Metagames and Containers

Originally written in February 2010 for the Sleepover blog.

What the heck is this? Well, I wanted to try incorporating some of the ideas from this article into the design itself.

When you finish reading a section, I encourage you to click the little box in the bottom right to mark it as read, tracking your progress in the article.

My favorite video games tend to have a very particular, yet highly abstract, aspect to them. I love games with a clear set of rules combined with an environment to support the exploration of those rules and the discovery of their boundaries.

When this is done successfully, you create the space for emergent gameplay: new, unexpected interactions arising from the combination of smaller interactions.

One type of emergent gameplay is metagaming. Tell me all about it, Wikipedia: “In simple terms, [metagaming] is using out-of-game information, or resources, to affect one’s in-game decisions.”

A common form of metagaming is the speed run: beating a game as fast as possible. Speed runs frequently abuse bugs and physics systems in ways the developer never intended.

Achievements — system-level awards for certain gameplay goals — are explicit metagames. Many players find that they are substantially less rewarding than the metagames they create for themselves.

After all, part of the fun of a meta-game is not knowing if it’s even technically possible to accomplish your goal.

It’s “Jump the van over the river: 30 points” vs. “Can I get this beat-up van with a popped tire to go fast enough to jump over that river? Let’s find out!” One is following instructions, the other is invention.

There’s an awesome satisfaction derived from games with no extraneous elements. It’s a principal that applies to software in general, especially task-driven software. The more features an application has, the more uneasy a user can feel. This principal is one reason why Apple’s products tend to be so satisfying to use. The more limited a product’s functionality, the easier one can master it. And feeling like a master of your tools is a wonderful thing.

The ordinary hammer occupies a special place in my heart. As a piece of design, it’s about as perfect as anything. Incredibly simple, immensely satisfying, and just plain handy.

How many times have you been using Microsoft Word and accidentally triggered a feature you didn’t understand? Unintentionally dragged margins anyone? I have to believe a vast majority of Word users take advantage of an incredibly small percentage of the application.

Making use of something in it’s entirety has a heartiness to it, and a wholeness — like when you’re wearing clothes that fit perfectly.

And like perfectly fit clothes, that feeling is empowering. A paradox, then: the less you enable people to do, the more they will do.

I frequently rely on metagames in order to entertain myself. Can I do these dishes in under five minutes? Go!

When a game has built-in achievements, explicit hidden items, and other layered-in experiences, it’s usually pitched as added value. In reality, they’re only adding in time consumption — a measure of value most likely derived from the era of arcades.

I believe the main reason games like Farmville maintain a huge player base is the enticement of the metagame. The actual game mechanic of farming — which comprises most of the game — is unfathomably dull. It’s the abstracted layer above the farming that creates the primary motivation: ribbons (achievements), new items, leaderboards, etc.

But the blur of time-consumption and value is simultaneously damaging Farmville. Because satisfaction is derived only from the metagame, success is a measure of how many hours you’re willing to play, not your abilities. Players who have invested a lot of time into the game end up feeling bitter about the fruits (or vegetables) of their labor.

Strategery is an iPhone game that I’m absolutely obsessed with for this reason. It has no features or mechanics you could remove (save for a few alternate game modes).

It’s like Risk, stripped down to it’s most basic. No real world map, no cards, no redistribution of units. It’s just attacking, defending, and assigning units to territory.

My main Strategery metagame consists of winning the game without a single extra army on the board. An extra army represents a resource I didn’t use to win and thus waste. I tend to only play large maps on the “Brutal” difficulty and I’m proud to say my best “score” is 6 surplus units at the end of the game.

One of my favorite pieces of software is Marco Arment’s Instapaper — an application for saving articles so you can read them later. It’s a metagame for reading. I frequently find myself reading more articles than I normally would, just to clear out my Instapaper queue.

Now, the satisfaction of “completion” isn’t quite the same as “wholeness” but it’s related.

I think it’s a significant reason why people get less out of reading for the web: there’s always more.

The magazine is the print format closest to the blog: short articles that come out serially. The difference is the issue format. The beautiful thing about issues is that they begin and end.

I love flipping through a magazine, reading the pieces that catch my eye, then doubling back and scanning for the morsels I didn’t notice. Again: exploring the walls of a contained environment.

I believe one reason the list format is so successful is that it promises to contain a problem. It’s also a way of providing checkpoints along the way, a sense of achievement to maintain momentum.

I think it’s also why round-up blogs like the Gawker Media blogs are so popular. They promise to thoroughly contain massive channels of information.

There are, of course, blogs that have experimented with the issue format, A List Apart is a well-known example.

But I think there’s a lot of room left in the idea of containing content so that one enjoys the satisfaction of finishing.

Steal this idea: using cookies, it’d be trivial to sort content into read and unread. This could aid both the reader who has returned to find a post they’ve read, and the reader who wants something new.

I love when a site has a “best of” list of their own content. Take a lesson from the food industry: people like being told what’s good on the menu.

Limited run blogs are another rare format. It’s counter to professional blogging culture to let go of an audience but television has demonstrated how engaging a finale can be.

Achievement unlocked!

Click twenty-three boxes for no real reason.

All the ways in which we build around and on top of our creations greatly impact the way they’re used.

Boundaries may not be physical anymore, but they remain powerful.