Sinister Soups Serving Musings On Game Development and Play

24Mar/102

Star-Crafting A Fun Online Experience

You realize that this is nowhere near enough pylons, right?

It should come as no surprise that Starcraft 2 will include a matchmaking system as its default method of starting multiplayer games. Blizzard went that route with Warcraft 3, to ensure that players could find good challenges for their teams and be ranked on fair matchups, as is necessary when you have a ladder system to support.

While the system in Warcraft 3 was good for its time, it could also be said that it had its flaws, chief among them its propensity for matching you with people who would proceed to curb stomp you.

At least, as a rather mediocre RTS player, that was my experience with the thing, and judging by the Penny Arcade strip linked above, I wasn't alone.

Luckily, Blizzard seems to be working to ensure that Starcraft 2 doesn't have the same problems. I had already heard that it would have different ladders for different skill levels, so that the more casual fans of RTS, like myself, might actually have a chance to compete with others on their level. Now, a recent article at the Escapist reveals some other steps they are taking to address problems with skill mismatches.

Their first major improvement is limiting each copy of the game to creating a single account, rather than allowing unlimited accounts like their former games. The reason this is important is because there is a certain breed of griefer who likes nothing more than to stomp on newbie players, a practice apparently called "smurfing," which they can only do by creating new accounts with no win history. If they tried this with an experienced account, the game's matchmaking would never match them with the a newbie player, since it tries to match very closely based on skill.

Handily, by limiting you to a single account, you can't go around creating what are essentially griefer or troll accounts, whose sole purpose is to ruin other peoples' experience. It also integrates nicely with Blizzard's recent update to a single-account Battle.netsystem, which now integrates WoW accounts as well, and will definitely be required for future Blizzard products.

The other thing mentioned in the above article, is that they are considering adding some slack to their matchmaking. Apparently, right now, the matchmaking in Starcraft 2 is too accurate, to the point that players are pretty much always matched on an even level. While this is fair, it leads to poor pacing for someone playing a night of Starcraft 2. Every game they play is a breathless, tooth and nail fight, and it doesn't allow the more relaxed play one might get playing a more novice opponent, nor the extreme challenge of facing a better player, which many people swear by as a means of improvement.

Ultimately, I think Blizzard is on the right track here. Exceptional matchmaking, combined with limited accounts to ensure honest skill levels means that both great players, and the really terrible ones (like, again, myself) can have good, exciting games without undue frustration, and I can definitely see the benefits of a slight random component to ensure a more interesting gaming session.

If I were them, I would actually consider going a step further than pure randomness, and think about how they can craft the sort of pacing they want. Since they seem to already be thinking in terms of a series of consecutive games, a session if you will, it wouldn't be too hard to start coming up with heuristic rules to give players the sort of experience that they desire, or alternately, that Blizzard wants them to have.

For example, if a player loses a couple of games in a row, maybe the system adapts to give them a few easier matchups, to give them some breathing space and a chance to try to apply what they might have learned from their defeats against a less demanding opponent. If they are willing to give players this kind of control, they could even allow you to choose from a preset difficulty, or "experience" that they'd like to have that night. Maybe I choose the Relaxed experience, and am only matched with opponents who are my level or lower, while another player wants a Meat Grinder, to hone his skills or just wrack his brains, and is therefore matched only with people of significantly higher level.

Of course, I'm sure Blizzard is already thinking about these sorts of things, and there are challenges there, such as making sure that someone who wants an easy experience is only matched with players who want a hard one, or you just get the same sort of griefing play this whole thing tries to avoid. Still, it'll be interesting to see what lessons Blizzard pulls from the current closed beta, and how the online RTS landscape will change when Starcraft 2 is released.

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  1. You’re only looking at the 1v1 matchup, which is the easiest case. How would your suggested selection system work when friends are playing together in a 2v2 or even larger games, where each person has selected a different “difficulty” they want?

    I agree with battlenet throwing you an easier matchup when you’re on a losing streak. Doing so not only helps the player feel that they still are competitive, but also prevents them from simply getting frustrated and dropping the game entirely, as you did with the original.

    I would like to see battlenet actually monitoring the time a player has been logged in. The longer you are logged in, the harder the opponents you are seeded against. That way, you could begin an evening with a warm-up (against a lower level opponent who has been online for awhile) with the games getting more and more frantic as the night went on. Doing it this way also might cause people to take more breaks during their play. Have the difficulty “reset” after 15 – 30 minutes or so of being offline (determine it by focus group testing, think “rested state” in WoW). Hopefully, this gap is large enough so that the greifers aren’t willing to wait, but short enough that the players who want to continue playing but not be matched against tough opponents don’t feel punished. I know I could use more breaks to rest my eyes, and with a mechanic like that, I would actually have a good reason to take more.

    My two cents.

  2. Good thoughts, I had considered the problems involved with more than a 1v1 case, but the article about the subject doesn’t go into detail, so I just assumed they could handle it however they already handle matching team games.

    In other words, assuming that in a team game they average the skill of the two teams and then match based on that averaged skill, they could do the same thing with “difficulty” as long as difficulty was chosen per-team not per-person. That would probably be the easiest way to make something like that work, difficulty would be an option chosen when you go to get matched, and if you already have a team at that time, you would choose the difficulty for your team, and if you were trying to get matched with a team, it would match you with others looking for a team with that same difficulty.

    Still, you’re right that there is a lot of complexity there, for probably little overall gain. They’re better off working on a desired pacing, which is exactly what you describe as far as difficulty ramping up, and breaks affecting the curve.

    You mention getting a focus group to test these scenarios, and the cool thing is that this is exactly what the current closed beta is. Blizzard is getting all manner of interesting metrics from people playing the beta, and that will help inform exactly these kinds of problems, as well as things like “are there measures we can take to encourage people to play more than just the same race every game” and things like that.


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