Did the Internet spoil the Metagame?

What happens when individual exploration and analytic skills are replaced by data mining, cookie cutter game styles and viral low-risk strategies in a 21th century gaming industry?Today we’ll be looking at the concept of over-centralization and how it affects consumer patterns and empowerment of individual ways to appreciate gaming as an art, or medium. It’ll touch on AAA pop culture, the indie revolution, gamer diversity and actual metagames. We can approach these ideas through the process behind the words: As above, so below. You may call it an amateur gaming fractal pattern analysis about the macro and the micro. How are our individual choices affecting the games we produce, and how we enjoy them? Is the magic of a new game taken away when metagames are formed from data mining on release day and streamers broascast the most effective build to skew game economies?

We might just start with the basic concept of what a metagame is, and how it develops. Metagames are, for the purpose of this discussion, overall behavior trends that sprout from strategic exploration and interactions in an ocean of unique gameplay opportunities. Some environments and games are built in a ways that make metagames stabilize and become solid over time, because certain strategies are universally effective and “viable”. Other environments and games do not have universally strong strategies, because there are counters that can be just as easily aquired and mobilized when the opportunity arises. In games that put focus on resources and narrowing build management, it is usually good to have an end goal in mind when planning your character, instead of an adaptive focus.

The economic nature of these decisions are usually appealing to many people in gaming. In order to beat opponents and become as strong as possible, you must evolve quicker. This is why efficiency planning is so popular in RPGs, because you outsmart the game. “Unranked server abundance” or sandbox games open up for other kinds of metagames. You have the world at your fingertips and can create anything you want the moment you need it. This shifts focus towards social initiatives and how fast we can adapt to peoples’ choices and outmaneuver or trumph each other with creative designs, within certain limits.
Imagine the difference between a standard Scrabble game where you have limited letters, and a different Scrabble game where you had access to an infinite amount of letter pieces.

scrabble2

Building games with limited mechanics and structured narratives and gamestyles is easy. Building expansive games with endless opportunities requires huge creative intelligence and sustainable ways of funding the development process through incremental new sales. Having a clear start and finish for a project is often paramount in order to actually finish it. But planning for a designed transfer of responsibility for a project’s future is also possible. This is why we see so many games with fixed investments and permanent release dates. Making your game sustainable is almost like saying “We are taking the MMO dev route”.  There is almost only one recognized successful example of it. Imitators had no success.

The more widespread success of less sustainable games also meant more hiring flexibility for the developers and more flexible layoff strategies to boost the publishers’ fiscal reports. Developer mobility increased and their experience could diversify and spread to their new studios, an intellectual cross-pollination if you will. This leads to increases in genre fusion projects where new and larger recipes are designed from smaller successful mechanics. Today we see this in games such as Block N Load, Cube World, MOBAs and Planetside where previously separate concepts fuse together in large multiplayer online experiences. Right now we are fed with interconnected chimeras, looking for the next blockbuster mix.

The revolt against all this genre mixing and almost wasteful fidelity aspirations has given voice to the indie community where they often take a step back to the roots of gaming and try to engineer new gaming concepts from scratch through some kind of needs analysis. We see a lot of reimagined retro concepts that were not able to be realized properly back then and we see a lot of novel narrative designs and expressions of video game art forms. Many indie games might also cater to niche audiences that feel marginalized by flattened and “accessible” AAA designs that might actually just attract those who don’t really care. Hardcore communities of highly invested players are small, but can’t compare financially to the huge amount of casual consumers who pay just to kill a weekend with a new game.

This has become a heated conflict between “casuals” and “hardcore gamers” on the web, which has even infested local neighborhoods and caused harassment and death threats. Traditional heavily game invested groups are often looking down upon groups they believe to be entry level enthusiasts with immature and individualistic reasons for their hobbyism. And it most certainly causes friction when it comes to gender labeled games and sports. The refusal of publishers to take educational and diversity responsibility within our games cause a stabilizing casualization in publishers’ favor and an alienation of their biggest fans. The lack of allowed ways for hardcore fans to make themselves more valuable to game makers is rapidly fueling this conflict, and the biggest players in the industry stand idly by. In other sectors, commited customers are embraced and offered sustainable engagement.

This is what the larger picture has become, the spirit of a solidifying infested metagame. How are these universally viable strategies still spreading when their titans are plagued? For me, the catalyst of these issues is globalization and the interconnected viral Internet. We are constantly placed in an environment where the global top dog is visible, where the investors are skipping needs analytics in favor of copying cookie cutter success recipes. PR machines feed on fashion consumers who don’t ask questions when kept in the dark. Unfulfilled promises are swept under the rug by strategically leaking PR of their sequels. This oppressive environment is an intellectual hamster wheel prison, where we’re chasing ghosts and spending more and more, just to see these publishers continue to pay-gate us.

