On Matchmaking in MMOs (and Bartle)

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.

Yeah, riiiiiight!

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: ……………………
Syl: You were supposed to pick up the staff from the boss we killed. For the quest!
B: I hate this shit!
Syl: *SIGH*

….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.


  1. You two sound a lot like how my wife and I quest. I’ll read quest text, but I do so on the way to the quest location. My wife, though, stands and reads it, then forgets what we’re doing by the time we get there.

    Just recently, we were leveling around K3 and got he quest to get a bomb from the dispenser and go blow up a mammoth. We both were zig zagging look for mammoths to blow up as the counter was ticking down, and I finally found one, swooped down, and blew it to smithereens. She found her own and swooped down… and didn’t know what to do. “Just click the bomb in your inventory!” I pressed, since I knew the timer was getting low.

    “What bomb?”

    “The one you picked up!”


    “Did you get a bomb from the dispenser?”

    “What dispenser?”

    You get the point. While I can usually laugh and shrug it off, it has led to some hilarious in-jokes and teasing with my group of friends. One particular joke came from a time when my wife was standing right next to a quest giver but simply could not see him. She kept asking what guy we were talking about, and we kept saying, “He’s right there!” but to no avail. Now, when someone can’t find something, we usually ask her where it is.

    I’ll have to have her take the test and see where she turns up. My guess is Achiever high, explorer / socializer mid, and killer low. We’ll see.

  2. I’m sure there’s a lot the game could do in terms of profiling players based on their in-game actions without having to pop up a questionnaire. Once we start playing, what we’re doing isn’t a big secret most of the time.

    But, yes, you’re also overthinking it. No matter how good a dating site’s matchmaking is, there are always things to be negotiated once you meet in person. And that doesn’t stop once you get married. Avoiding an obvious mismatch at the start is important but it’s not enough to ensure the best kind of experience.

    I wish Blizz put some effort into it.

  3. @B

    Haha, it’s nice to hear more examples like ours! it will be very interesting to check what profile your wife is, might answer some questions here and there.
    The thing is, we are not only like that when we’re questing, grocery shopping is a very similar ordeal – hence the high home delivery bill! 😛

    So do I! you’re very right of course, the last and most important step in the chain remain social interaction and “chemistry” even – no matchmaking can influence that. there’s potential here though in “rough pre-selection” at least, when it comes to finding like-minded players for a pickup group etc.
    they’ve really not done much yet in that area – I wonder if there could even be smart software whereby the system “learns” a player’s behaviour and playstyle etc. and adapts his profile dynamically. probably not, but it’s an intriguing thought.

    Oh and negotiation sure doesn’t stop at marriage – for all I know that’s where the fun’s only just beginning! 😉

  4. I like your partner’s catchphrase. “B: I hate this shit!”

    As for me, I enjoy the bickering, and has a friend who did too. We leveled a hunter/rogue combo and it came with some interesting challenges…

    Me: Where did you go?
    G: I’m over here, I saw a locked box. Come on over.
    Me: There’s like 8 ogres in the way!
    G: Oh, you’ll be fine.”
    Me: Not everyone has stealth, damnit!
    G: Use that invisibility potion I gave you.
    Me: You gave that to me at level 20. In WAILING CAVERNS.
    G: …n00b.

    As much as I would love a larger set of parameters on the LFD, I have a hunch not many people would use them. If you’re running into impatient asshats in a random dungeon, chances are they would be too impatient to fill out a 3 question survey on what they want in the dungeon.

  5. Believe me, that phrase gets old really fast when you hear it 10 times per minute! 😛

    LOL@invis potion…do people even use those for anything? I don’t recall I ever did. bickering has its rightful place, I absolutely agree with you there, hehe!

  6. Great post! I guess I’m lucky, my partner and I share general gaming style so we don’t have big disagreements when we play on what to do. Though I do wish I could wean him off WoW sometime soon… 😉

    This makes me think of DDO in the pre F2P Euro service days. The LFG tool was much better than WoW’s anyway as it showed the quest/instances people wanted to do and what classes they wanted to join – with a notes box for extra info. This box was very useful as you could add ‘speed run’, ‘RP only’, ‘first timer – no spoilers’ etc to the general grouping details.

    It’s a shame no other game has thought to copy that concept across, if players used it at least I could avoid any zerg-groups.

  7. @Copernicus
    I see…ever considered just playing classic console or PC RPGs maybe?

    Cheers! That sounds interesting about DDO, I’ve never played it myself. I wondered whether such info boxes would be read, to be honest – many players just strike me as too lazy to even care. but maybe that’s a wrong impression.

  8. The best leveling partner I had leveled with me from 60-70 in TBC, and it was a blast. The worst leveled with me for six quests before I politely excused myself.

    “Can you wait five minutes, I’m just going to check online what we are supposed to do for this quest..”

    Die in a fire!

  9. The first part of your post did open my mind to the ‘other side’. Mean, I’ve always been a solo player, due to the lack of anyone to play with, but always strived to jump in with a group. I feel a balance of the two is great. However, I can see how some ‘gamer profiles’ don’t match that kind of play. Though you do make a very valid point; ‘you don’t have to play side-by-side to be playing together’.

    “our tolerance to do “boring content” will increase if we’re doing it with or for certain people” – I agree with this. I always fight for a accomplice to complete dailies with!

    Also, the part about guild intentions. I think this is where each guild should have it’s intentions and goals clearly stated, and players joining should know what they want as well. That was it at least creates a starting point where members have a better chance of finding even ground, in terms of playstyle and such.

    If I am completely honest, I think LFD and such pulled the community ,and the value of working together, apart. Now there’s less reason for many players to join a guild and build relationships and so on.

    – Jamin

  10. I think game design could filter people. Take Bartle as the starting point (and assuming killer is a subset of achiever) and design around socializers first. Experiment with zone design and game mechanics to see what maximizes socializer chatter. Add distractions which are fun but have no practical game benefit. Socializers should end up spending most of their time in those zones and end up in social guilds who go through the content – when they get round to it – in a fairly casual way.

    The games have pretty much honed what achievers like so you then wrap your linked quest-chains or equivalent around the socializer hubs. The achievers won’t spend (waste in their view) any time on the distractions as long as they don’t have achiever-useful rewards – very important – so all the achievers will be filtered into following the levelling.

    Lastly explorer zones can be added which are deliberately sub-optimal from an achiever point of view which filters out all but explorers.

    So city-starter-hub zones designed to get socializers spending 2/3 of their time there. Quest zones in a circular pattern around the city-starter-hub with all the quest-chains where achievers spend 2/3 of their time. The combined city + quest zones create a macro-hub for each starting race and are connected together by large explorer zones with scattered content you have to find yourself where the explorers spend 2/3 of their time.

    In reality i think the types have more sub-divisions but that’s a simple start.

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