Learning the Metagame – Personal First Thoughts

Metagaming: Bringing tactical combat gear (and an Apache helicopter) to a knife fight

Warning: This may turn out to be a very long post on learning the metagame in games.

I’m mulling on two things specifically:

1. How much of this learning should be clued or signaled in-game or given in-game training tools (as opposed to out-of-game tips/guides/walkthroughs from other players)

2. Preferences for learning on a group or individual basis, possibly influenced by extrovert or introvert tendencies

But first, a very long introduction.

As Dusty Monk says, he of the original idea starter,

Every MMO of any complexity has a rich metagame to learn and enjoy beyond the up front “jam on your ability keys until mob is dead” mechanic.  What I think distinguishes a good game design from a poor one is to what extent the game forces you to have to play the metagame, and how soon it forces you to learn it – if at all.

All games have a metagame – optimal strategies for playing the game in a manner that allows you to win, progress or get a high score. That’s generally the point of games, learning the rules and boundaries of the design in order to do better at playing the game and achieving whatever ‘win conditions’ are set by the developers’ design. Make the metagame complex enough, or with enough varied, alternative options and strategies, and you get the often praised ‘depth’ to a particular game. Too simple to master, and players just do it, ‘win’ and get rapidly bored.

Players of MMOs, or virtual worlds and sandboxes in particular, are pretty adept at redefining what the  ‘win conditions’ and ‘playing better’ means to them, which I believe is a good thing. It shows that MMOs are big enough to play host to a variety of people, not all of which have to share the same goal or metagame. Some may enjoy playing the traditional raid progression endgame, which then involve necessary optimisation strategies for one’s character and one’s schedule to play in a group. Some may be content just hitting max level and stopping. Or accumulating one of each race and class of alt. Or the world’s largest collection of pets and mounts. Or costumes. Or screenshots. Or PvPing. Or whatever.

Each may have their own set of optimisation strategies. I don’t need large wardrobe slots, all bank account slots unlocked, or multiple mules. Ye olde hat collector, or auction house trader (with the exception of the wardrobe, that is) might.

I myself have advised people to really examine what they want out of a game, and to either treat the game in a different way or move on when it can no longer fulfill their needs/wants, rather than get sucked down the road of other peoples’ expectations. It’s so easy to, as a commenter over at Spinksville, Boxerdogs, mentions:

The metagame in WoW snuck up on me as it does so many, by my wanting to be a good “contributor” to the raid. But learning a metagame like that is quite taxing. I kinda got suckered into learning one, and I don’t regret it at all, but I have found with SWTOR and Guild Wars 1 that I just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to learn a new, complex game.

Now let’s talk about the MMO combat metagame that most folks are thinking of when they say “metagame,” wherein gear selection, optimal builds and skill rotations are often important, a good UI or add-ons can be helpful, may assume basic knowledge of jargon like “aggro,” “kite,” “AoE,” etc,  involves a fair amount of theorycrafting and out-of-game reading/discussion/copy-and-pasting of stuff other people have either mathematically calculated or video recorded to demonstrate easy-to-apply tactics,  may require some muscle memory and practice and maybe quick-ish reaction times (not to mention WASD and mouselook, is that as controversial as whether to use keyboard shortcuts or very quick mouse clicks?), and where combat parsing is often used in the search for the holy grail of efficiency…

That’s… a lot of stuff to learn. Some of it can apply from game to game, and we MMO gamers have actually absorbed a lot of it without realising. (Watch a complete newbie try to navigate an MMO some time.) But the game specific stuff can already be quite tedious a task to take on, as Spinks posits while trying to decide if she wants to join the SWTOR raid endgame:

…there comes a point where if you want to be competitive or complete cutting edge content, you have to stop playing in an exploratory, playful way, and start playing in a more defined and optimised way. Or in other words, there comes a point where you have to decide if you want to look stuff up and learn the metagame, or just move on…

…[there’s also] metagame fatigue where you spent so much time theorycrafting or practicing your minmax spec in one game that you need a break from that intensity of gameplay, or don’t want to switch to a game with another involved metagame.

