An Alt+Tab Guide to Metagames

The problem of other minds is not just an abstract notion for pot smokers and old guys in cardigans to ponder while they smoke their pipes. It’s something that people who play competitive games have to tackle every time they plug in their sticks or click their launch icons. It’s impossible to know what an opponent is thinking, and that’s the draw, but it’s also impossible to play a game where one never knows what their opponent is going to do, so players establish routines and respond to patterns. A particular build order is chosen, based on past experience, arbitrary whim, or a perceived meta-game, but then information is gathered, because it’s still impossible to know. A probe scout finds the enemy base and now attempts can be made to understand their build order and game plan, but this is based on even more assumptions, the most basic of which is that the opponent actually knows what they’re doing–or what they should be doing–but it’s still impossible to know what they’re thinking.

What happens when that probe finds their base and sees something that shouldn’t be? It’s not a recognized build order, there are too many workers, or too few, or any number of other abnormal phenomena. Suddenly this opponent is more than Terran Player #327, running Terran Build #5. But is it because they don’t know what they’re doing, or because they really know what they’re doing? Is this just a really late barracks, or is there a bunker being built in the fog next to the Protoss player’s ramp?

Mechanical knowledge and proficiency are important for every player in every game, but just as important is how they make decisions. One thing that has traditionally set fighting games apart from other competitive games is the extremely localized nature of play. Until fairly recently it wasn’t even possible to play most fighting games online (and where it was, as on GGPO, the online communities were just as self-contained as the local ones). With smaller local scenes it was common for players to each focus on playing 1 or 2 characters so that the entire roster wasn’t even accounted for. When players travelled to larger tournaments (Majors) they would not only have to deal with characters they’d never played against, but also players they’d never played against. This is the stuff that upsets are made of. I remember a Soulcalibur regionals tournament years in which one of the best local players, who was also playing Amy (universally considered to be at least in the top 5 characters in the game), was knocked out early on by a Yun (generally considered to be around the bottom of the tier lists) player who came in from out of town. This miraculous defeat was put down to lack of character knowledge and a little too much arrogance, both terrible assumptions for anyone to be making in a tournament setting.

The word respect gets tossed around a fair bit, especially in fighting games. It’s a loose concept, but it boils down to how much one player is willing to let another player get away with. This is especially relevant in tournaments as there’s an implied standard in place for most people, so things they might do in a random casual match with no stakes they wouldn’t do during a tournament game when something is on the line. Well, usually: sometimes trolling is in order, as when good players go to anime conventions and win all their matches by using only 1 button.

There’s this idea that if someone is in a non-casual setting they must know what they’re doing, so they aren’t going to fall for simple scrub tactics or gimmicks. This is the same sort of attitude that keeps many people from entering tournaments to begin with, even though it’s often the case that many entrants are just average players who could be bothered to show up and are not inherently better or worse than the average player who couldn’t be bothered to show up (at least at first, because going to tournaments is an amazing way to make connections and improve as a player).

The video above demonstrates the absurd lengths that expectations can lead people to. The Sagat player is giving his opponents no respect, doing the same move over and over again just because, while his first two opponents are paralyzed by their conceptions of what a tournament match is supposed to be: two players trying to out think each other in a battle of wits and skill. There is no way he’s going to Tiger Uppercut again. That’s not how you play in tournaments. Yet I guarantee you that if they were playing in some random online lobby and ran into a Sagat that did nothing but Tiger Uppercuts they would know exactly how to block and punish and probably wouldn’t lose more than half their life bar, let alone a round (I’d also be willing to bet that they had already run into a dozen online Sagats that did nothing but Tiger Uppercuts.).

One of the things that separates a great player from a merely good player is the ability to make decisions and adjust how they play. While it may take an average player a weekend of hard work and research to figure out what went wrong during a match and how to counter it, there are some people who can make that adjustment by their next match, or sometimes even the next round. That’s why they don’t lose to gimmicks, and that’s how they earn respect. People can watch that happen on a stream or a VOD and get wildly inflated ideas what players are capable of. Just because Flash figured out how to counter that rush while it was happening doesn’t mean that anyone who isn’t Flash will. Just because Daigo only fell for that frame trap once doesn’t mean that everyone else won’t fall for it 20 times in a row.

