Respawn Entertainment is very committed to SBMM in Apex Legends for the simple reason that it works.
Apex Legends, like seemingly most modern shooters, recently had a bit of a controversy with its implementation of skill-based matchmaking (SBMM).
The general goal behind SBMM is to ensure players are matched with/against opponents of equal skill, which sounds fair on paper. The system's detractors, however, say having it in non-competitive hoppers forces everyone to take casual playlists seriously, which they say sours them on the experience. There's also the argument that, without a visible ranking - which don't exist in casual - players won't have an incentive to improve, and often don't realise they have until they're beaten by seemingly more skilled players.
The arguments in favour of SBMM are, too, plentiful, but none are more familiar with those than the developers behind the games themselves at the centre of these forum wars. Respawn Entertainment is one such developer, and the studio has a very practical view of SBMM in Apex Legends. In a word: it works.
We (virtually) sat down with design director Jason McCord and game director Chad Grenier to talk Season 5, crunch, new story content and more, and we had to ask about SBMM.
"The funny thing is that we actually have always had skill-based matchmaking in the game since launch," remarked Grenier, reiterating recent studio comments to the same effect.
The job of SBMM is to ensure new and less-skilled players don't get stomped by active, more skilled players. That's why it exists, and in that area, it's doing admirably - and Respawn has the data to back this up. As part of its continued work on tweaking SBMM's implementation in Apex Legends, the developer would actually turn it off randomly for set data centres just to get a clear picture of results with and without SBMM.
"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 Grenier.
"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," he added. "So we have concrete evidence that skill-based matchmaking is good for the overall health of the game. That's why we haven't addressed it."
With that in mind, Grenier explained that the studio is very aware of the complaints the top players often spout about SBMM, but maintains that it protects the silent majority.
Jason McCord further pointed out that not every game where a player gets destroyed by more skilled opponents is the result of SBMM; there are other variables at play.
"I'm on Twitter, I get lots of people talking to me and I try to engage as much as I can, and when somebody says; 'Hey, I had this really bad game, I'm in Platinum, and I had a bunch of Apex Predators drop on me,' and I say; 'Okay, where do you live, and when do you play?' And they tell me; 'Oh, I live in Iowa and I play at 2am.' I get that you expect a perfect match, I really do, I'm not being sarcastic, but there's only so many people playing in Iowa at 2am," McCord explained.
"The options are, we either expand you out and you have a bad ping, you could matchmake with Tokyo or whatever, but you won't have a good game. Or we can let you sit forever, and then you will never play. Or we can just start creating games eventually, and at that point you're gonna have to play with who's playing.
"So there are those types of variables that people aren't really aware of, and when the system is humming along at like core hours it really works well. And then it gets a little harder at different times of the day, and stuff like that."
This likely won't be the end of it, but Respawn is at least willing to explain why SBMM exists rather than ignore the conversation entirely.