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

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