[In this opinion piece, Chris Breault examines his experiences playing Blizzard's recent Starcraft II beta, suggesting that it's the key ladder-based system behind the much-awaited PC RTS which'll mean the difference between joy and frustration for its legion of players.]

Starcraft II is likely the most ambitious feat of RTS engineering ever attempted. Blizzard aims to strike a near-impossible balance between the desires of the hardcore, who have played Brood War for over a decade, and the new, larger audience they plan to attract.

But for all the care and craft put into the game, Blizzard hasn’t been able to manage this tension, and the beta shows this. Few people outside of the SCII beta forums have discussed it, but a big piece of the game’s multiplayer is seriously dysfunctional.

An elaborate ladder system governs SCII matchmaking. The ladder tells you what league you’re in, your division within that league, your current rank within that division (out of around 100 random players), your point total, and your record of wins and losses. You can’t separate the ladder from the game. You see your league, rank, and win record every time you visit the “Multiplayer” screen. The ladder is your character status screen; like WoW, SCII gives you “rested experience” that will be added to your point total when you win after time away.

The ladder is the hook that keeps you playing all night, grinding short 1v1 matches, gathering points, and clawing your way to the top of the rankings. You can't appreciate the seductiveness of this system until you've put in the time to get near the top of your league, which few game critics seem to have an interest in. (Only Quinns details his ongoing project of attaining "competence.") But the more climbing you do, the more wobbly the ladder looks.

After placement matches, you’re dropped into one of five leagues and ranked according to your performance in your division. You want to ascend to the first rank in your division, from which point you may move on to a higher, more skilled league. In theory, at least.

In practice, you play everybody else from every division, and the system rarely matches you with someone from your own. You actually feel like giving your division-mates a high-five when you’re matched with them, like two people from the same town who run into each other in the big city. Blue posters on battle.net forums have defended the system, saying it makes people feel better about themselves ("I'm 4th in my division!").

But only credulous players will find satisfaction in this, because you do not even compete directly with the people in your division. You compete with everyone, and the system compares you to a tiny, random sliver of that population. It seems to calculate your point total relative to your division, not your league, even as it matches you with people around your league, not your division.

Say you ran a race, along with 20,000 other people. You finish behind about 7,000 of them. You look at the standings and they say you finished 4th. In a move to boost participants' self-esteem, the race's organizers have divided the standings into 200 randomly selected groups. Would you really feel better?

When Blizzard designed their ladder, they had a choice. Would they create an accurate leaderboard and risk alienating a new player, who would see the thousands of Starcraft players so much better than himself? Or make a ladder that deliberately concealed information, and didn’t risk damaging the ego of a fragile noob? They went with the latter, more condescending, option; the sole purpose of battle.net divisions is to hide data. It’s a hollow move for a company that prides itself on commitment to “e-sports.” They preserve the form of a ranking system, while ignoring its function: telling you whether one player is actually better than another. This system, meant to bridge the needs of the hardcore and the casual, will satisfy neither.

As you climb upward in your division, competitors from higher leagues appear. I've beaten Bronze, Silver, and even a few Gold players, yet I was never promoted from my position as #1 Copper. The loading screen tells me that I am "Slightly Favored" against most Bronze players it pairs me with; if I see "Teams Even," I may face a high rank Bronze or a middling Silver. In other words, the game's odds-maker routinely tells me I am on even footing with people who are literally out of my league. They are, in some cases, two leagues above me.

Many cases are much worse. Consider szcz, a #1 Silver who routinely plays and beats the top Platinum players, and is even “Favored” against some of them. What lunatic devised a ladder that evaluates player performance (to determine odds) with a system different from the one it uses to actually rank them?

The rewards system does not seem to rely only on wins and losses. A Blizzard employee, Bashiok, posted the following FAQ:

Q. How does a player move from one league to another?
A. After you’ve finished your initial placement, the system continues to review your performance and determines what league you should be placed in based on those reviews. The time and frequency of these reviews is kept hidden.


As is all description of the data under "review." Forum posters hypothesize that the scoring might be based on actions per minute, unspent resources, and other trivia recorded by the game, and speculate that Blizzard keeps the conditions secret so players can’t exploit the system. But a system based only on wins and losses wouldn’t be exploitable (except by literally cheating), and at least then players would know their goal should be “winning games.” Under the current system, players are told to meet a secret set of conditions to advance. It’s not a fun game to play.

Here’s my beta story. When I started – 200 games ago, playing worse than I do today – I was placed into Bronze League. I played some games, lost several, but won enough to stay well above the bottom of my division. Then I came out of a winning game and received a message saying that I had been bumped down a league. I was demoted from the victory screen, and no reason was given.

When the game should have congratulated me, it kicked me in the balls. Blizzard developers have a reputation for creating powerful reward structures, but the SCII team hasn’t shown that talent; their rankings and rewards are as arbitrary and obscure as possible. In WoW, the remaining work needed to advance a level appears constantly on the default UI. It’s a goal the player understands and will not forget. In SCII, rewards are an intentional mystery; like miracles, you can only hope they will happen.

Better concepts aren't hard to work out. Make a global ladder for each league. Do not match people from different leagues together. When the top ranked players in the league start dominating mid-ranked players, mark those top players for review. Put them through placement matches again (maybe fewer this time) and let them place into another league.

The game isn’t finished, and Starcraft wasn’t built in a day, after all. But nobody from Blizzard has acknowledged that there is anything wrong with the ladder, or that they are working to make it more transparent. They need to. If there’s one thing both veterans and new players hate, it’s a lack of communication.

[Chris Breault is a gamer and freelance writer. He maintains a blog at http://post-hype.blogspot.com, and can be reached at post.hype@gmail.com.]