P for Psychology: Heroes of the Storm, Matchmaking, and a Very Expensive Herring

Heroes of the Storm has been out for almost two months now, to moderate and respectable success. You should go play it if you enjoy games like League of Legends or DOTA2, but don’t enjoy slugging through libraries of guides on obtuse mechanics on last-hitting or jungling or whatever. However, this is not a plug. I condescend to you to discuss a problematic trend in the Heroes community right now. Despite the youth of the game, HotS continues to get a lot of flack for its “matchmaking problems.” This is the purported issue of how Heroes’ matchmaker prioritizes speed over relative skill as measured by MMR, leading to countless posts on how the matchmaker put someone with, say, 3000 MMR on the same team as someone with 2000 MMR. Moreover, since the rise of Hotslogs.com, MMR checking and other pernicious habits have started to infest the community’s mentality, despite Hotslogs.com being notoriously inaccurate. I do not dispute the existence of a matchmaking problem per se, since Blizzard has already admitted to certain issues with it, but I highly doubt just how widespread people think it is or if they even understand the supposed problem to begin with. From a higher perspective, my concern lies in people latching onto a convenient scapegoat instead of learning how to deal with the typical and inevitable variance they will encounter in an online multiplayer team game. As I said, Heroes is a young game; bad habits form easily in youth; bad habits die hard.

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Including making bad memes.

Matchmaking in an online game has, is, and always will be an art more than a science, particularly in a team-based game. Often people offer blind praise for the matchmaking caliber of a game like Starcraft 2…a single-player RTS game. When you get right down to it, it’s very difficult to match five players against five players while trying to narrow any potential skill-gap as much as possible, let alone accounting for stuff like allowing for friends to queue with each other. Games are not at the point where their systems can make comprehensive value judgments on a human’s behavior, so any sort of matchmaking rating is a post-facto attempt to gauge pure game performance. As everyone knows, damage meters don’t tell you how good of a player someone is. Win ratios don’t reveal if a person yells at his teammates every second game or grasps strategic priorities on every map. At the end of the day, MMR only conveys how often a person has won or lost relative to the player base over a long period of time. Everything in between is variance.

But what is variance? Well, it covers a lot of ground. For instance, no one’s knowledge of the game will ever be complete. Heroes is not a solved game, like checkers. It is constantly shifting and being adjusted by its developers, who are in turn making decisions based on the collective decisions of a vast playerbase. Nobody knows everything about everything in Heroes at every point in time. Most people don’t learn even half the heroes of the game very well, even people in Master League. This is why you end up with players that only play assassins well or who can never play support. You will run into those kinds of people at every layer of the playerbase. Knowledge variance never disappears; it just stabilizes over time as you tend to encounter more people with wider game knowledge and wider competencies.

The same applies to performance variance. Robots are not playing this game: humans are. Humans are meat-bag primates whose nervous systems and physiques did not evolve to play highly complex computer games online. We have physical and mental limitations that affect our ability to perform at tasks. Sleep problems, a bad breakfast (or no breakfast), a miserable day at work, frustrating social events, etc., can all very negatively affect one’s ability to make judgments in a game like Heroes. Glaurung has bad days. Zp has bad days. Nick has bad days (and breaks the screen to cope). Everyone has bad days. Everyone makes a bad call on occasion, whiffs that key skillshot, gets tunnel vision, mixes up spawn timers, or even prioritizes playing a champion to have fun over winning. Just like knowledge variance, performance variance never goes away.

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What? I had to get a Snape reference in here.

So what does this all have to do with matchmaking? Well, everything. Matchmaking is no god. It does not determine everything that happens to you. In fact, unless you’re at a very competitive level of the Heroes community, it probably doesn’t affect your games much at all. The other stuff I mentioned is so much more important. Skill gaps, even tiny ones, can have far more drastic influence on how often you win or lose. Your team knowing when to take mercs or to go for an objective, or knowing how certain champions scale and which ones counter which, can make or break a match before it even begins. The mere skill of knowing when to back off is something most people at the lower strata of play don’t understand, even though it’s vitally important. To chalk everything up to “I was matched with a n00b” is both lazy and self-defeating. There are very few matches where you played perfectly and everything was everyone else’s fault. Yes, they do happen, but only once in a blue moon. You have no control over whether someone’s Time Warner connection is shitting itself at that particular moment. You can only control what you’re doing, so you need to focus on helping both yourself and others instead of tossing all blame onto a convenient excuse you don’t really understand.

