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  • The Reset Problem: A Case for Single-Player Matchmaking

    [11.29.18]
    - Fabian Fischer
  • This article is about match-based single-player games, such as roguelikes, Civilization or Tetris. Specifically, we'll take a close look at a very typical design problem of those games. The underlying analyses can be applied to other kinds of games as well, but for now we'll focus on such exquisite titles as Dead CellsThe Binding of Isaac or FTL.

    Why go match-based?

    First let's establish why anyone would want to design their single-player game to follow a match-based structure to begin with. For multiplayer games, the huge logistical challenge of getting multiple people to the same (virtual) place at the same time is pretty much enough to justify a discrete format.

    If there's just one player however, one might as well create a linear, stringently designed experience. And that's what regularly happens. Especially in AAA games that have enough of a budget to keep a giant content machine running, this model is pretty much the standard model.

    Indie developers usually don't have this kind of funding. Hence tools such as procedurally generated content can help. However, this articles is not about the practical, financial reasons for taking more systemic approaches to game design, but about a fundamental cognitive efficiency advantage.

    Length Matters

    Especially big productions full of hand-crafted content like to boast playing times of "hundreds of hours". What they mean by that is of course a prescribed period of time supported by the game, basically how long it takes to see everything and "get through" the game. But content aside and looking at actual depth of gameplay, what's the optimal length of a game?

    Ideally players are engaged for as long as they still learn new and interesting things on a systemic level. If there is content beyond that point, for example because there's a story that needs another ten hours to be told, something tends to feel off. Players are basically "forced" to continue playing, even though they see through the system itself already. If a game is shorter than it should be on the other hand, players are missing out on significant parts of the system. Potential goes to waste.

    "Problem solved!" you may think. Just design the game so that its length fits its depth! While that's not totally wrong, it's unfortunately not that simple. Every single player comes with their own mix of "game literacy". Veterans might see through a game after two hours, while newbies don't get it after ten. A game might be too long for one player, too short for another, and just right for a third. At best games can try to define vague structures that "work okay-ish for most players". However, a universally ideal playing time prescribed by the game simply doesn't exist.

    And that's exactly where the match-based format shines. After every match, players can make the decision to quit, if they feel their own personal lifecycle for that particular game is approaching its end. The game's length is now in its players' hands. Self-determination over prescription. Of course this takes some amount of introspection, but it's worth it.

    In the end the point of it all is to reach a richer, more substantial understanding of the medium, and being able to make better decision on how to spend your time. In good match-based games players repeatedly traverse feedback loops, and are free switch to the next title whenever those loops stop providing intellectual value. However, a different feature of match-based formats threatens this gain in efficiency time and again.

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