IS THE CURRENT MATCHMAKING SYSTEM HURTING ONLINE GAMES?
New age problems require new age solutions.
by Felipe Parada
Where would video games be without the matchmaking system that we all know and love? There is an odd satisfaction when you jump onto your favorite game with friends or strangers just to see what happens. Nowadays it’s almost essential that every game has some sort of online matchmaking system. Although not every game needs an online component, we can't deny how important online matchmaking has become in the past couple of years.
I had the distinct pleasure of witnessing the birth of matchmaking in video games. I would even be so bold as to say that we were matchmaking before matchmaking was even a thing. I remember the early days where LAN parties were the closest thing to online gaming that there was. The concept of playing a game with someone who wasn’t physically next to you was such an unknown concept at the time (remember, this was the mid to late 90’s.) We had no idea that we were witnessing the birth of an important staple in video games.
Quick History Lesson.
At the time, concept was very simple, or as simple as it could be. Early games like Doom and Quake required players to exchange their personal IP addresses. It became more involved when dedicated server addresses and address books were implemented in the game’s menu to store them. Then, Around 1996, Diablo was one of the first games to integrate server browsers via Battle.net.
Then, in 2004, the evolution was kicked up a notch with the release of Halo 2. Dedicated servers had finally made the leap to consoles. What made Halo 2 different was the fact that it was able to automate the self-hosting process with playlist and parties. Due to previous console limitations, self hosting had proved troublesome. This concept was so groundbreaking that it became the industry standard. Online matchmaking was officially born.
“If You're Not Evolving, You're Dying” - Marcus Lemonis
Where it stands today.
Like I said previously, we can't deny how important online matchmaking has become. With that being said, I’ve noticed something rather strange as of late in my matchmaking sessions. Nowadays players tend to purchase a game 6 months to a year after its release, and this could be for a multitude of reasons. We’ve been experiencing a lot of games that claim to categorize themselves under the “games as a service” business model. Gamers nowadays are smart and will hold off from going all in during the launch window in order for the developers to iron out all the little details. Sadly this has its own set of drawbacks, especially in the competitive landscape where every match counts.
This is what happened to me recently with Star Wars Battlefront II, a game that was released back in 2017. I absolutely love Star Wars Battlefront II and its such a shame that it was marred by the loot box controversy. I find myself playing Heroes vs. Villains a lot because there's nothing more satisfying than light saber battles. For those of you not familiar with the leveling system in Star Wars Battlefront II, it's based on certain perks that you equip before each match. Over the course of your progression you can level up these cards and make those buffs stronger. I am sure you can see where I'm going with this.
It’s extremely difficult and frustrating when you match make with someone who is 30-40 levels above you and have all their cards maxed out. No matter how good you think you are, you are rendered useless when you have someone whose hero abilities are anywhere from 15% - 30% more effective than yours. This happens to me constantly, regardless if I’m playing heroes vs. villains, galactic assault, blast or starfighter assault. It's a situation that shouldn't happen, especially with all the technological advancements that the infrastructure has made in such a short time.
Star Wars Battlefront II isn't the only game guilty of this, Rainbow Six: Siege has a free weekend trial recently and it was just as bad. Match, after painstaking match, I was thrown to the wolves. In a game that revolves around Heroes called “Operators”, picking the wrong one will cost you a match. I was constantly made aware of this by high level players who would constantly remind me that “I suck.” Well yeah, I don't know any of the maps and I am not familiar with all of the operators. I went through all of the “Situations” to make sure that I knew all of the ins and out of the game, and it didn't help.
The matchmaking system actually added to the games toxic community where even choosing the wrong operator will get you kicked from a match. I was put in a 1 v 4 situation and was kicked because I eliminated three other players, not all four of them. This is where I drew the line. It wasn't my fault that I was put in these situations, I thought that the system would have put me in matches with other players closer to my level. Sadly this wasn't the case and it lead to some real toxic moments. But the state of “toxicity” in the gaming community will be left for another article so I wont go into it at the moment.
