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Matchmaking anyone?

Why is it that so many PC games lack matchmaking (the ability to organize a multiplayer team match through the in-game system)? Games like Halo 2 and World of Warcraft have been made extremely popular in part due to a great matchmaking system. With that in mind I am dumbfounded why other popular titles, specifically PC titles, haven’t capitalized on this feature.

Now, I find this an interesting topic because I feel strongly that there is a large portion of PC gamers who don’t even know what matchmaking is. If you don’t believe me ask around. You’ll be surprised by the number of people who respond with, "What is matchmaking?" One would think that this might be common knowledge but surprisingly it is not. I guess it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering there aren’t many PC titles with matchmaking. Unless you come from a console background, where matchmaking is more common, you’re unlikely to know what matchmaking is. In fact I think this is a big reason why we haven’t seen more of this feature in PC games. Frankly, if people aren’t clamoring for it developers may not see a big need to implement it in their games.

With that in mind I wanted to take a second to explain matchmaking. Keep in mind I am going to be explaining matchmaking from the Halo 2 perspective. I choose Halo 2 because it’s the game with matchmaking I have the most experience with. Essentially matchmaking is a system that conveniently allows you to find a competitive game against another person or group of persons who are similarly skilled as you. A lot of gamers who play online do this on a regular basis; after all, if you’re competitive and you play online, you’re inevitably going to want to see how you stack up against other players.

To give you an idea of the beauty of the system let’s compare two games, one with matchmaking and one without it. First, let us assume that you are playing with five of your buddies online and you’re curious to see how you measure up against other teams of five; in other words you’re looking for a competitive game.

In Halo 2 this is very easy thing to do. All you had to do is form a party, invite your 4 friends to the party, and then with a click of a button you could be paired against another team of five for a competitive game. Not only would it automatically pair you up against another team, but it would find you a server to play on, and most importantly, pair you against a team of similar skill as yours. All of this could be done without leaving the game.

To achieve this in COD4, the process involves using third party applications. To begin with you first have to find a team of five guys to play against. This can be done in a variety of ways, all of which are relatively easy, yet can be annoying, and a hassle. One option is you could find an IRC channel with people looking for a competitive game. Another option is to join an Xfire group with people looking for games. From either of these options you could now begin contacting other groups to inquire about a game.

Once you have found another group of five to play the next step is to agree on the setup of the game. Here are a few examples of things that will have to be agreed upon:

1.) Which competition mod are you going to use (PAM4 or Promod)

2.) Who’s server are you going to play on (Hopefully one of the teams has one)

3.) Which game type are you going to play (Search & Destroy, Sabotage, Domination, etc…)

4.) Which rule set to use

5.) Which side do you want to start on (For example: Offense or Defense in Promod)

Once you agree on all of this, there is still no guarantee that the team you’re going to be paired up against will be similar in talent/skill as yours. So after the time you have already wasted you now could end up with a game that isn’t competitive.

You might also have noticed that all of this assumes you already know about things like Promod and rule sets. As you could probably guess this isn’t exactly common knowledge. Unless you’re a hardcore gamer, you’re unlikely to know about these types of things. As a result this barrier eliminates the casual group of gamers from having a competitive game. Instead you’re stuck pubbing, which over time gets old.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating getting rid of a system like the one in place in COD4. As a competitive COD4 player I completely understand the need for a system like COD4’s. Obviously it allows flexibility and gives you the opportunity to play exactly what you want. This helps facilitate all types of leagues, ladders and tourneys. Instead I am suggesting that matchmaking needs to be offered simply as an option. Don’t require gamers to use it, but they should be able to use it if they want.

I am also fully aware of some of the flaws in a matchmaking system. Three of the biggest complaints of matchmaking are:

1.) Wait time for a matchmaking game.

I understand the wait time in a matchmaking system can be annoying at times. Due to the nature of matchmaking, the system has to find you a suitable opponent to play, as a result you can sometimes have to wait for it to find you a competitive game. I would say that nine times out of ten the wait time is still going to be much shorter than the time it takes you to find a competitive game in games without matchmaking. Also you don’t actively have to do anything in finding a match made game because it’s all done for you. All you have to do is simply click a button and the system takes care of the rest. Also, because this is handled by the system, it’s much easer for the casual gamer to get involved.

2.) Ranking system flaws.

Another complaint of matchmaking is that people often abuse the ranking system. A game like Halo 2 would actually rank you based on how you performed in these competitive games (also known as ranked games). So players who abused the system would actually look better than they actually were. To that I can say two things:

a.) Rank is overrated. People who overly concern themselves with their rank are usually scrubs anyhow. The best players/teams prove who the best is by playing in the top tourneys and leagues/ladders.

b.) In games were your rank is good for something other than bragging rights (e.g. World of Warcraft), the matchmaking system is actually watching for people abusing the system. When they are found they are banned. Also a company like Blizzard (the developers of World of Warcraft) is constantly tweaking the system to handle new exploits in the ranking system. So as matchmaking has evolved it has got much better at ranking players.

3.) Lack of options

This is precisely why I am not advocating getting rid of more traditional ways of finding matches like the one we have in games like COD4. I see matchmaking as more of a feature that every game should have, but by no means should it be the only way to find competitive games.

Even if matchmaking has flaws I still think it’s a great feature. It’s convenient, adds a ton of re-playability to any multiplayer game, and makes competition easier for the casual gamer. If you have experienced a great matchmaking system like Halo 2 you know how addictive it can be. All too often in my Halo 2 days I would find myself saying "Just one more game". Three hours later its early morning and I have to get up for class or work in the morning. Those were the days…

If you think I am crazy for demanding this in games, tell that to Phil Spencer, the Head of Game Development for Microsoft Game Studios. He understands the power and has been quoted as wanting it for all Xbox 360 games. We as PC gamers need to get on board and start demanding this in upcoming titles. As the saying goes, "Don’t knock it until you try it". Once you have played a game with matchmaking its hard to imagine a game without it.

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