Sunday, 21 March 2010

Starcraft II's Biggest Flaw

A revised (read: better) version of this article can be read here.

I've been in the Starcraft II beta for a couple of weeks now. For the most part, it's the gleaming, precision-engineered RTS you expect. But there's an issue with the coverage the game has received so far; most previewers seem to have missed that a big piece of the game's multiplayer is seriously not working, and it's unlikely Blizzard will fix it before release.

Before I go into that major flaw, I'll guess why this hasn't been written up in a major gaming outlet (so far as I've read). Many articles I've read wind up sounding a bit like Tom Chick here: "pretty enough, but it seems impossible to win against those hardcore kids online, etc." Other writers don't seem to understand the RTS genre at all ("a crucial area where SC differs from other strategy games is that you need to assign [workers] to build things"? "The focus of the game is pretty much solely economic strategy"?). Most "first impressions" pieces read like their authors didn't spend more than an hour or two playing online. I assume that's why none of them mention that the game's ladder system is completely hosed.    
The strength of its ladder system will be essential to Starcraft II's staying power. The ladder resides on, but it works as an integral part of SCII. It's the hook that keeps you playing all night, grinding those short matches (1v1s are often below 15 minutes), accumulating points, and clawing your way to the top of the rankings. This game gives you rested experience to help you gain ranks after some time away. You can't appreciate the seductiveness of this system until you've spent some time trying to get to the top of your league, and no game critic I've read seems to have done that. (Nobody posts a picture of their ranking, and only Quinns details his ongoing project of attaining "competence.") But once you've done a bit of climbing, the ladder starts looking wobbly indeed.

(This is not in any way a view from the top. I am a terrible SCII player. I never played multiplayer in the original, spending my online RTS time in AOEII and, later, WC3 instead. Like the Counter-Strike world, the SC community was sufficiently entrenched to deter me from trying to join in after missing the initial year or so. But for the people who say they "can't win online" in SCII, believe me, you can win. If you're placed in Copper, you can beat those people. They're all game reviewers and Activision employees.)
SCII has 5 leagues: Copper, Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum. You're placed in a division within your league -- supposedly the divisions are random -- and ranked according to your performance. You want to ascend to the first rank in your division, from which point you will move on to a higher, more skilled league. In theory.

In practice, these separations lack meaning. You play everybody else from every division. When you're matched with people, you're told if one side is "Favored" or "Slightly Favored" to win, or if the teams are even. You are very rarely matched with people within your own division. You actually feel like giving your division-mates a high-five when you find yourself in a game with them, like two people from the same town who run into each other in the big city. Blue posters on the forums have claimed the division system is strong because it makes people feel better about themselves ("I'm 4th in my division!"). But only very stupid people will find satisfaction in this, because you are not even competing with the people in your division. You rarely see them. You compete with everyone, and then are arbitrarily compared to a tiny, random sliver of that population.

Say you just ran a race, along with 20,000 other people. You finish behind about 7,000 of them. You look at the standings and it says you finished 4th. In a move to boost participants' self-esteem, the race's organizers have divided the standings into 200 randomly selected groups. Do you really feel better? Or do you feel like somebody is fucking with you?

As you begin seeing players from other leagues, you learn how rotten the system really is. As you climb upward in your division, competitors from higher leagues appear. I've beaten Bronze, Silver, and even a few Gold players, yet I was never promoted from my position as #1 Copper. The system tells me that I am "Favored" against nearly all Bronze players it pairs me with; if I see "Teams Even," I usually know I'm facing either a high rank Bronze or an average Silver. In other words, the game's odds-maker routinely tells me I am on even footing with people who are literally out of my league. They are, in some cases, two leagues above me. And my own state is nowhere near as unfair as some others. Consider szcz, a #1 Silver who routinely plays and beats the top Platinum players, and is even Favored against some of them. What kind of lunatic devised a ladder that evaluates player performance with a system different from the one it uses to actually rank them?

You might think a game that prides itself on being at the frontier of "e-sports" would have a rewards system based, you know, on winning or losing. A traditional measure of sporting success! But you would be wrong. A Blizzard employee, Bashiok, posted the following FAQ:

Q. How does a player move from one league to another? 
A. After you’ve finished your initial placement, the system continues to review your performance and determines what league you should be placed in based on those reviews. The time and frequency of these reviews is kept hidden.

As is all information about what data will be "reviewed." So movement from league to league is governed by some double-secret method; elsewhere it was claimed that this system must be hidden or people would exploit it. Forum posters hypothesize that the scoring might be based on actions per minute, unspent resources, and other trivia that the game records. Hey, you know what's hard to exploit? A system that only rewards you when you win. That's kind of how tournaments work. Even unusual conditions like "beat 4 Silver players in a row, advance to Silver" or "lose to 4 Bronze players in a row, fall to Bronze" would be vastly preferable to the system currently in place, which offers the player no goals for improvement.

