If you have ever played a competitive online game, you have probably found yourself in matches where one side is clearly much better than the other. What was matchmaking thinking!?
The matchmaker is the obvious place to assign blame and look for a solution. But while a well tuned matchmaking algorithm certainly does make a difference, in reality even the best system is still constrained by many practical limitations. Other considerations such as ping, small player pools, and queue times frequently limit a system’s ability to be picky about the matches it puts together. Games with multiplayer teams and/or post-matchmaking factors (such as a draft phase) can further complicate the matchmaker’s job. For a more detailed look at matchmaking, see this excellent post by an Awesomenauts dev.
The truth is that bad match-ups are going to happen, but they can still be fun games. A player’s perception of skill disparity is heavily filtered by a game’s mechanical structure. Certain game mechanics and dynamics will accentuate or mitigate this sense of disparity, and thus each game will have its own “tolerance range” within which match-ups remain fun. My goal in this post is to examine the root frustrations of uneven matches and propose some techniques for avoiding them.
To begin, we need to examine what makes a bad matchup unfun. The easy explanation is that players dislike losing, but that’s a little too simple. The degree and nature of a loss are really what makes the difference. It’s not so bad to lose a close fought match where the moment-to-moment gameplay was fun and you felt like you and your opponent(s) where close to evenly matched. What sucks is when your opposition is noticeably more skilled, to the point where basic gameplay is no longer fun and you don’t feel like you have any hope of winning the match.
Let’s get into the details of how this works. First, skill disparities can stress or invalidate core game mechanics and prevent players from engaging with the game as intended. Take basketball for example. The height difference between two opposing players can only be so large before it completely removes some of the game’s foundational tensions. Past a certain height disparity, the taller player will be able to pass and shoot with impunity, and the game will probably cease to be fun or interesting for either side.
The ideal game rewards players for practicing and mastering its mechanics, but also minimizes or caps the advantages derived from superior skill. A game’s tolerance limit is essentially set by the maximum skill disparity achievable before the stronger side outright crushes the the underdog. Strong players should win by eking out minor edges here and there, rather than simply shutting down weaker players.
It’s also a good idea to have one or more mechanisms that push gameplay towards a competitive equilibrium. When one side outplays the other, the winning side should further its progress towards victory (i.e. score points, damage the enemy core, etc...) while the losing side should be given some type of advantage to help bring them into competitive parity with the winning side. This way, the core gameplay loop will reach a balanced state that is fun and challenging for both sides, but the side that is playing better will still hold the lead in the the overarching race to final victory.
Correspondingly, try to avoid mechanics that further strengthen the winning side, since these will push match balance away from competitive parity and towards gameplay breakdown. It should be obvious why snowball dynamics are problematic, but it’s worth mentioning because this kind of positive feedback loop shows up in many successful competitive games (e.g. League of Legends, Starcraft, etc...). I’d argue that this has largely been to the detriment of those games at most tiers of play. I see these mechanisms as vestiges of their genres’ less competitive roots, and I think it behooves designers to think critically before replicating them in future generations of competitive games.
As I’m writing this post, I’ve been tempted to go into several detailed asides about specific implementations. I think I’ll save those for one or more future posts, so to illustrate my propositions succinctly I’ll just stick with another basketball example.
First, imagine a scenario where teams get taller and faster when based on their point lead. The team that gains the lead at the matches outset is probably the better team to begin with, and their advantage will continue to be compounded as their lead increases and the game becomes less and less competitive.
What we want is the opposite; the trailing team is strengthened based on how far behind they are. The team that is inherently better will pull ahead, but eventually the buffs to the losing team will be sufficient to put the two teams on even footing, causing gameplay to become tense and challenging for both teams. The losing team will never fall too far behind on score, but in order to overtake the other team they will still need legitimately outplay them.
Before I conclude this post, I want to be clear that equalizing mechanics have their own own costs and pitfalls. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Allow players to earn a meaningful lead. Handicaps should kick in when one side begins to fall too far behind. If catch-up mechanics scale up too quickly, it renders the early and mid-game irrelevant.
- Make sure that handicaps are reduced promptly as the trailing side catches up. If handicaps persist, it can produce unfair and counter-intuitive situations where players are encouraged to intentionally fall behind in order to gain an advantage in the late game.
- Keep in mind that your game isn’t required to support matches between players with extremely disparate skill levels. It just needs to cover the range of match-ups commonly produced by the matchmaker. Tune the system for the standard deviation in skill level.
- If a match is simply too imbalanced to be fun, by all means end it early. Figure out what the breaking point is, then put mechanisms in place to end the game quickly when that limit is surpassed.
And that pretty much sums up my thoughts on the matter. I really enjoy taking an evolutionary perspective on game analysis; peeling back the layers of contemporary games and genres to try and separate the load-bearing elements from those that are simply vestiges of their forerunners. Competitive gaming is going through a period of growth and transformation at the moment, and it will be very interesting to watch adaptations emerge over the next few years.