Long ago in a distant past, your matchmaking option for a multiplayer game with more than one person was thus: you went into a server browser, looked for a community server that was about right for your skill level (with names ranging from “NEW PLAYER FRIENDLY !” to “HARDCORE[XXX]RIPPERS”), and you joined it. If the skill level for the people in the servers was too searingly hot, then you disconnected and joined a different server. As an additional layer, these servers would occasionally have admins that would boot people who clearly didn’t meet the standard that the server expected (higher or lower). This was basically the case for most server based multiplayer games ranging from UT2004, Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast, to Battlefield 2 (which did have a quick match feature that I actually never saw function). If you sought competition above and beyond the quality seen in a public server, you would join the appropriate teamspeaks/mumbles (usually advertised by servers), or join a clan, who would arrange scrims through back alley channels like community forums. I was in a clan for Counter Strike: Source, and also an admin for a couple of servers, and this was the way of the world. Did it work? It seemed to, though servers without active administration would sometimes be very rough experiences, depending on what game you were playing.
Cut to the matchmaking apocalypse, 2006, and a surge in popularity for the console gaming platform. Instead of having console gamers surf through pages and pages of community servers, Xbox Live would find the game for you. Sure, it’d be hosted on your console, leading us down a peer-to-peer netcode rabbit hole whose stench would linger for years and years as companies realised they could save the expenses of hosting servers by instead giving players a far shittier experience, but you’d only have to press a few buttons to get a game! Clap you fucking impatient seal, clap! While ostensibly reducing the time to find a game, this system of matchmaking had an added benefit that players were now completely stuck within the game’s ecosystem. No longer did the developers need to release a dedicated server runtime which could be used for things like mods, or community hosting — if you want to play the game, you play on their platform or not at all. While this would take a few years to be fully realised, it would become the bedrock of practices like map packs and then finally DLC in general. If the company can control every aspect of your experience with the game, they can monetize it as well. And they did.
As the new hordes of players came in with the extreme popularity of the Xbox 360 and the PS3, developers would increasingly focus on these platforms over PC. This meant that PC would frequently receive the dregs: the terrible console ports, the abysmal netcode, and the dull grey-brown artstyle. This would be encapsulated with the 2009 release of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, a sequel to the server-based, delightful romp that was Call of Duty 4, containing console matchmaking, and horrific netcode problems. Even better than that, because there was so much local bullshit going on with the game, sometimes you’d join a match only to be levelled up to infinity, discovering that you’d joined a hacked server! Thanks Activision for removing the mechanism by which players could avoid that! At least these games now become unplayable when you terminate support because they’re all centrally managed, so we don’t have to experience the absolute garbagefire that was their multiplayer implementations ever again. Oh, you sold a remaster of Call of Duty 4 that includes DLC, and removed the ability to host community servers? Not just happy to release shocking modern implementations, but you’ll happily sodomise your previous titles too!
With this shift, however, there was a problem. Players would get frustrated because the matchmaker would put them in games that they thought weren’t fair. Everyone at some point in their mutliplayer video game playing experience has had a game where they joined, only to be flattened by a steamroller. No longer did you have the option to simply leave that server and find another, fairer one, oh no. In fact, a lot of games implemented systems to punish you for leaving, for daring to do anything other than complete their blessed match they handcrafted for you. Instead what happened is that people got mad, they got toxic, and they made the game worse for everyone else involved. This time, however, there was no safety net in terms of server administration or community rules — those went out with the runtimes. So now developers started to implement reporting systems, backed by algorithms: god forbid a human was actually involved in this process, they cost money. So now you have to rely on some opaque matchmaking system to find you a fun game, and you rely on some opaque reporting system to ensure that you’re not going to be told to terminate your existence every twelve seconds And what a fantastic job they’ve done of that.
I hold Overwatch up as the pinnacle of failure when it comes to multiplayer experiences. The absolute hubris of ActiBlizzard, that they released the title without a reporting feature at all, and decided to wheel out Jeffy Kaplan for a blubbing “stop being mean” video. Combine that with your classic soup of “algorithm curated matchmaking”, a complete inability to adjust your experience at all (maps), and gameplay that seemed intentionally designed to make people as mad as possible. Dust the whole thing with a sprinkling of a ranked matchmaking queue that made you watch points fall painfully off your rank when you lost, and you ended up with a community so toxic they should have buried it in Yucca Mountain.
