As Apex Legends dev Respawn opens up about skill-based matchmaking, I wish Activision would do the same for Call of Duty

This week, developer Respawn published a blog post pulling the curtain back on Apex Legends skill-based matchmaking, or SBMM. In the blog post, technical director Samy Duc dives deep into the inner workings of the battle royale’s matchmaking system, explaining in granular detail why players end up facing the players they do. It’s a fascinating exploration of one of the key features of any competitive multiplayer game, and Apex Legends players have certainly enjoyed the transparency.

As a Call of Duty player, I couldn’t help but look at Respawn’s blog post and wish Activision would do something similar.

Call of Duty SBMM has been a topic of discussion for years, and with each new release in the series, the same vociferous back-and-forth emerges. I’ve reported on COD SBMM numerous times, usually when players get so disgruntled with it that they start to play the game in silly ways, such as deliberately losing in a bid to matchmake against lower-skilled players in subsequent lobbies. Activision has always taken a dim view of third-party websites and apps that let players try to game the system, too.

Our Ian Higton gives Warzone 2.0’s DMZ mode a whirl.

Activision has never explained Call of Duty’s SBMM. Indeed, it seems at pains to admit it even exists. And I think this refusal to open up about matchmaking has fuelled, even exacerbated, the negative sentiment around the series. Activision’s silence on SBMM has always come across as odd, but in the context of Respawn’s blog post, it’s just downright frustrating.

The silence leads players to conclude that COD’s SBMM is tuned in some nefarious way, whether this is the truth or not. This is a real shame. Developers do not willfully set out to create negative experiences for their players. Of course they don’t! But there are realities to operating a shooter of the size and scale of Call of Duty that I’m sure forces its various developers to pull levels in certain directions that affect SBMM. We just don’t know what those levers do. Hell, Activision doesn’t officially acknowledge their existence.

When it comes to COD, some players say SBMM has no right being in casual playlists. Ranked play, these critics (who are usually the most hardcore and high-skilled) say, is where SBMM should be used. Of course, not everyone is against the idea of SBMM, with some pointing out it is hypocritical for high-skill players to demand the right to play lower-skilled players instead of those at their own level.

Unusually, in 2020, Treyarch developer Martin Donlon tweeted to debunk the myth that previous Call of Duty titles did not have SBMM. “SBMM is one of many many tuneable parameters in a matchmaking system,” Donlon added. “It’s funny watching people talk about it like it’s a big switch that can only be turned on or off.” This tweet was subsequently deleted.

Earlier that year, former Call of Duty developer at Sledgehammer Games, Michael Condrey tweeted to say SBMM was “never directed into COD from me”, adding “analytics, [skill-based] matchmaking, monetisation, [dedicated] server coverage, [are] all driven from ATVI central tech and production teams”.

“Fustratingly little influence on those corp decisions despite their impact on our games and the COD community.”

Here’s Resapwn’s Duc in the Apex Legends blog post:

“We don’t purposefully put you in harder matches to slow you down if you’re winning a lot, nor do we intentionally put you in easier matches because you’re on a losing streak. We try to put you into matches where you’ll have a fair chance of winning – and those are matches at your current skill level.

“Your skill rating is dynamic and always adjusting. When you’re on a win streak, your skill rating increases. This leads to you being placed with higher-skill players compared to the beginning of your streak – congratulations, you are improving! The opposite is true when you’re on a loss streak. You might start to feel like games are getting easier because your skill rating is decreasing, and as a consequence, the skill of your opponents are dropping. Either way, this is the system accounting for your recent changes in skill. This process tends to be slow, so you should only feel these changes from long streaks.”

Then: “If you see an opponent ranked much higher than you, they could happen to be having a bad day and is on a loss-streak. Similar to when you are on a loss streak and are being placed into a less skillful match, your opponent might instead be in that situation.”

And this bit I love from Respawn:

“Is matchmaking built to directly optimise retention and engagement? No. Our matchmaking algorithm is only concerned with measuring skill and arranging the fairest possible matches in a reasonable time. The hope here is that this process creates the most fun matches. But, there is a clear problem here… you can’t actually measure fun. This is where retention comes in.

“Retention measures the fraction of players coming back to play the game day after day or week after week. That’s why retention is important to us: players are more likely to stick around if they’re having fun. So, if we see that a particular matchmaking algorithm is increasing retention across the board, then we know that we’ve likely improved matchmaking for everyone. With that said, we never build an algorithm that is directly optimising for retention (and definitely not engagement – convincing you to play an extra hour a day when you’d normally do other things isn’t good for us or you).”

Respawn’s blog post makes a lot of sense to me. I’m sure a similar explanation would make a lot of sense to Call of Duty players. So come on, Activision! Take a page out of Respawn’s playbook and dish the dirt on SBMM.

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