On an individual level, this even boils down to a feverish chase of the perfect game and a parenting developer who finally makes a game where all our needs are heard and fulfilled. In the absense of these, we turn to the top dog streamers who can teach us how to waste as little time as possible with the current fashion game and beat our friends until the next one comes out, just as unfinished as the one before it. The most searched videos seem to be guides that highlight the best weapons and builds, in 3 minutes or less. It boils down to the search of metacritic reviews; arbitrary point scales without comparable quality criteria. Almost none of these outlets actually empower the user to find their own genuine source of appreciation for the gaming medium. Instead, communities form to condemn “inferior”  ways to create, enjoy or discuss games, just as economists condem too innovative IPs.

Do you know why we seem so unable to enjoy games like we used to when we were kids or when we got our first gaming system? “Oh, it’s these casual, time consuming games!” some might say. “I’m getting too old for this and the hype train is getting rediculous now”. Would it be strange if someone straight up asked you if you remember what true love is? Maybe it had to do with an open mind, a new world where nobody told you what was fun, or a child who didn’t need to be socially relevant to enjoy an individual gaming experience. Maybe it was okay to play and explore these games since there were no internet strategy guides, no ELO Hell stigma, no accocount sharing bot and no internet idols to be inferior to the moment you wake up in the morning. Maybe it was okay to be a happy learning noob. Maybe it was the journey towards mastering and enjoying the experience that mattered to us, more that reaching a certain point where games become our shield from harassment.

Did the Internet kill the magic thrill of metagames and individual entertainment exploration? Maybe it did, and maybe it didn’t. Some users are now proudly abstaining from the release hype and their toxic competitive supporters and corrupt lobbyist, just as some realize the serenity in enjoying their personal favorite sports & music alone, without the peer pressure of hooligans or genre nazis who defend their illusionary ego fortresses and entry barriers.   You don’t have to be one of their minions in the conflicts and infested places they occupy. You are free to be anyone, and explore games for your own individual development and entertainment. You are free to learn how to make your own games, to kickstart the game of your dreams and to open the creative doors that might someday heal the lost gamers who now wander the Internet, screaming and kicking, just cause they see no other option. Read this article one more time, and become the parent of the experience you want in life.
Grab a game that no one else requires you to play, and write your own story in its pages.

Written by @absol_89

The future of gaming: Social progression retainment and monetized modding designs

Today I will be adding some new flavor to the topic “Where is Gaming headed in 2014”. The goal will be to arrive at new solutions to capture player’s interest and also have a retained and profitable way of monetizing post-launch player creativity and attachment.

Quick summary: Next gen consoles are gaining a foothold and PCs are becoming more capable with the advents of low-level API technologies now included in Mantle and DX12. Big free-to-play franchises are expanding from PC to consoles, Steam is hitting the living room with Big Picture mode and Single Player experiences are merging with Multiplayer. Early Access platforms and Virtual Reality is gaining popularity, but what about the Cloud?

My additions: The recent years had some of the most troubled launches we’ve seen, notably from Battlefield 4, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Watch_Dogs, Sim City 4 and ESO. Even conflicts between releasing a working product, and pirates making them playable. We still have conflicts between cinematic linear experiences, and dynamic endgames, and we are unsure whether people will pick up a new game if they still play the old ones. Publishers are resisting to let players drive bottom-up attachment processes in gaming.

Death by design: Cutting certain corners is extremely important when dealing with large scale productions if you expect to deliver a game 1 year before it is likely polished enough. You are also expected to make each new game address the flaws of the previous, even to the point where you put in 2-3 sources of frustration just to have something to “fix” later on. All this backed up by research that points to players becoming emotional and vulnerable, more likely to play or take new risks when they’re frustrated and rewards are occasional. Games and movies are designed like cliffhangers to open up doors to the next experience and they leave us with unfulfillment, as the purchases become more like renting the game. We can no longer have great experiences unless the playerbase or our internet is active.

Early access models: Steam is using Greenlight as an official way to test and rank early access games in a controlled environment, with some additional layers of Steam Curators. Meanwhile, larger publishers are using “Betas” as quick stress tests for finalized designs. If the main purpose of your “Beta” is to stress your infrastructure rather than your design, you are losing out on customer consent incentives that otherwise fuel a free PR machine. If you are using a finalized design model, you will have to rely on paying for your own PR machine, as well as being liable when people call you out on misguided trailers and hype. Other early access models incorporate both design and stress tests, such as Battlefield 4 CTE (Community Test Environment). This is a way for premium members to access development builds and forums for organized discussion and immediate design feedback. It also drives sales of the Premium Season Pass and lets you level up an alternate soldier. It is also a collaborative effort to improve / optimize the Frostbite 3 engine for other games.

