Vague Patch Notes: Chasing the metagame in MMOs isn’t the metagame at all

No, I will not use metaverse pictures.

So a few weeks back, I did a column on what the metagame actually is in MMORPG, and then I discussed how noob traps (or to use the scientific name, “bad game design we left in because it makes our game look more complex than it is”) aren’t really part of it. And I talked about how I was going to talk about the last part of it, which ties directly into a lot of people arguing “no, [Benign Thing] isn’t the metagame because the metagame is bad and the province of game bullies” but then I just… didn’t. Other stuff happened.

Thus, it’s time to circle back. Let’s talk about why “the meta” has become a dirty word based around a certain contingent of kids who got shoved into lockers in high school based on another group of kids who got shoved into lockers in high school. (And on that note, you do realize that it’s time to get out of that mentality, right?) And the secret of the whole thing is understanding that the people who are almost the worst at understanding the meta are usually the people who are most reliant upon it.

Let’s start with a vital recap. The metagame, by itself, is simply descriptive. For example, here is a statement about the metagame: “Given two players of equal skill, Spork-Flingers are going to deal more damage than Waffle-Priests by about 5% in any environment.” That is a hypothetical point about the metagame. It’s a synthetic statement and would require an actual game as reference to know whether it’s true or false, but for argument’s purpose, let’s assume it’s true.

So you might conclude that the metagame is biased against Waffle-Priests. And right there you are potentially wrong.

Now, obviously this is not a real game, so you could definitely come up with a scenario where that is a true statement, but on its own it doesn’t mean anything. It could be that Waffle-Priests boost everyone else’s damage by about 10%, which means that in a five-person party, their lower damage is easily offset. It could be that Waffle-Priests just suffer from range limitations or gearing issues. And perhaps most importantly, it might not actually matter in any fashion because that 5% decrease does not actually affect your ability to clear content.

Even more importantly, you should keep in mind that first caveat: “given two players of equal skill.” That part shows up a lot in analysis of metagames, but a lot of people act as if it doesn’t exist.


Let’s say you really like playing an Elemental Shaman in World of Warcraft. You have had a lot of practice playing Elemental Shaman and learning its unique quirks. But it turns out that right now, Enhancement Shaman deals way more damage than Elemental Shaman. A lot more. Clearly, what you need to do is swap to Enhancement because you’ll do more damage… but when you do switch, you suddenly find that you aren’t doing more damage! What gives? Is the metagame analysis wrong?

Not necessarily. It’s far more likely that you are just doing a worse job playing something you don’t like as much. We act as if player skill is something that’s easily transferable instead of being something that often tends to come about as a result of very specific preferences and enjoyment. You are not going to be equally good at all things, in all likelihood.

And it’s here where we run into the guys. You know the guys. They will very quickly tell you what the optimal choices are, and if you’re making any other choices, they’re quick to harp on how you should be making different choices or else you’re not any good. These guys are known for being very thirsty for progress and success in difficult content, being very proud of every advancement they make in difficult content, and being very terrible at difficult content.

Why? Because these people are looking at the meta like a formula. If you plug the right combination of choices in on one end, the metagame functions for all intents and purposes as an equal sign. On the other side you get victory. But that inherently means foregoing all of the other factors that go into gameplay, chief among them actual gameplay.

One of Final Fantasy XIV’s world first races featured a main tank playing Dark Knight at a time when the meta had assessed that Dark Knight was the worst tank in the game. When players asked why he picked Dark Knight and what unique factors of the job influenced his decision, the answer was simple:

“I like Dark Knight.”

A large population on the subreddit could not believe this was possible because that’s sub-optimal! That’s not meta! The meta choice was picking something else, anything else!

But here was someone just making a choice based on personal interest and then not seeing it as particularly more challenging or difficult. Playing a very good Dark Knight was more important than putting in the right meta balance in order to break the game down.

But it's not optimal!

Everyone who has played a video game before knows that players are always going to gravitate toward the path of least resistance. This is just how human beings work. And all else being equal, the meta does point the way toward that. It can serve as a descriptive understanding of the game and highlights the areas wherein certain choices are stronger or weaker. Every single game has a metagame just because it is possible to make some choices that are better or worse than others, the same way Dungeons & Dragons will not strictly stop you from taking one level in every class regardless of utility.

But the people who are most fixated on the metagame are usually the people who understand it the least. I know people in City of Heroes, for example, who know the metagame backwards and forwards, and yet they’re not the people who yell at you for picking anything but the best combinations. They’re the people who see weird combinations and want to make them work, even if they might be complicated or sub-optimal. Why would you just keep filling in the easy answers if you already know them?

Oh, sure, they’ll give you advice about how to make the optimal choices within that framework, but that’s not a bad thing. And usually they’re just as willing to accept if, say, a particular sub-optimal pick is absolutely a non-negotiable part of a given build. So what? Nobody is impressed by being able to enter the right answer to an addition problem when you have a calculator.

But people who treat the metagame as a recipe rather than just a descriptive list of facts? They’re not the people who understand it; they’re the people who don’t understand it and want to go with the simple version that is easy to understand.

And if you don’t like those people telling you that you’re no good because you’re playing a Waffle-Priest and those deal less damage, then your problem isn’t with the metagame. Your problem is with social friction and particular people being jerks. That’s not a game design problem, or at least not one that would be magically fixed without a metagame if that were an actual possibility.

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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