View From the Road

A View From the Road: Matchmaker, Matchmaker...

John Funk | 22 Mar 2010 17:00
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Last week, my esteemed colleague Greg Tito wrote about Rob Pardo discussing the matchmaking in the upcoming StarCraft II, during which he mentioned that the system might actually be "too good." In fact, the developers were considering purposefully adding some leeway and randomness into the matchmaker to make it less precise, resulting in a situation where players would occasionally play against opponents who were either more or less skilled than they were.

Why in the name of John D. Carmack would anyone want that?

I can understand Pardo's point: after a good hour or so of intense and evenly-matched games of StarCraft II, I can feel exhausted and drained. StarCraft's speedy nature means that there's very little breathing room; you need to be on the ball and preparing your defenses while trying to outthink and predict your opponent's moves from the moment the game starts until the final Victory or Defeat screen.

But that's precisely what makes the game so great. It's exhilarating, and StarCraft II is easily at its best when you're playing someone of equal skill. I've found that the matchmaker in place right now works extremely well, and even if I've been in games where I couldn't win, I've never noticed it. Every game feels like I could win. If I just hadn't done X, or if I'd done Y, or if I'd properly seized on opportunity Z when I'd seen it - victory never feels like it's completely out of my grasp. That's either the triumph of the matchmaker thus far, or extraordinarily deceptive game design.

So then, if the matchmaking works so well, why change it? Is there something particularly wrong with players feeling exhausted after an intense gaming session? Can't they just, y'know, take a break? On Friday, Shamus Young offered his own take on the issue, raising some very good points about why a system based on matchmaking would have fragmented the community of Unreal Tournament. I can't argue with his conclusions there, but there's one problem: StarCraft II isn't an FPS.

Nor is StarCraft II a fighting game, a racing game, or any other game where playing somebody vastly more skilled than you can actually be a more entertaining experience than playing someone at your level. I completely understand the desire to test your prowess against someone better than you in these genres, but I wouldn't want to apply that same mindset that I have while playing Team Fortress 2 or Street Fighter IV to a game like StarCraft. This has nothing to do with the quality of the games in question; the conventions of their respective genres are just different.

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