Queues and lobbies in fighting game matchmaking
The pros and cons of each system, and the problems they attempt to address
The sixth Guilty Gear Strive Developer’s Backyard was published on June 4th, 2021. The blog post was very brief, and the developers likely didn’t have time to write up a deep breakdown of the poll results from the second Open Beta Test. Fortunately, director Akira Katano still provided a wealth of information about tutorial features, private lobby systems, balance changes, and fixes for the matchmaking. Katano noted that the Duel Station (arcade cabinets) and rematch button features “greatly improved the tempo of matchmaking,” but that there were still errors and bugs that made connections difficult. The current focus of the development team seems to be that of correcting errors rather than making major changes or overhauls to the matchmaking.
(In a separate interview, the GGST developers acknowledged that COVID-19’s impact meant that many features across the game were left on the cutting room floor and would be added after launch. With regards to the online, I hope this means that previously promised features like Wi-Fi indicator and connection quality filters will be added soon if they aren’t there at launch.)
Complaints about the lobby system have rightfully plagued GGST’s online matchmaking since the first CBT. While the features have undeniably improved since then, there’s still observable issues with the system as of the most recent beta, mostly due to the slew of server-side errors. Some of the complaints leveled against GGST’s matchmaking have insisted that the game should have either just re-used the old lobby systems from Xrd Rev2, which worked “totally fine” (the Rev2 World Lobbies do not work on the PC port at all) or should even be replaced with a queue system (for ranked at least, Quick Start does exist in GGST as a matchmaking queue.) This article will be a dive into the merits and detriments not only of Arc System Works-style social hub lobby matchmaking, but of typical queue-style matchmaking.
You’ll commonly hear people talk about how fighting games should just have a big “Play” button to put them into a queue and begin matchmaking immediately, much like games from other genres such as League of Legends. This is certainly one of the advantages of queue-based matchmaking- the amount of menu navigation is reduced substantially compared to having to seek other players manually in lobbies. Most queue systems function differently from game to game, but typically they let you filter connections by region, in-game rank, or other methods of developing matchmaking rating (MMR,) and connection quality (usually indicated by a bar symbol or ping.) You can also often wait in queue while playing in other single player modes, usually Training Mode at the bare minimum. Depending on the game, you can also play a best-of-three set with whoever you’ve matched against. In this way, queue-based matchmaking can be convenient in how it reduces the amount of work players must do to seek out matches.
On the other hand, queue systems have problems of their own. Wait times are highly dependent on a variety of parameters, including the aforementioned connection filters. If these filters are highly specific, like if you only want to play against people in your region who are close in MMR with low ping, then it might take a longer time to find a match. This can especially be compounded by a dwindling player-base or even times of day where fewer players are online. The potential for longer sets is also dependent on the game- while some games like Skullgirls and Them’s Fightin’ Herds offer infinite rematch in their queues, Street Fighter V only allows best-of-threes.
Communicating with these players and matching up with them again for future matches is also difficult, oftentimes by design. While it’s true that networks like PSN and Steam let you message and add opponents after, players in matchmaking queues are often single-serve randoms that you’ll never see again. (I often refer to this as ‘fast food matchmaking’ or ‘speed-dating matchmaking.’) This type of matchmaking is deeply impersonal and asocial- the knowledge that you’ll never see the other player again is what leads to the rampant toxicity in outside-genre games like League and is also the reason why so many post-game interactions land on ScrubQuotes. As far as fighting games are concerned, this focus on simply winning outright rather than learning matchups and how to outplay your opponent in longer, intimate sets is part of what leads to burnout in ranked modes, which in turn leads to those queues having fewer players as the game’s lifespan progresses. Not only does it limit connections made with the community, speed-dating matchmaking systems also mean you can’t play as many matches as possible. Consider how many games you can play in an hour with one person via instant rematching, versus how many games played with multiple opponents in the same span if you’re only allowed to play best-of-three sets before being sent back to a queue.
In conclusion, while queue-based matchmaking is easy to use when implemented well, that expectation differs wildly from game to game. Being able to wait in other modes and sort by skill and connection strength is certainly useful, but this can also potentially limit the available pool of players. Even if it’s easy to just hit Play and wait for opponents to be delivered to you, the wait time is highly dependent on a variety of factors. While some games feature things like rival or player ID search, it’s still difficult to reunite with random players by design. This highly impersonal matchmaking functionality leads to toxicity, burnout with the game, and makes it difficult to play longer and more productive sets with dedicated opponents. These issues are what social hub matchmaking systems attempt to address.
