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

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