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On The Meta

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Everyone wants to believe they are unique, that they are special, that they are a one-of-a-kind snowflake. Unfortunately, your mother lied and you’re not special, or unique, or a snowflake (which is probably a good thing because it is almost the summer and snowflakes do not do too well in the summer). Is it that big of a surprise though? After all, society puts so much pressure on us to conform and be like everyone else. Whether it is the clothes we wear, the teams we cheer for, or the hobbies we engage in, we’re constantly under pressure to shape our attitudes and behaviors to group norms. Of course, gamers also feel pressures which try to stifle uniqueness (hint: we’re not special), so let’s take a look at conformity in gaming -- or the more appropriate term, the meta.

If you’ve played any competitive game or a game which offers choice, you’ve probably heard the phrase “the meta.” But what is the meta? The meta is a term which refers to a widely accepted strategy or play-style necessary to play a game at a competitive level. There are two parts to this definition -- playing at a competitive level and widely accepted. So many games today allow players to compete against each other in various ways. Some of the best examples, fighting games, first-person shooters, and sports games, allow players to directly compete against each other. Other games allow for a more indirect form of competition. For instance, take Final Fantasy XI -- although the game had its own form of player-versus-player (Ballista) there were also ways players could engage in competitions even outside this established arena. Whether it was through parsing damage to see which player did the most damage during merit parties or against an HNM or, as a Bard, the constant (pre-Abyssea) challenge to see who could maintain the largest chain, the competitive nature of players looked for, and found, ways to compete anywhere possible. The other half of this definition, the notion of being widely accepted, is the more important part -- at least for the discussion here. To be part of the meta, a large number of players need to employ this specific play-style or approach. But how does this happen? So many of the games available offer a myriad of choices, and yet, so many of them find players making mostly identical decisions. It starts when players start having success with a particular approach or strategy. Maybe a specific gun kills opponents slightly faster than others or a particular character cannot be easily guarded against. Soon the players who lose to that play-style start utilizing it as well. Before long, more players start to notice the popularity of this approach, and soon, new players who pick up the game are told, or quickly observe, which play-styles everyone else is utilizing, and quickly conform.

Anyone who has played (or attempted to play) Starcraft competitively knows the importance of the meta. Whether it’s the type of units built, the type of strategies and counters employed, or even the type of openings used at the start of a match, Starcraft is heavily defined by its meta. Going into a match, the most dedicated players know the exact timing of every initial decision they will make. When should a player build their first structure? When should a scout be deployed? When should the first offensive unit be produced? All these factors contribute to Starcraft’s meta. Beyond that, the balance between Starcraft’s units creates a meta all on its own. One of the things which makes a game like Starcraft and its meta so unique is that it has been defined by players experimenting and devising optimal strategies and builds based largely on timing. Starcraft also has a competitive scene which has been established over many years. While most players will never achieve the same level of proficiency as those elite players, watching their matches and strategies helps shape the meta, even at lower levels. I remember when I was playing a lot of Starcraft II during Wing of Liberty, watching matches between the most elite players helped me learn new strategies which I incorporated (as best I could) into my own repertoire.

First-person shooters offer some of the best examples of the meta. For instance, take the Halo franchise. In Halo: Combat Evolved, the pistol players started with was the dominant go-to weapon for most players in most scenarios. Halo 2 gave players the battle rifle which quickly replaced the stripped down pistol in most players’ arsenals. Halo 3 kept the battle rifle while Halo: Reach introduced the DMR to players. Halo 4 offered a greater variety of weapons and was the first entry to introduce loadouts which allowed players to pick their basic weapons before each match. Naturally, players tested which weapon was superior to the others, and pushed the community to conform. Destiny is another great example of a first-person shooter which is dominated by the meta. With each update, Bungie has attempted to balance the weapon archetypes so that each fills a niche role and players will feel compelled to choose their weapons based on their particular play-style. Unfortunately, this is not often the case, and after each update, players quickly experiment with each weapon and collectively decide which offers the best chances of success in Destiny’s player-versus-player arena, the Crucible, causing the meta to shift every few months from one weapon type to another.

Competitive fighting games are another example of a genre dominated by its meta. Many fighting games feature dozens of unique characters with varying play-styles and abilities. And yet, competitively, so many of those games are dominated by a limited number of characters. Whether it is Street Fighter, Dead or Alive, or Soul Calibur, every fighting game has its own tier list which ranks characters and can serve to direct new players. These lists are built on the notion that if two players of equal skill challenged each other, the player using the higher ranked character would have an advantage and come out on top more often. Even the Super Smash Bros. franchise is dominated by rankings and tier lists. In college, I played a lot of Super Smash Bros. Melee with my brother and one of my roommates. Across the thousands of hours we played together, I emerged as the winner more often. Was it because I was the better player. Of course it was. But, you could also make the argument that I won more often because I played as Sheik while my brother and roommate played as Link and Ness, respectively.

