I have in my life been privileged with the brief acquaintance of two gentlemen of Russia.
The first, Vlad, was a college friend who invited a couple of us over to his house for the traditional Easter family feast. My memories of that day go little further than unfamiliar food and the thickly-accented pater familias drinking several bottles of Zima Clearmalt, enthusiastically declaring several times that Zima “is Russian for Winter!“
The other fellow was named Art, an exchange student. We were at the college bar one night and I challenged him to shots of vodka. Because, you know, when you’re nineteen years old, that seems like a thing to do.
The mists of time have produced the surely apocryphal number of twenty. Twenty shots of vodka before I conceded. I staggered across the dance floor, almost hallucinating, before being carried into the passenger seat of my ride. My driver happened to be a young lady who had fancied me, but painting the inside of her car with my digestive fluids somehow extinguished the spark. An enduring mystery, that.
As for Art, doubtless he settled his tab, took a leisurely stroll home, and read a book on chess for a little while before turning out the light.
But if I’ve been relatively unacquainted with Russian people, I have to admit to a certain appreciation for Russian culture from a distance. Soviet culture, specifically.
Like many Americans of the older generations, the “Evil Empire” is inextricably tied up within our national consciousness. The implacable foe who hated us for our way of life and our freedoms. Our shining city on a hill was all that stood between them and their quest of domination and oppression, and of course there was always the looming specter of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Soviets made wonderful villains for our pop culture. Dolph Lundgren- himself a Swede- portrayed the iconic Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, while the KGB sent over their best female wrestler to infiltrate American society by hiding in plain view. The Russians invaded US soil in Red Dawn, cheated in the Olympics, ripped tags off mattresses and probably kicked puppies in their spare time too. What a time to be alive!
Of course, as you get older and (hopefully) take the blinders off, you begin to see things with a greater sense of perspective. I came to recognize an element of doomed romanticism in political philosophy of Communism. The idea of a people coming together, everyone working for the common good, and prospering together appealed to the best parts of human nature.
And that was the problem. Turns out, we’re not especially motivated by the best parts of our nature. Instead, it seems competition and the chasing of individual prosperity are often more driving factors for accomplishment and innovation. Communism, collectivism, these are great and even noble systems in the abstract. But when subjected to the inhabitants of real life, for all their good intentions they ultimately failed.
I played a few games of War Robots before bed last night. They were entertaining, but ultimately unsatisfying through no fault of my own. I didn’t play poorly, I still got the visceral thrill of combat and blasting my enemies. But the seed of discontent sprouted when I saw this:
The entire point of the new matchmaker system is to make sure players are matched up with those of equitable skill. And yet, even on my worst day, I’m pretty sure I’m able to do better than 2,577 points of damage over the course of a match. Then there’s Aiden m and 13777, who didn’t even crack 100,000. 13777 gets a slight pass for at least trying to contribute to the team’s win through beacons, but really that’s just the latest strategy employed by those looking to game the system.
Disappointed in that game’s experience, I queued up for another. Here are two stills from that one- can you spot what they have in common?
If you said, “Hey, that Trident Carnage hasn’t moved,” a winner is you!
I ran into the damned thing in my Lancelot, then saw him still as a statue later on in my Hydra Doc. The only joy I got in that game was when the Reds overrun our spawn area, and I got to watch the Carnage get blown up before I was meched out.
These aren’t isolated incidents. Nor can they all be attributed to “naturally occurring phenomena” like connectivity issues. If you want to sell me on the idea that somewhere in the world at that moment was a Trident Carnage player screaming in frustration at his phone, I’m no longer quite as willing to buy.
The Forums are filled with similar stories. I once wrote about how relatively uncommon clubbing was, and that much of the vitriol it (understandably) generated was tied to the user experience more than the frequency. “Tanking” seems a far more common experience.
I have to this point been a fairly ardent defender of the new matchmaking system. Although I’ve always maintained I enjoyed the “tier” system more, for the wider variety of play experiences it offered, I saw the wisdom of what Pixonic envisioned with this new one. I understood that we were in the midst of a paradigm shift, from a gear-based grouping to an experience-based one, even as I realized that gearing up my own hangar essentially meant I was gearing up my opponents’ as well.
But last night it dawned on me that Pixonic’s new vision was one based on people being their best selves.
It asked that players enjoy the game with integrity, playing the game as it was intended to be played. It asked that they refrain from trying to manipulate the system towards their own ends (and shafting their fellow players in the process). It asked for people to put the overall health of the game ahead of their own desires and interests.
In short, it asked the impossible.
