Meta-game design

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by Phil Steinmeyer, Apr 17, 2006.

  1. Phil Steinmeyer

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    Of late, I've been playing a lot of Ticket To Ride - an online only implementation of a classic, 'German-style' boardgame.

    It's not really a 'Casual Game' in the traditional sense, but it's not really a hard-core game either - hard to say what it is.

    In any case, I think after the initial appeal of the core game mechanic, what kept me coming back (and I've spent FAR too much time on-line playing this game) is the 'meta-game' aspect. Players get a rating (computed based on who you beat, adjusted by those players' ratings, etc), and a rank, within the universe of TTR players. So now I enjoy the game itself, but I'm also addicted to the 'meta game' of trying to improve my rating and rank.

    This is similar, in a way to MMORPGs - in those games, players finish exploring much of the world comparitively quickly, and would probably tire of the basic game mechanics of fighting baddies, but the meta-game of trying to build and optimize an uber-character keeps people coming back (plus social aspects, too...)

    Last year, I was hooked on X-Box ESPN NFL 2K5 football. Again, after the initial novelty wore off, I spent a fairly long time trying to achieve various awards they have, unlock things, and so on. The core football game was backed by a DEEP meta game.

    That said, some (not all) popular Casual Games have few meta-game elements beyond perhaps a high-score list.

    Meta Game options available as design options for Casual Games include:
    * High Score list (local or global)
    * Storyline (motivating the player to finish it)
    * Awards screen (for various achievements like big combos, etc)
    * Best performance per-level (after levels you can see how your performance on it compared against previous times or the designer's best)
    * Extra unlockables (screensavers and the like)

    Others?

    Of these, a local high-score list is easiest to implement, and it's pretty much the only one that almost ALL Casual Games have.

    I'm not interested in doing a global list (too much complexity, unless it's just hooking to a publisher-provided API).

    At the moment, I've elected not to have a storyline for my game, but it does have a map screen where you can see your progress through the levels.

    I'm definitely considering an Awards screen. I haven't seen too many Casual Games do this (Chuzzle, and I think a couple others). Not too hard to implement, but I'm wondering if there's any evidence (anecdotal or otherwise), that customers really care about this.

    Per-level performance tracking never really interested me as a player too much (because I don't try to optimize my outcome for each level). It's easy to implement, but clutters up the Level Complete screen with a lot of data.

    Extra unlockables is a broad category. Speaking strictly of screensavers, it seems to be a fair amount of work with low expected value for the user. Big Kahuna Reef may be the exception here, because it's theme (fish) tied closely to a traditional screensaver theme (aquariums).

    Anyways, what does everyone else think about the merits of meta-game elements in general (does our target audience really care?) and of the cost/value of the ones listed above (or others) in particular...
     
  2. C.S.Brewer

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    good stuff to be thinking about Phil, metagames are nice for different people.

    I have some personal anecdotal evidence that I don't care about awards. The only time I've ever paid attention to the awards are in multiplayer games, that way you can compare yourself to another human and have some bragging rights. bragging rights vs the game itself don't appeal to me. When I say awards I'm talking about you know like you got A GOLD TROPHY. or a SUPER COMBO MEDAL ...you know what I mean.

    but they are such a common element of so many games I've got to imagine that some people just love getting them!


    Now if they can somehow change the gameplay or give me a bonus later then that's awesome and I'd definitely want to get the SUPER COMOB MEDAL if that gives me a magic missile to use in the next round.
     
  3. Bmc

    Bmc New Member

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    have a more interactive map, where the path forks and the player can choose the direction they want to go in (like in Super Mario World)... also, besides just having "game play" nodes on the path have a store where they can spend coins or whatever on power-ups
     
    #3 Bmc, Apr 17, 2006
    Last edited: Apr 17, 2006
  4. Christian

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    I think that its important that the game recognizes the achievements made by the player, by trophies, messages, fx, anything, the important is to give feedback to the player what he/she has done.
    About metagaming, i think that that just applies to a certain kind of player, the players who wish to unlock all secrets just to unlock them, because they have choosen that goal for themselfs, but not imposed by the game.
    Its about "Hard fun" loving players, check it out here http://www.xeodesign.com/xeodesign_whyweplaygames.pdf
     
  5. Pyabo

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    Online-only? What the heck was I playing yesterday then, sitting around my dining room table with three friends??? :)

    The online edition from Days of Wonder is just to entice you to buy the actual box... now THAT'S a meta-game.
     
