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Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Often unnoticed, but never unfelt, matchmaking in multiplayer games forms the invisible core of our gaming experience. In the old days, happenstance determined the characteristics of our neighbors. Maybe one server was labeled “Recommended,” but for the most part players were left to their own devices. If you were lucky, you might discover that mythical “Good Server” which featured players with similar skill levels as yourself. If not, perhaps there was some means of at least balancing the teams occasionally, by forced shuffling or similar. Otherwise, players were left to “self-deport.”

Automated matchmaking has been around for a long time now; long enough to demonstrate both its virtues and its vices. The virtue is, of course, being intelligently matched based on a whole raft of heuristics. The vice meanwhile… is being maliciously matched based on those same heuristics. Gevlon has long warned about overt rigging of games for monetary profit, but we have truly crossed the Rubicon when Activision itself has submitted (in 2015) a patent specific to that purpose.

And it was granted a few weeks ago. Feel free to read the whole patent yourself.

Granted, it isn’t entirely an engine of evil. The patent covers a process in which matches are made on a variety of characteristics. For example:

In another example, if a player has been performing poorly (e.g., getting killed at a rate higher than the player’s historical rate), the scoring engine may dynamically adjust one or more coefficients to match the player in a game that will improve the player’s performance. For example, the player may be matched with easier opponents, matched with better teammates, and/or placed in a game that is more tailored to the player’s preferences (e.g., players that play in games more closely aligned with their preferences tend to perform better).

This sort of balancing matchmaking is not hypothetical – Supercell, makers of Clash Royale – have already admitted in a Reddit AMA last month that there is indeed a “losing streak” pool in which you are placed after X numbers of losses. Why Supercell thinks this is a particularly good idea in 2v2, I do not know. For every person who just happened to statistically fall into a losing streak (e.g. 50% win rate), there are many more who are losing because they are tilted, trying out new decks they have no experience with, and so on. Grouping people this way is a sure-fire method of condemning players to ELO Hell, until and unless they happen to be paired up with truly abysmal opponents. So, in this regard, I prefer Activision’s method of “correcting” winrates.

Of course, the problem with picking winners and losers is when you are selected to be the loser. For every time you are gifted strong teammates to help you out of a losing streak, your opponents are punished by withholding of the same. We all want fair fights, being matched not just on skill levels but progression level too. It’s cruel to have new Hearthstone players face people with dozens of Legendary cards, even if the impartial ladder states they are equivalent players. Actively sabotaging games, though? We want fair fights, but not like this.

That is not even the most nefarious part of this engine, though. The true evil arises in plain text, in an approved US patent application:

In one implementation, the microtransaction engine may target particular players to make game-related purchases based on their interests. For example, the microtransaction engine may identify a junior player to match with a marquee player based on a player profile of the junior player. In a particular example, the junior player may wish to become an expert sniper in a game (e.g., as determined from the player profile). The microtransaction engine may match the junior player with a player that is a highly skilled sniper in the game. In this manner, the junior player may be encouraged to make game-related purchases such as a rifle or other item used by the marquee player.

“Matched” in this case, largely reads as matched against. In other words, the matchmaking system will notice you choosing the sniper role, then placing a more-skilled sniper opponent with a P2W rifle on the other side, for the express purpose of “encouraging” you to also purchase the rifle. It is bad enough having P2W elements in a game generally, but here we have a mechanism by which it can specifically be rubbed in your face. On purpose. To get you to buy shit.

This level of evil is not Google reading your email and popping up ads for dandruff shampoo. This is Google sending Fabio to your workplace to specifically call out the dandruff on your shirt, in front of your coworkers.

Could things get any worse with this patent? Activision is asking you to hold their beer:

In one implementation, when a player makes a game-related purchase, the microtransaction engine may encourage future purchases by matching the player (e.g., using matchmaking described herein) in a gameplay session that will utilize the game-related purchase. Doing so may enhance a level of enjoyment by the player for the game-related purchase, which may encourage future purchases. For example, if the player purchased a particular weapon, the microtransaction engine may match the player in a gameplay session in which the particular weapon is highly effective, giving the player an impression that the particular weapon was a good purchase. This may encourage the player to make future purchases to achieve similar gameplay results.

There it is, ladies and gentlemen. Activision settled the debate. Because now even in scenarios in which in-game purchases don’t directly increase one’s power (e.g. naked P2W), it’s quite likely that a matchmaking engine engineers a scenario in which you are more likely to win. For having paid. So even “purely cosmetic” purchases can end up becoming de facto P2W.

And much like loot box reward odds, companies will obfuscate the inner workings of their matchmaking systems such that it will be impossible to know either way. Are we to just trust their word that no matchmaking shenanigans are taking place, when they otherwise have every possible economic incentive to do so? Activision is just the first company openly patenting the process, not the first company to use these methods. Who would actually go on record to admit it?

Patent

Actual diagram from the Activision patent.

Do you see now? Do you see it? This is precisely why you should be caring about Consumer Surplus; this is why you should be up in arms about gambling loot boxes; this is why you never act as an Apologist to a game (or any) company. There is a straight fucking line between Oblivion’s infamous horse armor and Activision (et al) literally patenting the rigging of games for cash. And that line is still going lower, and will continue to do so, until acted upon by an outside force.

We are nowhere close to bottom.

The days in which game companies made their money by selling more copies – and thus had every incentive to make the best possible game – is over. Voting with your wallet isn’t going to bring it back either; in the US, where money is speech, the voice of the guy spending $15,000 on Mass Effect 3 multiplayer loot boxes drowns out everyone else.

“You need to understand the amount of money that’s at play with microtransactions. I’m not allowed to say the number but I can tell you that when Mass Effect 3 multiplayer came out, those card packs we were selling, the amount of money we made just off those card packs was so significant that’s the reason Dragon Age has multiplayer, that’s the reason other EA products started getting multiplayer that hadn’t really had them before, because we nailed it and brought in a ton of money. It’s repeatable income versus one-time income.

“I’ve seen people literally spend $15,000 on Mass Effect multiplayer cards.”

When every economic incentive is directed towards Consumer Surplus extraction instead of, you know, improving the gameplay experience… this is what we get. Always-online multiplayer in every game, single-player game studios getting shut down, loot boxes everywhere.

Play stupid games, (pay to) win stupid prizes.

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