Call of Duty has become somewhat of a household name, whether you’re interested in gaming or not, it’s become difficult to escape. Developed by Infinity Ward, Activision published the first title in the series back in 2003, titled Call of Duty. But it wasn’t until 2007 when the series became what it is today with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which was the biggest game of the year and sold more than 7 million copies worldwide in its first three months. Call of Duty has become Activision’s largest franchise and continues to be one of the best selling games year after year.
Since 2010, the franchise has been in developer rotation between Treyarch, Infinity Ward, and Sledgehammer Games, with each developer putting their own personal twist on the series. Having a three developer rotation enables the series to have a new release each year, but also comes with its fair share of problems. Each developer brings their own unique gameplay experience to the series, Treyarch is known for creating much more fast-paced, arcade-style shooters; while Infinity Ward often develop more realistic, gritty Call of Duty games. Because of this, each year can feel like a completely different game to the last, and it’s causing more and more of a divide between the community. But in 2019, Infinity Ward gave the community something new, mixed in with a bit of old, when they released a reimagining of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
I remember the first time I watched the trailer for Modern Warfare (2019), after playing every Call of Duty since the original Modern Warfare (2007), I knew that this year’s entry into the series was going to be something spectacular, and boy it didn’t disappoint me. Usually, Call of Duty only has a one year cycle before it gets boring and we all just want to move onto the newest in the series, but it’s now almost February of 2021 and I can see myself still playing the reimagining of Modern Warfare until at least the end of the year.
Back in my younger days, I’d make it priority number one to finish the campaign before touching the multiplayer mode, but that tradition died out around Black Ops 2 (2012) when the plot for every Call of Duty had become tedious and boring; but Modern Warfare made me revert to my old ways after having one of the best stories of any Call of Duty game. The campaign wasn’t the only great thing about the game, the multiplayer was fun again, but it also had its problems. I was having a lot of fun with the game on launch, but I found myself having numerous good games, then numerous bad games, in a never-ending cycle until it hit me, the skill-based matchmaking (SBMM) is on another level of ramped up.
I wasn’t the only person that noticed the strong SBMM, it didn’t take long until a huge amount of backlash went Activision’s way (not that they care) regarding skill based matchmaking in the game, and rightly so.
What is Skill-Based Matchmaking?
Let’s get into the juicy stuff and talk about that annoying thing ruining Call of Duty each year, skill-based matchmaking. With a new release each year, being played by millions and millions of people, Call of Duty has become a first-person shooter that’s perfect for casual players, but in recent times, it feels like you have to put on your fingerless gloves to get a good game in.
Skill-based matchmaking is essentially what the name implies, it’s a system that matches players together in public lobbies based on their skill level. To put it simply, if you have a high kill to death ratio (K/D), you’re more than likely going to be matched with other players that also have a high K/D. The logic is there for SBMM to work, why would a player with a 0.5 K/D want to play against a mixed lobby that could have players with a 4.0 K/D included. But unfortunately it just doesn’t work, casual players that are good at the game are punished by being placed into lobbies with competitive players to keep the new players happy.
A Breakdown of SBMM in Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War
Infamous Call of Duty YouTuber, Drift0r, put together an extensive data analysis of exactly how SBMM worked in the newest game in the series, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. He teamed up with fellow YouTubers, XclusiveAce, JGod, and S0ur to figure out exactly how matchmaking worked. You can view his full YouTube breakdown here, and you can also download the excel spreadsheets in the description of the video for every single statistic in great detail. Or, continue reading and I’ll summarise it for you!
The three YouTubers each had three accounts they were playing on, one was a low skilled account, one was their own personal account, and the third was a higher-skilled account with a high K/D and score-per-minute (SPM).
The methodology for the tests include:
- Enabling crossplay
- Tests run on the same day
- Stick to one class per account
- One game mode only
- Solo only, no parties
- Play a total of 10 games, with no breaks in between
- Stick to the skill level of the account
The three YouTubers then stuck to this plan, and for every game collected a large amount of data; such as matchmaking time, ping to server time, the K/D and SPM of the lobby, and their K/D and SPM of the last five games.
The results from the test were quite…concerning. The main takeaway is that on a higher-skilled account, it will take longer for a player to be matched into a lobby, and will also increase your ping; for those that don’t know, the higher the ping, the worse. This is of course a dreadful system to have, trying to play an online FPS with a high ping is not fun, when it comes down to first on the trigger, dying because you have a higher ping rate can be infuriating. The graph below indicates the jump in ping (per ms) on XclusiveAce’s accounts, with the bar on the right-hand side being the higher-skilled account.
