This week, I have been both playing and watching a great deal of League of Legends, and the redone Twisted Treeline got me thinking about the LoL metagame and how it has developed almost entirely around the five-versus-five Summoner’s Rift map. What a metagame properly is is somewhat difficult to define, though. Perhaps the best definition of a metagame is the theory and structure behind the decisions made by game players; metagaming is usually seen in competitive-style games like fighting games and RTS titles. Metagames are as a general rule completely designed by the players; indeed a metagame can be seen simply as the way the players play the game. Strategies, team setups, and even mindgames all factor into what makes a metagame.
The primary reason that metagaming has been on my mind lately is the completely revamped Twisted Treeline map in League of Legends. While Summoner’s Rift, the primary map, has a well-established and often very strict metagame when it comes to champion roles, laning, and team compositions, the community as a whole has yet to adopt a solid set of metagame rules for the new version of Twisted Treeline. The end result is a less rigid and more chaotic gaming experience that can also be very frustrating as players try to learn what will and will not work on the new map. Team strategies are difficult to coordinate when one enters the matchmaking queue alone, since there is no consistent meta for team compositions and lane placement.
The concept of the metagame is certainly not a new one, nor is it even unique to video gaming; chess and Magic: the Gathering are two examples of games whose entire communities are shaped by the metagame. One advantage that collectable card games and especially video games have, though, are flexibility. Unlike chess, which has set defined rules that do not change, something like M:tG or LoL can change as the developers themselves come to learn and understand the metagame. Video game metas are especially prone to this, as patches to an online game can happen throughout its life cycle. Which champions in LoL are considered viable picks can and will change constantly, with buffs and nerfs happening every few weeks.
Whether or not metagames are a good thing is a matter of debate, but what is certain is their inevitability. Any competitive game is going to have people who will do whatever they can to win, and any game complex enough to have a large number of possible strategies can be analyzed and reviewed. The final stages of a metagame are usually driven by years of research and player experience. MMO metagaming, for example, is frequently backed-up by theoretical statistical research and hours upon hours of hands-on in-game testing; the optimal build or builds can be determined by analyzing parameters like DPS and damage tanking ability. Metagames can change as games change; the competitive Pokemon metagame has grown and evolved as new games introduce new moves, Pokemon, and mechanics.
Some friends and I have discovered a few team compositions that work extremely well on the new version of Twisted Treeline, but we reached these compositions entirely based on our speculation and in-game experiences. I feel that the primary reason we are successful is not because we have stumbled upon the ideal metagame but simply because we have found a metagame at all. While other teams experiment with more traditional compositions bound to the older meta, we have had great success by creating our version of the metagame. The fact that we have an organized strategy allows us to win more than we lose. I do not say this to be arrogant, but only to point out how things have gone for us. I have no doubts whatsoever that we will hit a plateau as other people begin to discover strategies and compositions for the new map.
While metagames often are criticized for their rigidity and people claim that they make a gaming experience stale, the fact remains that the meta is an important part of any long-running gaming experience, especially in competitive gaming. Even single-player games arguably have metagames; one could easily argue that speedrunning is a form of metagame. As long as there are people who want to be the best player of the game, metagames will exist. Whether this is good or not is frequently a matter of debate among gamers. On the one hand, a complex meta allows for high-level competitive play, on the other, adding a metagame on top of the main game can make the learning experience unpleasant for new players. Additionally, a strict metagame can lead to people so dedicated to the meta they hate on those who try to break the mold, like the “no items, Fox only, Final Destination” Super Smash Bros. crowd.
Do you have any experiences with metagames, Lusi-voters? If so, how have metagames shaped your perception of a particular game. Did you conform to the meta, or try to break out of it with something new? Let me know, Lusi-pundits!