What is a Metagame? This is probably one of the most if not the most ambiguous and abstract term when it comes to game design. Therefore you might want to do your own research, but for the time being, please take a seat and let’s dive into this together.
One-liner Short Definition
The metagame are all gameplay interactions that transcend the core gameplay mechanics.
Think of the metagame as a game that spans beyond a single gameplay session. This can be: Leveling Up your hero to the maximum, unlocking all the game’s content.
There are many variations to what a metagame can be. This is also related to a big extent to the specifics of the given game.
Understanding the metagame is more easily done through examples:
- Unlocking all heroes skins in Overwatch
- Unlocking all arena in Clash Royale
- Collecting all cards in a Hearthstone (or other CCG)
- Beating all Levels in Candy Crush Saga (or any level-based game),
- Beating all Acts in Diablo (same as above)
- Daily Quests
- Achievement Systems
Just take any game and think about the processes and mechanics that take place for a longer time duration than your basic interactions. Metagames are very varied and sometimes not as easy to spot, but understanding those is worth it.
We can easily apply the same differentiation principle to real life. Take your job as an example: Doing your daily obligations is core gameplay while getting promotions and salary updates are a metagame. Becoming an integral part of the team and getting along with your colleagues is also a form of a metagame.
In the example above we have a very simple game. The rules of the game are:
- You manage a city, where you can build X houses
- Houses cost coins and take time to be built
- You can only build a limited number of houses per city
- Each house generates Y coins per minute
- Building all houses in the city allows you to Level Up
- When you Level Up you can unlock the next city
- In a sense, the Houses are the Core, while the City is the Meta
Let’s see how the Core VS Meta Loops are structured
- Core Loop
- INVEST, Sink Mechanic – Spend Coins and Time into Building & Upgrading production (Houses)
- PROFIT, Tap Mechanic – Collect Coins from the Houses
- Meta Loop
- LEVEL UP – Level up and unlock more cities
- PROFIT – By unlocking new cities you can increase the profit
What is NOT a metagame
The much more famous definition and false usage of the word “metagame” is:
“The strategy in many competitive games. How to most effectively play the game in order to win”
If it’s a game like DOTA, you will often hear people talking about a given hero’s meta. These tactics can often change due to a new game rebalance or new items added. But this is NOT a metagame.
It’s beyond me why would anybody use this word, when there is already a perfectly suiting one – “Strategy”. We, gamers, are not the best when it comes to handling words, but this is too lame even for us.
Meta-build is another (and a correct one) alternative term, especially when it’s about heroes-based gameplay with equipment and skills.
My wild guess is that at some point a gamer misinterpreted the term “metagame”. Given the fact gamers are talking about the strategies they use in competitive games all the time vs almost never discussing the actual metagame (this is a topic deserved for game designers & devs), it’s clear how the false interpretation came to be.