The Heroes community needs to stop mistaking what has come to be called “matchmaking” for normal shit that every player goes through in every online game. You will be matched with feeders, AFK’ers, the first-pick Sonyas, the last pick Novas, and you will be matched against the first-pick Zeratuls that can Blink-dance with one hand tied behind their backs. It’s called “life”. Deal with it. Matchmaking shouldn’t even be on your mind until you’ve been Rank 1 for months and your win ratio is very stable. Only then can it be an intrusive element that you can legitimately complain about. In the meantime, if you really want to improve, watch replays, watch high-level players in tournaments, analyze what they do, analyze what you’ve done wrong, and treat your teammates with respect and decency. What’s more, part of this “matchmaking” issue arises from the way the competitive ranking system is structured at the moment. It’s much harder to rank yourself against other players and judge where you really are when there are only 50 ranks, only half of which matter, and there’s no Grandmaster League yet to stratify and discriminate between the people who’ve gotten to Rank 1. That will be fixed in time, though. It’s not something to get worked up about.

Heroes has the potential to be a very popular and excellent MOBA, but if we keep instilling this mentality that “matchmaking sucks” and teaching new players to blame their poor performance on a convenient scapegoat, we poison their experience from the very beginning. Even at the very worst, Heroes doesn’t fuck you over nearly as much as a game like LoL or DOTA, where you’re stuck with that feeder for 30+ minutes and just one ill-matched person on either side can sink the game for you and waste such a significant amount of time. If you get stomped in Heroes, the match is over in 10-15 minutes and you move on. We should be selling that as a big feature instead of running around with our heads cut off about that stupid Sonya pick.

Perspective is everything in life, and we shouldn’t lose it here just because it’s a game. Games really are serious business. We enjoy them and invest ourselves in them, which is the only thing that truly matters for us in an otherwise brief and largely futile existence. If you let something as specious as “matchmaking” control your thinking, you’re not going to have fun in Heroes, and that’s a crying shame, because that’s what games are all about.

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Oh.

And winning. Winning is more important.

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Dragon Age II: A Study in Insanity

We have fifteen days (HOLY CRAP JUST FIFTEEN DAYS) before Dragon Age: Inquisition comes out and I lose all contact with the outside world. In order to hype myself up a bit more–to the point where I think I’m losing my mind with how obsessed I am with this universe–I’ve been replaying Dragon Age II. Before I get castrated by the shitzillion fucktards who always come out of the woodwork whenever Dragon Age II is mentioned, no, I didn’t hate the game. I’m near the 400-hour mark on Dragon Age II. I love this game so much, and sometimes I don’t know why. I’ve been of the entirely unorthodox opinion that Dragon Age: Origins was overhyped from the beginning, and while I enjoyed that game too, I didn’t get involved in it like I have DA2. To this day I still don’t understand why everyone likes DA:O so much. Sure, the game is polished like no other, but apart from the fascinating world it presents, the content within is pretty unremarkable. The graphics style always bothered me–it came across as both bland and unrealistic. By that I mean it just doesn’t feel real; it’s more like you’re watching a storybook unfold. Maybe that was the point, but it just doesn’t feel like something positive to me. The ways he characters move, look and behave feels so stilted, somehow lacking in emotion. Then you actually get into combat and you want to kill yourself: oh look, another twenty seconds of auto-attacking while your rogue takes ten of those seconds just to get across the battlefield to the enemy. Wait, why did I even bring a rogue? Oh, for traps. That’s it. Otherwise I’d just bring three mages and a tank and kill everything with one hand tied behind my back. Then I’ll go wade through the generic storyline with a cadre of characters I barely care about. I’ve concluded that DA:O is an object lesson in how execution and polish can cover a multitude of sins, while DA2 is an object lesson in how good fundamentals can’t necessarily do the same.

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This dragon respawns every time someone says “DA2” on the internet.

