Modern games come complete with comprehensive matchmaking systems, nowadays, but things weren’t always like the way they are now. In fact, multiplayer was oftentimes a very different experience playing older games. What’s more is that matchmaking today oftentimes undercuts the larger multiplayer experience, making games worse. So, in this article, we’ll explain exactly why matchmaking is ruining multiplayer games.
How Matchmaking Used to Work
Funny enough, if you go back far enough, matchmaking wasn’t a thing. It’s still like this in some smaller games today, but you used to play games online with a server browser, no matchmaking required. Essentially, you’d see a list of servers you could join with different game modes and different maps, and you’d pick a server to connect to and that was that.
However, matchmaking has been around for a long time, too. Historically, matchmaking usually stuck with the age-old adage ping is king. Sometimes, you’d find systems where the game tried to match you with people of a similar level and the like, but across the board, the most important thing matchmaking did was find you games you had a good connection to, nothing more and nothing less.
Ranked matchmaking has also been around for a long time, now. Outside of traditional matchmaking, sometimes you’d find ranked matchmaking. These systems worked pretty simply and pretty universally: In short, you’d start off at a certain rank or skill-rating, and as you lost games you’d go down, while if you won games, you’d go up. When you searched for a game, the system would try and pair you with people of the same rating or ranking.
That’s how matchmaking worked, in general, for a long time, but today, the way matchmaking works across video games is very different.
How Matchmaking Works Now
Skill-based matchmaking (SBMM) is quite the hot topic nowadays, but it’s actually something of a misnomer because modern matchmaking systems don’t usually (if ever) have anything to do with actual skill or finding you people to play with at your level. Modern matchmaking is better called engagement-optimized matchmaking, or EOMM.
So, what’s EOMM, exactly, and how is it different from the SBMM that everyone seems to be complaining about online? Well, for starters, skill-based matchmaking does exist to an extent today as it did in the past with ranked matchmaking. In some modes in some games, you’ll be assigned a skill-rating, and as you play, your rating will go up and down depending on how you do, while the game will matchmake you with players of a similar rating.
But this isn’t the kind of system that people are complaining about when they complain about SBMM. What they’re actually complaining about is EOMM, the kind of matchmaking that dominates most modes in most games, outside of competitive playlists.
Engagement-optimized matchmaking, unsurprisingly, is about optimizing engagement. And what’s engagement? Engagement in video games is largely determined by playtime. If a game can entice you to keep playing it for a long time, that’s a game with good engagement. What’s the point of engagement? Well, money, of course.
If you have an engaged playerbase, you have a lot of people you can try to sell microtransactions, or you have a lot of people you can sell expansions or DLCs. Either way, the idea is that the more invested a player is the more likely the player is to spend money. So, modern matchmaking systems are often (if not exclusively in the AAA space) designed around maximizing engagement and turning off as few players as possible.
The Problem With Matchmaking Today
What’s the quickest way to get you to stop playing a multiplayer game? (Assuming that it’s not co-op, of course.) For most folks, it’s loading in and getting absolutely dominated by much better gamers who’ve been playing the game for a long time. Maybe you don’t deserve to win when you just start playing, sure, but getting creamed on repeat just isn’t fun.
So, matchmaking is designed around making sure that happens as little as possible, but that’s not all it does. What’s the fastest way to get somebody to keep playing a multiplayer game? Exciting games you win and perform well during. That moment where you pull off a crazy quad kill that drives home the victory, that’s a good game. That’s the kind of game that inspires you to keep playing and maybe, just maybe, buy something.
But another good way to stop you from playing is if you win every game and there’s no challenge at all, while conversely, as described above, losing every game is just as bad for engagement. So, of course, the matchmaking system takes all of this into account, too.
Where does that leave you? Well, it leaves you with a system where you’ll never lose too many games in a row, nor will you ever do that well that many games in a row, and however long you’ve been playing, you’ll have about the same experience as anyone else: good games and bad games coming up in roughly equal measure, forever.
This is EEOM. And the problem with it, as you can see, is that nobody is actually able to improve at the game or even feel some sense of pride and accomplishment over a win or particularly good game, because the matchmaking system is basically deciding the outcome of your games before you even play them.
What’s more is that this creates the ‘problem’ of games being ‘too sweaty’ where, in reality, the game actually isn’t that filled with super-skilled players that play the game night and day, but rather, you’re looping around in a matchmaking system that will forever skew games in your favor or against you to make sure everyone’s engagement is maximized.