Sometimes learning too much about the metagame sucks all the fun out of the game and leads to burn out. My personal theory is that this tends to happen if the game isn’t balanced in a way that leads to multiple, viable, interesting, alternate options, or deeper counter to a counter mechanics that allow players to feel a sense of control and personal agency over what they are doing and/or to vary things up, be it for novelty’s sake or to catch an unsuspecting opponent by surprise.

Starcraft’s metagame is notoriously elaborate, along with, I believe, DOTA-like games, though I haven’t much experience with their ilk. I tend to dislike games in a World of Warcraft vein, where there are one or a few good optimal copy-this-cookie-cutter spec and everything else is numerically suboptimal. True choice is limited if you’re playing a metagame which discards all the other options as invalid for the purpose.

Sometimes players are too fast to do this too, though.

There may be better ways and better strats, that don’t get found until someone breaks convention and does something different.

Me, I don’t mind optimising to a limited extent, on my own, under my control, at my own pace. But I do mind having to live up to an external ideal or standard enforced by other people or by restrictive game design that forces you to be ‘this high’ in order to start doing whatever.

I rather enjoyed what Guild Wars asked of its individual players, once I got my head around the entire “Magic: The Gathering” concept and other uniquely Guild Wars schticks.

I once bogged down in Thunderhead Keep and for the life of me, couldn’t figure out how to move on from there. It took 2+ years of learning in another MMO (City of Heroes) before the entire concept of aggro and aggro radius became internalised to a point that when I returned to Guild Wars, it was a cakewalk to look at my radar minimap and pull and otherwise pick apart groups that liked to patrol close to each other. This is a key mechanic in GW, btw, your party appears designed to take on one group of mobs well, and if you blindly charge ahead into a chokepoint where 2 or 3 groups patrol into each other, you’re in for a mad fight and probably a walk back as your party shows up at the last rez shrine you crossed.

At the point I was having major issues in Thunderhead Keep, I had no such understanding and would walk straight into such traps, limping out only by virtue of two monk henchmen and blind 60% death penalty persistence if need be. (My ranger’s build also sucked, and I don’t think I used his skills well enough to do him much justice either. I’m not really a long range caster sort by nature.)

With that hurdle down, it was easier to start learning from PvXwiki about what ‘good’ builds were, and after copying a few to learn from, to start grasping the concepts behind skills synergizing with each other, and choosing skills appropriate for the occasion as dictated by the mobs you would be fighting. Most of the time, it was still easier to use the chapter-approved uber builds for both myself and my heroes, but I grew confident enough to swap some skills in and out as needed (as first suggested by wiki recommendations) and later, that fit what I wanted to achieve for the mission or dungeon (eg. extinguish for a monk if burning was going to be flying around willy nilly, remove hex for hexes, etc.)

In fact, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I’m still fond of going back to the game, I just have less urgency to do so after happily finishing HoM 30/50 and getting distracted by “ooh shiny” games of the month. Guild Wars is a classic that can keep for whenever I feel like it. Thank you, no sub fee.

So with a self-chosen, self-directed goal, it seems I am quite content to do some searching at my own pace, do a bit of experimentation and trial and error with different builds and strategies, and even die alone repeatedly and keep going back for upwards of 15+ absurd repetitions. (See my flailing around in the Moon Bog in the Secret World, enjoying myself thoroughly when I figured out a solution that works for me.)

But you know, I don’t like to do this sort of learning in a group.

Perhaps it’s just me being too sensitive for my own good, or tending to compare others to myself, but as I mentioned before, I both demand a lot of perfection/optimisation out of myself (out of both a desire to pull my own weight, contribute and do well, and fear of embarassment or disappointing others) and it also bugs me when I see others slacking off (out of ignorance or willfulness, the first is forgivable, the second less so) and forcing others to shoulder an extra load. This is also primarily a -performance- issue.

What about learning? I don’t want to have to start the learning process in an ordinary group, which is normally focused on performance and executing well. There’s too much pressure to learn fast and learn quickly… or else.

