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 Battle.net 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.
In TF2 or SF4, losing is a temporary setback at best. Taking a bullet to the face or getting hit by a combo is a minor loss, because you’ll respawn a few seconds later and the combo has to end sometime, giving you another shot at things. It’s a series of small defeats that leads to a greater loss, but alongside these small defeats come small victories. You feel a sense of pride when you manage to get a kill on the enemy – even if he’s outshooting you 10-to-1. It feels good when you finally block that “unbeatable” combo and connect in retaliation. Those minor victories and defeats are present in an evenly matched game of StarCraft, but nine times out of ten, a loss against a clearly superior player is going to involve one quick and decisive slash at your base: One attack, one kill, game over.
It’s harder to learn from constant defeat in a game like StarCraft than in TF2, because the genre deliberately obscures your enemy from view. I can see what my SF4 opponent is doing at all times, and there are only so many places from which to shoot a man in TF2, but SC2 is overwhelmingly complex. How did he have six Marines when I barely had four Zerglings? What was he doing right, and what was I doing wrong? The game tries to be helpful and break these things down to teach you how to improve, but it can only do so much.
But even more important than that – since decisive defeats in StarCraft can happen so early in the game – it can sometimes feel like you haven’t seen the full depth of the game. Matches between players of equal skill often end in epic fights with fleets of the highest-tech units duking it out, but games against more skilled players tend to result in your utter annihilation when you only had a handful of basic units. It’d be like ending every game of Street Fighter before you even had access to the Hadoken.
Of course, as Shamus argued, it’s not a bad thing to let people have control over who they play with, and that’s absolutely true. That’s why the StarCraft matchmaker is only for its ranked Ladder system. You’ve got your in-game friends and easy ways to set up Parties and play matches with them. You’ve got the Custom Game browser back from WarCraft III, and judging by its current implementation there’ll be no shortage of matches to choose from. We haven’t even seen what the developer is looking to do with clans yet. So with all of these non-matchmaker options to choose from that’ll provide a more random experience to those people who want it, then why would you ever want to take an excellent matchmaker and make it worse?
John Funk needs to spawn more Overlords.