Cut to 2020, and a rebellion occurred among the proles. The respectable frat brothers of the competitive Call of Duty community (who I will henceforth refer to as SugmaPhi) came out against skill based matchmaking (SBMM) for casual/non-ranked modes in their latest title. The focus of this was a tweet made which was (on paper) so monstrously idiotic, that it can’t have used all of the four braincells that SugmaPhi had to offer. Combine this with a series of tweets regarding the existence/non-existence of SBMM in MW2, where a SugmaPhi member embarrassed themselves into the phantom zone by contradicting a developer on the game. Everyone had a good chuckle at their expense, Treyarch got to have a few laughs about it, everyone moved on. Here’s the problem; if I was to read between the lines even a little bit, and try to put myself in the mindset of the SugmaPhi member, I’d interpret the complaint as “this game’s matchmaking is shit”. If this is the first time they’ve complained about the matchmaking in a series that has had it for title after title, then that’s the only interpretation that makes sense. Naturally, everyone leapt for the throat and screamed that they simply wanted to stomp newer players into the ground without a challenge: a take which was completely devoid of nuance and entirely fitting for the cesspit platform of Twitter.
Here’s the point at which I drop some hot takes. There’s a lot of complaining on the internet for what people refer to as forced 50% win rates. It is a complaint that you see very commonly against team-based games like Dota 2, CS:GO and League of Legends. To summarise it, it’s a feeling that the matchmaker is out to get you. Any success is to be immediately followed by crushing defeat, such that the player’s winrate can be kept around the 50% mark. This is supposedly either done by throwing opponents against you who are far above your skill level, or by giving you teammates (in team games) who are far below your skill level.
People who get awfully proud of their seven upvotes often respond with the following. “A 50% winrate means you’re getting fair matches, that’s the point of the matchmaker”. To which, I respond with the following hypothetical. If I put you in the MMA octagon for a two match extravaganza, one where you’re fighting a toddler, and one where you’re fighting Goku from Dragon Ball Super, would you claim that the series was fair? Interesting how the fact that your win rate coming out of that series would most likely be 50%, and that changes absolutely nothing about how fair the individual matches were. It’s almost like something is lost in the aggregate, isn’t it? It’s almost as though I could put together some of the most imbalanced, horrifically un-fun and painful matches in gaming history, and come out with all players maintaining a close-to-50% winrate. Here’s the thing: we know this. We’ve known about this for decades: this shit is codified. If these matchmaking algorithms are fixating on aggregated winrate as the strongest measure of how fair and fun a provided game is, then it’s no wonder that complaints about matchmaking systems are extremely commonplace. Here’s a radical question, what if matchmaking systems were optimised for fun rather than 50% winrates? What if it was possible to have players with 30-40% winrates, but were having great fun with every match? This seems impossible with so many games that make losing a painful, miserable experience, but I’d consider any game to be a design failure if half of the people in a match are consistently leaving it sadder than when they entered.
Alas, we do not live in the “optimised for fun” world. We can’t let the players have a choice in how they play, so we have to read the bones and interpret their will from the data. Do the players not like a map? Well, you could discover that immediately if you allowed your player base to select the maps they played on, thus demonstrating the worst maps by the ones that are never selected, but that would be choice, and we hate that. They’ll play on the maps they loathe, and they’ll have an awful time. You could allow players to self-regulate in casual play by letting them drop out if they’re really not enjoying a match, and offering rewards for people who are willing to join games mid-way through to fill the gap. However, that would be choice, and we hate that. We’ll make them stay in a match that they’re clearly not enjoying, and we’ll punish them if they attempt to leave. You could help alleviate the problem of toxic communities by giving players stronger curation controls, community moderation, the ability to blacklist players that they’ve had terrible experiences with before. Except, that’d be choice, and we hate that. Instead, we’ll match them repeatedly against players they’ve had actively negative experiences with, and throw them a wet towel player reporting system that has as much weight as our health secretary has credibility.
To be clear, none of these things make sense to have in a ranked mode. Elo was not made to create ‘fun’ games, it was made to provide a framework for ordering of players by skill. As such, ranked modes should be clear that they are there to do the same: at the cost of fun and player choice. The fact that we see these same systems coming into play for casual and non ranked gamemodes suggests how utterly mindless a lot of these decisions by game developers have been. Maybe it’s pure coincidence that so many of these algorithmically driven systems also coincide with gigantic monetary incentives (clamping down on mods and platform retention); I highly doubt that. Algorithms have been wielded as a cost-saving, money-generating bat that games have beaten players over the head with. Not sure why I expected anything else to be honest.