Matchmaking in Online Competitive Games

With Modern Warfare 3 out, I’m back into the crazy world of non-ranked matchmaking.  My match can involve a group of players with ten times my in-game experience.  Frustrating at first, playing against these skilled players eventually feels satisfying when I start to catch up.  I don’t think I’ve ever come in first place, but I have fun.  Beyond that, it’s hard to justify the lack of skill-based matchmaking.  I thought it might make sense to make a breakdown:

ELO-style Matching

In games like Starcraft 2 or WoW’s Arena, you have a rating that goes up and down depending on your wins and losses.  Beat a high rank opponent, gain a lot of points.  Beat a lower ranked opponent, gain few points.  Similar things when you lose.  I’ve played several games with this system, and most matches are tough but winnable.  It can be a excellent in one on one matches, but it can be a bit more frustrating to lose rating points because of an underperforming teammate.

Join-A-Server Matches

In most old school FPS games, you look at a list of player-run servers and pick one to join.  You could even save favorite servers and revisit them frequently.  Back in the day, I used to join the same Quake 3 server running a mod I liked.  I got to know the people there and had a good idea of where my skill was in relation to everyone else.  Apart from that, this is a complete random assortment with all the pitfalls therein.

Level-Based Matching

In unranked League of Legends matches or in several fighting games like Street Fighter 4, your account gains levels primarily just increases.  The more you play, the higher your level and the harder your matches will be.  If you play enough, you can eventually level yourself out of having a competitive chance.

Mode-Based Selection

The only selection involved in games like Modern Warfare comes from picking the game mode.  Hardcore modes will attract mostly high skilled players, whereas large team games invite newer players.  This does keep some of the more exotic modes from being reasonable for players.

Conclusion – Benefits of Non-Ranked Matching

The downside of skill-based matching is that it requires a large pool of players constantly starting new games.  If there are only 400 players playing a game and a match takes 10 players and lasts 20 minutes, it will take time to match enough players even ignoring skill parameters.  Adding in skill ranking and trying to match within certain constrains would add more delays.  For an action-packed game like MW3, maybe skipping matchmaking is actually the best idea.