At its core, DA2 was a better game than DA:O. Storyline, characterization, combat, thematic coherence, etc., everything was conceived much better from the ground up. More than anything else, Hawke’s adventures put the “role” back into “role-playing game.” It did this better than Mass Effect, I think, which is high praise indeed. The story excelled at putting you in Hawke’s shoes, at making you feel like this refugee building their way up from nothing and becoming important, with all the consequences that has. Act 1 has you poor and weak, running around Kirkwall doing menial tasks as befitting a noble whose house has fallen from grace. The characters you met along the way got swept up in that story and became crucial parts of the tapestry you were building. Aveline, Fenris, Varric, Isabela, Merrill, Bethany, Carver (who?), and even Anders (hiss) all felt like real people you had a deep connection with. Some of Bioware’s best characters and moments ever come from this game, particularly Aveline and Varric. Then combat in DA2 proved far more interactive and engaging, with each class becoming much better defined with strengths and weaknesses you could appreciate and build a party around. Something people also fail to appreciate is that Bioware took a risk with DA2. While EA might have thought otherwise, it’s clear DA2 was a conscious departure from its predecessor. Bioware wanted to try something different: they wanted to work with a narrative structure they hadn’t really done before. They could have just made a money-grabbing sequel-copy to DA:O and the fanboys would have bought it up so long as they polished it right and checked off all the boxes, but they didn’t. Anyway, all in all, DA2 was a good game. So why wasn’t it a great game?

Well, DA2 got rushed out the door, and it shows. We all know about the One True Cave. I’ll first remark that Skyrim had One True Cave too: it just took twenty million copies sold for people to realize it. That’s why I go back to the lesson in polish and execution: DA2 only had the One True Cave and crammed every second quest into it: combined with the constrained scope of Kirkwall and the world you were set in, you caught on pretty quickly, so unless were already taken in by the game’s events and other systems, like I was, you’d get frustrated and bored in no time. Contrarily, Skyrim had a larger world that maintained the illusion of novelty, so your mind didn’t really notice or care it was wandering through the exact same cavern a billion times on random side-quests. A few years removed, people suddenly realized that the Skyrim released at launch sucked and that all the hype surrounding it was dumb. Hey, too late now, idiots: Bethesda has all your money, and I’m pretty sure your critical credibility just flew out the window as well. You really don’t care if companies milk games; you only care if it’s a game you don’t like. People rag on EA for releasing Madden every year and milking the shit out of it, but there are some legitimate reasons for that, such as roster changes and the ever-changing world of American football that six billion people don’t understand. Meanwhile, Bethesda has released the exact same game three times in a row, and people worship them. Apart from graphical fidelity and some minor changes to stats and talents, Morrowind and Skyrim, two games released almost ten years apart from each other, are indistinguishable. Same bland talking heads all voiced by the same dozen people, same horrible melee combat, same unexpected messiah narrative structure, same sidequest system, same musical themes, even the same goddamn opening. If I have to sit through one more sequence where I’m a prisoner of the Empire being dragged off somewhere…

Wait, what was the original point of this post? Oh yeah, I’m playing through Dragon Age II again. It’s been a little while, but this sums up my reaction to everything that happens:

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Hawke has way better hair, though.

More particularly, I’m focusing on the Templars and how the Circle of Magi is utterly broken. Seriously, it’s so dumb how everything within this system operates. “We’re afraid of mages, so we’ll lock them up and have them watched over by drug-addicted zealots with no effective oversight or recourse, all while teaching them their charges are one step away from killing everyone. What could possibly go wrong?” An excellent question, my lovelies. In the first Act, the Grand Cleric, who possesses ultimate authority over the mages and the Templars alike, says to Hawke with a straight face: “It is not my role to form judgments on her [Knight-Commander Meredith’s] character.” Um, what did you just say? Because that’s wrong, you cow: that is exactly your role. You are supposed to be overseeing what the Templars are doing, otherwise this system cannot function. Don’t you realize the kind of people the Templars are? They’re brutal sociopaths at best. You need people smarter than them to make sure–oh, fuck it. You die in two more acts, Elthina, and it’s your own damn fault. Anyway, it seems like everything the Templars do is hilarious. Cullen says he’ll let a recruit, who was captured by crazy mages with some stupid plan to forcibly possess some Templars with demons, be promoted to full knighthood if he doesn’t show any signs of possession after ten years. Ten fucking years? Really? You’re going to condemn this poor guy to a life of poverty and menial labor just like that? Are you stupid? Let’s presume he is possessed, even though it’s clear Hawke arrived in time before the crazy mages managed to do anything to him. Hey, Cullen: spirits and demons don’t exactly have a concept of time, probably because they exist in a realm where there is no concept of time. If this recruit really has a demon om-nom-noming on his soul right now, all it’ll do is just wait until you no longer suspect his host. Boom: party time, baby. Do you not study the basic principles of magic and demons? If you don’t, why are you in charge of overseeing mages in the first place? Isn’t basic education on this stuff kind of important for you to ensure you’re doing your job correctly? Do you even care? No, of course not. Every second Templar is either an obvious rapist or a clueless fucktard that couldn’t care less about things.

