Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
When Players Make the Rules: On Memes and the Meta-Game
View All     RSS
October 31, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 31, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

When Players Make the Rules: On Memes and the Meta-Game

November 15, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

The Uroboric Cycle

For every game, there are strategies (behaviors) for winning, and given enough time the behaviors we observe will drift towards strategies that are better at winning. Simply put, people will get better and better at winning the game with time. The rules that the designer of the game puts in place (the internal rules) are the first building blocks for the fitness function for behaviors, so we must take great care to make sure that the internal rules create a problem that is solved by behavior we want to observe. We need to create the game in a way that ensures that the optimal winning strategy is something that we want our players to do. When the desired behavior of a player is not aligned with the optimal winning strategy you can end up with a product that is unenjoyable for many, hard to manage, and difficult to scale.

In any game environment with multiple players, the situation gets complicated further. The way that players behave will change the game, and thereby the fitness function, and give rise to a new generation of memes in response to the changed environment.

How to best play a game with several players depends greatly on the other players, and the prevalent behaviors that we can expect from them act as a new set of external rules that will alter the fitness function even further. This iterative process of uroboric balancing will continue until one meme is successful enough to dominate the memepool.

The internal rules of the game act as an initial first-generation fitness function for player behaviors. As different strategies are tried, the internal rules will help determine which strategies are more successful.

An example of this could be how a slow-closing reticle in a tactical shooter will favor a slower, more methodical player movement meme. Player strategies in this environment will have to strike a balance between accuracy and mobility, and with time, players will intuitively play the game in an ever closer-to-optimal way.

In a multiplayer environment, however, the players will have to compete with each other for limited resources. There are only so many kills to go around, and strategies can quickly develop that are more competitive. When this happens, all players will have to respond to this new competitive environment -- an environment that was not initially designed by the game's creators (although it might well have been anticipated).

The players themselves become a part of the environment, constantly shaping the in-game culture towards better winning strategies.

StarCraft II and the Artificial Selection of Memes

The more complex the game is, the longer it will take for the uroboric balancing to reach a final equilibrium. For some games, the in-game culture keeps changing for several years, while other games reach an equilibrium in a matter of minutes.

Blizzard Entertainment takes advantage of the dynamic nature of the uroboric balancing cycle in its competitive game StarCraft II. To ensure that the game stays interesting and dynamic, Blizzard slightly alters the internal rules whenever a certain meme is getting too dominant, or if the developers want to encourage the growth of another. Whenever the internal rules are changed, Blizzard injects a great deal of momentum into the uroboric cycle, and the in-game culture (or the meta-game, in StarCraft II lingo) changes dramatically.

What's more is that StarCraft II's internal rules have been deliberately designed in a way that allows for a flourishing and diverse meta-game. Blizzard has made it so that for every situation that you find yourself in, there are several strategies for proceeding, each with its own special trade-off.

Some games have rather strict, straightforward rules that dictate how you should respond to a certain situation -- and your prowess at the game is measured in how well you carry out that specific action -- but in StarCraft II, the emphasis is not necessarily on how well you execute an action, but rather how well you make decisions. When a talented player responds to a situation in the game, he or she will make a decision based not only what he or she knows the opponent to be doing, but also on what the current in-game culture predicts is likely for the opponent to do.

StarCraft II is a complex real-time strategy game that pits two warring factions against each other in a struggle for resources and dominance. The art of the game is balancing your investments in economy with your investments in military might, allowing you to reach the game's ultimate goal: the complete destruction of the opponent's base.

Although the game is tremendously complex, the internal rules are surprisingly simple and linear. Buried in the internal victory condition of destroying the enemy base are several necessary milestones. To destroy the enemy base, you must first defeat the enemy's forces, which will require you to have built forces of your own, which will in turn require you to have augmented your base with the infrastructure to allow for troops to be built, the cost of which will have required you to gather additional resources. Failing to do any of these is a guaranteed way to lose the game.

  • Collect additional resources
  • Build infrastructure to allow for the training of military units
  • Train military units
  • Defeat the enemy in combat
  • Destroy the enemy base

Although destroying the enemy base is pretty straightforward, the steps along the way leave a lot of room for personal style -- and for mistakes. How much time do I have to improve my economy before I must invest in military infrastructure? What kind of military units should I produce, and how many, and how should I deploy them to defeat the enemy in combat? The answers to these questions are not coded into the internal rules, but are a part of the in-game culture. 