Social hub matchmaking
Social hub lobbies that facilitate large amounts of players are relatively new inventions in fighting games and are only really seen in Arc System Works’ titles. Even when games like Blazblue Central Fiction had private social hub lobbies, they used matchmaking queues for things like ranked. Xrd first had the World Lobby feature- the public unranked matchmaking lobby system- which would then be replicated in Dragon Ball FighterZ, Granblue Fantasy Versus, and Blazblue Cross Tag Battle with varying results, mainly due to the wildly different ways each game implemented them. Them’s Fightin’ Herds notably has a 2D pixel lobby system for public matchmaking that is remarkably like what GGST uses. In general, though, there are certain commonalities in how each system works.
Each public social hub lobby allots a large maximum of players and can be viewed from a menu. There exists several of these lobbies, all sorted by continental and coastal regions, and the number of players in each lobby can be viewed before selecting. The social hub lobbies are navigated with an avatar, and you begin matchmaking by sitting down at a designated waiting area (usually shaped like an arcade cabinet) or by finding an opponent who is likewise waiting. This allows you to seek out specific opponents for long sets, even in formats that only allow best-of-threes. Depending on the game, you can also chat, emote, and wait in other modes such as Training Mode while matchmaking. These feature sets often carry over to the private lobby systems, which are navigated in the same way and offer more features like all-play, rotations, and spectating.
Perhaps the most obvious reason why the social hub isn’t especially popular is due to their legibility and ease of use. While Xrd, GBVS, and even GGST’s lobbies are relatively easy to navigate now, it can be hard to figure out where to go to play others in DBFZ if you’re just starting out. The amount of menuing just to get into a match is also inconvenient and can make it feel like you must wait longer for a match than you would if you were waiting in a queue. That feeling, compounded by the fact that social hub lobbies are highly aesthetic driven, can make this type of matchmaking feel like an ‘obstacle’ compared to traditional matchmaking systems. Another, perhaps more genuine issue, is that the public lobbies at least don’t offer filters for connection quality or MMR. While screening region and connection quality is probably a moot point when the servers are already segregated by area, especially in a rollback title like GGST, not being able to filter by MMR or in-game rank can lead to pubstomping.
In the long run, however, social hub matchmaking has a lot of advantages over queue-based matchmaking. The wait times of queues mainly come from them sorting potential matches that fulfill your filters out of all the players online, but in social hub lobbies you don’t have to wait that long. Instead, you can go directly to a populated lobby and get right to playing against someone. As mentioned previously, you can also run long sets against players in a way that queue-based matchmaking doesn’t normally allow for. The avatars and in-game all-chat not only allow for practical means of expression, but they can also foster community and personal relationships in a way that speed-dating matchmaking doesn’t facilitate. Anecdotally, we’ve all recognized certain players who routinely show up to lobbies, who we’ve ended up talking to and playing with frequently. While such connections could certainly be made via quick matching, they are (likely intentionally) rarer. Some public social hub lobbies even allow you to spectate and rotate in the same way that private lobbies do.
GGST’s middle ground, and what can be improved
While GGST primarily uses social hub lobbies for their public unranked matchmaking, they’ve also taken a new approach for their ranked system that functions as a hybrid of both queue-based and social hub matchmaking. The Quick Start feature allows you to search for ranked matches in a similar way to past titles: you enter a ranked matchmaking queue with various filters while waiting in Training Mode. This queue places your avatar in a corresponding Tower Floor that matches your rank, which allows you to not only match against players who are specifically using the lobby, but also players in the queue. Players who are a certain rank can play on their own Floor, and against opponents on Floors above them, but not against Floors below. (The common misconception is that Quick Start only pairs you against people in the Floor, but this is untrue, since it’s possible for you to run into opponents at least one rank higher than your Floor despite them being barred from entering the lobby in the first place.) Players who rank high enough can reach an exclusive eleventh Floor and must win a certain number of sets in order to retain that position, or else they demote and lose their prestige. Both the ranked Tower lobbies and unranked Park lobbies have their own regional sorting as usual.
Assuming things such as desync errors and server downtime are addressed in the final release, this lobby system is remarkably elegant in its design. It simultaneously incentivizes playing ranked by providing an endgame in the heavenly floor, while reducing the feeling that their rank is indicative of their skill. If you demote and are sent to a lower floor, you can still play on the higher floor you were previously assigned if you so choose- conversely, players on the lower floors can push themselves by purposefully seeking out stronger opponents. In the meantime, players on higher floors are prevented from deliberately going into lower floors to farm rank or pubstomp. Quick Start allows players who don’t like the lobby system to play as they normally would, and of course you can enter the passive matchmaking queue at any time. This also allows for expressive communities and long sets in ranked that normally would only be possible in unranked public and private lobbies.