This extends not only to DA2 itself, but all the books and such we see beyond it. In Dragon Age: Asunder, Lord Seeker Lambert is a hopeless douchebag who wants to kill every mage he sees, and this is the guy in charge of the organization that’s theoretically in place to step in when the Templars don’t do their jobs? How does that sound like a good idea? Why were the Seekers even brought in to begin with? Oh yeah, we haven’t even talked about Madame Psychopathy Herself, Knight-Commander Meredith, who gets the 9:37 Dragon Award for Leader of the Year. How this fucking moron managed to acquire such a position of authority is beyond me. She should have been removed the moment she started making mages Tranquil because reasons, which is the most flagrant violation of Chantry law ever. Mages who have passed their Harrowing cannot be made Tranquil. Oh, and she denies mages appearances at court, locks them up in their rooms, and immediately suspects anyone who runs away from her nightmarish prison-state a practitioner of blood magic. In Act 3, you hunt down some mages, two of them who do turn out to be blood mages, and you find out that they both resorted to blood magic because the fucking Templars treated them like shit. Meredith even suspects the third mage, some hopeless virgin who just wants to get laid, and casually decides if he’ll keep his life or not. Fuck you. Finally she just goes into batshit mode and orders the execution of every mage in the city after Anders blows up the Kirkwall Chantry, even though the terrorist responsible for it is right there in front of themof all and admits to acting entirely on his own with no help or support from the Circle whatsoever. Her justification? “The people of Kirkwall will want retribution for this.” Mmkay. I believe you, Knight-Commander, if “people of Kirkwall” means “me, Meredith Coocoopants.” Pretty sure the people of Kirkwall don’t even know what the fuck just happened, as you let all but three seconds pass between the explosion and your casual decision to commit mass murder. It’s almost as if you were just waiting for an excuse to kill all these mages anyway. The mages even offer her complete and unconditional surrender, but NOPE. She’s just gonna kill everyone. Hey, Cullen: you might want to stop her. Are you going to do something, man? Gonna, you know, point out how weird it is she’s lost her fucking mind? I dunno. Anything would work at this point.

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Or 4chan. Same difference.

What’s most annoying, though, is that everyone treats the problem of mages as some unsolvable dilemma of the ages, when it’s really just a simple matter of civil rights and secular oversight. As it is in Thedas, mages live within a system of slavery. They’re locked up in the Circles their whole lives and are only dragged out when the Chantry needs them to fry some Qunari or darkspawn. The social contract between them and the rest of civilization is completely one-sided, with society asking everything of them while giving them nothing in return except the nominal right to existence. Oh yeah, that’ll keep them happy. Sure. The first thing you could do is not have them watched over by religious zealots. Bioware has even glossed over the obvious sins of the Templar Order, much to my chagrin. I can’t imagine just how much rape and abuse has gone on within it for nearly a thousand years. We’re still dealing with the issue of widespread rape and sexual harassment within our militaries even in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, mages will always need some system of oversight over them. To me, this is the most fascinating element of the Dragon Age setting: the question of what to do with people who are naturally separate from the rest of society. The innate potential of mages far exceeds that of their fellow men. How do you balance the desire to use this potential for the betterment of mankind against the threat of them using it against everyone else? It’s a captivating question for me, and one that opens up some interesting paths to explore. I really hope Bioware doesn’t drop the ball with Inquisition. Everything seems like it’ll be great, but then again, so did Mass Effect 3, and we all remember how that turned out.

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Choose the Instagram filter you’ll use to watch everyone you ever loved die horribly.

We’ll find out in fifteen days. In the meantime, I’ll go knife Anders and Meredith again. Unlike the One True Cave, that shit never gets old.

