Playing a lot of Hearthstone, a game played in competitions where people win actual money, has given me a bit of insight into the thing that we call a “metagame”. To simply define it, as per Wikipedia’s definition:
Metagaming is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself. Metagaming differs from strategy in that metagaming is making decisions based upon out of game knowledge, whereas strategies are decisions made based upon in-game actions and knowledge.
In simple terms, it is the use of out-of-game information or resources to affect one’s in-game decisions.
What does one make of this “metagame”? First, beyond any formal definitions, we can say that most any video game can technically obtain a metagame state. From speedrunners (even if I don’t particularly like the concept unless hard-coded into the game design) of single-player games to optimal play in a competitive round of Hearthstone, the metagame often manifests itself as players attempt to win at their particular craft. Furthermore, most any game of any type can have a metagame, provided it contains enough interesting rules and mechanical interactions to justify it (though plenty of game allows metagames to emerge even without the necessary depth play). Lastly, the metagame often exists outside of the proper game itself, often acting as a commentary on the ideas inherent in the very game itself.
Metagame as a Function of Design
In one sense, it seems simple enough – someone sought to define the external goings-on, giving the surrounding context of a game a distinct nomenclature. In another sense, it’s not as much a formal idea as one might think. For all intents and purposes, we might say that the “metagame” actually exists in the game rules itself. For example, character A and B seem almost identical; think Ryu and Ken from Street Fighter. In many technical aspects, from movement style to special abilities to general appearance, both characters might look very similar. However, the same characteristics of both change subtly through the use of frame data, slightly tweaked normal moves, and a general focus. I.e., the differences lie right in the nuances of the original game’s design.
To continue with the Street Fighter example, a Ken player naturally goes on the offensive, even though they can use Hadoukens and Shoryukens. The designers at Capcom often give Ken a longer throw range, a faster movement speed, various special normal abilities to let him mixup opponents, along with easier links and combo potential. His moves often do less damage, but his combos last far longer and offer far more variety in straight offense. His fireball move becomes more of a long-range poke than a spacing tool, and his Shoryuken (along with its super variant Shinryuken) works best in combo format. The Fierce Shoryuken often hits three times, make it useless outside of the combo context; the same also follows for the spinning kick, which never knocks down for Ken outside of EX moves. These tiny decisions contribute a great deal to Ken’s general game plan.
Compare with Ryu, his “rival”. Ryu often plays a more defensive game, or at least he’s more well-rounded toward that end. His Hadoukens come out faster with less recovery, and this allows him to zone opponents out. His Shoryukens remains the default, standard anti-air move in most any Street Fighter game, although its invincibility comes with a punishingly long recovery time if you miss. Complement these tools with a knockdown spinning kick, and you can see a distinct focus towards balanced offense. Yes, Ryu can play an in-close game, but Ken will always win that battle in terms of close-range offensive pressure; Ryu must choose his times to strike, and wear the opponent down in the meantime.
In both cases, we can say
the design of the game lends itself towards a particular metagame. In our presentation here, we only use two relatively similar fighters, but most competitive games contain a wealth of asymmetrical variables that make this impossible to track. Still, we can say the designers of a game intend for a certain set of intended outcomes regarding general play, and that’s no less true in video games. Whether or not those intended outcomes actually occur when the game ends up in the hands of the general public rests on the solid core of the game’s initial design stages. Sometimes, those mechanics lend themselves to creative play; other times, they constrict players into particular roles and styles to stand a chance. Either way, such variables remain difficult to predict, and it’s here that the “metagame” concept emerges organically.