When I played Soulcalibur 4 I used Rock, who is one of the worst characters in the game. When I travelled and played against people from other areas, ones who had very little experience against Rock, I mainly got two reactions. The first was that Rock meant they were about to get an easy win, the second was that a Rock player at a big tournament must mean I had something up my sleeve. Rock himself is the very definition of a gimmick character, and I was able to take some easy wins from players who didn’t know how to deal with him, mostly because of experiences I’d had playing in arcades. There was a time when it was quite common to give other players so-called mercy rounds, beating them to near death in the 2nd round and then allowing them to have the win so that both players could get an extra round of play (after all, the only one profiting from faster games was the arcade’s owner). Sometimes, though, I would get tired of having to play against some people, especially when there was a line of better players behind them. So when there were others around who I actually wanted to play against I wouldn’t give mercy rounds, and instead I would try to win as quickly and easily as possible, which usually involved hitting an opponent with the most obvious gimmicks in my arsenal (may as well be a little flashy, since nobody else will let me do that stuff). All assumptions are thrown out. This guy is going to get hit by everything I do because he doesn’t know how not to get hit by everything I do. There’s no need for complicated “yomi,” nothing harder than simple mid-low mixups. That same sort of swagger was required to steal wins with Rock.

Of course, the good players either knew what Rock could do, or learned quickly enough so that I couldn’t hit them with the same gimmicky setup more than twice. When my options had been exhausted I usually lost, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t steal games from much better players on occasion. On the other hand, I didn’t practice very much and was just as susceptible to being beaten by obvious stuff. It was only that implied level of respect that kept most players from trying to beat me by using the same moves over and over again. And even that didn’t always follow: two of the most brutal defeats I ever suffered in a tournament setting came from players who granted my characters no respect. The first came from another player who couldn’t be bothered to practice and just picked a better character and beat me down with a couple of moves that I couldn’t get around, and the second came from a player who’d come all the way from France, and who also played Rock. He told me that he considered the Rock vs Ivy matchup to be at least 1:9 in Ivy’s favour, and then showed me why. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even hit him during that match. The funny thing about it was that there were other Ivy players watching, yet none of them ever tried to do the same thing to me when I played Rock against them.

As in real life, respect should be earned. There will always be expectations and assumptions, but they need to be measured. There is no point in jumping at every shadow, but there’s also no point in running headlong into the darkness hoping that there isn’t a brick wall in the way. One of the few things that I like about modern matchmaking systems is that they help players with making some basic assumptions about each other before a game starts. A Bronze League Terran with the wrong build order has a much higher chance of simply having done things wrong than a Diamond League Terran, who probably does have something up their sleeve. But most of the time it’s still important to know what they will let you get away with, and also to not make assumptions about their knowledge, especially knowledge of a perceived meta game. I see that happen all the time in DotA, where one player assumes that their opponent is following the standard competitive build order (Gyrocopter only takes 1 point in homing missile, so it won’t kill me!), only to get a rude awakening (He actually has 4 points in homing missile, and now I’m dead!).

The Real Burden of Knowledge

Large matchmaking systems also have that problem of further disconnecting players from each other, making the ability to think and make good decisions less valuable, or at least more difficult. Players are always trying to optimize, to min/max, to create flowcharts and counter-flowcharts. That is how metagames are established, and how entire swaths of mediocre players become interchangeable cogs. Players who rely on getting all their tactics from whatever GameFAQS equivalent or message board or alt+tab guide can get by for a fairly long time with not having to think very much about what they are doing, and every encounter becomes a pass/fail proposition where their guide and knowledge of a metagame tells them how to win and they do (unless their mechanical skill isn’t up to the task), or it doesn’t and they have to make a decision for themselves or lose.

I have to assume this kind of gameplay is attractive to a lot of people, and part of that must have come from MMOs like World of Warcraft. This past summer I played an MMO for the first time, and the situation was made crystal clear: in an ideal MMO setting every character of a given class is exactly the same, and the only thing that sets one player apart from another is their ability to learn and defeat dungeon mechanics and boss patterns, and the quality of their gear–and with the internet around they don’t even have to learn the dungeon for themselves when there are guides available. Once someone solves a boss fight, or establishes the ideal DPS skill rotation, every player will be measured by how well they can conform. And why not? Tackling a dungeon in an MMO means tackling a bunch of dumb AI routines that should perform the same way every time, so there has to be a way of beating them that is better, or at least easier, than all the others, and when players are entering the endless loot treadmill of end-game MMO grinding you can be sure that they will want to know the easiest ways to do it.