Pixonic’s new system was, in a sense, Communism all over again. A system whose success was tied to people believing and behaving in a collective way for mutual prosperity, while failing to account for the fundamental imperative for selfishness. It’s difficult to build something that lasts when what you’ve built contingent upon an unrealistic vision of the very people you’re reliant upon for success.
With great reluctance, I have to pronounce the new matchmaking system a failure. It’s simply not offering enough value to make up for what it’s taken away.
It’s taken the great variety of play experiences designed by the creative and imaginative minds of Pixonic, and instead lined us all up on a singular, increasingly homogenous path to progression. I used to love Cossacks, for instance, but I won’t touch one now.
It’s taken the presumption of good faith and honest play away from the players. Yes, you had “clubbing” before, but that was comparatively rare. You have an unacceptably high chance now of not only having to overcome your opponents, but also overcome dead weight on your own team.
And it’s taken something from Pixonic, too: control of the playing experience. For too many players, their enjoyment of the game is more contingent upon what their fellows do, rather than Pixo.
Is there a better way?
One of the golden rules in my household is that you shouldn’t identify a problem unless you’ve also tried to identify/implement a solution. Don’t just come to me and say, “the cat pooped on the floor.” Clean it up first, then tell me. With four young children, sometimes the proposed solutions won’t work, but I at least want to see the effort made.
So yes, I have a proposed solution. We return matchmaking to gear, which cannot be faked, rather than experience, which can.
It started with the idea that there had to be a better way to evaluate gear. I mean, the problem with “clubbing” wasn’t MagGeps themselves, but rather that Pixo allowed Level 1 Gepards to carry Level 8 Magnums and still be in a low bracket.
But where to draw the lines? We all have ideas… level 3 this, level 6 that… but what if we could do it in a way that was less arbitrary? How could we best ensure competitive balance? That’s when it dawned on me that Pixonic had already done the heavy lifting on that. After all, they set the acquisition and upgrade costs for each robot and weapon in the game. There’s a reason a new Destrier costs 75,000 Silver and a new Boa 500,000. Could we use cost as a proxy for power level, and therefore valuation driver?
I created an Access database and made a table with the values of every piece of hardware in the game, with the acquisition/upgrade cost for each level. The idea then was that I could determine the cost value of every single possible permutation of bot/weapon in the game. A Destrier had a base value of 35,000 Ag (bought from the shop, it comes with a L1 Spiral and L1 Molot, which are 20,000 Ag each).
A Level 2 Destrier with the same Level 1 weapons had a value of 65,000 Ag, since it cost 30,000 Ag to upgrade to Level 2. Upgrade that Spiral to Level 2 (cost 10,000 Ag), and now your points valuation for your Destrier was 75,000. And so on.
Once I had a valuation for every possible mech and loadout combination, I could sort it by total value, then create as many “tiers” as I wanted to by simple division. Want a two-tiered game? Simple. The top half is the upper tier, the bottom half is the lower tier. You want games with tight gear distributions, where pilot skill is worth more than equipment? Make six tiers. And so on.
Tighter gear distributions also prevent new players from getting annihilated once they leave their initial protective cocoon. They’ll still lose a lot, as you would on any game, but in a way that serves more as a learning experience and less as a demoralizing one.
This approach was not without its challenges.
First, I’d have to set some sort of arbitrary rate of exchange for Gold and Workshop Points. If everything was getting a Silver valuation, I needed some sort of starting value for things like Orkans and Fujins.
Second, not everything upgrades at the same speed. That indicates that speed may also be a factor in “total upgrade cost” (time + money) on Pixo’s end.
What this meant was that while Pixonic has perfect information, I could only hope for a rough approximation. Still, that would be sufficiently illustrative.
The final challenge was a technical one- sort of. I’d need to code out a large number of possible permutations from the final table. For instance, a Level 5 Destrier with a Level 6 Molot and Level 5 Magnum was no different from a Level 5 Destrier with a Level 5 Magnum and Level 6 Molot. All you did there was switch which side each weapon was on, but you would not want to count this configuration twice in the standings. That would grossly distort the final output, imbalancing it in favor of bots with lots of similar hardpoints (like the Patton, oy!).
I could do it, but it dawned on me that the hours this project would take might be better spent, playing War Robots or playing Rocksmith or playing with the kids. So we’ll just have to imagine this in the abstract, but I like to think it’s a pretty straightforward concept.
It’s an idea. And a start.
- The new matchmaker is a good idea that has collided with the innate tendency for people to game the system, and come out wanting
- There are no safeguards you could feasibly put in place to prevent players from playing below their ability
- Player experience can be manipulated. Player gear cannot.
- A return to a gear-based system offers many advantages for the game, and is ultimately preferable to the current implementation
Thanks for reading.