Once upon a time, in February 2004, I embarked on a journey into the vast world of Azeroth, knowing little about just how long my stay there would last. I did not start this adventure alone, no – I brought my trusted tank with me, so he would be my shield on the battlefield. You know, it’s such jolly good fun to play the game with your RL friends and family. Such an advantage too for leveling up together.
Let me tell you that none of this is true. I’ve been there done that and while I still love them all (most of the time, anyway) “playing with teh friends&family” is vastly overrated. What’s saying that what clicks in most areas, needs to work for all? Sometimes it’s better NOT to share every hobby together!
Now, my partner and I have hugely different gamer profiles to begin with and a completely different history when it comes to genre. Playing WoW as long as he did (vanilla raiding) was a bit of a freak accident as far as his FPS and RTS heart is concerned. When he nicked my beta account though, I figured he needed a key of his own – and why should we not play together? Truth be told, we had some epic laughs in those first weeks and months when the game was very young. However, we also realized rather quickly that we were erm….not meant to do much questing together. Or anything much outside a raid really. Some ideas only work on paper – and some I gladly let go of in favor of a peaceful relationship.
I’m exaggerating of course, but not by much. There’s such a thing as opposing playstyles and oh, we haz them! Although you’d think a holypriest and furywarrior are the perfect leveling match (and we really looked great on paper), our adventures together would develop like this within a few minutes:
B: Where did you wander off to, now?? I am still fighting here!
Syl: I was just gonna talk to that NPC!
B: Great, now I’m dying!
Syl: Why do you always have to pull everything? We don’t need to clear everything here!
B: It’s faster, it’s money, it’s loot, it’s EXP!
Syl: We get more EXP and gold from actually pursuing the questline!
B: AAuGgh…..&%!*”!/%ç – Can you rez me?!
Syl: No I can’t! There are respawns here now and I just took a boat to check out the other side of the river!
B: I hate this shit!
Syl: …..did you loot the staff at least?
B: What staff??
Syl: You were supposed to pick up the staff from the boss we killed. For the quest!
B: I hate this shit!
….From there the bickering would continue, an equally frustrating experience for both sides. Some people claim that what happens ingame stays ingame (lol), but I’m sure that many of you who have played together with a partner or person they live with, will know how quickly a foul mood can spread from the screen into the living room……..(Right?) As silly as such arguments might be, they can wear you down when you were supposed to wind down. No thanks, not worth it. You can still play the game together without playing it together.
Why good matchmaking changes everything
What this little anecdote shows in vivid colors is that gamer profiles matter. You can bring your best person to the game and it might still not work out in terms of cooperation. Now imagine this with strangers you’ve never met before and care about little: are you even surprised if a group falls apart?
We know how much good matchmaking can increase our fun in playing – to an extent where the boundaries between “people you like for themselves” and “people you like because it’s fun to play with them” become very fluid. Personally, I need both to wanna teamplay with somebody long-term. I strongly suspect too that I am not the only one out there who will only ever befriend a stranger in MMOs when my “basic playstyle check” is positive. After all, I’m not just here to socialize; I’m here to vanquish and conquer, arrr!
Funny enough, it works the other way around too: our tolerance to do “boring content” will increase if we’re doing it with or for certain people. As long as it’s not all the time, mind; our profiles don’t have to be a 100% match, but they need to be similar enough.
One logic answer to the matchmaking dilemma in MMOs are guilds. The guy who only wants to “roleplay” in Deeprun Tram, the gal who wants to clear every raidboss on hardmode – they can find a suitable place for themselves as long as they aren’t hoping to stay together. The more transparent a guild will make its goals and requirements, the better. Not to say that everyone in a guild always gets along brilliantly on a personal level heh, but you have a few fundamental hurdles out of the way, at least.