  6. Phil Steinmeyer

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    Well, the version I'm playing is on-line only, though of course it started as a board game. I think you can also play the CD-ROM version against A.I. opponents, but if the on-line A.I. opponents are any indication, they're so bad that it's really only worthwhile playing against other humans.

    [edit - discussing Ticket To Ride]
     
    #6 Phil Steinmeyer, Apr 18, 2006
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2006
  7. Hiro_Antagonist

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    Two other meta-game mechanics that I generally enjoy are 'player XP' and 'shopping'.

    'Player XP' has been around for a while. It can be as simple as per-game-instance score thresholds that give you a new title ("You have reached the rank of Assistant Manager!") or it can track your *total* cumultive score across all games, and give you new titles and/or new goodies as you cross certain thresholds. The latter is an increasingly common method, and tends to encourage players to play the game longer than they would otherwise. And, of course, the longer they play, the better the value [edit] perception they have of the game (making them more likely to buy your next game) and the more likely they are to recommend it (or at least talk about it) to friends because it occupied their active attention longer.

    'Shopping' is the process of giving players points/money through long-term gameplay, and then letting the player spend them on various unlockables. These can be purely cosmetic, or better yet, they can introduce advanced gameplay options, levels, and/or powerups into the game. The latter method gives stronger incentive to the player to play a lot, and has the nice side-effect of introducing advanced/challenging content as the player becomes equipped to deal with it. Console and handheld games are using this all the time now, but even some casual games use this (Insanaquarium comes to mind.)

    Both systems tend to provide clear and attainable goals that increase the "just a little more..." addictive playing factor that's so important. I personally love shopping mechanics and think they add the most oomph, but they also require far more development/design effort than a simple 'Player XP' system. That said, I think if you put a game with a well-implemented shopping system in front of a player, they'll almost always say it adds to the game experience and in many cases will keep them playing longer.

    -Hiro_Antagonist
     
    #7 Hiro_Antagonist, Apr 18, 2006
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2006
  8. Phil Steinmeyer

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    Which casual games out there support 'Shopping' and tie it to in-game effects?

    I know of

    Gem Shop
    Ocean's Express (new on Real)
    Insaniquarium (Hiro says, and I vaguely recall he's right)

    Others?
     
  9. Sirrus

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    Cake Mania, Garden Dreams, Fish Tycoon...

    There are also many games that allow you to purchase power-ups for in-game play such as Legends of Aladdin and Gold Miner (Grab).
     
  10. Bmc

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    the new Super Collapse sequel coming out
     
  11. Phil Steinmeyer

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    My game is a match-3 (with some twists), clear the board (i.e. change the color of each tile), style of game. Of the different shopping games, the only one that's in the same general ballpark is Legends of Aladdin.

    I like LoA's shopping mechanic, and think that's part of the reason why the game did moderately well despite being unoriginal in many other aspects.

    Any other 'clear the board' match-3 games with a shopping system?
     
  12. Hiro_Antagonist

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    Some more rambling on the subject for anyone who's interested:

    There are countless examples in the console world of shopping mechanics. One of the more recent casual-ish titles was Super Princess Peach for DS, which my girlfriend bought and loves. Watching her play that game serves as a good case study for shopping mechanics in a less geeky audience. She likes looking around at what she can buy and she likes the process of figuring out the best thing to spend her money on. It even affects the way she plays the game itself, taking more time on each level to get the most coins possible, which in turn stretches the game content further.

    Well-implemented shopping mechanics also have the benefit of providing a stronger incentive for the player to play *better* -- not just more. If you give increased 'money' for better performance, it provides a stronger incentive than traditional scores to figure out how to play more efficiently/effectively.

    Also, note that there are a few variations of shopping mechanics out there. There's per-level shopping (like Garden Dreams or Insanaquarium), per game-instance shopping (like Titan Attacks or Viewtiful Joe), and full meta-game shopping (Insanaquarium has this too for its aquarium mode, Ocean Express, Advance Wars, etc.)

    Per-level shopping is fun and all, but by definition is not a meta-game mechanic and doesn't really give the benefits I've mentioned. Generally, the per-level shopping is simply used to help a player achieve a level's individual goals, and/or is the goal itself. Insanaquarium and its spiritual clone Garden Dreams are perfect examples of this. Fun, but not really meta-game. (Note: Insanaquarium also has a true meta-game shopping system for filling the virtual aquarium.)