Always on DRM: CD Project RED is now taking the lead in how consumer friendly new AAA open world games can be. They are offering a huge game without any additional DRM that might prevent you from playing your game during internet outages. They are also offering a wide variety of 16 free DLC content drops for all player who buy the game, you don’t even have to pre-order or get the deluxe edition to get this DLC content. Other publishers insist on making buggy, unstable and overhyped AAA games with a myriad of frustration solving microtransactions, brand looping service signups and companion apps. And yes, I am looking at you Assassin’s Creed Unity, maybe you should have put more effort into the storyline, snappier controls and a way to promote your third China DLC with a stunning co-op multiplayer skin for Shao Jun. You had female animations for that trailer! On top of this, Uplay and its DRM seem unable to cope with any new AAA game release. At least Steam is connecting you with friends and deals, and EA Origin has digital refunds.

Next gen experiences: What happens to games that are taking advantage of the new console systems and services in 2014? Not that much, because of multiplatform parity. Destiny went for a dull last-gen-compatible design that quickly incentivised game exploits. Watch_Dogs got accused for limiting on-disc PC features to make consoles look equal. Free-to-play games such as Blacklight: Retribution seem to have gone quite unnoticed, even as Warframe and Planetside 2 try to advance towards the couch shooter fanbase. What happened to cloud computing for Xbox One, what is it used for? It can, in theory, pre-calculate physics events in shared environments using a local server, but is it used? What happened to the share function of Playstation 4, are friends helping one another? We’ve also seen the commander implementation in Battlefield 4, but the experience is severely limited and does not scale well with player size, or when a commander leaves. The CPU flaws of the PS4 might bottleneck it later on, just as the Xbox One GPU does. Kinect reserved resources are being claimed for other things, and barely sells anymore. And at the same time, Battlefield 4 and its CTE has problems evolving onto the next gen consoles due to embarrassingly slow certification processes with dated bandwidth limits.

Social progression design: Even though games quickly run out of replayability or ways to find novelty in actual game mechanics, social progression is always something that can keep players exploring, once gameplay options have become limited. We see this online as different forms of speed running, competition, leaderboards, role playing and fan fiction. Our attachment to games late in their life cycle are often based on social progression and immersion, something that is built by bottom-up meaning making in creative communities. Publishers would rather have us squirm towards a more recent game at a higher price tag, and don’t really plan out ways to make profits out of creative processes built on nostalgia. Enabling players to exchange and realize their social progression ideas in-game is really helpful and enables publishers to reach more customers with adverts for similar products. One of the worst cases of social progression design was Crysis 3, which used very old progression models from COD4 without social features. The game died before DLC one. Games that lived past their expectation thrive however, such as Minecraft and Diablo 2.

Creative retainment: As I explained in my earlier post about Co-Creation in Gaming, people get more attached to experiences they can influence, and draw their friends to it. We become proud of the things we create or aquire, and defend it as a part of ourselves. One way to make gamers more invested in their games is to let them add or modify things in the game. It could be anything from custom textures, to gameplay tweaks or new maps. Publishers have a tendency to keep their engine tools “safe” from exploitation by keeping them in-house, where they can profit from selling DLC, or selling their engine technologies to others. Why go through so much work, just to limit your profits to what you can create? Why not sit on your ass, while thousands of players generate passive profit, within limits? Sure, Battlefield 4 servers are quite tweakable, but once you meddle with any predefined standard, your server traffic will vanish and your server fee loses all of its previous value. Instead players have to buy and mimic the publisher’s official servers to reclaim the traffic. Games such as Little Big Planet 3 instead offer a Netflix-like novel experience platform, where players can browse genres of player created content and rate or modify it at will.

Monetizing modding: Do I have your attention now? There are actually ways of making a profit out of this co-creation phenomenon, something even Valve or Skyrim hasn’t been able to realize yet, despite having some of the most played and modded games out there. As we’ve seen with the rise of platforms such as Kickstarter, Humble Bundle, Bandcamp and others, some people are willing to pay more for something, if they can pay less than they expected and still be able to donate a percentage directly to original content creators. People are happy when they can try novel experiences for free and donate through quality of life purchases. One perfect example of this is Path of Exile, by Grinding Gear Games. Their game is free, has depth, social progression and replayability, while having humane ways for people to fund to the developers and compete in new and exciting league races. Their content is made slowly by the developers however, and they are quite a small team. Imagine if Skyrim had a system where good modders could be funded directly through the distribution platforms of their work, and customers could rate content and donate both to developers and modders at a price point they are comfortable with. More $: More content. The developers and publishers would only have to manage the engine mod infrastructure and possibly ways to rent dedicated servers with decent traffic, or “officialize” good mods. That is what happened to Counter-Strike, Insurgency, DayZ, Team Fortress and DOTA.

Then how can we jump on this win-win money train: Consider hiring me @absol_89
and remember that these new concepts can also co-exist with developer published DLC!