If you still don't see how useless this setup is, let me tell you a story. When I started -- with no experience, a much worse player than I am now -- I did well enough in placement matches to be put into Bronze. I played some games, lost some, but won enough to be in the top 30 Bronze players in my division. Then, one fine day, I came out of a winning game and received a message saying that I was being bumped down a league. I was demoted on the victory screen, and no reason was given. I still don't know why. (Unless, perhaps, my stately 30 apm was to blame.)

When the game should have congratulated me, it kicked me in the balls. People claim that Blizzard developers are savvy about structuring rewards to addict players, but the SCII team isn't; they made their rankings as arbitrary and obscure as they could. In WoW, the remaining work needed to advance a level level is displayed onscreen all the time as part of the default UI. In SCII the rewards you receive are a deliberate mystery; like miracles, you can only hope they will happen. 

Soon after I was dropped to Copper, I rose to #1 in my division, and I've rarely been matched against other Copper players since reaching that spot. Again, I felt like I'd been punished for no reason.
Although I do feel like this ladder made a personal enemy of me, it's flimsy for broader reasons as well. You can't see who the best players in your league are, only the best players in your own tiny division (and remember, you play people from within your division only as frequently as you play people from all the other divisions). You can't even gauge skill by looking at a player's league, because the system routinely matches some players with people from higher leagues. These endless tiers and sub-tiers of players tell so much less than a single list for each league would. The crowning perversity is that Blizzard posters believe this ladder actually encourages people.

I know you're thinking "oh, it's beta, they'll fix it before release." However, blue posters don't even acknowledge that there's a problem. It's not like these issues, brilliantly analyzed by some of the best players in the community, problems that require tweaking of build times to balance; there's no easy fix for a ladder that needs to be drastically overhauled. A merit-based reward system must be transparent. As it stands, the system is opaque by necessity, and it needs to be altered.

On the other hand, if Blizzard ever does recognize the problem, a new concept isn't hard to work out. Make a global ladder for each league. Rank everyone. Do not match people from different leagues together. Instead, only look for matches within that person's own league, even if one player is much lower than another in the league. When the top ranked players in the league start dominating mid-ranked players, mark those top players for review. Have them do placement matches again (maybe fewer this time) to see if they can place into other league.
 You might think "who cares if the ladder sucks, as long as the game is good." But the ladder is inseparable from the game. You see your rank and league every time you look for a new multiplayer match. When you hit "find game," the ladder determines who to pair you with. For the average player, the ladder will be a huge part of Starcraft II. And right now, it sucks.


  1. I'm not a fan of this philosophy that the way to prevent exploitation of games is to hide major rules from the players. While hiding rules can be fun or have some sort of expressive purpose, you won't prevent exploitation of a system by hiding rules: you'll just create an uneven playing field where some players have "cracked the code" (maybe literally) while other players haven't.

    Games are systems designed to be exploited. That is what games are about. The goal of game design is to create a system that is rewarding to exploit, not one that can't be exploited.

    Again, the caveat is that hiding rules can be a powerful expressive element, so if the makers of SCII want to convey a feeling of arbitrary promotion, then it's their prerogative, but it doesn't seem like that's what they're trying to do.

  2. For Beta, Blizzard is using a system to match people quickly and so it searches outside of your division often. As we near release, they will switch it to be primarily skill based and not speed. This has been mentioned and is known so it is not as big of a deal as you may think. Also keep in mind that in Beta, there may be 40-60 players in your division, but upon release, we may have hundreds.

  3. @Sergio: Sorry, I actually didn't know the divisions might include hundreds of people; I thought they were capped at 100 or below. I knew that the system should get better at matching players against people from their own League as the player base grew, but wasn't aware that this would take place at the level of divisions also. More matches inside your own division certainly sounds better, and I'll be interested to see in what percentage of games I'm matched against people from my division closer to release.

    I think my basic criticism about the division system still stands, though -- it makes it difficult to compare yourself to players outside your division, even as the system matches you against people outside your division (which will continue to happen, unless divisions get REALLY big). It also doesn't sound like the planned changes to divisions affect the issues I have with the mysterious promotion/relegation system.

    One point I should have made better in this post, as well as the version I revised for GSW, is that I understand Starcraft II isn't finished yet. I focused on a few problems that I hadn't seen mentioned in other beta coverage, but it's really just a list of things I hope will be fixed or changed. The rest of the game seems really good.