A moment of pure brilliance.
I wish there was an easy solution, I really do. There was one session where someone told me plainly to just “git gud.” I think it goes way beyond just “gitting gud.” I do see the benefits of being thrown to the wolves. It really does force you to become a better player and in the bigger scheme of things it helps everyone. But in my frustration I remember playing a online shooter that had a very unique ways of handling this situation.
Remember Metal Gear Online? It wasn't one of the best online shooters, but it was real good to those of us who played it. What made it stand out what its unique way of helping players “git gud.” Players received different performance indicators between official tournaments (grade) and regular matches (level). Both ranking systems encouraged players to play against higher ranked players earning high rewards if you manage to defeat a high ranking player. They weren't discouraging playing against someone who was your equal but the infrastructure put in place helped players perform better.
It went even further to segregate new players into bootcamp servers to prevent any type of high level mismatches. It wasn't a perfect system but for the most part, it worked real well. The bootcamp servers did a good job of slowly easing you into the world of Metal Gear Online. Each session was filled with evenly matched players and each session would always go down to the wire. It was fun, tactical and intense, the way online shooters should be. But once you reached level 10, you were on your own and your real test began. The different performance indicators did a decent job of matching you with players who were at least two levels higher or 2 levels lower than you. There were even players who would go out of their way and create custom servers and would train you in areas you lacked.
Coming from the mind of Hideo Kojima, it didn't surprise me that he would give his own take on how players would interact with one another. It really was a moment of pure brilliance. Segregate players into servers that actually teach you how to properly play the game. If you did decided to go back to the Bootcamp Servers after level 10, you wouldn't get any experience towards your level but it was helpful to go back every now and again. It was all about player choice, and you know what? It really did make you a better player.
“Expectation is the root of all heartache” - William Shakespeare
Where do we go from here?
In my opinion? I think it might be time to rethink the way matchmaking is handled. Everything else in the gaming industry has evolved, why not the way we interact with other players? A new system can go beyond the traditional casual and ranked matches. Not everyone is looking for the eSports experience and for people like myself, I am not looking to dive into hardcore competition. I would like to offer a solution, if I may.
How about taking a page out of Hideo Kojima’s book? Let’s implement servers based on skill. By doing this we can guarantee that players are playing on the same playing field. And if players don't want to participate in this new structure, then they can switch their privacy setting and jump into higher tier servers for better rewards. No matter which way you look at it, everybody wins. I’m pretty sure that this exists in some of our current games but it still feels a bit off.
New players can be placed into Beginner servers until their skill is high enough to be placed in higher tier servers. If they perform well enough, then they can test out early and begin to play in higher tier servers. If players continue to have difficulties then they can remain in the beginner serves until they are ready to hit the other servers. If you want to try your luck then you can do so and reap high tier rewards. The object to to give the player options and have everyone play on the same level. It's not a perfect system but it's better than the clusterf*** we have now.
Level will still be implemented but it would be views for progression purposes. Levels won't really play that big of a role into matchmaking because the levels can be misleading. It would remain solely skill based. Skill level can be represented as a number or a letter, whichever the developer feels is appropriate. I can foresee the potential pitfalls of that system but we have to start somewhere.
Listen, I say this because I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum. I can sit here and say that I can sympathize with the noobs and the pro players. Overwatch, Star Wars Battlefront II and even the insanely popular Apex Legends, I’ve experienced it all. It's tough having to coach a new player and it's even more frustrating playing against someone who is 30 levels above you. Trust me, I’m really looking at this from both viewpoints. I really feel that the current matchmaking system could really use an overhaul. It will only be beneficial for everyone. Competitively speaking, games can be more enjoyable this way. Nobody likes to be playing a match where one team steamrolls the other due to a unfavorable mismatch.
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