In part 9 and part 10 of my Appraising the Art of Combat article series, I explained the metagame of The Legend of Zelda: Spirits Tracks battle based on my own experiences with the game. There is still much more to understand about metagames.
As I've said before the metagame of competitive games is intrinsically related to its interplay design. This means all of the different types of interplay loops and gameplay dynamics are big factors. The classic and most simple example of a game with an interplay loop is Rock Paper Scissors (RPS). This game is designed around a simple 3 point interplay loop. The metgame for RPS is relatively simple because there are no interplay barriers. Each choice is perfectly balanced against the other two. Each round has only one decision made in double blind fashion. So by design, there is no way a player can force another to play a certain way. Though we understand that each round is determined by this loop, the metagame or strategic history/trends of competition is a bit more complicated.
With no other techniques to aid you (like super reflexes) you have to determine what kind of opponent you're dealing with. If you've played a lot of RPS you may have noticed that inexperienced players commonly show their lack of experience in their body language. They also tend to play with a reactionary strategy. If they lose, they'll over react to the loss and switch to the hand that will beat the hand you just threw. Read your opponent correctly and you'll always stay one step ahead.
Now imagine an opponent with a bit more experience. This opponent knows that most inexperienced players will panic and switch hands after losing. So when these players lose, they do the opposite and keep the same hand. Then imagine the player who switches to your hand after losing a round. Consider all of these reactionary strategies. There isn't a lot here to consider because RPS is a game of few complexities (game rules) and few emergent possibilities.
Now consider the player who doesn't react to winning or losing at all. These players pick a series of hands before the match starts and stick to this strategy no matter what. Or imagine a player that just randomly throws a hand and never even looks to see the result (he/she just trusts the official to keep track of their score). No matter how smart or how randomly you play, you're still forced to do one of 3 moves and play within the core interplay loop design. In this way, the metagame of RPS cannot be deeper interplay-wise than what the game allows.
This image illustrates possible metagame of RPS trends.
But, this is not to say that the metagame equals the interplay design. Rather, with experience players there's always a history of RPS choices that makes up the metagame. Like those who collect and crunch sports stats, knowing something like... every Friday for the past 4 months most players tend to throw ROCK after crushing SCISSORS can be very helpful. Loops of interplay tend to create a metagame of trends. The trends of games without loops of interplay for their core design tend to be far less distinct and cyclical.
Of course understanding the metagame of games with looped interplay systems grows more complex when dealing with more complex loops. But for now we'll move on to another simple metagame model. Suppose we have a game called Meta-The-Game! Over the course of a year, players have figured out several interplay barriers in the 1v1 multiplayer mode for this game. These barriers are named A, B, C, and D. Being the first level/barrier, level A can also be referred to as the learning curve. This barrier encompasses the set of rules that must be learned to perform all the basic functions of the game necessary for reasonably achieving the goal. B is a strategy or level of play players can use to force A level players to step up their game or lose. So on and so forth.
The metagame for this game is easy to describe: A-> B-> C-> D. When two players compete, if players 1 plays at level C and player 2 at B, player 1 should be able to recognize his/her advantage and press it for a relatively easy win. If two players play at the same level, whoever upgrades to the next level will most likely to win.
What happens when both players play at the same metagame level? Of course, the game doesn't turn into a stand still or a stalemate. When both players play at the same level of the metagame, they will use strategies (centered around interplay not interplay barriers) to eek out relatively small advantages. Playing at the same metagame level does not mean players are at the same skill level. It only means both players have proved, chosen, or assumed to play at the same level. When this happens smart playing, correct guesses, and the player with more skill across the skill spectrum should win.
Interplay barriers tend to stress more knowledge skills than any other facet of DKART skills (for non-team games). This is because with very emergent games, an interplay barrier is an effective strategy designed to greatly limit the options of the opponent. Outside the realm of glitches that can freeze a player out of the game, it's unlikely that a single move in a simple use will be able to limit enough emergent possibilities to be considered an interplay barrier. If this were the case, I'd question the mechanical balance of the move.
Interplay barriers are typically a combination of moves executed in a specific way conscious of many in game factors. So when two players play on different metagame levels, the little knowledge the player on the higher level has gives him/her a big advantage. Playing on the same level makes it so that any facet of one's DKART skills can be used in attempt to gain small to moderate advantages. This is what I mean when I say that the skill spectrum is typically more evenly stressed between both players when they play at the same metagame level.
In part 3, we're looking at how the metagame is stressed in actual combat and why recording a game's metagame is so complicated and important.