Still, a lot of cooperation fails in MMOs, inside guilds and outside. Blizzard reacted to grouping issues by implementing meeting stones and later the dungeon finder, by cross-server grouping and arena rank matchmaking. Oh yes, and such joy did people find in LFG….We’re provided with groups fast now maybe, but in terms of quality, or rather matching our intents and purposes, WoW has not solved any issues, no matter how tanks are getting bribed. Even the arena matchmaking is poor (and there you’d think it’s relatively easy).
What to do here? MMOs are all about cooperation, so this is a big deal. Considering where things are going in this genre, there will only be more MMO players in the future and many more people playing solo and casual, therefore relying on spontaneous grouping.
It was Tesh who called my attention to this issue in recent design debates: what if many current player grievances are not so much about a lack of variety and dynamic content etc., but a lack of matchmaking tools first and foremost?
The challenge that is matchmaking
I’ve thought about possible ways to create matchmaking on a “quality level” in MMOs and frankly I find it difficult. How do you make good intentions work in practice where so many individual and conflicting factors coincide? For a moment, I had this image in my mind of a person filling out ten tedious pages of personal questionnaire at a dating agency, just so the likelihood of meeting the right partner increases by 1%.
Luckily, finding the perfect MMO “date” is not quite as complex. We’re not looking to find prince or princess charming to get married with kids after all. However, there are various external and intrinsic factors determining every player’s outlook, goals and preferences and while the game can do little about external circumstances, it can try and bring people together who have the same purpose and playstyle for a specific activity. Chances are, if you end up in a group a little more tailored to yourself, you will add one of them to your friendlist rather than your ignorelist.
One obvious solution could be to add more search parameters to LFG tools. In addition to asking for roles and dungeon mode, offer check boxes for things like “speed run”, “achievement run”, “casual/fun run” and so forth. Maybe even allow players to create their own criteria. But then, how do you avoid misunderstandings? How do you prevent a casual run from translating into a lol-fail run for somebody? Does a speed run include content skipping? So, I wonder how much this really solves; and how many questions does the average player want to go through in order to join a group, anyway? How do you prevent freeloaders? It also raises a question about how restrictive parameters should be – would you like to see “GGG?” among them?
Another option might actually be a detailed personal profile you must fill out at the character / menu screen, maybe even per toon. Have the game store this intel towards any future matchmaking, similar to how some MMOs will ask for individual history or attributes when creating your character. Maybe run a refined version of the Bartle test even? I think you could do worse.
No matter what you come up with, there’s still the issue of numbers: how do you handle profiles that won’t correspond with enough available players? This strikes me as the biggest dilemma. If the system cannot find a match, it will go for the next best or random match. Before you know it, you’re back with GOGOGO-guy, the rogue looking for a particular achievement and the two mages who only came in to look at the tapestry. True story. /doom
I clearly lack imagination in this area, so please help me out: How could future MMOs implement a smart way of player matchmaking, without doing more harm than good? Any suggestions? Also: would you even want features as the above mentioned – or should we rather go back to good old, simple general chat grouping? Maybe I am over-thinking this.
To finish, two fun links
I am convinced that there is a lot of untapped potential for matchmaking in MMOs; not just on a grouping level, but content in general. Far too often do we mistake general design issues or errors with an actual lack of matchmaking / successful grouping opportunities. The discussion leaves a lot of questions though and at this point I cannot quite conjure up enough ideas that might stand the test of time and practice. To be fair, if it was such an easy undertaking, somebody would have succeeded by now. At the end of the day, no matter how intelligent the system is, a lot still comes down to social skills and communication between individuals.
Matchmaking, I look forward to see more of you! I am sure you can provide much in terms of more enjoyable, individual experiences but also cooperation in MMOs. Some oddly hilarious encounters too maybe, once the system “fails”(?)
Unfortunately you won’t be able to solve my initial, most pressing issue here: what can we do if our playstyle and our partner’s simply won’t match? Oh, well – some frustrating or silly experiences still make for fun memories in retrospective. Maybe even the best (yes, that’s us in that video!). A little disaster here and there lets us remember and appreciate the really smooth runs. And also how much it matters to have good company with you, nevermind how bad things are going.