Metagame Meditations pt.1
Friday, January 28, 2011 at 10:37PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Metagame, Pikmin, Skill, Super Smash Brothers

I was a fool. About a year and a half ago I did some heavy-duty research on the battle mode of Pikmin 2. I took the mode more seriously than anyone else (as far as I'm aware). I took data on the smallest aspects of the game and ran many experiments. I wanted to figure out how far the game could be pushed in competitive play. I wanted to know what the next-level metagame would be like. At the time, I thought that studying the game's dynamics and interplay systems was enough to not only develop that next-level metagame but to play on that level as well. 

How foolish I felt when I lost battle after battle against gamers of moderate experience. All that studying. All the research and theorized strategies. Very little of it worked at all. I wouldn't say that I actually practiced my ideas, but I didn't expect them to crumble so easily. I ended the study concluding that Pikmin 2 battle mode wasn't as deep or interesting (diverse strategies with a flexible skill spectrum) as I thought. I was convinced that the combat suffered from the dominant strategy of simply overwhelming the opponent with larger Pikmin numbers. 

Can you see why my method was so myopic? As I explained thoroughly in part 10 of my latest article series Appraising the Art of Combat, a clear way to understand and describe a game's metagame is through interplay barriers. By forcing an opponent to respond or play under certain constraints (a very effective kind of counter) gameplay will assuredly move in a clear direction.

When developing a game discovering what playstyles and counters create new interplay barriers is difficult for two reasons. The first reason is that the more emergent the gameplay, the more possible game states there are to consider. So even when you think you've got an opponent restricted, they may have escape options you never considered.

The second reason is even if you manage to find a move or strategy that creates an interplay barrier, you may not even realize it. Unless the discovered move/strategy counters some problem within the known metagame, you're out of luck. In other words, you won't be able to understand a solution to a problem that you don't have yet. Or a problem you haven't conceived yet. For a great example, I "discovered" wavedashing in Melee in the first few weeks of playing the game. But I had no idea how it fit into the metagame until years later. 

I was such a fool. Until I realized these developmental limitations, all the research and gaming knowledge in the world wouldn't help me develop the metagame of Pikmin 2 by myself.

Before I developed the DKART system I thought I would be able to crush my opponents in Super Smash Brothers Brawl based on my Melee experience. Picking and sticking with Kirby (one of the weakest characters in the game) throughout my entire Melee career, I made competing unnecessarily difficult for myself. I thought that my moderate success with such a weak character naturally meant that I had the capacity for even greater accomplishments if I switched to a decent character in Brawl. That was the idea. 

Like I said, I was a fool who didn't realized how the competition of combat really worked. Sure, I had some impressive dexterity, timing, and reflex skills. But I didn't realize that my greatest advantage in Melee was that I had more knowledge than most of my opponents. I got most of this knowledge from playing hundreds of hours of Melee. So when I fought opponents, I could see exactly how developed they were. I could even tell what kind of opponents they practiced against all based on their playstyle. Then I used my superior knowledge of Kirby (which few knew how to fight) and knowledge of their own characters to play at Kirby's maximum effectiveness. See old videos here or here or here

When Brawl came out I started at square one with everyone else. My Melee knowledge didn't transfer over into Brawl knowledge. This makes sense. Game complexities cannot be compressed or transfered for that matter. So the best players eventually outpaced me because they put in the hours and I didn't. I so foolishly wanted to prove to myself that I had what it took to win, that I refused to look up techniques and videos of other Pit players (it's not like there were many of them anyway). I realize now that I needed to take every advantage I could get and that nothing can make up for practice (developing knowledge skills).

So after many years of hard lessons learned and much meditation, I now have the language and the understanding to illuminate the high level concept that is video game metagames. Even if you're not interested in video game competition, you'll want to get to the end of this article series. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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