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Interview: Stardock's Wardell On Matchmaking Out The 'Jerks'
Interview: Stardock's Wardell On Matchmaking Out The 'Jerks' Exclusive
August 26, 2009 | By Chris Remo

August 26, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

PC developer and publisher Stardock launched its Impulse PC digital distribution service a little over a year ago, and in that time it has partnered with nearly all the major publishers. But in its forthcoming update Stardock will expand Impulse's scope, aiming to play matchmaker for gamers -- without needing console-style matchmaking.

Impulse, whose primary competitor is Valve's Steam, recently added Ubisoft to a partner list that also includes Activision, Capcom, THQ, Paradox, Atari, and dozens of others -- chiefly Stardock itself, whose Galactic Civilizations II, Sins of a Solar Empire, Demigod, and other titles are amongst the store's most popular.

Impulse Phase 4 will include a feature called Ready to Play, which will match up PC gamers who own the same game and who share various gaming priorities, allowing them to virtually befriend each other and then set up matches of their chosen games.

It's part social networking, and part matchmaking -- but since it just brings the gamers themselves together, it uses whatever multiplayer system the developers included in the game, be it matchmaking or server browsing.

"When you play online with random strangers, how many people are jerks? I don't know how else to put it. Random people are often jerks," Stardock CEO Brad Wardell told Gamasutra regarding the reasoning behind Ready to Play's conception. "I wanted to come up with something that solved that problem."

When you launch a title through the system, Ready to Play knows you own that game (and since it identifies games based on their executable files, it works for any game, not just those bought through Impulse), and it will attempt to find other players who both own that game and who score similarly to you on a rubric of gaming priorities.

"You [rank] a bunch of categories, like how competitive you are," explained Wardell. "What matters to you in someone you want to play? Are they a similar age to you? Do they have a good PC? How competitive are they? Are they all about winning, or are they about having fun? Do they value their time? You don't just get to say, 'Yeah, max them all out.' You put them in order of importance."

Those self-identified traits are used to match up gamers. If you aren't online when a match with your game is found, you'll see the notification when you log in, and you can send a friend request if you choose.

"I say, 'Alright, I want to play Sins of a Solar Empire or World of Warcraft or Team Fortress," Wardell continued. "I can choose either a particular group of buddies I want to play with, or everybody on my friend list, or someone who's similar to me, even if I don't know them.

"Then it will tell me, 'So and so, who is 84 percent compatible with you, is going into Sins of a Solar Empire. Do you want to launch Sins of Solar Empire?' It launches the game, you find that person, you get together, and play with them."

Added the CEO, "The idea is that now you can play with people who are similar to you, rather than some 14-year-old griefer who's shooting you in the back every time because he thinks it's funny."

Of course, games with smaller communities will be less picky about their players' priorities -- and being able to find any players of older or less well known titles is one of the key strengths of Ready to Play, said Wardell.

"In our own internal tests, it's amazing how quickly what seems like a dead game can come back to life," he said. "One of our tests was The Corporate Machine. That game was like several years ago. You tell it, 'I'm going to play The Corporate Machine online.' Even though there was no one online at first, you broadcast to your buddies. There's are only 500 people, but suddenly it identifies three or four people [who own it], and they're people like you. You can get a game going."

Players can also set up scheduled matches for particular games, both amongst their own existing friends as well as to find new friends.

Ready to Play will be launching in beta form in September, alongside a substantial overhaul of the main Impulse storefront designed to streamline Impulse's look and feel, and cope with the service's growing list of games. Stardock told Gamasutra it plans to announce further publisher deals in the coming weeks.

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Maurício Gomes
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But what prevent the 14-yo griefer that keep doing TK from putting there that they are serious competitive players?

Ian Morrison
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This is a really neat idea, but it'd be best combined with a way to indicate the honesty of a player. If they say they're just there to have fun but then go on a relentlessly efficient noob killing streak complete with put downs over voice chat, that's no good.

Granted, I imagine people's honesty will override that for the most part (it's to their benefit to be accurate) and I don't think that the average griefer would even use such a system, barely seems worth the time for the dumbass 14 year old to bother with.

Leo Gura
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I don't know... I'm always surprised what's worth a dumbass 14 year old's time :)

Robert Farr
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Honestly, I'd be tempted to suggest this system also gets game sessions to report back on player behaviour, so players that make excessive use derogatory phrases or is prone to nasty play habits get put on servers together. Might be regarded as a bit Orwellian by some though.