    Per-game-instance shopping probably deserves a quick definition. I consider this to apply to a given 'run' of the game -- basically from the time you start a new game until the time you finish the game. Titan Attacks is probably the best example in this community. I like this approach a lot, as it adds a huge amount of replayability and some really interesting decisions to the game. (Titan Attacks succeeds very well in making each game instance more interesting, and the game more replayable.) But unless each game instance is very long or a full campaign experience (like Viewtiful Joe or Princess Peach), then you still don't get all of the meta-game benefits of setting long-term goals. While each game instance of Titan Attacks can be fresh from its shopping, the game instances are too short for me to ever be presented with the notion of playing for another 15 minutes to unlock something that will do me long-term good. Unlockable powerups, moves, upgrades, etc., work best in this format, because they amount to making your character more powerful for that given 'run' of the game. This maintains balance, as players lose all these benefits when they restart. Offering content-oriented shopping options is inappropriate in this system, because if presented between the choice of buying a bigger gun or new wallpaper, the player that buys the wallpaper is sacrificing their success in that game instance in the name of some meta-game benefit. That would be poorly balanced (though it should be noted that Princess Peach does do this to a degree.)

    Full meta-game shopping is where all gamplay across all game instances puts points/money into a centralized pool to be spent, generally on new content. (Although the 'pools' are sometimes connected to individual user profiles.) This system works best with things like new levels, maps, gameplay modes, characters, mini-games, and aesthetic unlockables. Meteos uses full meta-game shopping to let you buy new powerups, but I don't think that's the best idea because it unbalances things. The effect is minimal, but it ends up making each game instance easier after played the game a lot and bought the more useful power-ups. IMO, full meta-game shopping should generally stick to content and *new ways* to play the game -- not more power for individual game instances.

    Lastly, I wanted to point out that in many ways, RPG/level-up systems are also popular meta-game systems, but in many cases they simply boil down to shopping systems that use 'XP' instead of money, and often only give out points to spend at thresholds rather than the more fluid economy of money. But mechanically speaking, XP/Level-up systems are basically the same thing as shopping with a different thematic representation.

    Sorry to ramble on about all this, but I love this stuff. Studying (and devising) good meta-game systems is one of those things that does it for me...

    -Hiro_Antagonist
     
    #12 Hiro_Antagonist, Apr 18, 2006
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2006
  13. Hiro_Antagonist

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    It's a little off from what it sounds like you're doing, but Meteos has a meta-game shopping system, as well as its meta-game 'fusion' system.
     
  14. Phil Steinmeyer

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    Good analysis Hiro - breaking it down into per-level, per-game, and 'global' is a good way to analyze it.

    I'm probably thinking about a per-game system, but 'global' presents some interesting possibilities too. The problem is I don't think it works well to have both in the same game, as you won't want to spend the points you need to do better in a given game on global stuff, and/or vice versa. And maintaining two sets of money, one at the game level and one at the global level, is probably too complicated to convey to the player.

    I think I lean towards the 'per-game' approach for the game I'm working on, but now that you've clearly expressed it that way, I have to think about it a bit...
     
  15. Phil Steinmeyer

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    For the per-game upgrades in particular, another key decision point is whether the upgrades are permanent or 'one-shot'.

    Using Titan attacks as an example again, the various gun and speed upgrades are permanent (they last for the remainder of the game), but smart bomb and shield upgrades are one-shot. They get used up and you have to keep buying them.

    Balancing is easier with one shot items, but to a certain extent, permanent upgrades are more satisfying to the player (or to me anyways, when I play).
     
  16. Hiro_Antagonist

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    Agreed. I was talking to someone recently about adding shopping to their game, and we discussed that very thing.

    FWIW, a couple of spins that I haven't really seen before that I was kicking around for shopping mechanics are 'sales' and 'limited supply'. For an upcoming strategy/RPG arena-combat game I wanted to work on, players would have to spend money from a centralized money pool to buy skills (represented as CCG-like cards they can equip into designated slots.) Anyway, even though a given playthrough of the campaign would last 10-20+ hours, I wanted to make the game as replayable as possible, which meant building in mechanics to make each playthrough unique. My fear is that players would end up beelining for the same character builds in each playthrough, which would make the game more repetitive for them, and thus they'd be less inclined to play through as often.

    My solutions for this were:

    1) Randomly distribute n copies of each skill across all the stores a player will visit when progressing through the campaign, such that any given store had about 1/4-1/3 of the total skills in the game available in their shop.

    This has several benefits, one of which is that it creates a natural 'rarity' system by about 50% of the way through the game where some skills have been common to the player and others have been rare (or not offered at all), and those apparent rarities will be different in every game instance.

