancing, or you want them to think you’ve adopted a certain strategy, or because you know you can counter their counter quite easily.  You may hear about how a given move or special creates damage opportunities, and this is often considered superior to simple flat-out damage.

In doing this, competitive players metagame because they know, and need to know, mechanically, how long a move takes to perform, breaking it into three segments (startup, execution and recovery), whether their move has priority, and whether it’s safe from counter-attack by the enemy player.  And they know the same properties for their opponents’ character, so they know when they can “punish” a given tactic when they deploy their counter-strategy.

To hear them talking about it is almost like hearing a fast-moving version of chess.  In understanding a fraction of what they’re talking about, the last twenty years of fighting games suddenly makes more sense.

Mortal Kombat only became a true contender in the fighting game arena — which I suppose is an arena where fighting games fight — with its most recent entry, colloquially referred to as Mortal Kombat 9, even though the actual title leaves off its numeric designation.

The reason being is that Mortal Kombat never had a substantial metagame until now, which is something I only came to understand recently.  The game had been surprisingly shallow, with characters either being too similar, or certain characters clearly standing at the highest tier of quality and destroying players that deigned to choose a lesser kombatant.  It was an awkward, silly fighting game with little depth and one played out gimmick and loads of exploits.

This latest inkarnation brings to the table a number of fighting game “staples,” as it were, such as super meters, kombo breakers, regular and EX special moves that provide unique damage opportunities, zoning, mind games and the whole deal.  At its core, it’s a fairly solid fighter, though I imagine most would still point out that it’s no Street Fighter, to say nothing of hugely technical games like Guilty Gear or its successors.  The overall package greatly benefited from being crafted with a mind towards making a substantial metagame and deeper gameplay worthy of tournament-level play.  So we can thank that, at least, for giving us a decent Mortal Kombat after so many years.

I’d only begun getting into the metagame with Marvel vs Capcom 3.  Of my time playing the game, I enjoyed the learning sessions I had with my brother, where I showed him the barely-scratched surface of the metagame and how and why certain characters were considered better than others, or why they made good assists or contributed better with delayed hyper combos.  I think that knowledge extended the shelf-life of that game — a distraction until the release of a more substantial multiplayer experience we’re looking forward to in Brink — beyond a few simple play sessions and into a solid two months of consistent even matching.

Metagaming is not limited to just fighting games.  At its simplest, when you’re performing an action solely for its mechanical benefit, you are metagaming.  In Counter Strike, when you pull your knife out to run faster, you’re doing so because you understand that speed is based upon your equipped weapon.  A minor example.  Most times, metagaming can lead you to see games being played in ways bear little resemblance to the game you thought you purchased.

A long favored pastime of mine has always been real time strategy games.  Simply put, I enjoy creating elaborate bases with unbeatable defenses so I can tech up at my leisure, deploying the coolest, biggest units at the ass-end of the tech tree.  On some level, when I’ve played these games against my friends, there is an understanding that its not sporting to eliminate people before the big guns are brought to bear.  This makes for hugely climactic encounters were armies are laid to waste at the hands of super units doing epic battle among the ruins of our cyclopean bases; good times.

One of my favorite such games was Supreme Commander.  Oceans deep, this four-factioned game mixed low balance, with each faction receiving “equivalent” units with minor stat differences, with high balance in their more unique properties.  Much of the high balance was seen at the higher tech tiers, available after hours of gameplay.  And the units were so cool!  Gigantic tanks, walking spider-bots that were the size of small bases, and nuclear missiles!  I recall fondly deploying one in a last ditch effort, miraculously nailing my brother’s moving forces with the slow-moving missiles and saving my bacon for another skirmish.  He’d tell me later that he knew, the instant he heard the siren, that his units were toast and this did not detract from the fun he had at watching them fry.

Yet, viewing replays and scouring the forums found quite a different approach.  Battles rarely escalated out of tier 1, and never beyond tier 2.  the eponymous “Supreme Commander” units — super units in their own right — put “actions per minute” to the test as they micro’d and scoured the landscape for resources to grab, like forests, rocks and detritus.  Normally, you’d build specific resource-gathering structures, but at higher levels you used this and a few other units to reclaim resources while deploying a simple armed force depending upon the specific strategy you had chosen.

Suddenly, the game wasn’t about shields strength, artillery or the interesting combinations of high-level units.  It wasn’t about the described tactical battles and meaningful overarching strategy.  Intelligence and counter-intelligence didn’t do much.  It was about how fast you could click versus the other guy, and maybe if you chose the right starter units to roll over his base with.  It wasn’t a game I’d enjoy playing, and yet it kind of explained how I never made it past the most rudimentary setting for the AI.

Starcraft is even worse.  Its sequel even incorporated a number of bugs and poor design choices of the original as to preserve some level its metagame and thus maintain its tournament and pro-gaming appeal.  Playing against the CPU is a bare-bones experience as it does the exact same thing each time with a small window of success for you at the outset.  If you do not win in the first five minutes — and whether you do so depends upon your choices in the first thirty seconds — you have lost the match.  This in addition to units behaving much differently than you’d expect them to, like expensive battlecruisers with no hitpoints in the name of “balance,” coming out of the box without their best abilities so all you have is an expensive distraction.

I suppose you might be familiar with the old mantra of “No items, Fox only, Final destination.”  I’m not about to tell anyone how to have fun, but oh man is that not fun to me.  I’m looking for an experience, not a level playing field.

This may also be why I’ve only really had success playing first-person shooters online.  There is less metagame in them, though there is some, but I’ve rarely ascended beyond rank one in any fighting game or RTS through online play.  As much as the metagame can enhance the fun through a deeper knowledge of the game, sometimes it just skews off into some bizarre interpretation of the game so what you’re left with only shares the name of what you wanted to play.  It’s like some weird island of more casual gaming inside the larger hardcore genres in gaming.


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