There’s a lot marketing professionals can learn from gaming as it is right now. Gamification, as an ideal, seems to apply to business planning the most – and I’ve heard it discussed around the longer, broader process of enterprise growth… But a few of the less-obvious ideals, especially from fast-paced games, apply to marketing strategy as if tailor made for it. In particular, the idea of a “meta game” surrounding an existing game’s play and development strategy.
What is “The Meta Game?”
In gaming, particularly in eSports, “the meta game” describes prevalent strategies, expectations, and often becomes the minimum viable method of play for a given game. In most modern online games – and even in a number of offline or solo play titles – these strategies grow and change effectively on the pace of the publisher’s content release cycle. As game development and play go on, the understanding of what each tool within the game can be used for, what’s most efficient, and what works under what circumstances. Changes are made, in response to this understanding, as well as to accommodate for new content such as additional features, characters, items, encounters, and so on.
In some cases, “the state of the game” is much more volatile than others.
It’s easy to pick out a few central genres that benefit from growing metas; MMOs like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV (which I play regularly) release content at scheduled intervals, which increase the potential of the player character, add new instances or raids to complete, and provide new tools either in the form of items or new abilities. However, MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) games, such as DOTA 2, League of Legends, Smite and – recently – Heroes of the Storm, tend to have a much more visible meta game surrounding their play due to a number of factors.
- Games involved in eSports circuits tend to have much more visibility on them, and benefit from being less static,
- This visibility promotes faster development cycles from the publisher,
- Faster dev cycles mean even high end players must regularly relearn the game – either in part or in whole – because of tiny or sweeping changes,
- Huge game populations outside the professional circles also provide an enormous amount of data from which to draw balancing information.
Basically, the meta moves faster where there’s more visibility, in part because broadcasting benefits from never showing the same game happen twice. Constant balance-and-rebalance efforts from the publisher ensure no one plays the same game in a tournament twice.
To understand the meta game, understand “balance” as applies to games.
“Balance” is an ideal that developers strive for in any situation where multiple options exist for play. Whether that’s a broad range of characters a player can choose to use, larger libraries of items they can acquire to make those characters stronger as games go on, different abilities and other meta data that can be applied to a character before the game begins – or during… There’s a lot of flux possible, and even when players understand what works “best” for their purposes, the ability of the best participants to react to their opponents’ virtual curve balls is still an issue.
The meta itself must change, that’s the nature of it. As understanding is created about what’s strong, what’s weak, and what works in general – at every angle – the developers make changes to adjust for those strengths and weaknesses. Portions of the game seen as weak are often augmented, or buffed, to make them viable. Others – seen as over-powered – are nerfed, or reduced in value such that they’re in line with the remaining content as much as possible.
Because of this, “balance” is not in any way a destination; it’s absolutely a path. The steps along this path are the individual content releases for the game itself.
The meta game is a three-way tug of war.
Many gamers hate this “buff-and-nerf” cycle particularly because it creates gaps in their knowledge. There’s a need to constantly iterate through the available data and get to the content on the end of the rope. At some point when a new change happens, someone gets to be the first to try it out, to either do the metrics and statistics against other options to see if those are important, or to actually play test it and come up with inventive ways to react to the changed state of play. These pioneers are important, because they find novel uses for mundane things, and further the understanding of their use for the public.
The public – the second group in our tripod – by and large are not innovators, but they do create value for the gaming community. Their involvement – either by way of providing revenue, or promotion of the game itself – is integral to the game publishers’ overall strategy. It’s this larger group who spend the lion’s share of time just acting in the game, either conscious of the meta or unconscious of it. Publishers can collect huge volumes of aggregate data from these behaviours, codify that data, and understand what their work’s been affecting within the broader game.
Very often, though, this later creates problems for the developers – who made adjustments aimed at balancing the game. If something unexpected happens, either in a major tournament or off in the far reaches of casual gaming, they need to account for it somehow in a future update. And so the cycle continues.
In short, the public pulls from the pros, who pull from developers, who pull from both the pros and the public. With all three legs of the tripod generating and sharing data in one form or another, growth happens fast and effectively.
Your industry is in one of these three positions. Period.
No matter what your position is. it’s worth trying to understand who’s pulling from you – and who you’re pulling from. Whether it’s tools you use, build, or pioneer the use of – or inspiration and information that you, as a knowledge worker, add value to in order to generate revenue.
Understanding where your position is within this tripod is intensely valuable. Should you be the one creating tools? Should you be leading the way – gaining visibility for your industry and your work? Should you be following the lead of industry giants and providing a different value to your clients than they’re capable of? All three of those positions are important for keeping the array propped up.
Understanding the meta game isn’t just useful for you, it’s useful for everyone in your organization.
I highly suggest you read ESPN’s profile on Faker, a prominent League of Legends player from Korea’s SKT team. The pull-out, right in the middle of the profile, features an insanely insightful comment from Faker – one that’s easy to lose in the hype, biographical text, and imagery surrounding it.
“My strength is in understanding the flow of the game, when to fight and when not to fight.” – Faker
And further down, another from a teammate;
When I mention Faker, kkOma furrows his brow. “It’s a team game,” he says. “When the team doesn’t do well, Faker doesn’t do well. He looks as good as he does because there’s a baseline set by the rest of the team.”
Bingo. That’s the other side. The onus is on every player – in LoL, that means five players usually – to understand the metagame, how it applies under the current conditions of play, and act accordingly. Their understanding must be such that they – individually and as a unit can operate as needed to ensure success.