Gifted and curious StarCraft players quickly start arriving at closer-to-optimal build orders over time, and these new build orders will then face tough competition in the in-game culture. When the in-game culture reaches something close to a consensus on what the optimal build order is, Blizzard makes a change to the internal rules that will have the entire community (both subconsciously and through deliberate effort) reevaluate that consensus.

Blizzard Entertainment has carefully and meticulously guided the in-game culture of StarCraft through artificial selection to have as much entertainment value as possible for both players and spectators. What makes StarCraft II into such a popular and entertaining game is the in-game culture that it has spawned.

But in-game culture can have tremendously detrimental effects on a product as well. I mentioned earlier the possibility that the desired behavior and the optimal winning strategy might become unaligned, and I would now like to give you an example of this.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Related Jobs

The College of New Jersey
The College of New Jersey — Ewing, New Jersey, United States

Assistant Professor - Interactive Multi Media - Tenure Track
Next Games
Next Games — Helsinki, Finland

Senior Level Designer
Magic Leap, Inc.
Magic Leap, Inc. — Wellington, New Zealand

Level Designer
Grover Gaming
Grover Gaming — Greenville, North Carolina, United States

3D Generalist / Artist


Chris McLeod
profile image
I supposed in a less locked down game the map would simply be fixed, just like SC2 is. Internal rules to the rescue. Interesting read Nils.

Nils Pihl
profile image
I'm glad you found it interesting, Chris.

I think our intuitions immediately go towards solutions that revolve around changing the level design (maps are often the least holy part of a game design, it seem), but I think it is instructive to think of other ways to modify the internal rules.

Most important is, however, that you think ahead when you design games. If the desired behavior within a game does not match the optimal winning strategy you will end up with a different product than what you had in mind.

I think that it is often more informative, illuminating and inspiring to think of memes as the population of your game world than to revert to the almost astrological oversimplifications you end with when you design for player "archetypes".

Travis Ross
profile image
Nils, this is a really neat perspective. I passed it around to my colleagues. I've been thinking about the same stuff from an angle of social learning, descriptive norms, and information cascades. I hadn't really thought to label it with memetics. I think people naturally think of memes as viral videos and popular ideas, but not the drivers of behavior. I really enjoyed your writing. Also, nice identification of dynamic equilibrium in Star Craft, I was trying to explain to my game design class the other day how paper rock scissors can be viewed in a similar light if it is played with the rules of evolutionary game theory. I'm not sure if you are interested, but a colleague of mine and I wrote a piece on heuristics use on online games - there's a small section on social learning heuristics and descriptive norms -


Nils Pihl
profile image
@Travis, I'd love to read your paper if you had a copy that didn't cost 30 dollars :)

What Blizzard is doing with Starcraft is to stamp out any impending Nash Equilibrium. I submit to you that a lot of the games that we leave behind because of boredom have already reached their NEs.

You get bored with TicTacToe once every game becomes a draw.
You get bored beating an AI in a game when all you have to do is repeat what you did last time.
You get bored city building games once you've realized the very best way to build a city.

Travis Ross
profile image
Yes - a little bit of complexity and multiplayer interaction seem to do a good job of stamping out dominant strategies, but they do crop up in unlikely places.

Also, my fault I should have grabbed the 2nd link off of Google Scholar.

Nils Pihl
profile image
I'll be sure to read it this weekend and share my thoughts with you.

profile image
That’s a very interesting article indeed.

I’m having the same kind of thoughts playing League of Legends.

As a matter of fact, the meta-game not only includes the combat strategies / playing actions, but the team compositions as well. Those 2 factors are obviously intricated, but they act on different levels.

Given the extraordinary diversity of champions, one might expect a great diversity in team comps. But that’s not the case.
Probably due to (a) the important exposition of tournaments, that tends to show the “mainstream audience” compositions that are – and sometimes can only be – handled by professional players, and (b) the fact that most of the players play the famous “Solo Queue”, were one CANNOT get an optimal team coordination.

This observation is made on the champion-role level (Solo Top, AP Mid, Jungle, Support-AD Carry), but also on the champion level itself.

