In just a couple of days, the Metagame launches at the Game Developers Conference.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the history of the Metagame. But I wanted to write here a bit about the current design. The Metagame raises a number of issues about large-scale real-world game design and social game mechanics.

In The Metagame, players are given a handful of cards to start. Some are game cards – they look like videogame trading cards and feature a single game – and others are comparison cards, with statements like “Which game is sexier” or “Which game tells a better story?” You challenge another player with two cards – a game card and a comparison card, such as “Asteroids” and “Which game is more visually beautiful?” Then the other player responds with a game card… maybe… “Red Dead Redemption.” Then you two each have two minutes to argue your side. Any bystanders vote on a winner, who gets to take a card from the loser. There’s an excellent video explaining the game rules at the project website.

For about 15 years or more, I have been creating large-scale social games for conferences, from early experiments with Frank Lantz (games like Quorum, Link, and Manifesto) to Gamelab’s many GDC games. I have learned a number of crucial design lessons from these dozens of real-world massively multiplayer games. These principles all seem very obvious in isolation, but getting them all to work together elegantly in a design can be a hell of a challenge.

Simplicity is Key. Above all else, your game needs to be simple to play. Attendees at conferences are generally busy and distracted, and they don’t have time to sit down and study complex rules. This is even true of players at conferences made for playing games, like Come Out and Play. You can’t rely on clever rules to give the experience complexity – you have to rely on the space, your players, or some other intrinsic element of the context. The Metagame is one of the simplest designs I have worked on, and we are hoping that it is simple enough for players to learn just by watching others play.

Get the word out. What if you designed a great game and no one showed up to play? You have to make sure that people know about your game in advance, and that you have strategies for acquiring players during the event where your game is taking place. In the case of the Metagame, we’re using social media to spread the word. We also partnered with the IGDA and we’re using their high-visibility booth as our headquarters. We’re giving out starter decks in advance wherever we can (including to all of the hard-working Conference Associates). Perhaps most importantly, we have integrated virality into the game design: you get a bonus card every time you recruit a new player.

Logistics are a bitch. The physical elements of your game, from the materials that you are asking players to cart around to the locations where you are asking them to show up, can make or break a design. Just remember that no one is going to obsessively check an obscure website just to keep track of their team’s score relative to the others. If you need your players to know about the overall game state, for example, make it a spectacle – a huge screen or chart – that can act as an advertisement to potential new players. And keep the required physical materials to a minimum. In the Metagame, we have put the rules on a single card that comes with the starter deck.

Design for an ecosystem. In a given social context, half of your players will be super-casual, playing hardly at all. About 5-10 percent will be hardcore “generals,” and the rest fall somewhere in-between. You need to make sure that your game is fun even if someone plays just a little bit, but that you also have ways to reward players that get highly involved. Although The Metagame may seem to provide only casual play, in testing we found that the debating mechanic can get quite hardcore. The Metagame also supports dedicated players because you can play and recruit as much as you want. The tournament at the end is only open to players who have collected special starred cards over the course of the conference and is meant to reward those players who have played many successful games.

Make it catchy. Lastly, your game needs to be easily understandable as a concept, so that it seems interesting from the outside and hooks your players into staying and going deeper. What is considered catchy varies from context to context. In the case of the Metagame, we are hoping that the idea of a game about arguing about videogames will be highly appealing to our audience of game developers.

Those are the basics! Hope to see you in San Francisco next week… playing the Metagame!