Even role-playing games have developed their own approach to the meta. I’ve recently developed a not-so-minor addiction to Granblue Fantasy, a free-to-play mobile turn-based RPG developed by some notable names in the Final Fantasy pantheon. Granblue Fantasy has a lot of customization options through the numerous characters, weapon choices, and jobs. However, so much of the advice to succeed in the late-game revolves around players building single-element teams comprised of a handful of highly ranked characters. As I mentioned earlier, MMOs have their own monstrous meta which is part of what drives those game. Largely thanks to the obsession of the players, players know exactly which stats to maximize and which pieces of gear will provide the biggest boosts. A single piece of gear with marginally better stats than the next alternative (or in many cases, far superior stats) can make a world of difference. Combined with dismal drop rates, a highly coveted piece of gear can become the sole reason for logging on day after the day. As someone who spent fifteen months next in line for a Byakko’s Haidate, I can personally attest to the controlling nature of the MMO meta. As a Ninja, a Haidate was unparalleled, and I spent countless hours farming Ullikummi in hopes of finally getting my elusive Haidate. I even leveled Bard so I could drag people up to Sky to merit with me up there. Was it worth all the struggle? Well, I also had some really competitive friends and we used to parse everything, so yes, yes it was! As an aside, in writing this post, I just learned that it is now possible to add augments to the Haidate.. Who knew!?

As you can imagine, the existence of a meta which forces players to change and conform their approach to a game also carries a number of significant risks and flaws. One of the most obvious risks which can arise from a meta is that games can become stale and boring. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the No items, Fox only, Final Destination meme. While there is no doubt that Fox was one of the best, if not the best, characters in Super Smash Bros. Melee, this meme arose from the strict and serious nature of competitive players who religiously adhered to this approach to the game. Whether it’s Smash or another game, I’m sure we all have had that one friend in our life who has been overly competitive, not because of their own skill or experience, but because their views have been shaped by the meta.

Conforming to the meta can also push players, especially new players, away from experimenting. When everyone conforms to accepted strategies or techniques, especially in games with a lot of variety, it means that countless alternatives are never even touched. While many consider the Pokémon franchise to be fairly simple, competitive Pokémon trainers know the franchise is actually shockingly deep. EVs, IVs, and natures all add deeper elements to the Pokémon games. However, at the competitive stage, so much is defined by the tier rankings. Players have created lists which rank Pokémon by their potential, present recommended moves and abilities, and even detail strategies which can be followed based on the opponents faced. The current Overused (OU) list is comprised of fifty-six Pokémon likely to be seen in competitive matches. Given that some of those Pokémon inevitably rule out utilizing others in the same team, there are only so many combinations which can result from such a list. However, there are seven-hundred-twenty-one (plus six) Pokémon, so a lot of Pokémon are ignored and never given a chance to shine. At the same time, whenever a player tries, and succeeds, with something new, it’s not only incredibly entertaining, but it can also push players to reevaluate the way they approach a game -- at least until a new meta develops.

One of the biggest problems with mass-conformity is that players who don’t enjoy the meta can find themselves alienated and no longer having fun with a game. From the release of House of Wolves to the end of Year One in Destiny is one of the best examples of a stale meta which alienated a number of players, myself included. While I adore Destiny’s highly-competitive player-versus-player game mode, Trials of Osiris, it also had the unfortunate and unintended effect of shoehorning players to use specific weapons during Year One. The majority of players used one of the game’s three exotic hand cannons coupled with either a shotgun with range extending perks or a sniper rifle with three specific perks. While I understood why players gravitated to those specific loadouts, it was also especially disheartening for me to compete given that I preferred Scout Rifles and had spent a fair share of time forging what I considered to be a perfect one early into House of Wolves. During that stretch, I took months off from the Crucible, not because I did not enjoy the game, but because I wasn’t able to play the game in a way I found enjoyable.

It’s more than a little shocking how quickly a meta can materialize in new games, and how these flaws can accumulate very quickly. Take Overwatch, Blizzard’s competitive, multiplayer first-person shooter which recently went live. Within twenty-four hours, there were already articles ranking the characters and telling players who to pick. Now, I understand the game had multiple betas which many people, myself included, participated in. At the same time, the game has twenty-one diverse characters. How many players are never going to try more than a handful of characters because they picked up the game and were told which characters to play? I haven’t been heavily following the game since its release, but I’d be curious to see how long it takes before some of those characters are pushed into the background by the meta and are never given a chance to shine.

A big criticism which has arisen from the always-connected era in gaming is that companies can now ship unfinished games and rely on a day-one patch (or later patches) to fix any problems. At the same time, it also allows developers to put their games in the hands of players and make adjustments. The balance in Super Smash Bros. Melee is forever locked in place, but with Smash 4, Nintendo has been able to release balance patches. Similarly, from the day Bungie shipped Halo: Combat Evolved to forever, the pistol was going to a dominating monster. However, with Destiny, Bungie can tweak a few numbers, bring up the damage on one gun while lowering another, and has the ability to constantly adjust the balance and meta.

All that said, what can we as gamers do about the meta? Do we conform and play games based on the meta? Do we fight against the meta and do our own thing, even if at a disadvantage? Is there a happy middle ground? Honestly, I don’t have a good answer. At its core, we play games to have fun, right? There’s definitely something to be said about being able to play a game the way you want. At the same time, I understand the sentiment that we want to succeed, and losing over and over is not fun. Still, regardless of what we do as individuals, a meta is going to form and players are going to conform to it. Maybe the best stance to take is bend, don’t break – yes, we can experiment from time to time, try out new options, and play our favorite way, but a little give is sometimes necessary. Besides, it’s almost summer, so who really wants to be a snowflake anyway?

When a man is one of a kind, he will be lonely wherever he is. ~ Louis L'Amour