And worse, to have to learn at their pace, not my own. I’m a poor auditory learner. I hate Ventrilo and having someone talk ceaselessly while I’m trying to focus on doing something. I end up distracted, paying attention to their voice, rather than what’s on my screen. Groups who type also tend to teach badly, because most type in a hurry, in abbreviated form, and are mostly interested in go-go-go and speed. So you’re forced to learn by doing and pray that it’s not too hard and that you don’t accidentally wipe the group from ignorance.

I’m primarily visual and I enjoy reading books and walls-of-text by myself in order to learn something. Wikis and guides are okay, and scanning through forums and blogs. Videos are meh, mostly because of the audio component which means I can’t really fast forward through stuff and have to give up 20 minutes or whatever length of time the video takes to play. Failing which, I’d rather try doing and learning by trial and error. By myself, thank you.

Not where someone will get irritated at me for failing 15 times for being a “slow learner,” or as I like to call it, being thorough, experimental (because I don’t believe in just one true way of execution and must try various ideas) and just plain goddamn stubborn. When I learn something, I don’t like to learn enough to “just get by” or to follow someone else’s method blindly, I like to learn it to the point where I understand the concept and underlying principles and possibly how to apply those ideas/solutions to a different scenario.

Groups by and large just don’t have the patience for that sort of thing. They just want the shiny at the end as quickly as possible. Can’t really blame them, that’s just how it is. Once you’ve done all the learning you care to, then all that’s left is execution, preferably as fast and as well as possible.

It would be indeed nice if more games offered training modes to make the learning curve smoother. Most games are guilty of not getting around to it. Guild Wars has a hero tutorial which is pathetically basic. Why not teach pulling with heroes, aggro radius, corner blocking and such things while you’re at it? (Though albeit in the very first intro missions, they comment on waiting for mobs to patrol away from one another. It goes by so fast, most newbies miss the concept, methinks.)

If dps races and recount and other such combat parsing is going to be an integral part of your game, then by golly, have the combat dummies you provide measure the necessary stats too. If it doesn’t, then don’t have the combat dummies there, and don’t tune your mobs for that sort of thing with enrage timers.

I haven’t gotten around to sampling DDO much, mostly because the build planning appears to involve too much homework in order to minmax your character for the specific function you want (which in my case, would be a worthwhile soloing baseline) but I’m intrigued by the concept of casual mode to both learn the dungeon and see the story, just no/less loot for you.

I also wonder how much of this solo learning preference has to do with my propensity for extreme introversion. On Myers-Briggs type of tests, I tend to break the scale for Introversion and score full marks or close to it for “I”. Hanging around people really tires me out, especially since I have to pretend extroversion to a passable extent to get by in the workplace, and the last thing I want to do when I relax, in a closed room, by myself on the computer, is to hang around with EVEN MORE PEOPLE.

Susan Cain suggests that there’s a fallacy of groupwork being effective, especially where introverts are concerned, in a decent enough book that I just finished reading – Quiet: The Power of Introverts, though she has a tendency to generalize quite a bit.

A quick Google on group vs individual learning styles and introversion suggests I have a lot of meaty reading to do to find out more about this train of thought. I’ll share later if I find anything interesting.

Also, depending on who you ask, introverts make up a good quarter, or third, or even half of the population. We just hide well. And I suspect, a disproportionate number of us are represented in computer games. So why not cater for our learning styles in them? It’ll encourage us to stick around more.

P.S. There’s also a neat cycle of irony going on here in this metagame discussion.

One of the metagames I’m putting off learning is in Orcs Must Die (whom Dusty is apparently a developer of), a generally enjoyable game, but I’m hitting a wall in the later levels on normal war mage difficulty because my trap placements are likely not optimal and I can’t earn enough skulls to upgrade traps any further and I can’t unlock any more levels because it’s getting too hard.

(If I’m forced to backtrack and play through all the levels on novice difficulty with two skulls only, I’ll shoot somebody, no Diablo 3 difficulty level grind for me, thanks.)

On my to-do list is to watch this very promising video that is supposed to teach me about trap combos and maximizing score (assuming it is possible with the basic traps I have unlocked), but egads, it’s so long, I don’t know when I’ll have time for that.

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