Defining a megagame too rigorously can be a tricky business, because the genre covers such a wide range of potential subjects and game structures. There are games that involve a lot of players but they are not megagames, and games with only a few players that are megagames. Over the years I have often described a megagames like a boardgame, but not a boardgame, like a role playing game, but not a role playing game, and like a wargame, but not a wargame. Most megagames combine aspects of all of these, but also involve lots of people usually in the same location interacting in a structured way and following a common emerging narrative around a theme.
There are some key features that appear in most megagames although I would suggest than none of these features, alone, define the megagame but that if a game has many of these features then it is probably a megagame. If it has none of these features than it definitely isn’t a megagame.
Teams. There are teams of players
Hierarchy. The teams of players exist in some sort of hierarchy
Conflict. There is some sort of conflict, rivalry or adversarial situation
Open Possibilities. The game is open-ended and allows a wide range of possibilities through emerging gameplay and player-determined narrative. We often say that the game should accommodate anything that could be done in real life.
Meaningfulness. There are relevant and meaningful interactions both within teams and between teams.
Urgency. There is time pressure and a sense of urgency. Players cannot have unlimited time to make decisions and the game moves at a pace that is not determined by the players.
These large structural features are distinct from mechanisms and game procedures.
Superficially many megagames might resemble a board game or a kriegspiel1 expanded to accommodate many more players. In terms of mechanism and game systems this might be true (though we will discuss later the essential differences in the requirements of megagame mechanisms and how they differ, fundamentally, from board games).
Something happens when a game concept is expanded beyond the familiar 2-8 players you might typically find in a role playing game, wargame or board game.
What changes is the how the the experience of participating in a megagame is determined by players’ interaction and communication with other players.
Face to face social interaction is at the core of the megagame experience – a megagame cannot be satisfactorily played in an on-line virtual world (at least not with technologies currently available) or using on line tools because the social interaction in these environments is currently too limited and cannot replicate the actual experience of talking to real people, or groups of people, face to face.
If we take a real world analogy – when world leaders want to discuss or negotiate something important they travel somewhere and meet face to face – because it is worth the time an effort, even for Presidents and Prime Ministers to do this. Skype or Google Hangouts is not the place to have any sort of in depth or subtle negotiation in the real world.
Megagames are usually trying to simulate the real world and this is why getting everyone in the room for a megagame is an essential part of the dynamic and is one of the reasons megagames are popular and very engaging for the participants.
1 A kriegspiel, or literally ‘wargame’ is a term borrowed from 19th century military wargames, characterised by armies represented by blocks moved around on maps and the results of the campaigns and battles being determined by written rules. There would typically be a map per side, and a master map, so that the opposing sides would be unable to see enemy movements that they would not be able to see in real life. This term is used in the modern sense to distinguish games like this from the more mainstream ‘open’ wargames using miniatures and no hidden movement or fog of war.