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Theory of Gamification - August 27, 2021

WHAT IS A METAGAME AND WHY YOU SHOULD RECONSIDER YOUR GAME DESIGN SYSTEM

Have you ever made in-app purchases to uplevel your character in a game?

Or maybe watched a gameplay performance by a professional player on Discord?

Have you ever watched a YouTube video to find secret levels within the game you’re playing?

These are all examples of metagames!

In this article we’ll dive into the secrets of game design and find out why we are addicted to games even when the game loop is easy and basic.

What’s a game loop? Well, you’re also gonna have to read this article to find out! *evil laugh*

How evil looks this raccon!?

Sometimes I wonder how some games, for as simple as they can be, gain so much success and loyal fans. Of course I’m not talking about massive chains such as Call of Duty, which are far from being easy, but think of Candy Crush, to name one. 

The secret formula to succeed is definitely made up of several variables and it cannot be standardized. Nevertheless, building a consistent and well-rounded metagame structure around the core game loop, raises the chances of breakthrough.

According to Michael Sicart indeed, author of “Loops and Metagames: Understanding Game Design Structures”, to fully understand metagames, we need to explore the concept of game loop. And that’s where we’ll start.

If you already know enough about this topic, you can jump straight to “What is a metagame?” paragraph. 

And if you are a fan of loops, you might as well read our article on Feedback loops! 😀

hand drawing a loop with a marker

What is a Game Loop?

In Sicart’s paper it is described as “ a level of abstraction that describes player input through game mechanics, system processing (evaluation of input matched to the game state and the rules of the game), and feedback output. A game loop is a composite of game mechanics, computing operations, and feedback mechanisms that is repeated until a break condition is reached, either in the game mechanics or in the computing operations.”. 

Ok…what!?

So let’s say you are playing Mario Bros. What you have to do is to save the princess by advancing in the game levels. To pass the levels you have to fight enemies, gather coins (to win lives) and jump obstacles. So the loop would be fight-collect-jump.

That’s it.

In every level, there’s not much else that you can do. They become harder and harder, and even in the final boss level, the loop is the same. Those mechanics build the core loop of the game around which everything else is developed and based upon. 

More professionally, we could say that game loops are composed by

  • Game mechanics (e.g. fight, collect, craft etc)
  • Player input 
  • System processing
  • Output (leveling up)

Sure, some games get more complicated as developers add other layers of loops (secondary loops) which intertwine with the first one. These second loops can help achieve a higher level of mastery or fully explore the virtual world. In Tekken for example, you can be a good fighter having mastered 4 or 5  movements. But you can upskill your mastery learning all 100ish combinations to explore the full potential of your character.

Not necessary, but totally engaging. 

Now you’ve MASTERED the concept of game loop, you can level up to the “metagame” definition 😋

screen from two tekken fighters
picture from Gamerant.com

WHAT IS A METAGAME?

One of the many definitions given is: Any aspect external to interacting with game loops that influences the play experience of a game”.

Through metagames, we can perceive the importance of the context around the game loop. Of course “the context” is a broad word but the essence is this: 

Playing games is more than just engaging with the core loop. It’s precisely that same core loop encompassed in a broader configuration that is experience and practice. 

Let me explain better. 

Any element that has been designed to complete and push beyond the simple actions in the game, has an effect on the experience itself. 

Because the possibilities to create elements are virtually limitless, the concept of metagames was divided into 5 types that are relevant for game design systems. 

THE FIVE TYPES OF METAGAMES

  1. Informational 

Within this type we find all the tools and sources of information that help the player complete his knowledge of the game. YouTube videos or forums are a classic example of sources where the player can gather infos on how to improve his/her skills. As for any metagame, the player could also avoid looking for this data, but in doing so, he/she enhances the experience and affects the interaction with the core loop. 

2-Fictional 

A simple game loop can become much more enticing when encompassed in a compelling story. This way the emotional experience will become much more complex and addictive.

3- Economic

Not to be confused with the merchandise, Economic metagame includes all those in-game purchases that can be done with real money or virtual currency, to uplevel or improve one’s game. For example, within Plants vs Zombies you can play the whole game for free, but most of the players will get so engaged and affectionate to the characters, that they will want to spend money to buy rare characters or features 

Plants vs Zombies 2 Shop

4- Performative

This is basically what happens mostly on Twitch, where players play not only for themselves but for an audience. That’s when a game is so immersive that even just watching is a pleasure. Of course some other players will also find useful tips from pro-players that will improve their game.

5- Physical

The rise of local multiplayer and exhibition games has underlined the importance of the physical context in which a game is played. This metagame type has not yet been fully developed but it’s just a matter of time. After all, the physical context can have an important impact in the shaping of the player experience. In conclusion having a solid metagame structure developed around the game, can help improve the player experience, making the game all the way more fun and engaging.

More to come

In the next articles, you’ll be able to deepen your knowledge of the core elements that keep the gamer fully motivated and involved with your game (or gamified business!). We’ll talk about game elements and the core drivers of human motivation by Yukai Chou.

Stay tuned!

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