Sword Art Online II – 7

This image sums up thSILLY.SEX-IS-GROSSe entire status of Kirito and Asuna’s relationship. It’s been seven episodes and I still don’t know why these two attractive young teenagers aren’t fucking like rabbits in a meadow. It probably has something to do with Japanese culture and its severe, crippling allergy to all things mildly related to realistic physical and emotional intimacy between people, opting instead to harp on the same three or four tired lines we’ve all heard before. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away: Sinon, you might want to kinda give the guy who obviously really cares about you a mature answer. No, you don’t have to like him back, but you could at least address the elephant in the room head on instead of doing what every other female anime protagonist has ever done, i.e., brush it off with an embarrassed chuckle. You don’t have many friends; it’s probably not a good idea to treat your most dedicated one like crap. Can’t you hear the red alert sirens going off? This is going to come back and bite you in the ass. The anime you’re in isn’t exactly pushing the bounds of creativity here. Jilted companion + mysterious group of villains = bad mojo.

Sigh. I really am sick to death of this aspect of Japanese culture. Really, I am. The stereotypes and cliches are more worn down than Asuna’s vibrator. Sure, occasionally we get something like 5 cm per second that depicts the Japanese perspective on relationships, but I’ve never seen some popular Japanese media actually criticize the way the Japanese deal with the topic of sex and physical intimacy. Believe you me, it is beyond twisted and monstrously unhealthy. Before ye mindless Japanophiles prate on about how the Japanese aren’t as prude as Americans and blah blah blah and how refreshing that is, I’m going to break this down a little bit with a giant sledge hammer: you are fucking wrong. The Japanese are less prudish about depicting nudity, that’s true; at everything else relating to sex and physical intimacy between human beings, they suck balls. Japanese culture makes a goddamn profession out of being terrible at depicting realistic relationships with realistic challenges–be they physical, mental, emotional, etc.–that occur in them. Due to its culture’s debilitating obsession with saving face for no good reason whatsoever, Japanese media shies away from this more vehemently than Ebola.

Let me drive this point home. When was the last time you saw in an anime any of the following:

  • A normal, stable couple depicted without any cliched romantic stereotypes, off-the-wall mental problems, or other horrible conditions used to fuel a plot about them?
    • When was the last time you saw such a couple have sex?
      • Was that sex actually shown onscreen?
      • When was that sex merely hinted at or disguised with some really thin euphemism that was played straight nevertheless?
    • When was the last time you saw that couple fight or discuss problems in a straightforward, mature manner? Dramatic elements are not the issue. Did they actually directly address what was going on between them?
  • A couple go through a breakup that was depicted onscreen?
    • Did they discuss this in a mature way? Even if it were comedic, did the anime try to touch on a few themes or elements seriously? (Something that happens regularly even in the most shallow American TV.)
  • Young protagonists with parents that are both alive, active in their children’s lives, yet dealing with troubles that do not include severe mental derangement or some other horrific conditions?
  • Gay people.
  • Gay people depicted as normal, healthy individuals? (Stop laughing.)
  • A gay relationship depicted in detail as normal, healthy, and praiseworthy? (I mean it. This is serious.)

In comparison, when was the last time you saw in an anime any of the following:

  • Boobies.
    • But no actual tits or vaginas.
  • Highly sexualized school girl uniforms.
  • Swimsuit episodes.
  • Harems.
  • Magical girls.
  • Any female over thirty that isn’t a total bitch or otherwise a terrible person.
  • Highly effeminate yet-totally-not-gay people who are insulting stereotypes.
  • Lecherous men whose noses have more blood than the rest of their bodies.
  • Extremely shy guys who have to eventually blurt out their feelings to a woman who just doesn’t get it because women are stupid. (See above.)
  • Asshole men with hearts of gold who can’t admit their feelings about a woman ever.
  • Oblivious men who take two hundred fucking episodes to figure out they really like the female protagonist, but only to get married to. (I’m looking at you, Rurouni Kenshin.)
  • Women who say no, but really, really, really mean yes.

Weigh those on a scale. See what happens.

Oh, right. Back to the actual episode. Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, that’s it. It was typical SAO filler. Kirito, you did the right thing. We’ve already been through this part of your emotional development. You killed people in SAO. You got over it. Let it go. Let it go. Can’t hold it back anymore…

(The moral of this post is that Japanese culture is really fucked up.)