The “skill-based matchmaking” backlash

I came across a Washington Post article from May of this year that presented a nice summary of the simmering backlash against “skill-based matchmaking” (SBMM), and it became a good writing prompt for me to organize my thoughts on the topic.

I think most players will agree that matchmaking is one of the biggest benefits of modern online games – versus local multiplayer (be it physical board games, arcade halls or pre-Internet PC/console games) – the promise of an infinite number of players ready to play with you, and conveniently at (almost) any time and (almost) anywhere. “Skill-based” is simply the common default prioritization of the matchmaking algorithm, and it stems from a very utilitarian argument – all else being equal, and taking the long-term view (assuming that the players want to play the game repeatedly), putting players of approximately equal-skill together in a match will output the most satisfaction / happiness (utility) of all players combined.1

What makes matchmaking not live up to its promise in reality (from players’ eyes) is due to various factors that it cannot fully accommodate:

  • At the extremes of the player-base distribution, the player population is small enough that matchmaking eventually inevitably great concessions to find a match. (Even with widened search parameters, a top-ranked League of Legends player could still wait upwards of an hour to find a game.)
  • The player ratings used for matchmaking may be grossly inaccurate due to fake new accounts (“smurfing”). It’s not just the streamers in the Washington Post article that want to play against lower-skill opponents, so that they can put on flashy plays – many people create new accounts to do exactly this.
  • It’s impossible to know (and account for) player intent in advance – is the player looking to climb the ranked ladder tonight, checking out a newly released hero, or just wanting to let off some steam with friends? There is also the synergy or mismatch of play-styles that could tilt an apparently fair match.
  • Similarly, random events during the game, such as a network spike or ill-timed phone call could easily derail the outcome.

To make matters worse (from the perspective of understanding how skill is measured and represented), it is now common for developers to intentionally distort the ranked ladder system by infusing it with a progression element. The Hearthstone ranked system is a great example of this2: aside from the very highest Legends rank, the system is inflationary in terms of stars output, so with enough games played, most players would naturally be rising up through the ranks. This would be what the Washington Post article referred to as “engagement-optimization”, at the macro-sense: players can make progress through sheer effort, not improved skill, and thus it encouraged more play. Most players would probably agree that this is a worthy trade-off – the added sense of progression feels better, whether they realize what’s going on or not – but it further obfuscates the conversation around “skill” (and thus SBMM).

Unfortunately, the Internet has been great at fostering conspiracy theories on all kinds of topics, and SBMM is no exception. Last year I was quite saddened reading some of the Chinese gamer discourse around League of Legends: Wild Rift (since I worked on it for a number of years) – there was a lot of griefing towards the ranked matchmaking, and players were vividly describing all sorts of scenarios (to avoid) where they were adamant that the system would “reward” you with a soul-crushing lose-streak.

It’s also worth noting the likely general player fatigue with SBMM, now that it is so prevalent. Players know that this is a PVP “treadmill”, and some may be less interested in the grind (and would rather seek more novel experiences).

Thankfully, there are already some design or technical breakthroughs that can break the convention here. For starters, PVP games with asymmetrical designs – PUBG‘s last man standing setup, or Dead by Daylight‘s 1v4 approach – already break the dreaded “50% win-rate” expectation, and the Battle Royale formula has rapidly become a staple game mode across many genres.

A second, and (to some) more controversial approach, is the utilization of bots – as in, pretending that the player is facing other real players, when in fact they are playing against bots – to help with “engagement optimization”. For example, when a player is on a losing streak (and perhaps predicted to be at higher risk of churning), games like Honor of Kings will give players a fake PVP game (all players on the opposing team are bots) to break the streak. The fact that this is obviously a bot game does not seem to bother most players – they might make fun of the game (and in doing so feel smart about themselves, as they can see through the facade), but a win is still a win, and breaking the streak certainly helps with reducing “tilting”/”inting”.

Some developers probably frown at this practice – it feels like lying, and breaking some sort of an implicit promise made to players that the matches will be fair and that of course you are playing against real players. I used to be in this camp – now I’m a lot more relaxed about this topic; I’d say now that this is contextual and there’s probably broad upside in utilizing bots. There are plenty of games where bots are demonstrably better than humans – in go, or chess, bots have long been able to beat even the best human players. So in theory, there should be plenty of opportunity (even if strictly for “engagement optimization”) to widely utilize bots to provide the “perfect” match for human players, with bots as partners or opponents. This has the side benefit of solving the “cold start” or “minimum viable player-base” problem for new games; combined with asymmetrical designs like Battle Royale, even mediocre bots can greatly alleviate the matchmaking needs without breaking the immersion for players3.

  1. Before the advent of matchmaking, players had to somehow manually discover other players to play with, often via waiting in public game lobbies (where one can host/join games). In these circumstances the friction to get a game going was high enough that players gladly overlooked the quality of the match – I’ve sat through many lopsided games of DotA, and my Counterstrike days mostly consisted of rounds of fy_iceworld rather than the “real” defuse mode.
  2. It is by no means the only game that does this – its implementation just happens to be very transparent.
  3. As a thought exercise – the average player in PUBG probably only encounters 1-5 other players in a typical game – given the typically mid-long engagement distance, and the size of the map, players probably couldn’t easily discern bots (unless they had very obvious behavioral patterns) even if there were 90 bots to 10 real players.

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