The major issues with the previous iterations of the lobbies, apart from bugs, were the cluttering of avatars, randomly teleporting avatars while on standby, and the lack of instant rematch. With the Duel Stations solving the first two issues and the addition of instant rematch, the current iteration of the lobby system is greatly improved. Some minor issues also arise due to deliberate design choices, such as the inability to continue a set if you promote mid-set. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, and we can look laterally at TFH’s lobbies for some solutions, especially since the TFH and GGST lobbies already get compared to each other frequently.
TFH deliberately has not implemented its ranked system yet due to having a small player-base. However, it has three different unranked online systems: private 8-man lobbies (that currently only facilitate winners stays rotations,) 2D pixel lobbies that can host up to 25 players (with some PvE modes that won’t be discussed here) and an unranked matchmaking queue that you can wait in while in other modes. Players can also ‘level up’ by playing matches, and they can earn experience faster by winning more, thus creating a ‘pseudo-ranked’ system that demonstrates hours played. The two main advantages that TFH has over GGST are the aforementioned unranked queue and the ability to spectate and rotate in the 2D pixel lobbies. TFH does have other problems, however: for instance, if you’re in a pixel lobby, and in training mode, other players in the pixel lobby cannot match request you, even if you’re in the matchmaking queue. Also, while it mostly eschews the cabinet system in favor of simply walking up to opponents and requesting a match, this can still lead to clutter or players being interrupted when they’re idling or in different modes. Of course, while not having all-play or training mode while in private 8-man lobbies hurts, this is mitigated by the mere existence of the pixel lobbies in the first place, and TFH is an indie game unlike GGST, so beggars can’t be choosers.
It’s important to understand that issues like long wait times, desyncs, and miscellaneous bugs would occur online whether you’re in an interactive avatar lobby or if you’re just hitting Play. Think outside of the genre- Apex Legends has a simple and ‘quick’ matchmaking service, and I still get desynced from my teammates frequently while connecting to the game. Whether the long wait time is because you can’t find a full lobby or because the queue is barren, the system itself is not at fault for those issues. Likewise, if the matchmaking system experiences a ton of server-side disconnects where opponents fail to get into a proper game, those would occur regardless of the system. (GGST’s open betas had both a queue and a social hub and there were desync issues in both.) When forming opinions and criticisms of any game’s feature, it’s important to be able to delineate whether issues are due to design flaws (something working as intended but feeling bad in practice) or due to glitches (something not working as intended at all.) This not only helps you understand how features work, but it helps you articulate feedback properly.
It’s my opinion that the current iteration of the GGST matchmaking systems is mostly fine. I’m okay with the aesthetic of the 2D voxel look, since it was hard to see players ‘behind’ the camera in the 3D Xrd and GBVS lobbies. Between the ability to search for specific players in the member list and the 2D plane, it’s easier to find opponents now. Apart from bugfixes, there are only a handful of features I would want added to the online. Some have already been promised or discussed, such as Wi-Fi and connection quality indicators, as well as the potential to manually set the rollback input delay. (Currently, GGST’s delay is fixed at a single frame.) I personally don’t need rotations to be handled in large public lobbies, but I would at least like to spectate some matches live. I also don’t see why Quick Start can’t include an unranked queue for those who really want it as an alternative- although I personally prefer interacting in the lobbies themselves, that’s clearly not the case for everyone. You can also enter standby matchmaking in the Parks as it is, so I imagine that places you in a similar queue as Quick Start.
Each type of matchmaking system has its own pros and cons. While it may seem at times that ASW is attempting to re-invent the wheel, their motivation for exploring these features becomes clear when you compare them to other games. Sure, in SFV, I can maybe open up a lobby, search for a recently played opponent via Fighter ID, invite them to my lobby, hope they respond, and then get a long set going with them that way… or I can just sit down at a Park cabinet in GGST and play with someone for an hour without having to go through that many hoops. Entering a queue may be easier and faster than navigating all those menus just to get into a lobby and sit at a cabinet, but think about how quickly and frequently you can play with someone once you’re at the cabinet in the first place. Also consider the ability to go to certain regions that may have a different variety of players than yours or going to your ‘favorite’ lobby where players you recognize hang out- things that aren’t possible in matchmaking queues that don’t allow you to seek matches yourself.
Neither system is totally perfect, but it’s clear that each system attempts to address the flaws of the other. At the end of the day, what matters most is that fighting game matchmaking allows you to play many sets quickly, frequently, and repeatedly, without making online itself a miserable experience. Online play is not only valuable practice, but it’s the core of most players’ time spent in the game. If the game doesn’t let you play it as much as possible, then the online mode is a failure.