The more complex, dynamic, deep, or emergent the gameplay, the less predictable its metagame development. If you're a frequent reader of this blog, you know that quality video game critics and articulate game designers are hard to come by. Now, I realize that I'm asking for an even more impossible task. Every game with a metagame worth understanding deserves a devoted video game historian.
Link records history as he adventures!
I'm aware of just how odd this job class may seem. But think about it this way, even if we exclude taking data from the thousands of "decent" players contributing to a game's competitive development, it is still a considerable task to record the competitions, trends, strategies, and thoughts of the top players (say the best 20). Factor in that all this data must be compiled into some kind of organized report (is it too much to add well-written and entertaining), and you'll realize that this undertaking is akin to a real job.
Speaking of real jobs, community managers have become increasingly crucial parts of the video game development process. These mysterious liaisons between the community of gamers and developers wear many hats. Some are like QA bug testers. Others have a focus on customer service or marketing. But the ones like an old friend of mine, Matt from wavedash.net, are personally devoted to recording metagames. These record keepers are paid to keep track of history as it happens. But video game historians don't necessarily have to be there as an active part of a gaming community from its outset to do their job. What's necessary to piece together the metagame of a game is records. The more data that's recorded, dated, and saved the better.
Just 5 years ago, the record keeping landscape for video games was very different than it is now. I remember struggling to find and download any kind of video of Super Smash Brothers Melee matches. Despite being a part of the largest fighting game community that was connected via an online message board, our video sharing capability was virtually nonexistent. Remember, this was before the revolution that is youtube. We did use a Napster-esque program called the DC++ hub, but it was awkward and unreliable at best.
Now, gamers not only live stream/blog/tweet their tournaments around the world with video overlay and commentary, but individual players are connecting and sharing vids by the thousands. Games like PixelJunk Eden has a feature that can record and post videos to youtube. Halo's vid doc and bungie.net integration is beyond fantastic. Spooky's capture and commentary of Street Fighter 4 is solid. While HDStarCraft and HuskyStarCraft have set the bar for quality, consistent, and popular videos with commentary. I'm sure companies like Bungie, Blizzard, and Valve have mountains of data in their vaults that they put to good use.
Without video game historians, anthropologist, or behavior psychologists how else are we to even begin understanding the difference between Japanese, American, European playstyles in a game like Super Smash Brothers Brawl? Or from players of any other region? Smash is complex enough. And through these complexities each region has developed distinct style. I wonder why. How much does culture influence the metagames? Does the samurai cultural background somehow affect how Japanese Smash players fight? Does it change how they define their tournament rules and thus how their metagame develops? These questions are interesting because people are interesting. And taking it all seriously is the only way to come close to finding answers.
Much of any contemporary video game record keeping is done by volunteers independent of the game development companies (though the lines can be thoroughly blended). Some records, like The StarCraft Bible, have even been published. On the other side, there are many more features that can be integrated into games to help bolster our record keeping efforts. The following list is of video game examples that keep track of the player's gameplay in different ways.
- Points, scores, and leader boards. Since the beginning days where we played in arcades, our accomplishments were recorded as high scores. In addition to our initials, some games stored the dates as well. From these simple origins, now organizations such as Guinness and Twin Galaxies work hard to validate and public record breaking history.
- Pokemon Diamond. This game has a journal, which is the first thing presented when you load your game file. It contains your last 10 days of activity. Entry examples include beating friends, trading with friends, what area you're in, if you used a PC Box, and newly caught Pokemon. Up trough 2010, Nintendo ran an online visualizer for Pokemon trades all around the world on Pokemon GTS, one of the snazziest websites I'd ever seen. If only the game logged your battles as well.
- Halo 3/ODST/Reach. From what I can remember, the latests matches (campaign, fire fight, multiplayer) are automatically saved. These videos are also automatically deleted unless you save them to another location. The bungie.net connectivity allows players to move screen shots and video content easily from the game.
- Brain Age, Flash Focus, Wii Fit. These games test various types of mental and physical ability. They're particularly good about displaying your progress over time. I used Flash Focus to measure my dynamic visual acuity when I was having vision problems several years ago. The decline was upsetting, but the knowledge was affirming.
- Professor Layton. "Our Story So Far..." Like Pokemon, loading your file also presents you with a recap of the latest story events. Furthermore, the main menu contains a journal, mysteries reminders, and a puzzle index that displays player progress.
- Super Meat Boy. After every level, a replay (inspired by quantum Mario) automatically plays of all (or many) of your attempts through the level. You can save any of these replays.
- Mega Man 10. The leader boards for this game are simple. But the feature I like the most is uploadable replays. If you wonder how someone could have possibly beat a level in under 2 minutes, with a little luck you can see for yourself immediately.
- Onlive. This futuristic dream device is actually a reality. The basic tech is that all the video game calculations and video processing is handled in the "cloud." Then the actual video feed is beamed to your computer or micro console while your controller inputs are beamed to the cloud. Here's the beauty of this system, which was explained to me by its creator in person. Because the audio and video are beamed, this feed can also be beamed to other people. Now, more seamlessly than ever, players can watch each other play. This is a great resource for a video game historian. Additionally, any time something cool happens players can hit the brag clip button (see it here).
Perhaps we could use the insights drawn from video game historians to design more organic AI or AI systems that can grow with a metagame. While this prospect sounds interesting, it's obviously not necessary. In fact, designing even the most straight forward, "mindless" enemies to take up unique areas of a game's combat design space will do two important things. 1) It will tend to create an enemy that will counter a very specific strategy or style of play. This can function as a sort of interplay barrier forcing the player to adapt. 2) Doing so will increase the ability for enemies to work together pushing the player from one strategy to the next much in the same way that interplay barriers do in a developed metagame. I designed the 3 enemies in Neo*RPG this way.
In the meantime, I'll try to organize a gaming project that will capture the entire development of a metagame. Look for that this summer.