What rubber banding is and isn’t

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The concept known as ‘rubber banding’ is often mentioned in relation to scripting and handicapping. What is rubber banding really about, and would it make sense in the context on an online multiplayer game mode?

A recurring theory in the community is that ‘rubber banding’ is used in FUT, meaning that the game somehow will adjust the difficulty in response to the player’s performance or based on the progression of the match.

“It’s also known as the rubber band effect: the game tries to dynamically increase the difficulty in response to you doing too well.”
(user TallWhiteNinja on Gamefaqs.com)

“I’ve been playing video games since the 80’s & there has always been some form of rubberbanding offline against the CPU to make it challenging (at least for some anyway) because the game doesn’t have a human brain inside it lol
But what bugs me is that this “rubberbanding” is also applies to human vs. human play nowadays
You can tell right away if rubberbanding is in there because the stats in the game will appear irrelevant – like up to the game to decide when they count”
(Anonymous user on fifa13scripting.blogspot.com)

Is rubber banding present in FIFA and maybe more importantly in FUT?

Why game designers control difficulty

‘Rubber banding’ is also known as Dynamic game difficulty balancing (DGDB). DGDB is a difficulty management concept, mostly known for it’s use in Nintendo’s Mario Kart. DGDB implies that the game “automatically chang[es] parameters, scenarios, and behaviors in a video game in real-time, based on the player’s ability.” [1].

Difficulty management is important to a game designer, because the level of difficulty influences the user’s enjoyment and hence inclination to keep playing the game heavily.

Sertaç Öğüt (Marmara University) and Barbaros Bostan (Yeditepe University) have studied the importance of difficulty management in computer games. In this empirical study, they divided players into groups depending on their motivation and gaming preferences and tested their level of satisfaction after having experienced various levels of difficulty in a computer game. Not surprisingly, Öğüt and Bostan found that individual players have different ‘sweet spots’ when it comes to difficulty: Some players reach the optimum feeling of enjoyment when the game is nearly impossible, whereas others prefer the game to be easy all the way.

futfacts_difficulty

Öğüt and Bostan conclude that “[a] mismatch between the skills of the user and the difficulty results in frustration (too difficult for the player) or boredom (too easy for the player). Thus, computer games should provide different levels of challenges for different types of players that match their skill levels.”

Hence, there is not doubt that difficulty management is an important aspect of a game’s design, and also that DGDB is one way of achieving it.

FIFA’s game design reflects various difficulty management concepts, including selecting predefined difficulty levels, adjusting sliders and using various assists to handle various aspects of the control scheme. As explained in a recent post, the game also makes use of a concept called adaptive difficulty, which appears to resemble DGDB.

The use of DGDB in career mode however doesn’t lead to the conclusion that DGDB is used in multiplayer FUT as well.

Why rubber banding wouldn’t make sense in FUT

Career mode is a single player game mode, whereas FUT – mostly – is an online multiplayer game mode. Although rubber banding is used to keep career mode matches tight, I can come up with a number of reasons why it is highly unlikely that it is being used in the same way in FUT multiplayer matches.

First and foremost, DGDB shouldn’t make people frustrated! The allegations regarding scripting, handicapping all stem from the fact that people lose more than they like and thus in essence, that the game is too difficult. Game designers use DGDB to reduce frustrations related to difficulty, not produce them. No game designer would keep DGDB in a game if it caused frustrations among the users.

Second, when other game companies implement DGDB into multiplayer game modes, they don’t handicap the better player. This article by Baldwin et al is based on a study of 180 games (FPS, fighting and racing). Baldwin et al found that many of these games used DGDB-like concepts even in multiplayer game modes.  However, none of the 180 games adjusted the difficulty by handicapping the better player, i.e. by reducing his potential performance, but rather by assisting the lesser player in a similar way to what I have described in my article about Madden 09.

Third, using DGDB secretly would contravene the perhaps most important game design principle: Maintain believability! As Öğüt and Bostan put it, “… the most important design issue is keeping the game believable. To achieve believability, designers should consider three qualities: agency, consistency and fidelity. Players should see the results of their decisions and choices in a meaningful way (agency) and given the same circumstances, actions or choices should lead to the same sort of behavior (consistency). And the level of realism that a simulation presents (fidelity) should be high enough to make these adjustments believable.

The big and very real issue with FUT is indeed believability. Starting with agency, the game’s control scheme makes it an everyday (well, every match-day) experience to see your players perform unintended actions. As for consistency, it’s a recurring and relevant point of criticism that players find the level of difficulty to be extremely inconsistent. The list of fidelity issues is endless: Collisions between players are not realistic in terms of frequency and effect, and rain and fog has a strong but wrong influence on the gaming experience as they make it difficult to see and judge the path of the ball rather than making tackles longer and the ball move faster due to low friction. Hence, using DGDB in a way which essentially would lead to lower believability would make absolutely no sense.

Even though career mode makes perfect sense in a single player game mode like career mode, FUT is a different ball game.

Concluding remarks

There are multiple reasons why rubber banding would make little sense in FUT and consequently why it most likely isn’t the reason why people become frustrated and start complaining about scripting and handicapping. Most importantly, rubber banding as a concept is used to reduce frustrations related to inappropriate difficulty. If there really was DGDB in FUT, people most likely wouldn’t be complaining about scripting and handicapping. On top of that, it is an indisputable fact that FUT matches aren’t particularly tight. The actual match results show absolutely no traces of rubber banding.

What however makes perfect sense in FUT is a concept like ELO matchmaking. What ELO matchmaking does is essentially to increase the percentage of even match-ups and hence hopefully the number of users who feel that the game has an appropriate level of difficulty. As discussed in this recent post, traces of ELO matchmaking are directly visible in the matchmaking history.