Online multiplayer games have captivated the gaming industry and taken many genres to new and exciting heights – including esports. However, as with any new major development, online multiplayer gaming also brings its own set of challenges. How do you bring the right players together at the right time? How do you preserve the system when player numbers dwindle? Let’s take a look at some of the most popular types of games out there and the ways that developers create successful matchmaking systems.
The tried-and-true server browser is the bread and butter of online matchmaking. By allowing players to enter servers with preset playlists/game modes and leave whenever they want, most players will be able to find something they enjoy. As an added benefit, games with many customization options could feature modded maps, game mechanics, and other fun extras that players would never normally be able to experience.
However, as long as servers are open to the general public and anyone is able to come and go, server browsers will never offer equal matches as often as their counterparts – ranked ladder systems with automated matchmaking.
Team Fortress 2’s server-browser system. Image courtesy of the Steam Community.
Fairness: Solo and Flex Queues
Maintaining the competitive integrity of a game is no easy feat. Creating balanced matches while keeping queue times low (and accommodating for player role preference like League of Legends does) is a tremendous feat of technology. Thanks to automated matchmaking systems such as these, players can be matched up with peers quickly and painlessly.
In highly competitive games, however, the process isn’t so simple. Ranked modes typically allow only one or two players to queue together at once in order to preserve the integrity of the ranked ladder. After all, it wouldn’t be fair if a bad player joined up with four or five highly skilled players who could carry him to a high rating. But, at the same time, solo queue tends to breed an extra level of toxicity rarely seen in any other area of gaming – or life. The feeling of helplessness and perceived incompetence of one’s teammates tends to lead many players to rage at others.
Solo queue in League of Legends. Image courtesy of Team Dignitas.
To combat toxicity, some games have introduced flex queues to better manage the problem. By allowing groups of players to queue up together, from a duo to a full team and everything in between, players encounter fewer ragers in general. Not only is it unlikely that players will rage at the people they queued up with, but it is also less likely that players will rage at strangers when they’ve queued up with someone they know who will see their salt and judge them for it. Once you queue up with a friend, you lose your anonymity, and we all know just how far people are willing to go on the internet when they have total anonymity.
There’s a trade-off either way. On one hand you have less toxicity and on the other hand you have more competitive integrity. At the end of the day, developers will have to run the numbers and determine which kind of system the players prefer based on data.
The Importance of Incentives
Keeping every gamemode populated can be a challenge. When one mode is far more popular than another, it can become difficult to manage queue times for less popular modes. Even worse, this problem tends to compound upon itself; when people see a mode fading from popularity and reaching queue times of five times as long as other modes, they often won’t even bother queueing up for it at all, thereby leading that mode to have a queue time ten times worse than its counterparts. How can developers incentivize less popular modes in a manner that is still fair and doesn’t detract from the “main” way to play the game?
Developers have to walk a fine line when balancing incentives. For example, let’s say that a shooting game features a primary “Ranked Mode” which serves as the de facto form of gameplay for the majority of the playerbase. When players simply want to relax and try something less intense, they can try out other modes such as Free-for-All, 1v1, or a straightforward Team Deathmatch. However, these modes suffer from lengthy queue times. What should a developer do to incentivize players to try these alternatives?
A reckless dev might give players in-game currency or items that directly lead to more power. However, by giving players such a powerful incentive (extra power), players will now feel obligated to complete that mode over and over again until it becomes less efficient to earn those rewards compared to the mode they actually prefer. It’s a cost-benefit analysis, basically.
Overwatch’s cosmetic reward system allows players to earn 1 extra lootbox for every 3 wins in the Arcade mode up to a maximum of 3 per week. Image courtesy of GameSkinny.
However, by offering additional chances at cosmetic items (usually delivered through loot crates or boxes) developers can give players a reward that feels meaningful but doesn’t feel mandatory. Most players will seek out skins, but they won’t worry about it if they miss a couple opportunities at random cosmetic items over the course of a week.
While this discussion only scratches the surface of matchmaking issues and their potential solutions, new systems are constantly in development that may address these ever-present issues. As online multiplayer gaming progresses even further through the decades, we will likely see some of these issues become a thing of the past.