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

    - Fabian Fischer

  • Single-player Matchmaking

    Basically, the solution can be directly derived from the critique: Resetting the system below the skill level of the player leads to a loss of efficiency. This means the game has to determine the skill of the player and continually, i.e. with every new match, adjust accordingly.

    If this reminds you of the controversies around dynamic monster level scaling (e.g. Oblivion), you can calm down. Those discussions were concerned with a completely different kind of gameplay where the consistency of the simulated fantasy world is more important than efficient gameplay and learning. Match-based games however live by the latter. On top of that, they can transparently communicate adjustment to the difficulty between the self-contained playthroughs, and don't have to do it "secretly" while keeping a persistent game world running.

    In so far, the Elo system or the traditional "ladder" are much better points of reference. That's right, in multiplayer dynamic difficulty has long been established. Players are constantly ranked according to their performance so that they can be matched with opponents of equal playing strength. That's how those games make sure players are always challenged according to their current skill level.

    The solitaire equivalent: Single-player matchmaking! Now, it obviously can't rely on a dynamically filled (and depending on the player base very granular) ladders. Instead of matching players against one another, players are "matched" with a variant of the game tailored to their skill level. That means the different difficulty levels have to be explicitly designed for this purpose, and the game has to be complex and scalable enough to allow that.

    So far there are very few design forays in this direction. Auro for example uses a combination of scaling scoring requirements and hand-crafting ranking tiers to tweak its random level generator. Similarly, the BrainGoodGames titles scale various factors, such as enemy density or map layout, depending on the rank of the player. In both cases the difficulty is automatically determined by the system that continuously measures the player's skill.

    Recently, the popular roguelike card game Slay the Spire took a different approach in its "Ascension Mode". While it also poses an ever-increasing challenge, it requires players to essentially become designers of their own experience and choose the exact Ascension level by themselves every time. On top of that, even high-level matches have the problem of starting out too easy. This is most likely a relic of the RPG-like setting of the game: Players are, within a single playthrough, supposed to get stronger over time as the game gets harder. Suboptimal.

    But while the Ascension system isn't perfect, it's certainly an answer to the described problem. That alone makes it a piece of progressive design, since most match-based single-player games simply don't have one. At best they provide a handful of difficulty levels the player is supposed to choose from, or they simply resort to the sadly still pretty widespread "highscore" format.

    Maybe it's because developers have more fundamental questions on their plates ("How do you create interesting core gameplay to begin with?"). But maybe some are just not fully aware of the reset problem and its implications, as it's rarely talked about in much detail. Yet.


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