8 March 2011

An examination of Meta game mechanics. - by Josh Bycer

      Posted 03/07/11 03:44:00 pm  

When it comes to re-playability one of the strongest pulls in my opinion is the inclusion of Meta game mechanics. Over the last few years I've played a lot of multi-player games and found that the ones that feature a strong Meta game are the ones I like to come back to.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, I would like to define the term "Meta mechanic" for this entry:

Meta Mechanic: Rewards or improvements that can be earned during the actual game-play and/or outside of it, that carries over to repeat plays.

For this entry I'm going to ignore single player games, even though they do have this partially in the sense with achievements. However you cannot earn achievements for a game outside of it.

Meta Mechanics can either take center stage in your design or can be subtle. Let’s start with the predominant ones. Possibly the most famous currently would be Team Fortress 2, since its inception the game has added new weapons and cosmetic pieces to differentiate and personalize your character. The process of unlocking these items has also changed throughout the years.

First you could only get these via achievements, and then came random drops followed by crafting. This past year Valve has released the Mann-Co store as another way of obtaining these items using real money.

Recently I started playing League of Legends which has an extensive Meta game which I talked about my experience with here. Like Team Fortress you can earn items (or in LoL's case Influence Points) from playing the game and also have the option of spending money to unlock content as well. The difference in LoL is that there is more to tweak outside of the game compared to Team Fortress. Mastery points and Runes allow you to further customize your champions either for specific roles, or to emphasize the innate advantages your preferred champions have.

Games like TF2 or LoL display their Meta game from the start; however there are plenty of games that are more subtle. Games like the recent Call of Duty titles and Killing Floor for the PC both use a "perks" system. In KF you choose from a perk like sharpshooter or flamethrower, this in turn grants you bonuses using specific weapons along with discounts on buying them. To earn them each perk requires the player to kill specific enemies a specific way, kill enough and you'll go up in rank with that perk and granted more bonuses.

I have not played any of the recent CoD games so I can only go by second hand knowledge. I've read reviews of how you can unlock perks and new weapons as you play the game and level up.

Sometimes the Meta mechanic can be something as simple as unlocking new icons, as in the case with Star craft 2. By earning achievements you'll be rewarded with new character icons to show off before a match. Granted it is not as important compared to the other games mentioned here but it is still an example of this.

The simplest example of a Meta mechanic is a persistent high score table linked to your game. In Geometry Wars 2 and Pinball FX 2, both titles integrate the high score list onto the game screen. While you're playing GW2 you will see the closest score on your friend's list to your best. This gives you motivation to try to beat it and if you manage to do that, the next highest friend's score will take its place.

In Pinball FX 2 as you are getting close to beating a high score you will see an announcement flash on the top right of the screen. As an added bonus getting higher scores on each table will go towards unlocking achievements and avatar clothing.

Now that we've talked about examples of meta design it's time for the difficult task of distinguishing what makes a meta mechanic good and what makes it bad.

1. Circular progression: A term I used for my home base mechanic analysis, but it can also be applied here. The best Meta mechanics are those that interact with the game and can be seen both inside the game and outside of it. For example in Team Fortress 2, by playing the game I can unlock and use all those items. Outside of the game I can either craft new items from the parts I find while playing or spend money to unlock them for use.

League of Legends is more involved with this progression thanks to all the tweaking the player can do. While the bonuses don't seem huge from runes and mastery points at the start, when you get to high level play they start to add up.

This type of progression is missing from Star craft 2, as playing the game only gives you icons outside of the game but they don't have an effect in game. By effect I don't mean that they should alter the game-play in any way, just changing the color or how the unit looks in game would be enough (similar to the collector's edition bonus for the Thor unit).

2. Keeping balance: Whenever you have an outside influence on the game-play in the form of Meta mechanics or micro transaction content, you have to worry about game balance. How much of an effect should these mechanics have on the game-play? If you make them too important to the design then you risk creating an imbalance in the game. On the other hand if they are too insignificant then the player won't waste their time with it.

With Team Fortress 2 Valve has constantly made changes to their items in an effort to keep all Meta content as side-grades instead of full blown upgrades to the classes to preserve balance. For the most part they have achieved this however there are some items out there that do seem like upgrades (such as the medic's unlocked gear).

There are also arguments over the poly-count sets that were released with the introduction of the Mann-Co store. The regular parts of the sets were just side-grades however if someone was to equip the hat the set would be enhanced further. The hats had a very low chance of dropping in game and could either be bought using cash or crafted with a multi item recipe. The hats became a full blown upgrade and could make or break the other set items; this caused a lot of complaints at Valve.

While League of Legends has a better progression system it does straddle this line more. The increases from runes and mastery points may not make a huge difference early on. However many high level games can be decided by proper rune setup and mastery point allocation. That is why Riot allows players to save copies of your rune and mastery point setup giving the option to switch to different load out before the start of a game. Also the mastery unlocks for putting at least 20 points into that respective talent tree are extra powerful, which you will not be able to get to until you reach a high level.

When I play with my friends who are at max level the differences are easily seen. Their champions are just innately better than mine and there is nothing I can do about that until I reach the max level. Runes also come in different strengths based on what tier they are, ranging from tier 1 to 3. You can only start assigning tier 3 runes at level 20 and that means that there is a big difference between being level 19 and level 20 in LoL.

3. Always progressing: In order for a Meta Mechanic to work in my opinion the player should always make some progress with them while playing. It should not matter if the player wins or loses as long as there is some sense of progression from playing the game. In Team Fortress 2 the random drops only occur while playing the game (or if someone uses an illegal idle program). Similarly in League of Legends you will receive Influence Points no matter the outcome of a game, of course with more IP rewarded to the winners.

Strange enough after saying that Meta Mechanics wouldn't work as well in a single player game, I started thinking of a game idea where it could work. The rogue-like genre could be a perfect fit for Meta Mechanics, as they require the player to replay the game and could be a great incentive to balance the challenge of playing them. I'm playing around with an idea that combines my love of class based rpgs and challenging rogue-likes that also have Meta Mechanics.

Improving re-playability is always a worthwhile goal. With more and more games being shipped with a multi-player component any little addition can help your game stand out from the crowd.

Josh.

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