Vague Patch Notes: Getting meta in MMORPGs

See, not all things are the same.

This week, MOP’s Chris ran afoul of the MMO meta when he was going through New World. Only he… didn’t, not really. He ran afoul of something that looks a lot like the meta, but it really isn’t; he ran afoul of bad design. But it ties into ideas of meta and balancing that I’ve talked about before (in the very first Vague Patch Notes, even) but never gone into a whole lot of detail about. So let’s talk about the MMORPG meta.

I actually have a lot to say here, but the reality is that I am already aware I’m not going to be able to get to all of it this week even without going off on weird tangents that only peripherally relate to what we’re talking about. So this week we’re going into “useful notes” mode, and we’re primarily going to be talking about what is a metagame and – just as importantly – what looks like a metagame but really isn’t.

Whenever we talk about the metagame, or even just “the meta,” what we are talking about is the game outside of the game. This sounds really weird in and of itself, but most people know what it means from experience. It’s about the parts of balance that are not actually numeric but are about play experience, player expectation, and so forth.

Case in point: Did you know that there is a metagame for Monopoly? Orange and red properties are actually the best properties to have in the game. Oh, sure, they’re not the highest potential profit margin, but they’re cheap to build on and very easy for others to land on. By contrast, utilities and brown properties just don’t make you a lot of money based on a combination of location and how rent is calculated. They’re best avoided.

By most standards Monopoly is not a very good game (even if you play it according to the proper rules with property auctions, it’s adapted from a board game satire and the tedium is the point), but there is still a metagame in a game where your primary means of interaction just consists of choosing to buy or not buy properties as you circle the board based on random rolls. If you play a hundred games of Monopoly against people who don’t know these facts… well, please, make better use of your time, but you will ultimately wind up winning more often.


The point here is that the metagame covers all of the things that are technically outside the context of the specific mechanics of the game. If you can make your mage specialize in Fire, Earth, Air, or Water spells (first person who says “like an Elementalist” gets a slap on the wrist) but enemies during the lower levels are all resistant to Earth and Fire, that’s a part of the metagame. If you can mechanically build a DPS that deals loads of damage in melee or equal damage at range but every boss throws spears at anyone outside of melee range, that’s part of the metagame.

A perception among some parts of the community is that metagames are bad and punish people for playing what they enjoy. This, however, is not actually the fault of the metagame. It is a related problem that we will cover in the next part of this particular series, but this week we’re focused on definitions, which means that it’s important to discuss something related: The metagame is not prescriptive but descriptive.

Something that is prescriptive is something that imposes a standard on something existing. If I write a book that says, “You cannot use the word ‘they’ as a singular gender-neutral pronoun in English,” I am being prescriptive. Being descriptive, on the other hand, is looking at hundreds of years of English writing, analyzing it, and then writing, “Well, ‘they’ is used as a singular gender-neutral pronoun across hundreds of years of the language, so clearly it’s fine.”

One is not strictly better than the other, however. For example, if my reading of Monopoly rules is descriptive, I would observe that you’re supposed to get money for landing on Free Parking and you’re not supposed to auction off properties if the person who landed on the property doesn’t buy it. But that is demonstrably wrong; the rules of the game say the exact opposite on the latter point and say nothing about the former. These are common practices that have become accepted house rules, but are not actually the written rules.

So when I say that a metagame at its core is descriptive, there’s a reason for that: It means that at the core of a metagame is describing the state of the game as it actually exists. If I say that in Elden Ring a lot of the accepted metagame is ranged builds, I’m not saying, “Ranged builds should be the best builds.” I’m saying that the game biases toward this gameplay through mechanics and fights.

They're friends.

There are certainly players who will try to push a metagame narrative on others. If ranged DPS is 5% less efficient than melee DPS, there are people who will try to insist that ranged DPS is utterly useless and you should never bring it in a group. But it’s important to note that this is not “the metagame” any more than is playing Monopoly and giving your properties to your brother for free because it’s the only way he’ll stop kicking your shins. The problem here is not the existence of the metagame but the people in question.

It’s not possible to have a game without a metagame because that’s just… how… games work. There is a metagame for rock-paper-scissors. Really, it’s fascinating. The most likely first throw is rock. But if your opponent knows this, then they are more likely to throw scissors, which will beat your throw of paper, so rock becomes your best option. But then they’re most likely to make their second throw what would have beaten their first throw… it goes on like this.

Wait, I promised to not go off on a whole bunch of weird tangents, didn’t I? Well, it was bound to happen at some point.

At their core, metagames are just a matter of looking at games as complete entities rather than as collections of arbitrary mechanics. It’s taking a more complete and holistic view of the play experience in its totality. This does lead to certain conclusions about what the game’s biases, sometimes in ways that players will use to enforce certain conclusions on others, but it’s important to note that metagames in and of themselves are value-neutral.

And perhaps more importantly, it’s clear that a lot of what is attributed to metagames is not actually the result of their design but of the inputs of bad actors. But there’s an even more insidious trick, when metagames are painted as the villains for things that are actually just bad design when the designers give too much control to players for deciding how the game’s play experience will unfold. And we’ll talk about that next week.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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