Oct 092009

In theory I love playing online with people on Versus but I get frustrated because I suck so badly at it, with my reaction time, that I just die constantly, and after a while of no joy whatsoever, it loses it’s fun factor.” –DeeGruenEinzige

The game designer’s job of setting the right difficulty and challenge level when it comes to the technical execution required to play a game (as previously discussed here) and the overall “solo” experience in a game is one thing, but for multiplayer competitive ‘versus’ style games it’s a different beast entirely. Here, to a reasonable extent I believe, you can measure the challenge, and hence the ability for a player to experience an enjoyable state of ‘flow’ depending on the person (or team) that they are competing against, and measuring their chance to win, based on their skill level versus the skill level of the competition. When there is a huge disparity in skill level, and one team or player is easily beating the other, then clearly there is little chance for either team or player to experience flow. Conversely where both players are of a similar skill level, and both would ‘on paper’ have a 50% chance to win, and are winning around that rate upon repeated competitive play, then you’ve got the potential for a really fun game where all players are in the ‘flow zone’.


Now of course, the game’s mechanics still play a part in the flow experience, and you can only go so far with this. A gamer’s taste in games will also come into play. It’s unlikely that even two equally skilled players winning 50% of the time are going to get to a heightened state of flow from repeated games of noughts and crosses (that’s tic-tac-toe for our American readers!), paper-rock-scissors (jun-ken-pon), or even a perfect 50/50 game of ‘flip the coin’ (unless they love alea and really enjoy winning by luck). And conversely many players wouldn’t enjoy a drawn out game of chess, even if it was against someone of exactly the same skill. The vast majority of gamers don’t appear to enjoy competitive play whatsoever. But we can assume for the sake of this article that we’ve got a game that both the players or teams of players enjoy playing, or potentially would enjoy playing.

The Only Test is Your Skill: Face Him Straight!

Now getting the game difficulty and game mechanics right for ‘flow’ in a single-player experience is a really difficult task. So much has been written on that topic already elsewhere. The big problem is matching the challenges in the game to every individual player’s skills, which of course, vary widely. And their tastes in the level of challenge and type of challenge they want (if any at all!) also varies. So you get solutions such as different difficulty settings, the ability to save your game, or as I’ve already discussed as an example setting the difficulty of moves within a game. However getting the potential for ‘versus flow’ right ie: the difficulty setting of versus mode, is actually a very simple goal, no matter the type of game: You simply need to match up two players (or teams of players) of relatively equal skill. Yet this is exactly where video games fall down.

I’ve referenced this issue a multitude of times here on Agoners, and I’m continually astounded that not even a single game has ever really tried to address this fully. I see this as the vital missing component in so many games.

Imagine if you could play a game of Street Fighter (any version!) and have a good chance of fighting against someone very close to your skill level with the character you selected to play. I cannot fathom that anyone would not find that more fun than the current situation; where it’s effectively totally random who you get to play, outside of creating your own game invites. On Street Fighter 2 HDR Ranked Match or a random Player Match lobby, you’re as likely to fight against Joe Noob, who can barely block an attack, as you are to fight against an Evo champion like Afro Legends – and I have first-hand experience of both. Now of course your subsequent rating change, win or lose, will attempt to reflect the level of your competition – and HDR has one of the very few decent skill rating systems out there (provided all players have played enough games, you always play your best character(s) in ranked, and don’t get idiots playing you with rubbish ping times, or Akuma players…). But I feel the aim of an online matchmaking system ought to be to provide fun for the players first, and a realistic ranking or rating system second. But of course the rating system itself does become critical if you use it to matchmake. Street Fighter IV is also a total failure in this regard. Whilst it’s “Championship Mode” patch at least gave players the chance to get a match against a similarly skilled opponent with it’s grade point system, the system of grading players itself was so flawed, with far too wide levelling and grinding potential, that this actually did nothing but add a a slightly improved, but still only very small chance of a good versus match. Probably the only fighting game that even comes close to decent matchmaking is Virtua Fighter 5 – but only if people use the ‘find players close to my level’ option; which many do not, given that generally the priority is just to try and find someone with a decent connection to you first of all, in this generally under-populated game.

Dead Vs Blue

I can't believe I only stumbled across halolz.com thanks to writing this article - great site, click image for more!

When it comes to another staple competitive genre – FPS’s – things are arguably even worse. Almost every game I’ve played that could be a helluva lot of fun with good matchmaking eg. Left 4 Dead Versus Mode or Team Fortress 2, has no actual attempt at matchmaking at all. And adding vastly to the complexity is the fact that determining the skill of teams is a far more difficult task than ascertaining a single player’s ability. But what amazes me is that these games don’t even try.

I’ve often held up Halo 3 as one of the exemplars of good matching, with it’s in-depth experience point and grading system and seemingly excellent matchmaking system. However I’ve played a lot more of it since Halo 3 ODST came out, and very quickly huge cracks started to appear to me. There’s a lot of them, but they all generally fall under the umbrella of the major problem being that players are not realistically ranked on the actual skills that matter in the game. For example, map knowledge plays a huge part, whether in a team game or a free-for-all. However the matchmaking works on the assumption that you are equally knowledgeable on all maps in the game… not so much fun when you’ve never had a DLC map-pack, and just got ODST and hence are experiencing a multitude of new maps for the first time.

Jumpers for goalposts

I could go into a lot more depth about the problems in virtually all current games across any genre, this is just a sample that I am familiar with. But the point is that hopefully it’s obvious that it is a problem. If you analogise video games to real sports, the current situation is like asking a soccer team to have to play against anyone from the Premiership, through to a bottom division, to a bunch of kids kicking the ball around in the park, whenever they want to play a match. Most versus modes on games don’t even attempt to offer anything like Easy mode or Hard mode, or even a Normal; it’s just totally random, or more likely VERY HARD all the time, if you’re not an expert experienced player. How many of those players out there who don’t appear to enjoy playing competitive games, like the quote at the start of this article, might do, if they felt they had a chance for a ‘equal match’. Next time in this series I’ll look at some possibilities for solving it, and better ways of doing things.

  One Response to “Versus Flow”

  1. There’s a general problem with skill level matchmaking, namely that there are a substantial number of players who will register extra accounts in order to come in and face the general pack (and thus beat them utterly) rather than let the matchmaking mechanics deliver them to a suitable opponent. But as you say here, another problem is that not much effort is spent on this part of the online experience. It is largely left to the individual to find their own solution.

    As for team-based games, I don’t see this as a significantly more difficult problem than matching individuals to be honest – as long as there are suitable metrics (which there always are in competitive combat games) there are ways to generate rankings.

    Thanks for sharing the links, and your thoughts!

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