Don't miss
  • 2,232
  • 6,844
  • 6097
  • 134

What is the metagame?

By on June 25, 2019

I have avoided using the term metagame in my latest book. Metagame has many different definitions in current usage in the games industry. For some companies, it is everything that is not the Base Layer. The Retention Layer, the Superfan Layer and everything outside the game is the metagame. Bungie called the campaign scoring in Halo 3 the metagame, for example.

For some designers, the end game, or the elder game, is the metagame. This is often the stage when players band together to make a big impact on the game or is just very advanced, single-player game play. It doesn’t seem very meta to me.

Richard Garfield, designer of Magic the Gathering, is often credited with inventing the term in a talk at GDC in 2000.

“My definition of the metagame is broad. It is how a game interfaces with life. A particular game, played with the exact same rules will mean different things to differ people, and those differences are the metagame. The rule of poker may not change between a casino game, a neighbourhood nickel-dime-quarter game, and a game played for matchsticks but the player experience in those games will certainly change. The experience of roleplaying with a group of story-oriented players and playing with some goal-oriented power partners is completely different, even though the underlying rules being played with may be the same.”

Richard Garfield, “Metagames,” 2000.

Chris Bateman, philosopher and game designer, defines metagame design as “player experience design at the level of the community.” I agree. I find the use of metagame to mean “everything other than the Base Layer” unhelpful to designers and foolish in its assumption that the Base Layer is the “proper” game and everything else is external to the experience.

As a result, I use the word rarely. I use metagame, in an etymologically precise way, to mean everything outside the game. It means the changing card decks in Hearthstone or the changing team compositions in League of Legends. I use it for Alliance politics in EVE Online. The metagame can be defined as “external aspects of the game that have an influence over the game itself.”

Everything else falls into the Base Layer, the Retention Layer or the Superfan Layer.

This is an extract from Nicholas’s new book, The Pyramid of Game Design – get your copy here!

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: