People who have me on their friends list or have watched videos I’ve made in the past have probably noticed that I haven’t been on Xbox Live recently. Our team quit playing Gears competitively due to lack of tournaments a few months ago, but really I was leaning towards this since around January. I’m taking a break from consoles and diving into the world of PC gaming for awhile. I feel it’s important to explain why, after ~7 years of playing console shooters competitively, I’m really not interested anymore.
There’s a lot of factors I’ve been considering as to why it no longer interests me.
Have console shooters gotten worse?
The first of which, and a sentiment I’ve heard echoed often, is that the games just aren’t as good as they used to be. But as a Gears of War player, I’m not sure I can really make that argument. Gears of War 3 is the most solid and complete game of the series for me – going back and playing Gears 1 for a week or so will show you just how much it’s improved. Sure, I don’t agree with some decisions. But in the end, it’s a damn good game.
There’s a lot of different decisions which have gone into modern shooters in an attempt to make games more accessible to new players and keep them playing longer. Some of these impact the depth and “competitiveness” of the game in a negative manner, but for the most part this is usually a good thing because it helps communities get larger and leads to more people playing competitively. Call of Duty is a great example of this as the Gamebattles ladders have always been insanely active.
So yeah, I have my gripes about the game design in modern shooters but it really shouldn’t be enough to keep me from playing entirely. They’re minor annoyances which make the experience slightly less pleasurable.
The biggest thing which I’ve come to feel is that there is no longer a sense of community in the game I play.
The most fun period I’ve ever had playing shooters on consoles was in Late 2005/Early 2006. This was the launch period for the Xbox 360. Prior to this, I’d only really played Halo 2 online and had a blast doing so. These are the games I was playing in 2005-2006:
- Perfect Dark Zero
- Call of Duty 2
- Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter
- Battlefield 2: Modern Combat
This all bled into the release of Gears of War 1. During this time I joined Violent by Instinct after trying out across three of those games.
Playing on Xbox Live during this time was exciting because each game had a sense of community – when I hopped on and started matchmaking, I would regularly get matched up with the same groups of guys all the time. This was a combination of True Skill and the fact that not a lot of people had the Xbox 360 yet. Every time I played a match, I’d know the gamertags of roughly 60% of the server. I’d remember who the better players were and sure as hell remembered if they’d whooped me last time we played. I would keep mental notes of how certain people played and try to counter that. The gameplay was much more intimate than it is now.
I had absolutely no problem waiting 4-5 minutes to get a full server of people who may be better than me. Once the game started, the experience was amazing.
The Deterioration of TrueSkill
Over time, more players have gotten Xbox Live and game developers, publishers, and more casual players have made sure that matchmaking speed take precedent over match quality. True Skill, the system Microsoft developed to match players by skill level, stopped working as the restrictions were loosened in favor of getting matches quickly. Halo lost it’s skill-based leveling system. Gears of War 2 launched with a system where it ranked players by skill into 5 levels based on TrueSkill, had horrendous matchmaking times, then later patched that away in favor of an exprience ranking and hid the TrueSkill under the doormat.
Nowadays, I rarely see the same players twice. Hell, I routinely get matched with people who have .8 K/D’s and .4 win ratios. The system is no longer working at all and it doesn’t seem like anyone cares.
Matchmaking time is a concrete statistic which can be easily represented. Match quality is a more abstract concept which I don’t think reviewers, publishers, or game developers pay enough attention to. This is what keeps people playing and keeps the game interesting over long periods of time – harboring a sense of improvement and belonging to a community, feeling slightly obligated to hop on and get some games in with the people you know you’ll see on. This is how friendships develop over games, and those friendships are the basis of a community.
While console games continue to push towards quicker matchmaking times and poorer match quality, PC games are embracing competition and ranking systems.
Starcraft 2 is the shining example in gaming of a well-made ranking system and it also uses that system to match players. Something it also does is divide players into divisions, increasing the likelyhood it matches you with someone you’ve played in the past. Matchmaking times are high for top players as it ensures you get a good match, while they are low for players near the middle of the curve with the highest population.
League of Legends is another game where match quality is put ahead of matchmaking times at the higher levels – if you watch pro players stream you’ll regularly see the same people in those matches. Additionally, on the main website they list a leaderboard displaying everyones ELO ranking. Again – players who aren’t at the end of the spectrum see great matchmaking times because there are an abundance of players at lower ELO rankings.
You don’t need to sacrifice matchmaking times for the main population of players in order to create quality matches for the higher skilled players. I’ve spoken about this with a lot of high level players – we’re willing to wait if it means we’re getting a quality game – even more so if you let us stay in a server together post-match and keep duking it out. Bonus benefit is that you get the sharks out of the water and into their own frikkin’ laser deathmatch arena.
Until console games start to embrace these approaches to skill matching, I intend to be getting my gaming fix on PC games which do.
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