Playlist-based Matchmaking is crap.

Josh screams into the void about developer's choice of matchmaking and game modes.

In preparation for Respawn’s highly-anticipated Titanfall 2 (dropping at the end of the month), I reinstalled its predecessor last week. The last time I had played Titanfall was November 2014, according to my Origin account.

The game is highly mechanical and there are a lot of advanced tactics to brush up on. Being built on the Source engine (which itself was built from iD tech/Quake engine code), you’ve got full air control and momentum conservation in the form of bunnyhopping, on top of the already-excellent wall running and double jumping. All of this is promised to return in the sequel, so I figured why not re-master these techniques to get a bigger edge on the competition in Titanfall 2.

I want to make one thing perfectly clear before I dive into the meat here: Titanfall is fun. One of the most fun FPS games I have ever played, in fact – there’s an excellent blend of tactics, movement, aim and general FPS skill that doesn’t often get to shine in such a broad spectrum in other games. With so many different ways to play, it certainly ticks the box for the competitive mantra “easy to learn, hard to master.” The gameplay is beautifully sculpted in such a way that you can only come to expect from the geniuses behind Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (the best Call of Duty title to date, I might add). It sounds cool, it looks cool, it’s fast-paced, there’s an extremely high skill ceiling

However, nearly everything else about the game is crap.

The netcode certainly leaves something to be desired – hit registration is lackluster, the tick rate (the rate at which the server updates the world with new information, ie: you shot the bad guy and he is now dead; higher tick rate is better but requires more bandwidth) is on the low end, and Microsoft’s Azure servers seem to have terrible routing, at least for me and my Edmontonian ISP. I haven’t played a game where I had 60 ping to US West in awhile… (Okay, maybe I’ve been babied a bit here by Blizzard and Overwatch, but still…). You can’t change certain graphics options like texture resolution unless you’re in the main menu, and worst of all, it runs on Origin. Yet another launcher to install and account to keep secure, with notifications that trash framerates and need to be disabled. Gross!

But by far the biggest problem with Titanfall (and many, many other games) is its playlist-based matchmaking system.

I strongly believe that this is one of the biggest factors in why Titanfall saw such an insane drop off in players so shortly after launch. To provide some context, the game released in March of 2014. The last time I had played it was November of 2014. In that time, I put in 220 hours. And then bam, flatline. Nothing. Why would I put down a game with such delightful gameplay, you might ask?

To answer that, let me explain what playlist-based matchmaking is. “Playlists” have existed forever – my first encounter with them was on Xbox Live with Halo 2. In order to play multiplayer, you’d choose a playlist and queue up for a match. That playlist would be for one of the game’s various modes: Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, etc. You’d see a population count to get an idea of how many players were currently in that playlist. The less popular modes would have less players, so if you were feeling impatient you could just go and play a more popular mode to find a game faster.

There’s an inherent catch-22 here. Players see nobody playing a given game mode’s playlist, so they don’t queue for it. The matchmaking system finds it harder and harder to find a complete match and in due time, the playlist is completely dead. There could be dozens – if not hundreds – of players who would prefer to play Capture the Flag instead of Team Deathmatch, but because they see nobody else is playing it they don’t bother to wait. They just queue Team Deathmatch instead, and queues for Capture the Flag never pop again.


Note: All 9 of the other modes have zero players.

It’s a problem that is clearly exacerbated by a small playerbase overall – as you can see above there’s only some 380-odd people playing, which is par for the course in Titfanfall on PC in 2016. Xbox is a little more active, but with no cross-platform play that doesn’t help me play any CTF games. The catch-22 strikes again here: If you’re someone who doesn’t want to play “Attrition” (Titanfall’s version of Team Deathmatch with a hint of PvE mixed in) and instead wants to play Hardpoint (King of the Hill with 3 hills, otherwise known as Domination in other games), Capture the Flag or any other objective-based modes, you’re not going to be able to and will likely decide to just go and play a different game entirely. The population suffers and it becomes even harder to ever get a full queue for those game modes.

Franchises like Halo and Call of Duty have established the standard for playlist-based matchmaking over the last 10+ years. In the absence of a server browser, developers look at it as the next best thing: You get to play the game modes you want when you want. And when you can’t, come back next year for the new game to try again. I’m sad to say that’s what I’m looking forward to most about Titanfall 2: The chance to play CTF and Hardpoint on-demand again, rest of the game and its new changes be damned.


To compare, Overwatch is the first game I’ve seen “do it right” as far as playlists go. In Overwatch, the choice of game mode is removed from you entirely: You can queue for “quick play” – a non-competitive mode with no hero limits and emphatically not to be taken seriously, play with bots, queue for competitive matches, start a custom game to set the rules (and matchmaking) yourself, or play Blizzard’s weekly brawl where they go and break the game in fun and silly ways.

In both Quick Play and Competitive, you simply join the queue and get a game. Whether it’s Capture Point, Payload or King of the Hill is entirely up to their system. You might not get the map or mode you prefer the most, but you are absolutely guaranteed to find a match and in time, might even get a game on your favorite map and mode. I think it’s a nice compromise, especially since server browsers and clan communities are a way of the past – although I’d prefer to be able to ban or veto certain maps like in Starcraft 2 so I could never play Temple of Anubis Anus again.

About Josh Folland

Josh Folland is a technologist and marketing professional with a strong interest in video games and video game culture. His talents as a systems administrator are complimented by audio and video skills. He can strafe jump with the best of them and when he clicks on you, you're done for.

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