Thoughts on Multiplayer and Matchmaking
More streamlined matchmaking equals a less meaningful social experience.
Matchmaking allows for a much higher number of unique inputs, but many games that use it lack any meaningful social aspect, since there’s no actual teamwork required. There’s no real strategy, just general patterns to follow. There are no real shared stakes. Show up and hit Triangle to win. Playing alone together. Multiplayer solitaire.
Maybe these aren’t the goals of matchmaking systems, but matching only for the sake of increasing the variability, and therefore the opportunity for a unique experience may not necessarily increase the quality of those experiences. From Lisa Steenson’s essay in The Kobold Guide to Board Game Design: “Being able to influence the actions or position of your fellow players lends to the social experience of playing a game.” Without that ability to influence other players, they just become variable inputs, a shortcut for game developers to increase the randomness of gameplay.
Monster Hunter is a reasonable example of this phenomenon. Monster Hunter has a 3-cart rule (when you faint, the local felynes unceremoniously roll you back to camp on a rickety cart and dump you on the ground), but the stakes are a lot lower in the latest installment, Monster Hunter World. Since people can join and leave a quest at will with no penalty, it’s far more anonymous. At least in the older Monster Hunters you had to join a room (whose size was limited to the maximum number of players on a quest) before the quest started and you could assess the other players and they you (albeit sometimes unfairly or arbitrarily) before starting a quest. While this arguably made it harder for inexperienced players to find quests to join, it made the experience better for those wishing to form cohesive teams and succeed.
Monster Hunter World has streamlined teaming up and avoided (mostly) the power-brokering tendencies of “elite” players rejecting team-seekers based on their own biased equipment filter, but this comes at the cost of being able to (semi-reliably) form cohesive units of players that actually has a meaningful impact on the play experience.
Perhaps basing admittance on a player’s equipment alone has a reasonable correlation (but not causation) to a player’s performance, but (properly tiered) equipment mostly provides situational or marginal bonuses, and is largely meaningless in the face of a lack of skill. Players will actually perform quests with no gear at all to prove their mastery of the game (there’s even an event quest which will not allow you to join unless you’ve removed everything but your weapon.)
But we are pattern-matching machines, so we wrap situations in patterns we’ve formed to make gut-check assessments that are generally pretty accurate, so maybe this approach has merit.
Another example that comes to mind are World of Warcraft’s Heroics and later Raid matching systems (my opinions here are largely outdated; my last sojourn into Azeroth was immediately after the Cataclysm, when I had a cataclysm of my own in the form of a deluge of diapers and bottles.)
World of Warcraft at least had slap-on-the-wrist penalties for bailing on a quest and restrictions on who could join in the first place. The penalties were time-based and not very effective, and the join restrictions were based on gateway quests (that were generally hard to fail, and were mostly legwork, let’s be honest) and gear score.
This forces the game design down a path where that score actually has to mean something, doesn’t it? It requires a reduction of the qualities that define skill into something we can measure. It’s the pattern-matching, gut-check problem again. It’s like scoring someone’s writing and subjective opinions with a number-based system. You have to abstract past all of the indefinable elements that make something truly good to fit it into your metric.
Still, strategy was based largely around expectations. You were expected to have already memorized the entire heroic or raid, and know exactly what to do without any coaching, strategy discussion, or much communication at all. There was no room for the joy of learning. We were there to do our jobs and get paid with shiny, phat loots (the shininess phatness of said loots was also generally up for debate).
There was even a standing joke for one particular weekly raid, which was just a few token trash monsters and a single boss. People termed it “The Loot Pinata”. Basically, show up and press triangle to win. The encounter was simplistic, designed so a group of randoms could down it with reasonable success rates.
Maybe all of this is actually just good marketing and design and I’m on the outside looking in and feeling left out, but for me, lowering the stakes for entry always correlates to a lowering of the quality of gameplay.