Creating a competitive environment that would be fair and enjoyable for players of all skill levels is one of the biggest challenges developers face. Back in the 90s, you would either enter a host IP to join a game, or (later) choose a server from a list. Nowadays, automated matchmaking became the standard for online competitive play and it is safe to say that virtually all of the most popular multiplayer games utilize it is some way. Epic Games’ groundbreaking and highly popular battle royale is no different.
The early days of Fortnite
Initially, the game did not feature matchmaking based on skill levels. You would simply join a lobby of random players who just happened to be searching for a match in the same region at the same time. With a player count of 100 per match, there were bound to be some experienced players among a bunch of newbies. It may not have been such a big problem after the game’s release, but with time and the growing popularity of the game that probably exceeded the expectations of even the most enthusiastic developers at Epic, the skill difference became a problem. Players finally deciding to see what the hype was all about were crushed by those who played the game a few hours a day since release. Some measures had to be introduced to make the experience more accessible for new players while keeping the veterans entertained at the same time.
In March 2019, as a result of the growing skill gap between new players and beginners, Epic Games introduced the Arena mode, effectively establishing a ranking system in which players would be matched with opponents of similar rank determined on the base of a factor called “Hype”. Players get Hype points by scoring eliminations and achieving placements in matches. The indicator is used to determine player progress in divisions and leagues. Once players pass a certain threshold of Hype points, they rank up and face more experienced players. The thresholds and Hype gains for the current season are available on Fortnite’s official website. Players also unlock tournaments in their respective divisions, allowing them to participate in online events to win prize money. This can also help create new – possibly profitable – possibilities, like having a large audience when streaming games or becoming a professional player. Epic also released team-based modes that gave less experienced players a bigger chance of succeeding. All in all, these seemed like reasonable changes for a game with such a huge playerbase.
As months went on, Epic Games further altered how matchmaking worked in Fortnite. Patch 10.40 introduced skill based matchmaking (SBMM) as well as bots. The idea was to further level the playing field for all Fortnite players, both newcomers and veterans. However, the combination of skill based matchmaking and cross-play caused a lot of commotion in the community as android and console users had to face PC players who – despite being in the same league – had the added advantages of extra FPS, the ability to change visual fidelity to add clarity (e.g. by disabling shadows), as well as improved aiming thanks to mouse and keyboard controls. Fortunately, if the game feels unfair, you can switch off the cross-play feature on any platform. The drawback is the longer queue times. The skill based matchmaking has eventually been disabled in squad-based modes.
While the possibility to play with people of similar skill levels appealed to many newbies, some veterans complained about the changes introduced by Epic. One of the arguments against SBMM in Fortnite is that every match feels like the ESL finals, making you sweat every game as you fight your way to victory. This has rendered the game much less enjoyable for many players, leading to eventual burnout. For some, the sense of reward is gone, as they never truly feel their skills are better than those of other players. Another side effect is the increasing popularity of Squads, where SBMM has been disabled and you may face opponents of all skill levels. SBMM has also caused the “smurfing” problem to appear in Fortnite. Smurfs are highly-skilled players who purposefully create new accounts (with no game history) to play against inexperienced opponents. Noticing the trend, Epic made the decision to ban any confirmed smurf accounts.
More to come
Fortnite is one of the most popular games ever created – a smashing hit that consistently changes in many ways to improve and stay fresh. New updates are pouring in every few weeks and we may yet see other changes to its matchmaking system in the future.