    This system also forces places to look for different synergies and experiment with different character builds. In this case, I firmly believe I'd enhance the overal player experience by limiting the content available at any given time. This is the limited supply variation -- the idea of offering different content at different times in each play-through. Note that this works best when you have a fairly big pool of things to sell and when the items are all balanced (for cost) with each other for the most part. You may also have to take steps to make sure each 'store' instance/visit has items that are available to players with little cash as well as players with lots of cash. A random distribution of only expensive items at early shops would certainly be unfair and unfun.

    2)Create a massive sale (-50% or -40%) on one random item per store instance/visit. Since I expected cash to be very limited (and thus they could never come near buying all skills in the game), these sales would provide a very strong incentive for players to try something new and experiment with different synergies and character builds.

    I've noticed overwhelmingly that despite how much variety you offer in your game, players tend to beeline for the same builds/items/combos nearly every time, according to their initial perception of which is best. But since one of my core philosophies of game design is that it should promote and reward dynamic problem solving, I want to complicate their autopilot tendancies by enticing them with things they wouldn't normally buy. Both of these systems will force/incent the player to play differently each time. It's the equivilent of having to play a CCG with a different limited card pool each time, which I find far more fun than having all the cards and relying on the same powerdecks each time.

    But despite all my CCG/strategy talk, these same concepts can just as easily apply to a totally casual game with non-geeky elements. I'm just using CCG's as an example because they're an established genre where these principles already exist and show their positive effects. What I'm trying to do here is show how they can be abstracted and applied to any game to add interesting decisions and replayability.

    If using these systems, balancing will become more of a chore, but such is the price for having a great and highly-replayable game. =)

    Oh, and in case it weren't obvious, these concepts are most relevant (by far) to per-game shopping systems.

    -Hiro_Antagonist
     
    #16 Hiro_Antagonist, Apr 18, 2006
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2006
  17. Phil Steinmeyer

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    Thinking in terms of match-3 style mechanics, the (fairly) obvious choices for 'one-shot' upgrades are things like:

    Remove one item (causing the column above it to fall)
    Change the background color of one item
    Slide a row/column
    (or, do either of the above to a row/column, or an area - i.e. a 'bomb')
    Re-Randomize the board (Scramble)
    Extra time

    None of these lend themselves real well to being 'permanent' upgrades. They also mean that I have to balance the levels so as to expect the player to have some power-ups coming in (not that big a deal, my levels are in very preliminary form at the moment).

    I'd like more variety in types of things you can spend money on, but other than purely decorative fluff, it's hard to come up with stuff.
     
  18. Hiro_Antagonist

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    Match 3 ideas:
    -extra time/moves to beat the level
    -skip a level
    -a powerup that pauses the time (or gives you a short time to make 'free' moves)
    -different sized 'bomb' powerups. (1 cell, 2 cells, 2x2, plus-shape, etc.)
    -hint prompt (like bejewled's thing that highlights a match -- maybe this enables it or speeds up the hint frequency/intensity.)
    -continues (expensive, max-1-at-a-time item that allows you to continue from current level if you die)
    -extra points (a good fall-back if you have nothing else to spend money on or for advanced players that want to play 'iron man' to maximize points. Better yet, allow multiple items at different prices, with more expensive options giving higher points-per-dollar.)
    -disable a specific color from falling for a while, which makes matches (at least near the top) theoretically easier for a while.
    -swap 2 pieces anywhere on the board

    .. and so on. I maintain there's no shortage of ideas, though I don't know enough about your specific game to be able to make tailored recommendations.

    -Hiro_Antagonist
     
  19. Phil Steinmeyer

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    Something else I'm bumping into as I think about this.

    If 'tokens' (i.e. the currency you spend in the store) are a reward for good play to some extent, then you create a 'rich get richer' problem, in that good players have more tokens, and thus an easier time on subsequent levels. If all your store purchases are one-shot, that mitigates it a bit, but stil...
     
  20. Hiro_Antagonist

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    I agree, it can seem a bit reversed if your primary concern is always having the appropriate challenge presented to a player at all times. Regardless, this is an issue with nearly any game out there, and all multiple-run games suffer from early levels not being challenging enough for advanced players.

    I tend to feel better about it by looking at it like this: By playing more efficiently (and thus earning more tokens in your case), the player is buying helpful tools that give them the reward they deserve -- to play longer in that game instance, reach new levels, get higher scores, and pass the easier levels faster.

    I assume we all agree that players are *supposed* to get further into the game and have more success by playing more efficiently, and they should pass the easier levels faster, so in those terms there's really no problem with giving performance-enhancing goodies for playing better.

    I personally don't think one-shot vs any other type of purchases are really affected by this, because I don't really think it's an issue to begin with.

    -Hiro_Antagonist
     

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