Lance Rund
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Jerks will try to poison the system's data and lie about both themselves and their experiences with others. After all, they're -jerks-. I will assume that this is going to be accounted for in feedback mechanisms and auditing mechanisms, and that there will be an appeals process for false negatives.

I have long advocated the equivalent of a credit-reporting system linked to real identity to track disciplinary problems in online games. If someone gets thrown out of WoW for gold-selling or booted from Team Fortress for constant spewing of racist comments, EA should know that before they decide whether to allow you into Warhammer Online. There are no legal hurdles to this, as it's no different than a credit rating/credit report system and you'd have to opt-in. With appropriate auditing, appeals, consistent TOS, requirements for a company to make available proof of negative incidents, incentives for customers to participate (cheaper fees, or even "you must do this to play our online game"), incentives for game companies to report (reduced operating costs for customer support, requirement to give reports if you receive reports, liability insurance offered through the reporting agency), this could go a long way towards weeding out the people who really don't need to be online in the first place.

Who knows, operating such a service might even be a workable business.

Mark Raymond
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Sounds like a really good idea to me.

Maurício Gomes
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I like it too :)

It so annoying to play with people that do TK on purpose, or cheaters, or stuff like that...

I know a guy that ignore VAC, he plays Counter-Strike just for the sake of griefing, he already bought 20 copies of Counter-Strike, but he keep doing it (buying a copy of the game, cheating, getting banned some days later... buying another copy...)

Justin Kranzl
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Blizzard are also continuing to move in this direction with the new

While I concede a lot of gamer behaviour is beyond the pale... part of me also thinks the underlying potential of our game worlds to ultimately 'matchmake' out the *majority* of rogue elements will risk a more homogenised, sterile game experience. After all - it's not just 14 year olds acting up out of adolescent impulse, and 'inappropriate' behaviour isn't always as extreme as racism, cheating and the like.

Gamers who insulate themselves too much from randoms potentially rob themselves of a richer experience - the mercurial nature of a gaming population is often a major boost to content longevity.

We've expanded on the notion here: - feel free to scan if time permits.

Ernest Adams
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I do wish there were a reliable way to find people to play with, but as some of the foregoing comments suggest, they're all vulnerable to deception. Sticking to the people you know and like -- as in the real world -- seems to be the only way to be certain. This may be one of the reasons Facebook gaming does so well -- it provides you with a built-in collection of people you know to play with.

Chris Remo
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I understand what you're saying, but in practical terms, for me, the value of not having to play games with obnoxious racist homophobes outweighs the less measurable benefit of a richer long-term experience. At this point I simply don't play with random users, ever. It means I play multiplayer a lot less often than I used to. It's just not worth it. When I'm playing a multiplayer game, I don't want to be depressed.

Justin Kranzl
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One of the interesting views raised by Blizzard's Rob Pardo last weekend when discussing the new (and the moves to integrate more social networking features) - was not only a view gamers wanted to play with people they knew - but also the opinion plenty of viable friendships grow out of gaming.

I appreciate the value of self-imposed isolation away from the larger multiplayer population and agree the most stress-free times you can have in multiplayer gaming revolve around playing with known quantities - but I also think the opportunity cost of such a move (beyond diversity) is perhaps the friendships you may develop with normal people - as opposed to a offensive minority.

Stephen Mladenov
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User rating other people does not work, its been around for a while and well its not used. If you play against some jerk and beat him badly he rates you down, gets all his friends to rate you down then posts on random forums and gets them to rate you down. Most jerks are too lazy to also grief. Its the griefers that will lie on the questions but thankfully there isn't many of them so easy to block em.

Also you can use ambiguous questions where the answer is different when you think "If I was pretending to be nice" and "I am nice". Something like:

When playing a game I:

a) always finnish it

b) quit if I start losing

c) know when I'm beat and resign

d) play to win

Jerks are often quitters so will probably choose a) though a nice person can admit probably defeat, rather play for the social aspect and go ). The people that score matter to will probably go d). Jerks may go here too but then they face pros that will trounce them so its in their interest not to lie at that.

David Lawson
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I attended a demo of this system at PAX, and asked the presenter about griefers gaming the profile survey. Judging from his reaction, they either hadn't thought of that or are still scratching their heads over the problem and are hoping to come up with a solution before it becomes an issue.

"There's no way to 'game' the profile," the presenter replied to my question. I could only shake my head at the naivete.