XBox Live Swamped over Xmas, Halo 3 thoughts

· by Steve · Read in about 6 min · (1169 Words)

You might remember the problem that my wife had with a corrupted gamertag thanks to problems with the Live registration & recovery service just before Xmas, but that hasn’t been the end of our problems with the service. Since a few days after xmas, we’ve found that in the evenings logging onto Live takes an absolute age, sometimes long enough that we just give up. The story - apparantly too many people bought or received 360’s over Xmas and the Live servers are getting swamped at peak times, or so the ever reliable Internet tells me here, and here. I’m sure it doesn’t help that my internet connection is always slower in the evenings too thanks to good old contention ratio hell (damn my neighbours for getting broadband too). Microsoft are apparantly installing new servers to cope with the increased demand, which they apparantly didn’t predict - you know, who would think that demand might increase over Xmas?. Duh. I’m just glad I’m not paying for it yet (I’m still in my free month).

Edit: Allegedly the problems are now resolved, according to the Live Status Page which was previously acknowledging the intermittent outages. I’ll see this evening 😉

The primary online game I have is Halo 3 anyway, and so far I’ve just played it off-peak. The first time I played it multiplayer, I absolutely hated it. I’ve been reared on mouse & keyboard and the 2 stick control was a recipe for instant frustration - the comparatively sluggish speed at which you can turn with a stick means that online games become even more of a ‘he who spots the enemy first wins’ situation that seemed to involve far too much luck. I’ve since played the single player game a bit more, and have discovered for myself that it’s a lot more fun when you play co-operatively with someone else, as others have suggested. My wife, another PC FPS veteran by now who could beat me at UT2004 at one point (I say because she had more time to practice than me), has now joined me and we’re playing split-screen through the single player game, which works surprisingly well. Of course, she was cursing like a trooper at the controls at first too, but we’ve both made our peace with them to one degree or another (although not for a second conceding the point that they’re staggeringly inferior to mouse & keyboard control).  After having fun with that I went back to the multiplayer to review (only briefly so far), and I discovered I enjoyed it more, both because I’m learning to tolerate the controls and because I’ve realised the radar is incredibly important for mitigating the turning speed issue, an aspect that never existed in PC FPS’s.

One thing I do have to say for Halo 3 is the matchmaking seems to be better than what I’ve experienced before. PC games have always used their own individual matchmaking systems (and I assume this is what the PS3 does), but Live includes a unified, shared matchmaking service called ‘TrueSkill’ which has some pretty smart guys working on it, and it alone. The advantage of this is that it gets loads more investment in it than other per-game systems, and also that it builds up shared player ‘skill’ metrics from every game at all that uses the system, not just one single title. Therefore, if you were awesome at FPS A, the skill system might automatically weight your skill at FPS B right from the off, resulting in better matchmaking - kind of like a universal handicap system. I have to say that digging through the bazillion options on Halo 3’s multiplayer setup is impressive, from the world map showing who is available to play, to the graphs that show the matching of your skill level versus other players it’s finding, and the configurable trade-offs between ‘fast matching’ and ‘good matching’ that it can make. I can see how not having to write the guts of a system such as this for each individual game can be a major benefit, because both the implementation and the data that it uses is constantly improving (and as with any statistical system, the more data you have the better to eliminate false conclusions from local anomalies).  As well as the data, TrueSkill’s implementation is entirely on the Live servers so it can be upgraded continuously without the games that use it needing to know about it.

I’ll certainly be giving it a bit more of a chance - the main thing that has put me off (competetive) multiplayer titles in the past is that the matching has most often been very ropey, far too often resulting in games where two or three players dominate everyone else on the server. If you’re not the sort of person who will just invest a ton of time training to become one of those 2 or 3 people (and I’m not anymore, I just want to play occasionally and have fun when I do), competetive multiplayer isn’t that attractive - yes I know you can play team games, but who wants to be the 5th wheel? My usual experience with PC titles is that outside the first 2-3 weeks of a title being out, when most people are learning and there are lots of people trying it out, only about 1 in 10 matches feel balanced enough to be fun for most people on the server. After that, the population seems to ‘boil away’ to mostly quite serious players - either because the other players drift away, or train themselves enough to be good enough. There’s generally few satisfying places for an on-and-off gamer on a multiplayer title that’s been out for a while, even really popular ones, hence why I generally don’t stick with them - my latest was Team Fortress 2 which again was ok for a while until my odd couple of games a week started being frustrating more often than fun. However, even at my low skill level I managed to find a decently balanced match in Halo 3, so assuming that’s not a fluke, and not just a function of new gamers at xmas, they may be on to something with this TrueSkill business - maybe more people of my skill level are still playing as well as the matching being better (the two would after all be linked)? The TrueSkill graph certainly indicated that expertise was pretty evenly spread when I was online. I listened to a podcast from Major Nelson’s site which included an interview with one of the guys in charge of TrueSkill, and they certainly seem to have a really solid grasp the problem of poor matchmaking for less serious players (unlike the traditional response from hardcore players, which tends to be “don’t suck so bad then, l4m3r”), and are clearly putting a lot of work in just to address that. That’s a cornerstone of accessibility to multiplayer gaming in my view, and should be supported.