The problem is that in competitive games players are not taking on dumb AIs that perform the same way every time, they only start to think they are because of how most of them play the game in the first place. Being able to make decisions, to adapt, and to know when to and when not to respect an opponent is more important than how many guides a player has memorized, and always should be, but the even the way many modern games are designed and played removes the emphasis from what was the real reason for competition in the first place. Games like League of Legends or Smite go as far as trying to remove all decision making problems for the player by just telling them how a new champion should be played, from skill builds to item builds. Granted, they have a vested interest in making their new characters as transparent as possible, so that the only decision their customers have to make is whether they will buy the alternate skins as well. But it’s another way that developers are keeping gameplay decisions out of the hands of the community. (Whether such methods are successful or not is another matter.)

This is the biggest problem with DotA and all of its descendants: layers upon layers of memorization and metagame that further remove players from each other, on top of anonymous matchmaking systems. At their core, every competitive game is nothing more than a set of rules that allow people to compete against each other. Overly complex systems prevent players from actually doing that, as each of them is required to know all the rules (or at least as many as their opponents) before they can stop just playing the game. When a player can win on a technicality–and knowing something that their opponent doesn’t, whether it’s a skill build, item build, hero matchup, lane combination, or any number of different metegame ideas that give them an inherent advantage, is the gaming equivalent of a technicality–then they have one less reason to think about what they’re doing, let alone what their opponents are doing.

It’s both a disadvantage for the genre, and a draw for many players. In a fighting game a player can’t win because someone else carried them (unless it’s a team tournament, obviously), and while they can still lose because they don’t know a matchup, or they get counter-picked, actually learning those matchups and counterpicks is both easier and a personal process. There are guides in fighting games the same way there are guides in DotA or LoL, but the content and intent of them are quite different. Each player is still required to make their own decisions and depend on their own training and reactions, because there is no real alt+tab equivalent, just a series of suggestions and practical input from experienced players. And in fighting games even average players can get by in most situation by being mechanically sound and being able to actually out think their opponent. In fact, things like tier lists and character matchups are considered to only really apply to the highest level of players, where they already know all the rules and are mechanically competent enough that having an inherent character advantage causes a player who makes more correct decisions to lose anyway.

There are some games for which an alt+tab guide isn’t even practical, like Quake, where there are a few basic rules and ideas that every player should know (what powerups are for, how to time them, which guns are generally more important and should be protected or sought out), but once in a game everything comes down to mechanical skill, reactions, and the ability to make better decisions.

All of that still exists in very high level DotA, because the players know enough, and are good enough at mechanics, that being able to make better decisions once again becomes the prime factor for who wins and who loses. They also get to play more regularly against specific opponents, allowing them to learn their quirks, and to get into their heads. In a large, anonymous matchmaking system most players will never play the same opponents often enough to learn anything about them, making it even harder to get into their heads. Tournament matches and pro scrims will have respect bans, but when was the last time a random pub game had one? In a pro match one player can know enough about another to predict their positioning in fights, or how they like to juke, or even just what their most optimal options are in a situation, which lets them adjust, lets them make decisions, lets them try and out think them.

It’s not that any other player can’t do the same thing in a pub, but more that they don’t because they don’t have to and may not even want to. If they have the agreed-upon best guide on hand, or have a supposedly game-breaking lane combo, or know the flavour of month metagame gimmicks and are just playing against another pair of random pubs, then no decisions are required. Do A, then do B, and then do C, because that’s how wins are done. Even if they lose, if they are out played, that’s a statistical anomaly, and the next 3 games they win with that same build order will prove it. This is also the attitude that has players declaring a loss as soon as they see the hero picks or lanes.

By means of pointless self-aggrandizement (Honestly, this game that came to mind and I’m too lazy to look up another example.), take a look at this scoreboard, these picks, and decide which team is the winner.

Maybe a little too obvious.

What are the lanes? What are the item builds? What does the alt+tab guide to DotA say is the result?

What happened? Someone picked a lane that is supposed to just win and then they got out played. Even when they started losing they didn’t change anything they were doing, because the guides say they should win. That Keeper of the Light walked into the exact same setup twice, because why not?

Even easier than it looks.

There is no reason to live only by guides. They are a great place to start, but every player has it in them to make their own decisions, and where matchmaking fails there are plenty of in-house leagues and amateur tournaments where they can get to know each other well enough to finally get the chance to out think opponents instead of going through the motions. Every player who aspires to play a competitive game should know what it’s like when the layers are finally peeled away and behind those rules is another human mind, with its own thoughts and peculiarities. The feeling of having won not because a better guide was followed, but because an opponent was encountered, evaluated, and conquered on their own terms.

The motto of any competitive community should always be, “Play better,” and never, “Read more.”

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