On Designing Against the Meta

One thing that I’ve quite enjoyed in my multi-player competitive games is finding the ‘meta’ and/or trying to invent new one’s. ‘Meta’ basically means the dominant strategy to winning. A meta gets established pretty soon after a game comes out, and then as the player base gets more familiar with a game’s mechanics, the meta continues to evolve with players inventing new metas designed to counter the current meta, and so on and so fourth.

The reason I am writing about this today is I was going through my youtube subscriptions, seeing if I can weed some out, and also to try to figure out why some new videos aren’t showing up on my feed when I am definitely subscribed to their creators. I haven’t found out why I can’t see their videos, but I saw an old subscription and for just the fun of it, I started to watch an old video of theirs. It’s a video montage of these guys basically being amazing at CoD: Black Ops. At one point in a free-for-all match, one of them sets up two sentry guns and just go ham on the other players. It was a dastardly effective strategy that just wreaked havoc on anybody that came into his trap.

Go to 1:16 to see what I’m talking about, or just watch the whole darn thing for old time’s sake

You could say that this is a pretty good meta, for that time, as it laid waste to anybody who came near that part of the map. After watching this, I thought, there is no possible way that you would be able to create a setup like this in the newest CoD game. Or really any CoD after Black Ops 1, in fact. Why is that?

Well I’m sure there are many reasons, but what I want to address is that from a developers perspective, you might not want your players to be able to dominate other players in a game space. Imagine you are a player who just entered that free-for-all match, just to get mowed down by this guy and not having any clue as to how to counter him. You might throw your controller down, pop out the game and try to trade it back to GameTheives for a pittance of its cost. Although you might lose money on it, at least you won’t lose your time and energy on it.

Nobody wants to lose money, so there seems to be a trend of game developers doing their best to constantly update their competitive game to make it fair. I do think that there are some game-breaking issues that if overlooked by developers need to be addressed, but on the other hand I think that devs should have a policy of being as hands-off as possible when it comes to the meta. They should let the players enjoy the meta/counter-meta evolution. I miss the good old days of CoD: Modern Warfare 2, but I also hate them. I loved using the UMP gun which was way overpowered, but not so overpowered that it was game-breaking. There were ways around it, but on the other hand there was for me a game-breaking issue of the One Man Army perk that allowed people to just run around and shoot infinite grenades at people with their “noob tubes”.

At this point I’m not sure that we can go back to a time when devs didn’t micro-manage the meta. We are in a time where developers are becoming more and more beholden to the cries of their fans to update and update more, or else! Recently players pretty much formed a union and went on strike against Ubisoft’s For Honor because I don’t really know. But they were listened to! They developers are addressing the demands of the unionized player base. Infinity Ward didn’t do jack when the player base complained about game-breaking issues with MW2, probably because they were having serious internal team issues, but perhaps also because they trusted their mechanics well enough to let it be. I got so much more playtime out of that game compared to any newer iteration probably because of their indifference, not because of their intense care.

Dark Souls 3, you’re not the bestest game in the world, but you clearly don’t give a crap about what happens in the multi-player world. For that, I applaud you. 

Plus, I hate it when the game changes for no good reason. Why fix something that isn’t broken? Why make damage adjustments to guns when it’s not really that big of a deal? Why not have something be a little over-powered? Let the meta evolve on its own. If you have enough ‘rocks-papers-scissiors’ in your game it will be fine. Just adjust the game-breaking issues while not disturbing the ecosystem of competition. I seriously have no idea how to play Magic the Gathering’s card game anymore, although I played competitively when I was a nerdy high school kid. Or Hearthstone for that matter, since it came out. Of course, these games survive through iteration, by making players purchase new cards and come up with new strategies based on them. So although I don’t play them, it still makes sense to me.

That’s good for card games, but is that really good for shooters, or sports games, and fighting games, where the rules should stay the same while hopefully mechanics are robust enough to let the players keep things fresh meta?

Dear reader, who was bored enough in their lives to get this far in my post, are there any games/developers that you think are examples that don’t micromanage? Is Counter Strike: Global Offensive, released in 2012, an example where the game is still great despite its age? What about Starcraft?

At this point, I can pick up a game and just feel whether or not a game is strongly pro- or anti-meta. If it’s strong anti-meta, I’m not about it… so basically I don’t get deep into any competitive games anymore.

Perhaps I should start playing chess again?

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