In the present era when battle royales are regnant and unabated, it does not take much for an FPS-enthusiast to develop some degree of gamer's anxiety. For no other game does this ring truer than for Apex Legends, where screaming matches and rage-quitting are seemingly inevitable outcomes in every session.
When Apex Legends first came onto the scene, it was clear that it had to deliver big time. Fortnite, its greatest adversary, had already established itself as the top dog in the BR world, with almost 250 million players in its clutches after only two years.
That, combined with the abysmal rout of Titanfall, meant that Respawn could not afford to take another L.
As fate would have it, Apex Legends would go on to take the world by storm, exceeding expectations and instantly becoming a respected name in the BR genre. It was a refreshing take on the classic game style, with its remarkable fluidity, intuitive controls, and novel innovations like a unique, in-game pinging system, organized looting, and respawn process.
Nobody could have predicted that this newcomer would end up resetting the bar. Even shroud, the FPS legend himself, says that "Apex is, by far, still the best BR" without even stopping to think if there are better titles on the market right now.
With all the praise Apex Legends has received, it appears that Respawn has got it all figured out. What, then, could possibly be the cause of frustration for its loyal players?
For many, it's the skill-based matchmaking.
Skill-based matchmaking is an algorithm-driven process that a game utilizes to put players who are at a similar skill level in the same lobby. Other factors such as location and connection are also considered in order to optimize connectivity, but high priority is still given to players that the game thinks will be evenly matched.
In Call of Duty, the algorithm is believed to consider stats such as time played, score per minute, and KDR when matching players based on skill. This means that lower-skilled players will generally be matched with other lower-skilled players, and higher-skilled players will generally be matched with other higher-skilled players.
The main reason why skill-based matchmaking is so controversial is that so many players believe it removes the casual aspect of the contest, which only punishes those with better stats. If strong players are always matched with other strong players, they will never have a chance to demonstrate their skills and stand out among the weaker players. Every match will simply feel like a competitive one.
In the case of Apex Legends, skill-based matchmaking is employed in both its public and ranked modes, wherein lies the issue. Forcing players to take seriously what is supposed to be a casual experience defeats the entire purpose of the game mode and consequently sours the experience altogether.
There would probably be fewer complaints if skill-based matchmaking was only used in the ranked mode, but Respawn refuses to make that change for one simple reason: skill-based matchmaking in both modes works (at least, according to their data).
"We’ve done tests where we change the skill-based matchmaking rules, or turn it off in certain areas, certain data centres for a period of time and we collect data, and there’s concrete evidence that having skill-based matchmaking in our game makes players play longer, play more, increases retention, increases play hours," said Chad Grenier, the creative director of Apex Legends.
"When we turn skill-based matchmaking off, we see new players come into the game and they turn away much sooner, because they’re getting matched with high-tier players and they’re getting stomped. So we have concrete evidence that skill-based matchmaking is good for the overall health of the game."
But what about the health of its players? Some fans have argued that the frustration they undergo as a result of the skill-based matchmaking has a mental toll that can sometimes be overwhelming; to the point where it feels as if it would be easier to just quit the game altogether.
One Apex Legends fan took to EA's forums to reinforce this point. Claiming to be a clinical psychotherapist, the user stressed the taxing impact of skill-based matchmaking on the mind:
"I work as a therapist, and am well-versed on the body's various responses to stress. But it doesn't take a degree in psychology to understand that people do not want to play super competitive, sweaty matches every game. Even Timmy Tryhard lacks the mental energy to play at 100% of his ability all the time.
"There needs to be a casual option. There just has to be. The natural psychological response to stressful experiences is to avoid them. If all Apex offers is stressful games, then people are going to start playing less often and this isn’t going to bode well for Apex or any other game. My personal belief is that players should be afforded the option to experience games casually or competitively."
Despite these complaints, Grenier continued to defend the game's implementation of skill-based matchmaking, claiming that the current system protects lower-skilled players from being decimated in every game.
"You want them to get into the game, get engaged, get some kills, [and] get some wins occasionally because if someone comes in and they try out Apex and they get stumped, they're not going to keep playing the game.
"We say, okay, well these highly-skilled players, they should play against other highly-skilled players and be competitive. We don't want them just stomping all these beginners and then they have a bad experience, right? We're always trying to find that balance."
As is the case with any game, everything in Apex Legends is always subject to change and improvement. With Season 7 set to launch this Nov. 4, the Respawn devs are excited to present the updates they have made, including Olympus, the new map; Horizon, the new hero; and Trident, the new vehicle.
As for the skilled-based matchmaking conundrum, we will just have to wait and see what Respawn does next.
"We'll continue to tweak, iterate, listen. We're always tweaking things in the back in the matchmaking system," assures Grenier. "If people notice things are getting worse or better, speak up because we're listening and we'd love to make it right for everybody if that's even possible."
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