The next result showed that lobbies were matched with players with a similar K/D ratio and SPM. Drift0r goes on to include footage from his lower-skilled account, in which it almost seems impossible to die with players in the lobby just being that bad; whilst the higher-skilled account has many more tactical players that don’t miss their shots. The graph below is a visual representation of a player’s account K/D ratio going up vs the lobby K/D ratio increasing.
SBMM: The Bad, The Good, and The Why?
So, from the breakdown above, we can see quite clearly that players are matched into public lobbies that have a similar K/D ratio, and similar SPM as them. But why is that bad? Well, for the casual player that comes home from work and just wants a few quick games, it’s just impossible to have a good time if you’re a decent player. Players will be matched with those of a similar skill level that are also trying their hardest to have a good time, and then it ends with nobody having a good time.
Another huge problem is partying up with friends, it makes it almost impossible to have good matches with a group of friends that are all at different skill levels. I’ve seen various stories online about groups of friends that just can’t play together anymore after one player in the group has a higher-skilled account than the rest, and in turn makes it impossible for the group to have good games.
Cheaters can often pop up more frequently when playing on a higher-skilled account too, as cheaters often use ‘god mode’ cheats or aimbot to increase their skill statistics. This one doesn’t need much explanation, nobody wants to get put into lobbies with cheaters all the time.
It’s clear that SBMM is about player retention, Activision wants to keep the new players around and line their pockets even further, but by keeping one group of people happy, another group is kicking and screaming to remove SBMM immediately.
Player retention has become one of the most important parts of gaming recently, with the success of games like Fortnite that are free-to-play, it’s all about keeping the players around to spend their money on in-game purchases. Simply put, the higher the retention rate, the more positive opportunities there are for future earnings. Fortnite was only the beginning of a now popular free-to-play system, with Call of Duty’s hugely popular Warzone also being free-to-play, but earning billions through in-game purchases on their game store. Players are often more likely to spend money on a game that they have put a lot of time and effort into, from personal experience I’ve spent more money on Modern Warfare than any other Call of Duty title because I’ve been playing it longer, and in-turn spent more money on things like operators from the store.
This is the exact reason why SBMM is such a huge part of Call of Duty, it makes Activision money by keeping the new players happy and the retention levels high. Players have to remember that at the end of the day, Activision is still a business, and they only have one goal, to make money.
What could be done?
One of the simplest solutions that gets thrown around to fix the SBMM problem in Call of Duty is to remove it from casual lobbies and add in a ranked playlist to keep both parties happy. Unfortunately, you will still get competitive players playing in casual lobbies so that they can ‘pub stomp’.
Youtuber XclusiveAce feels he may have a solution to this problem, however, releasing a video in May of last year in which he details how he would go about fixing SBMM. He states that there should be the two standard playlists of casual and ranked, but also suggests a ‘super casual’ playlist with several key differences to discourage competitive players from entering the playlist to pub stomp. He lists a number of things such as limited progression, no killstreak, and a heads up display (HUD) that makes it clear the lobby is part of the super casual playlist, discouraging YouTubers to pubstomp and pass it off as high skilled gameplay.
The idea is nice, and the majority of Call of Duty fans would rejoice if something was done about SBMM, but unfortunately with the amount of success games like Modern Warfare are having, it doesn’t seem to be at the top of Activision’s priorities.
Most fans already know, but SBMM has been in every single Call of Duty game. Treyarch developer, Martin Donlon, recently spoke out after a fan tweeted that a lot of the classic Call of Duty titles didn’t have SBMM and that’s what made them classics. Donlon replied simply saying “they all had SBMM”, he goes on to tweet again saying “SBMM is one of many many tunable parameters in a matchmaking system. It’s funny watching people talk about it like it’s a big switch that can only be turned on or off.”
It’s clear that SBMM has been around for a long time, not only in Call of Duty games, but since the reimagining of Modern Warfare it has definitely been amped up a notch and fans simply just want it reversed and put back to the good old days. But with the huge success of Modern Warfare and Warzone, Activision likely has no plans to make any changes anytime soon.
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This article was written by FinalBosses Kyle Knight.
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