Admit It, You Don’t Understand Skill-Based Matchmaking (And Neither Do I)

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A man and a woman stand, scratching their heads in confusion, in front of a Modern Warfare III scoreboard.

Whenever a new blockbuster first-person shooter drops, gamers limber up so they can once again argue over how multiplayer matches get made and the algorithmic systems that determine who plays against whom and when. The recent release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III is no exception—not long after its multiplayer servers booted on November 10, players began flocking to Reddit, X (Twitter), and everywhere in between to complain about the quality (or perceived lack thereof) of Activision’s matchmaking. But, as with so many issues in the gaming industry, there’s a serious lack of nuance and true understanding at play here.

The most egregious misunderstanding centers around one popular buzzword that gets trotted out like a dressage pony every time a new game drops: skill-based matchmaking (SBMM). For those of us not embedded in the FPS genre, SBMM refers to the system used by games like Call of Duty, Fortnite, and Apex Legends to determine how matchmaking lobbies are populated. Though the details vary from developer to developer (and developers won’t really share those details), SBMM usually takes stats like a player’s kill/death ratio, time played, score per minute, and total wins into account when sorting them into lobbies. On November 20, players flooded Activision’s Reddit AMA demanding the removal of SBMM, which they deem too rigid. It’s easy to get hung up on SBMM, as the details are confusing and often obfuscated by developers. But it’s so often a contentious talking point that it’s important we try our best to make sense of it.

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Lately, the concept of SBMM has been flattened and regurgitated so much that people misunderstand its use, assuming that its detractors just want to play games where they can steamroll people. Hell, myself (and Kotaku) have been guilty of thinking the same thing, but it’s actually far more complicated than that.

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Two Spartans face off in a Halo 3 press image.

The skill-based matchmaking problem

Skill-based matchmaking played out very differently 20 years ago, as outlined by Max Hoberman—Bungie’s former head of multiplayer and online during the Halo 2 and Halo 3 heydays—in a recent, scathing tweet thread responding to a fairly innocuous GamesRadar post that originally appeared in PLAY magazine over a year ago. In fact, Hoberman explained that how skill-based matchmaking should work was a major point of contention amongst the developers who worked on Halo 2 and 3, which many gamers still believe offered the best multiplayer experiences of all time.

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According to Hoberman, his implementation of SBMM for those games “cleanly divided the space into ranked and unranked matchmaking playlists” with ranked mode filtering “opponents based on level…for when you wanted a competitive match—but even then, I intentionally allowed variability in the range of levels we matched you with.”

“I don’t think skill should be a primary factor when determining who to match into a casual lobby together.” — Max Hoberman, former head of multiplayer at Bungie

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Hoberman’s belief was that “no one wants to get stomped continuously” but it can also get “dull (for most people) continuously stomping others.” With that ethos in mind, the team “intentionally” allowed a range of skills to match together, therefore providing “three experiences in ranked matchmaking: an easier one where you can kick butt, a harder one where you’re likely outmatched, and an evenly matched one.”

Hoberman continued, noting that the team decided not to “always evenly match people” in games because those matches are always “the most stressful,” which can get tiring for the player if they happen over and over again. But that’s precisely what’s going on with SBMM in games like Modern Warfare III—it prioritizes finding the “perfect match,” so you’re constantly facing off against similarly skilled players. That means that every match feels like those “most stressful” ones Hoberman referred to.

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“When [modern SBBM is] working, a majority of games become super tight, super stressful. That’s not fun for most players. Where’s the variability?” he asked.

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But this is Hoberman’s take on how SBMM should work in ranked modes—the key issue for many MWIII players is that Activision’s unique algorithm is applied to casual play, too.

“I don’t think skill should be a primary factor when determining who to match into a casual lobby together,” Hoberman told Kotaku over email. He suggested factors like preferred play style and connectivity should take precedence when finding matches for casual players. “However, once a list of possible matches is found, I don’t see an issue with skill factoring in as secondary criteria: sort criteria, as I implemented it for the early Halo games.”

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“Matchmaking presented and intended as casual, inconsequential fun (e.g. Unranked or Social playlists) should de-prioritize skill level as a matchmaking criteria,” Hobermann continued. “Whether it belongs as a secondary criteria, and how significantly it should be weighted, is very much a question of context and a matter of opinion.”

Four soldiers stand in various poses (one behind a riot shield) in a warzone.

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Skill-based matchmaking in Modern Warfare III

I’d say I’m a slightly-better-than-average Call of Duty player, and I rarely play a match where either my squad or the other team gets thoroughly shellacked. Many matches end with a +/- 15-point difference, if that, so nearly every game feels high-stakes, like each death that inches me closer to a negative kill-death ratio is tantamount to a nail in my coffin.

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When I do steamroll an enemy team, I certainly won’t have the same experience in the next lobby—in fact, it often is more likely that I’ll get flattened, careening back and forth between too good and not good enough in back-to-back games.

And I’m far from the top percentile of players, who often suffer incredibly long queue times in order for the mysterious algorithm to find them what it considers to be a fair match. Hoberman calls this a “form of discrimination” in his thread, which I find to be a bit extreme. But forcing high-skill players to wait for every lobby does seem like overkill—sure, queue them for a while to find a fair match in ranked play, but do we need to do this in casual game modes, too? Hoberman sure doesn’t think so.

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“As you can imagine, it’s challenging to manage all of these factors at once and land at the right answer…that leaves [players] feeling the quality of the match we found for them was worth the time and lack of control they sacrificed for it.” — Hoberman

That’s not the only issue with SBMM—I hate that I never get to play with the same lobby more than once, which could very well be because the algorithm has to calculate the best possible next match for me, as one commenter on GamesRadar’s story suggested.

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Skill-based matchmaking and the many side effects it has on everyone’s multiplayer sessions is not a simple issue. It’s not just that top-tiers want to trounce casuals, or that casuals only want to play against other tired, overworked thirty-somethings after a long day of suckling at the teat of capitalism. No, what frustrates players is the lack of clarity surrounding each game’s version of SBMM.

Giving players a peek into the SBMM black box could very well result in them picking apart the details, which would understandably give developers pause. But having no insight into how the matching algorithms work is obviously frustrating.

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“As you can imagine, it’s challenging to manage all of these factors at once and land at the right answer: an answer that leaves [players] feeling the quality of the match we found for them was worth the time and lack of control they sacrificed for it,” Hoberman said via email. “Frankly, too few games are leaving players feeling satisfied here. This is a trend that has been worsening for years, and the people responsible for designing these matchmaking and skill-evaluating systems aren’t being transparent with players and aren’t engaging in meaningful dialogue with them. This has led to an enormous well of pent-up frustration.”

He continued: “Nobody wants to be told ‘the way you enjoy playing the game is wrong.’ But that’s what’s happening, effectively, either because feedback is being ignored, or sometimes through broad, dismissive actions (or lack thereof)—or even derogatory statements.”

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The current iteration of SBMM (that most players don’t fully understand) feels like the law of the FPS land, and sets strict rules and regulations for how each Modern Warfare match must go, allowing no wiggle room for outliers. As Hoberman points out, in multiplayer games, outliers often have the most fun.

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