Books, culture, fishing, and other games

October 15, 2003

Apologia Pro Meta Gaming

I've been giving some thought to how the meta game interacts with MMOGs to affect my play patterns. By the "meta game," I refer to the real world context in which the MMOG resides, including "bragging rights" outside the game, sales of virtual items and accounts, and the writing and reading of things about the game, including, but not limited to articles in gamers' magazines or on web sites, strategy guides, and posts on game forums. For years I've been active in the last category. More so than I realize while doing it. When I did a Google on my name a month or so ago I turned up things I'd forgotten I'd written, things for which I could now actually earn real dollars if I chose. These were posted gratis to game strategy sites. But they repaid me personally for the time spent by a further satisfaction gained from the game experience in toto.

All of these activities reside along the borders of intellectual property issues. Some fall pretty clearly, by consensus, to one side, others fall into the gray border zone. If the game companies aggressively sought to fence that border, creating legal freefire zones and injunction fields, I know I would be driven away. As a result I would not play their games either as much, or at all. This is because I can see that a large amount of my satisfaction and enjoyment derived from these games comes from mastering them, or some aspect of them, and then playing 'expert.' For whatever reason I prefer respect gained from what I know as opposed to what I do.

That's not to say I'm not interested in doing things. My current meta game of trading in virtual world "properties" is certainly "doing," but a lot of my interest also stems from "knowing" the market and how to work it. The profit I derive is simply a measuring stick for how well I know what I think I know. (And those profits aren't much to crow about, so I clearly have a lot of room to know more!)

To put to this into perspective, the reality is this. Two months ago I was ready to stop playing EVE Online. My playtime had dropped significantly. I had been active with two accounts, I had joined a guild, I had been spending most of my spare time playing. This is a pretty normal cycle for me. I play until I feel I know a game well, then I start to lose interest. Unless something else welds me to the game.

At times that something else has been involvement in a guild. The social side of the game can be a powerful factor in binding one to it. Thus, when guilds fragment or dissolve, often players stop playing. They were at a point where their interest was all bound up in the social side, not the play side, and as a result when that faded, they realized they weren't having fun any more. Or worse, what they looked forward to in the game experience now provoked only a bitter taste, since the "friends" and the "family" they enjoyed was no more, for whatever reason. In this situation a break up can actually cause an aversion to play. I suffered this reaction in both DAoC and EVE when player guilds broke up. It's one reason I am reluctant to join guilds early on in my play. I save it for when I need something to bind me (as long as it can).

But, despite the guild breakup (no real tale to tell, real life interfered with the leaders' play time, and as a result the guild lost direction and faded away) and my 'burn out' on EVE, CCP is still getting $13 per month from me. What's more, I am considering picking up a second account again. This is all thanks to my interest not in the game itself, but in the meta game of trading virtual world items for real dollars.

For all that game companies often try to limit this meta gaming in their terms of service and user license agreements, it's what's keeping me playing, and keeping me paying. Is the strategy of the game companies backwards on this issue? I believe it is. As long as such markets are not driven by exploit-created wealth, they add to the overall experience, and they solve some of the problems with balancing MMOGs.

Balance is one of the major issues in the success of a game of this sort. It's not a simple, linear issue, it's multi-dimensional and has elements that interact in what might be an exponential fashion. If thing are reasonably balanced, small changes result in small changes. If they are out of balance, small changes can create huge seesaws.

One battle game developers fight is how to put the powergamer, the gamer that plays a lot and obsessively, on a relatively level field with the casual gamer, someone who has time or inclination to only play once or twice a week for a few hours. The powergamer, by definition, will always have an advantage. Someone who plays constantly will have better game skills (out of game, player skills) and more in depth game knowledge, than someone who plays only occasionally will. One issue, with games employing level-based, or skill-based character development, is that casual players necessarily lag behind the powergamers so they don't play together well. Even if two friends (in real life) want to play together, it may not be feasible if one is a powergamer and one is a casual gamer. This is because after a very short time the capabilities of the powergamer's character, or avatar, will far exceed those of the casual gamer. There is no good way in most games to fix this without removing all concept of game balance. At least no one has come up with one.

But the meta game has. Assuming the two players in question are adults with real incomes, that is. The casual player (or the powergamer, if he's a really good friend) can acquire a character on the open market that has the necessary development to play with the powergamer's character. True, that does not automatically instill the casual gamer with the powergamer's out-of-game skill set and knowledge, but it does solve a significant problem that allows playing together, if at different levels of efficiency. Maybe the casual gamer can't play quarterback in this pick-up game, to use a football analogy, but he can play a lineman fine. He's on the same playing field. And the powergamer can impart specific knowledge on an as-needed basis.

Another thing the meta game provides is a way for players to more easily decide what they want to do and what they don't. If they want a sword-of-godly-swordsmanship, but don't want to camp the ogre giants of death for two weeks, fighting petty battles with kill stealers and poachers, they can get one. Someone else who likes, or tolerates, that style of game play, can do the work the buyer finds distasteful. If they want to fight, but not bother with issue of making credits to maintain a nice house, that they also want (to use a SWG example), they can buy the credits on ebay and get on with the fighting.

The net result of this to the game companies is more paying accounts. The new sword owner might have quit rather than renewing. The casual player with the powergamer friend would probably do likewise. I would have quit EVE were it not for my discovery of the fun of trading virtual goods. And none of these activities cost the game companies a penny. It cannot even be shown that there is a significant revenue trade-off if someone buys an account from another player (who is quitting anyway, or who, perhaps, likes building characters from scratch... as I tend to) rather than from Software Etc or CompUSA. The weight of the sale of the 'box,' after distributing and retailing costs, is far lower than that of the revenue stream from ongoing monthly fees.

All of this suggests, at least to me, that game companies should take a hard look at their licenses and terms of service. They should encourage, not discourage, activities of this sort. They should focus on discouraging exploits that do destroy balance. If someone has to do the work in game to acquire something that is then sold on the meta market, there is no balance issue. If someone can mint credits using a game bug there is.

Posted by dan at October 15, 2003 02:21 PM