April 2020

Bad game design choices: Matchmaking

I was not sure, if I should write an article about this one, since I already covered it partly in my previous blog post "The dumbing down of games", but I think for completeness sake I will write a more detailed article about why matchmaking is a bad game design choice.

In the "Dumbing down of games" I made a list how games were in the past and how they are now and a big part was the matchmaking. I played a lot of multiplayer games and the common theme among them was the server browser where you could see the whole list of all game servers there are so you could freely chose where to join. What did the game designers in the past do? They exposed the whole interface to the user, so the user had 100% control about where he would play, what he would play and with whom he would play. For example:
Want to play a certain map, gamemode, play in a certain location, play a certain mod, play with certain people etc everything was easily possible, just set the filter in the server browser and you get exactly what you wanted. Then I made a list on how games work now and to make it short regarding matchmaking, almost everything is now gone, everything is just the matchmaking system, which is supposed to be an intelligent algorithm to give you a good experience, but in truth, it is mostly just random, which means, the user has almost no methods to influence to get what he wants, the computer is deciding that for him.

Let me make another analogy for why this is stupid, imagine you buy a car, but you cannot chose which gear you are driving in, the car decides what gear to put in, so if you are lucky you got the right gear for the route, if not you are screwed. Or imagine there is also a navigation system build in, but you cannot influence it, it just picks a random route for you and if you do not follow it, you are screwed. Your only choice may be to reset so it will pick another random option. Well probably a bad analogy, but I wanted to show how retarded it would be in reality to remove options the user has and replace it all with random. I could make up countless of analogies about this, but lets look at a real example.

Recently a friend complained to me about a game he plays, that since there is only matchmaking, he cannot pick to play the map he likes, he has to wait for it to randomly show up. That is an example how the user has been idiotified or whatever you want to call it. The user is forced to endure things he does not like in hope to eventually play something he likes. Imagine the boss telling the game designer to make the design intentionally bad so to torture the customer, this is literally bad game design on purpose. I don't really know why this is done, but I have some ideas, one is that the user will be grateful when he finally gets what he wanted randomly, kind of the same effect as gambling, where you only get to win rarely and randomly.

In the past games or software was designed to give the customer always what he wanted, make him happy 100% of the time, which sounds kind of logical, since if you design something, you want to make it as good as possible and server the user as good as possible. Now this seemed to have been changed into torturing the user as much as possible, while still keeping him hooked. This could be used to maximise playtime, since the user who gets what he wants 100% of the time, may quit the game much sooner, since he already got what he wanted, now imagine a user only getting what he wants 10% of the time, he has to play 10 times longer in order to get the same amount of what he wanted as the previous design, kind of genius.

In the past the software served the user, now it seems to be that the user has to serve the software in hope for a random reward from the software god. The service is investing more time and the reward is eventually getting what you want.

I also have another clue why matchmaking gets more and more implemented and even games that did not have it before getting it, while also removing the classic server browser. The reason is probably that with matchmaking or removing free choice, you enable all the other bad game design choices to work better, which in turn will get more profit. How is this done? Well imagine a game with cosmetics, medals, prestige or plain pay2win, the user has to be forced to play on an even (random) playing field, to show off his cosmetics, prestige or pay2win items and humiliate other players, which then in turn will also invest money to counter that. A large part of the bad game design choices I list will not work or work worse, if the user had the control over the game. For example, if you only play on the same server with the same friends, there is no need to show off your cosmetics or pay2win, since those people already know you and you also will not get humiliated by stronger players, because you already know the others. Yes sure having a nice skin etc is nice to show off to your friends, but if you control the environment as a user the motivation is much less. If then also the server is modded and controlled by some other friend or private person, the whole pay2win etc systems could even be totally turned off and THIS is probably the main reason such things as matchmaking were introduced.

When I was still gaming more I remember playing on a custom server in a time where there was still cosmetics/pay2win in the game, but no forced matchmaking and that custom server would unlock all the stuff to you that was normally paid, plus even more cool features, all for free. So I think this whole list of bad game design choices are part of a bigger crusade against the user, to remove the power from the user in order to make more profit. Think about it, if the user controls the software, why should he pay money for certain features or virtual items? If the user controls the software, he can do and have anything, anytime, anywhere as much as he wants, he is completely fulfilled and he does not need to pay money to give him fulfillment and this is what corporations do not like, since they want to make money and ever more money.

So I think observing the matchmaking boom is one of the essential missing links to put the whole picture together. First I only wanted to just write a more detailed article about why matchmaking is so bad, but now I see that it all seems to lead to a bigger picture. The bigger picture is the trend of enslaving the user more and more, changing from the user controls the software to the software controls the user and this is not about open source or free software, since even with proprietary software in the past you had much more control about what you could do as a user. The old modding scene back in the days for example was all on proprietary games, it was more or less illegal, but it was tolerated and nobody cared since the game designer also profited from it in some way. Open source software only helps you in being able to better study the source code and being able to legally redistribute your modifications, but the open source part is not even that essential.

There are further control methods needed to control the user other than the software just being proprietary, the software, in this case games have to be designed to not have many options, so closed source or not, the user has no choice anyway, combine that with controlled game servers and the control is pretty good already. Sure user could hack the game, hack the servers and play on their own, but even if they succeed, they will fail, since they would have to play in their own hacked realm, which gives a bad experience, especially since it will be full of cheaters etc. I remember playing hacked games on hacked servers, but it was full of russians and cheaters and kind of a bad experience so it was not really worth it, especially as the game was already outdated.

So you are more or less forced to play the popular games legally on their official servers, otherwise you will not have a good experience, which then forces you to deal with matchmaking, which then forces you to deal with all the other pay2win etc bad game design things. Some people now might argue that this is good and leads to a better experience for people, but this is wrong, since the developers still often do not care to fix their bugs or cheaters inside the game, so as long as people are forced into their stupid design system, the developers no longer care if the customer is having a good experience or not. Also a nice bonus of matchmaking is that the customer has no way of telling how many servers or players there are, therefore he cannot tell if the game is popular or not and as long as he gets put in games with players, he will perceive the game as popular and full of players, even if some developers fill that up with bots that appear like real players.

Matchmaking alone is already torture or at least wastes your time, since your only method of influencing is to constantly re-roll the matchmaking, meaning quitting the game and joining again and again and again in hope you get what you want.

So as a conclusion you can see that matchmaking alone has the potential to make your gaming life into hell, but it also acts as a catalyst to enable other bad game design systems to work better or to work at all, like pay2win etc and the user may not even notice those bad effects, he may even be hellbanned alone in a world with bots and there will be hardly a way to tell if he is in a popular game with many other players or not, kind of evil genius if you think about it, but still bad game design.

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