Being Bad at a Multiplayer Game, Yet Still Loving It. And The Importance of Matchmaking

Being Bad at a Multiplayer Game, Yet Still Loving It. And The Importance of Matchmaking

Musings on multiplayer matchmaking.

I'm sitting second-from-last on the scoresheet with just five kills to my name, and a fairly feeble overall contribution to my team's effort. We lost by the narrowest of margins, and I know that if someone better than me was playing in my stead, my team could well have won. This sort of thing happens more often than I care to mention, yet I still continue to play Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare because I love it.

Whether it's the curse of my advancing years, or just because I'm simply not that great at first-person shooters – if truth be told, it's probably a combination of the two – I'm just not quite as quick on the trigger as many other players, and in a game where nanoseconds count, that tiny difference is all that's required to leave me lying in the dust, and my enemy running on to search for his or her next victim. Of course, sometimes I get the jump on other players and am satisfied when I nail them, but as my feeble kill-death ratio often attests, this isn't a common occurrence.

So why do I keep playing this damn game?

Well, apart from the fact that I just like playing FPS games, even though I'm not really that good at them, part of it is simply the challenge. I love tough games, and there aren't many tougher games than playing against human beings who are better than you. Weird though it may sound, when I do outshoot someone, it really means something to me. Most of the time I end up frustrated in encounters, but sometimes everything comes together and I do have a good game. Perhaps when I get put in with people who are about the same as I am – which is a reassuring rarity it must be said – and when that happens, I can tear the place up. It's those moments that make playing the game worthwhile, and makes up for all the times I've gotten nailed. Unfortunately, though, it doesn't happen very often.

What's clear when I look at the scoreboard, however, is that there are a lot of players like me who prop up the bottom of the scoresheets – somebody has to, because that's the way statistics work. It's a thankless situation, but what I'm looking for is an opportunity to not be in the bottom 25% pretty much every game. I'd like to be able to hit top billing once in a while. What strikes me is that this is surely an opportunity for better matchmaking.

This is a particular bugbear of mine, but I think that matchmaking is hugely important, and something that some games just don't seem to get particularly right. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare balances games by trying to aggregate players together to create two reasonably symmetric teams. It doesn't have an underlying rating that puts like players together – instead it's simply about fast connections first and foremost (putting you on a server where you have a good ping) and making sure that the teams are reasonably balanced in terms of what they scored in the previous game. In other words, the matchmaking system tries to put equal amounts of good and bad players on each team so that they are "balanced". However, that still means I'm in amongst potentially great players, and they're always going to get the better of me, unless I get lucky.

CoD: Advanced Warfare does offer ranked play, but it's not the same as the general play and while it's fun, what I really want is to play with other players of a similar skill to me in the bigger, more open games. I'm even prepared to put up with a longer queue time if I was guaranteed to be playing with people who are the same skill level as I am. But unfortunately this is not the case – just as it's also not the case in Battlefield Hardline.

World of Warcraft does interesting matchmaking that's similar, but slightly more nuanced. In its rated battlegrounds, premade teams of people fight one another. The way the game matchmakes is that each player has an individual rating, and the game aggregates that into an overall rating for the team. Losing a game results in each individual's ranking going down – and the higher your ranking the bigger the drop. Those with a low ranking will barely see a change in their rating. It's an interesting system, but one that's not without its flaws, as once again it pits both good and bad players together as an aggregate rating, rather than giving like-rated players the opportunity to all play together – as many would prefer to do in random battlegrounds. However, at least the ranking is based on an ongoing statistic, rather than one that's based on what just happened.

A more effective system can be seen in Hearthstone and Splatoon. Both of these games matchmake players based on a rating, not the speed of their connection. Perhaps I'm comparing apples and oranges, but nevertheless, in the case of Splatoon, in ranked play, the way it works is that everyone starts out ranked as C-, and winning and losing either raises or lowers that rating. The longer players play, the more the ranking environment will begin to separate the good from the bad. Over the long-term you'll end up with reasonably balanced play where like-players are matched with one another – C- players playing other C- players, and A-rated players competing against other top-ranked people.

Hearthstone works similarly, where you rise up the rankings until you essentially stop winning. Once you do – if you've climbed above level 20 – you'll lose a rank. Win again, and you'll gain ground. This push-pull system essentially enables you to find a sweet spot where you're winning and losing around the same amount of games – because you're playing people of around the same skill level as you.

I think that's the ideal here, and I would love to see something like this implemented in the likes of CoD. Essentially, a system that looks at an individual's performance and tries its best to pit groups of people of similar skill together to provide the most balanced gaming possible. It's probably more intensive in terms of servers having to crunch more numbers to find and group players of equal skill, but if players do want the best matchmaking possible, then surely that's what's required to deliver it?

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