The way competitive video games are supposed to work is simple: the person who is better at achieving the game's stated objective is the winner. This means the person with the better strategy, or the better reflexes, or the better visual acuity will be the victor, absent any confounding factors of luck.
But with many games, there's a largely unseen factor in determining the winner, one that's not directly related to the game's stated rules and objective. This game behind the game -- the metagame -- is where a lot of the emergent fun can be found in today's competitive titles, and designers would do well to keep it in mind when creating competitive systems.
What do I mean by metagame? I'll start with an example from one of my favorite recent iOS releases: Prose With Bros. The game is essentially competitive magnetic poetry -- two players (randomly matched or specifically paired) get the same set of a few dozen random words.
Players use these words, along with optional punctuation, to create sentences that are then sent to other players for votes. Whoever gets the most votes in a 12 hour period wins the round.
Part of the game's genius is the fact that the designers offer absolutely no guidance as to what voters are supposed to be looking for when picking sentences (though even with such guidance, players would doubtlessly go by their own criteria anyway). While the voting system is an integral part of the game, the much more interesting metagame is trying to figure out what kind of sentences can attract the votes of a fickle public.
The vagaries of this metagame allow for a surprising amount of evolving strategy. My first few times through the voting wringer, I went the puerile route, spinning suggestive words like "poppycock," "knickers," "chunky," "hotpants" and "doink" into the crudest jokes I could manage. My idea was to appeal to the lowest common denominator, which, as any politician will tell you, is rarely a bad strategy in a popularity contest.
The problem: everyone else had the same strategy. I was routinely paired up against sentences that were similarly raunchy or, sometimes, raunchy in almost precisely the same way. I won as many of these matches as I lost, and even though I think I deserved to win more of them, I figured I could do better with a different strategy.
So I decided to zig while everyone else was zagging. Taking a cue from the kind of sentences that made me laugh out loud when I was voting, I began to craft sentences that were as wacky as possible without being totally nonsensical. I wrote about tigers in trousers and plaid minivans and zombie ducks. Odd food pairings were also a common subject that I felt would be easily relatable: tofu turduckens, mango chili, and cakes all figured in to my sentences prominently.
My metagame strategy worked beautifully -- sentences that stand out from the crowd tended to attract a lot more votes than those in the "me too" raunch brigade. But I have to be ever-vigilant -- the voting winds could shift as new players with different tastes come in, or as more players cotton on to my kind strategy.
That's the beauty of this kind of metagame -- it will continue to thrive and change well after the point where a more empirical, point-based scoring system would have gotten utterly stale.
The metagame also plays an outsized role in another recent favorite of mine, Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012. This is a game with a much more defined strategy at its heart than Prose With Bros, with players using cards drawn from opposing decks to be the first to inflict 20 damage on their opponent.
There are layers upon layers of choices over which cards and abilities to play when, how to maximize the efficiency of limited resources, and how to balance the needs of a good offense and defense across the game's deep and varied rule set.
Yet once you've attained a certain level of familiarity with that strategy, Magic 2012 essentially boils down to a relatively simple metagame: that of picking the right deck. Unlike the card game it's based on, which offers unlimited variety in deck types, the downloadable console version offers only ten deck archetypes to choose from, which can be modified only slightly with digital cards unlocked through play.
After a while, it's easy to suss out the patterns and determine how each deck is likely to fare against the other nine (or even against another version of itself). For instance, the slow-building Hidden Depths deck will almost always lose a well-played match to the fast-paced damage dealing of the Unquenchable Fire deck. which in turn can have trouble dealing with the multitude of small, quick threats in the Guardians of the Wood or Wielding Steel decks. Those are themselves susceptible to disruption from a deck like Blood Hunger or Realm of Illusion that can counter or overpower their key cards.
While some decks are unquestionably better than others, there's no one deck that isn't generally weak against at least one other deck type. This is crucial, since without this balance the pre-game "selection" metagame could easily overwhelm the competitive game itself.
I distinctly remember my regular high school fighting game crew banning anyone from playing tiny, nigh-unhittable orange dinosaur Gon in Tekken 3, after it quickly became apparent that a decent Gon player could win 95 percent of the time against much more talented opposition. Many top tier Super Street Fighter II Turbo tournaments ban players from choosing Akuma for similar reasons.
But the rock-paper-scissors style of deck dominance can lead to some interesting jockeying for position in Magic 2012's matchmaking screen, which shows both players which deck their opponent has chosen before letting them both approve the start of the match. Surely hiding this deck choice information would create an experience more like playing a pick-up game against a random Magic opponent, and would force players to consider a deck's strengths and weaknesses against the entire field.
As it stands, on more than one occasion I've had a random player drop out of the lobby in disgust after I spent a full minute switching my deck choice in response to his ever-changing selection.
These are the kinds of issues that can make or break a competitive title, even though they aren't part of what most people would consider the actual game. A well-considered and well-managed metagame can add extra life to even the simplest of game concepts, while a bad one can do a lot to ruin a title that otherwise has a deep and varied strategy. Designers would do well to keep these largely hidden issues in mind when designing their next competitive title.