Comparing Matchmaking on XBox Live

As it relates to Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3.

I’ve spent a day with Call of Duty 4‘s online multiplayer. Literally. My total multiplayer time has surpassed 24 hours (over 35 now). That’s a hell of a lot of time. Enough to say that I’m experienced enough to opine about its online nuances. Details, having little to do with the actual gameplay, that influence how I feel about this game. The more I play it the more I want to play it.

Its game design borrows a lot of cues from MMORPG design. Maybe not the game design — that’s strictly planted in its first person shooter roots — as much as the meta-game that takes place outside of the battlefield. There’s a constant stream of points that you accumulate through the game by scoring kills, activating UAVs, capturing headquarters, defending flags and so on. As with a typical RPG’s “experience points”, the more you get the more you level up. And leveling up unlocks new weapons and perks just as it would new magical spells and abilities in World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy. It’s a constant grind, always throwing small rewards your way for a lot of invested time.

As with many RPGs, a player’s level is an indicator of perseverance rather than skill[1]. A superior player will level up faster than a less skilled one but the weaker player can counter that by simply playing more. You could see two people ranked level 30 in a game in which one of the two is vastly superior in skill but has only spent half as much time getting there. This is very different from the Halo 3 approach which, beyond the “Enlisted” levels, ranks players based on skill and experience.

It’s an important distinction because when you search for a match in Halo 3, it uses those skill based rankings to find balanced opponents. If your rank is 25 it will do its best to find a game with random players as close to 25 as possible, making every game a competitive one. To maintain that competitiveness, you have to go through this matchmaking process every time. That randomness is necessary to minimize exploitation of the system. If you could choose who you could play a ranked match against, the ranking system could be easily gamed.

Call of Duty 4 takes a similar matchmaking approach but with a some important differences. Now, I’m sure that behind the scenes there is some sort of TrueSkill being calculated as it’s inherent to XBox Live, but it doesn’t seem to compare to Halo‘s system. I’ve been in some games where players’ skills (and ranks) have been wildly varied and the results of those games have been ugly beatdowns. The important difference is what happens after the match is finished. In Halo 3 you drop out and go back into the matchmaking lobby, ready to be paired up with other random players. In Call of Duty 4 it keeps you in the game room so long as the host stays connected. The system then balances the teams for the next map based on the results of the previous game. So while the first game might be a washout, subsequent matches are more evenly played.

I’ve raved about Halo 3‘s matchmaking before but the more I play Call of Duty 4 the more I prefer its system. The differences are minor but the results are significant. Firstly, because you’re not kicked out of the game you don’t have to sit and wait for the system to find a new match for you. Often times this isn’t a problem, but playing during off peak hours or in an unpopular playlist or with a mixed party[2], the system can take an aggravating long time to find a match. Secondly, Call of Duty 4‘s system reduces asshattery.

Every time you go into a random online match-up you roll the douchebag dice: there’s a good chance that in a random game you will encounter one, or more, callow[3] XBox Live fuckwits. This is inevitable on XBox Live where the odds of this happening are, by my calculations, about one in three. The benefit of Call of Duty‘s system is that when you do find that one, rare, mature room you can stay in it. You don’t need to roll those dice again. You can enjoy multiple consecutive matches with friendly people having fun and conversing and not griefing. In my mind this makes the overall experience that much more pleasant and fluid.

While I still think that Halo 3 really nailed it with the community features and the stat-porn on bungie.net, Call of Duty 4 gets my nod, after a lot of usage, of best matchmaking service on XBox Live. I’d like to say that this bodes well for the future, in terms of usability and functionality, but such interfaces are the exceptions to the rule and I don’t see that changing. Not when most console shooters can’t even match the online functionality of Halo 2 for the original XBox.

  1. Indeed, the real challenge is completing RPGs on the lowest levels possible.
  2. A mixed party being multiple people going in as a group with vastly divergent skill levels. In such a situation the matchmaking tries to match you up with another mixed party of comparable, average skill. Obviously, in less popular playlists the odds of such match-ups happening are greatly reduced. If there’s no one comparable online then you’re shit out of luck. I’ve seen this happen a few times.
  3. Word of the day.

Bonus: Adding to the comparison, it’s very much worth noting that CoD4 has just surpassed Halo 3 for weekly XBox Live activity. Considering how much of a juggernaut Halo has been for Microsoft, that is a huge accomplishment.

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