The result being a forced selection of team comps that are either not really fun, nor necessarily effective.
For example, we recently observed CLG Froggen use an AD Carry as a Solo Mid champion (which is generally an AP champion). This looked like a small meta-game revolution, when it’s actually not so much. Just the fruit of a carefully thought team strategy, and, in my opinion a clever picks&bans roll out as well.

Used to sometimes pick Darius mid in Solo Queue, I previsouly was "100% n00b". Now, I’m a "tryhard troll n00b copying CLG Froggen".
Let's put aside the never-ending story about the good-mannered LoL community, and just point out that my teammates are maybe statistically right, not being in the timings of the meta cycles.

The paradox being - and this is were your article comes - although the game is designed to bring an extreme diversity, the designer probably has to implement light reworks to help new metas come through.
Waiting for Season 3 patches….

Nils Pihl
profile image
"The paradox being - and this is were your article comes - although the game is designed to bring an extreme diversity, the designer probably has to implement light reworks to help new metas come through."

If the metagame starts approaching a Nash Equilibrium, then you only have two options: Change the internal rules or pray that someone is stupid enough to not follow the equilibrium AND smart enough to actually beat it, haha.

Andreas Ahlborn
profile image
Well done Sir, this is now my favourite article on Gamasutra.

I would really like to hear your thoughts on the ethical dimension of this Memetic Dilemma. You mention this specifically in the subtitle, where you talk about "good" and "bad" player behavior. There are multiple levels of "goodness"/"badness" obviously.

On a gamemechanics level, every gamer wants to discover an optimal winning strategy, and almost any (non random based) game is figured out eventually. The art of the gamedesign would be to obfuscate this internal clockwork, so that it can only be discovered with great timeinvestement. Because if once discovered, it tends to spread with viral speed.

This "destructive drift", where you are forced to use the optimal winning strategy if you want to compete, in competitive gameplay is often mirrored in communitys too. From the trashtalk on xboxlive to the racist/sexist commentaries on gamesites. While most gamecompanies distance themselves officially from such "political incorrect" behavior it is reenforced by our media preference for "bad" things happening. "Bad" behaviour simply said makes "good" press, and the only "bad" press is no press at all. This has of course to do with the "impersonal" selfishness of Memes, that only want to piggy-back on their replicators.

And it becomes weirder: a company could deliberatly feel encouraged to deliver a "bad" game simply to create a s**itstorm, that will ensure its virality for a long time.
Not saying that they fabricated it intentionally, but the press Bioware got out of the "controverse" endings of their Mass Effect Trilogy was unprecedented, even months after its release there were articles on news sites how fans were devastated, petititons and sues were launched to change the ending etc. To be honest: If the end would have been perfect ("good" in a sense that was in the normal quality expectations of the fanbase/industry, Bioware by no means would have stayed viral for months to come.

Nils Pihl
profile image
@Andreas, feel free to add me on Skype and we can discuss the ethical dimensions of it all, perhaps something good will come out of it. My account is "nipibo".

I don't know if making a bad job as a winning strategy has made it into gaming yet, but I know from my interactions with PR companies that it has there...

Luciano Lombardi
profile image
Great article, I wonder how to draw the line between controlling the experience (to avoid frustration arising from unintended player behaviour) and nurturing emergent gameplay. I guess that taking either of these two possibilities to their extremes should be avoided, and maybe a balance between them can be achieved.

But I don't know if there is any way to plan this balance in advance. Maybe it has more to do with fast analysis and response to the way the community responds to the game itself.

Once the game is released, I think that besides the game mechanics such as the kill-cam, other interesting aspect of the behaviour spreading within multiplayer games is the pro-gaming scene. Streaming tournaments and youtube replays can often be the 'ground zero' of new strategies or memetic behaviours coming from looking up to the pros/winners. In MOBA games it is relatively common to see how a specific heroe/build becomes highly popular after a professional player has won a tournament using it.

Even if your game doesn't have a million dollar pro-gaming scene, if you keep track of the community, you can use it at your advantage by promoting the behaviours you think are interesting (Play of the week videos in the game client?), or quickly fix and patch the game to prevent what you think are detrimental to the game experience

Nils Pihl
profile image
I don't think you can plan ahead perfectly, but it is definitely possible to make fairly accurate predictions.

Jeremie Sinic
profile image
When I saw "46 comments" I didn't expect this... But very interesting article :)