As usual, EA is the target of consumer-driven rage in video games. And it isn’t unwarranted, especially this time. The whole loot box thing is an unmitigated disaster and for good reason, as that stuff is objectively predatory. Star Wars: Battlefront II is a mess, yadda yadda yadda. But the latest controversy from EA feels a lot less cut and dry to me. While some of the suspicion aroused is earned and probably even right, I also don’t want to discount the bias on the consumer advocate side either. While EA may in fact use some recently-discovered research to dig its heels in on microtransactions, it may also be working to make online play a more pleasant experience for the general gaming populace.
Here's the skinny if you have no clue what the hell I’m talking about. The Internet gaming community found some researched published by EA in two different papers. One was about efforts EA has made to program its games to adjust difficulty on the fly based on player performance. This is a subtle background tech that, in unnamed games, lowers or raises the difficulty if the player seems to be struggling or breezing through. The other has to do with matchmaking and a tool EA is developing to measure metrics such as player engagement. It suggests that skill-based matchmaking isn’t nearly as effective as calculated matchmaking based on performance, almost a parallel to the difficulty paper.
The matchmaking research is the one causing the most outrage. There’s no need to get into the nitty-gritty of it here. In brief, the paper suggests that disrupting matchmaking in specific ways based on certain conditions after a string of online matches will help players be more likely to continue playing the game, instead of turning it off after a few. By disrupting, for example, I mean tossing the player in a more challenging matchup after a string of wins or easing back on them after a losing streak. In either scenario, the player is supposedly more likely to keep playing rather than stopping either due to boredom or discouragement.
Of course, due to the loot box and microtransaction-fueled paranoia, again not unjustified, players are reading into this research as EA trying to find new ways to make players want to spend more money in-game. It’s read as something more similar to those awful Activision patents from 2017, which suggested Activision was looking into deliberately mis-matching players to bait them into spending money. Headlines covering this EA story are often using the word “fair” to describe what EA is suggesting, removing from matchmaking calculations, while the research itself refers to it in relation to skill.
To me, this research reads more like EA is trying to find ways to keep players happier with their games, longer. The research does mention in-game purchases, but in the context of modifying the metric-capturing module cited in the paper for other goals. And sure, there’s no doubt, literally zero, that EA is not also constantly looking for ways to drain extra coin out of its customers. So is everyone else – the game industry is messed up bigtime in the AAA realm and that’s a byproduct of a lot of that mess. But I don’t think this specific research is compounding anything.
Skill-based matchmaking is always a mixed bag, and one that’s difficult to get right. Go into the message boards for any competitive, online game and you’ll find plenty of people complaining about the matchmaking. That’s probably because these individuals are coming off an uneven experience or losing streak. There’s a lot of calculations going into matchmaking, and sometimes it’s just based on player ranking in-game, which is never an accurate metric for various reasons. However, if the matchmaking is making adjustments based on results instead, it could lead to a more fun and exciting experience tailored towards players’ actual skill levels.
Either way, I think there’s more discussion warranted here beyond “EA is Satan incarnate.” There are plenty of other problems to target in this industry and jumping to conclusions or automatically dismissing research that people worked hard on to try to find answers to common questions seems a bit hasty, at best. Knee-jerking isn’t a good look for anyone, no matter how much of an anti-corporate badass you might be. People want to have fun and feel like they’re learning and improving when they go online, especially players of lower skill levels. And in AAA games, those players need to be considered just as, if not more important than the hardcore users. That’s how you extend the shelf life of a game for everyone.