Learning From a Broken Meta in Gaming
Wed 16th Sep 2020 - 6:00pm
Regardless of the game title, we’ve all played against something that was inherently unbalanced. Meta Knight in Brawl, Bayonetta in Smash 4, Feral Flare in League of Legends, GOATS in Overwatch - the list is endless. Playing against these things is back-breaking and soul-crushing, communities will cry out for developers to patch the game, and others will go as far as giving the ultimatum of “I refuse to play this game unless this is fixed.” While I ultimately believe a healthy and balanced meta is essential for the growth and sustainability for any competitive game, I also think persevering through a broken meta can yield massive improvements for truly persistent players.
Chicago, IL May 2015 - Combo Breaker - Lethal League 2v2s
For those of you unfamiliar with Lethal League, I’ll give you a quick crash course. Lethal League is a 2D non-traditional fighter where two to four players try to hit each other by bouncing a baseball off the ceiling, floor, and walls. As players hit the ball, it gets progressively faster until it connects with a player. Each player has eight stocks and getting hit with the ball once results in losing a stock. It's basically juiced up Pong with fighting game elements.
Combo Breaker in 2015 was the first large tournament to run a live event for Lethal League, so I was gearing up to go to with or without a doubles partner. Ultimately I lucked out as fellow competitor Andrew “N64” Rhodes sent me a message on Steam asking if I had a partner as his teammate had backed out of going to the event at the last minute. A few weeks before the tournament, the community opted to run an online 2v2 event to give all the players heading out to Chicago a chance to practice playing some doubles. N64’s calm and calculating playstyle complimented my “in your face” aggression very well. We ended up placing second in this community-run tournament, so I was very confident about our chances to win Combo Breaker; and then, five days before the start of the event, a new patch was released. There were a few minor changes to characters and the introduction of a new mechanic, but there were also a couple of unintended changes that impacted two characters very unfavorably, those two characters happened to be the ones N64 and I played.
This unintended change made it so if any player hit one of these two character’s special attacks; the ball would be released from the player’s swing animation immediately. Think of it like when you attack someone on shield in Smash, the opponent can respond with a move that will automatically take your stock. If someone knew we were going to activate our specials, they could immediately go for the ball, and we would have no time to react to save ourselves.
The development team at the time was just two guys, so I knew this would be something I just had to deal with for the time being, and I just buckled up for a bumpy ride. The days leading up to the tournament, I spent a lot of time getting dunked on due to my aggressive playstyle putting me in a lot of unfavorable positions and my opponents taking advantage of it. After getting to the venue and playing the game in person for the first time, I got to experience how other players were handling this change and realized that I just needed to be faster.
I’m sure a lot of you are thinking, “There was a change, you had to adapt to it to stay relevant...so what?” but the point is that after the bug got patched out, everyone had leveled up massively. The people that played these characters had developed insane reaction times thanks to having to overcome this adversity. N64 was able to create new techniques making him even harder to take down. I was able to play more aggressively than anyone at the time thought possible as I was now attacking on a frame perfect level. For a while, N64, myself, and a few other players that played the affected characters were at the top of all the rankings, which had the effect of making other players leveling themselves up even higher. Lethal League had a solid four year run before Team Reptile released a sequel, and outside of Melee, I have never seen a game’s competitive meta undergo such a wild transformation. I believe the bugged patch that Combo Breaker 2015 was played on is to thank for the rate at which the meta progressed.
How This Applies to Other Games
In the case of Lethal League, this change was a bug that should never have seen the light of day, but when designing and balancing a game, there are a lot of interactions that can potentially cruise under the radar. As a competitive Smash player, my initial thought is to look at how Melee’s competitive meta developed overtime. In the early days, people believed Sheik to be the best character, as more techniques were uncovered and refined, Fox and Falco became the undeniable best characters in the game. In the year 2020, it’s between Fox and Puff, depending on who you ask, but what about the rest of the cast? In recent history, characters like Captain Falcon, Marth, and Sheik have been piloted by extremely high-level players to great success. High-level players have overcome these bad match-ups by sharpening their minds and learning how to change their game plan. Keep in mind, Melee was developed in an era before balance patches were a thing, and the game has continued to thrive almost twenty years later, never stagnating. All of this could be a testament to how well designed Melee is, but considering that the game was rushed out the door after thirteen months of development and is notorious for having a bunch of unintended gameplay mechanics, I think the continual shifts in meta and match-up ratios is based primarily on player adaptability.
In Super Smash Brothers Brawl, Meta Knight was an absolute terror that invalidated most of the cast, and even with the characters he didn't invalidate, he was more often than not favored in the match-up. I mean... look at this!
Even with all that, I still believe Meta Knight ended up teaching the Smash community a lot about playing smarter. Every exchange with Meta Knight would put you on the cusp of losing neutral, so if you wanted to play Brawl competitively, you had to learn a lot about neutral and how to make your engagements and disengagements matter.
Hopping over to the RTS genre, we can take a look at StarCraft II, where some of the aspects of the game are knowing what advantages your particular race has over others, when your advantages are applicable, and how to press those advantages. A lot of the community looks at that and believes things are unequal and make claims that specific races just get “free wins” and need to be balanced, but the truth of the matter is that the best players understand that skill doesn’t just stop at your mechanics, but it also includes your mental game. Your ability to strategize, make correct decisions, and understand your opponent; All of that is the result of looking past the base layer of mechanics and persevering through the staggered balance.
Hell, while we’re on the topic of games of strategy, Chess has an inherent disadvantage for anyone playing black. Yet, the best chess players in the world know that black being underpowered is a part of the game and that one aspect of being good at Chess is learning how to play the game with that disadvantage, no matter how small it is.
Riding Out the Storm
The biggest take away that I want you readers to get out of this is that while playing in these circumstances is not ideal, it’s a part of the game, unless it gets patched out...but I don’t think anyone is looking to call for a balance update to Chess. So how should you handle an unbalanced meta? With a positive mental state.
“We can either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”
― George Mumford, The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance.
It’s easy to get caught up in how this character is broken, or that item is unbalanced, but the amount of effort you dedicate to negative thinking could just as easily be applied to working on something you can control. Your thought process, your gameplay, and your behavioral responses. When faced with the prospect of something unbalanced, you can ask yourself, “what can I do to adjust to this?” In the case of Lethal League, I had to teach myself to respond faster. In the world of competitive Brawl, I had to learn how to play multiple characters to shore up Mario’s abysmal Meta Knight match-up, but I didn’t stop there. I studied what Meta Knight could do as a character so, on the off chance I had to play against one with my Mario, I could make it work.
In addition to asking yourself those types of questions outside of the game, you have to be aware of your behavioral responses when confronted with these things directly. There have been studies on what positive thinking does for your mind and body. The biggest takeaways I’ve seen are that negative thoughts inhibit creative thinking, whereas maintaining a positive mindset increases your capability to focus and analyze new information. If you go into a match thinking, “Oh great, it’s this again,” you’re preparing yourself for defeat, but if you keep a positive mindset about it, you give yourself more chances to adapt to situations due to an elevated awareness and creative problem-solving.
Playing in an unbalanced game state is not fun but can yield massive growth. The first step to achieving that growth is to view your situation with a lens of positivity and an intent to learn. Ask yourself what makes this particular thing unbalanced, what tools do you have to deal with this, and be prepared to fight a lot of brutal battles. The best-case scenario is whatever boogeyman is plaguing your game today will be patched out, and you’ll have added new ways of playing to your toolbelt.