In recent weeks, Microsoft has briefly discussed a coming overhaul of the Xbox Live reputation system on the Xbox One. The aim, the company says, is to segregate the worst griefers and antisocial players from those who know how not to be jerks.
It’s a great concept, but the devil is always in the details when you’re trying to create a largely automated system to pick out bad apples ruining an online community. With that in mind, we talked to Micheal Dunn, senior program manager of Microsoft SmartMatch, to get the details on just how the Xbox One will determine who is worthy of a bad reputation.
The Xbox 360 already has a reputation system, but Dunn noted that it was created back in the pre-Facebook world of 2005, when Microsoft had less experience handling the complex relationships in an online community of millions. “It was a system where you had a reputation and stars from users and things like that, but it wasn’t necessarily targeted toward having a really hard barrier between people who have a low reputation and people who have a high reputation. It was more of a soft barrier.”
The Xbox 360’s matchmaking service tries to match you with people of a similar reputation, but if it can’t find any, it will still pair you up with the miscreants. “It basically said, ‘At least you’re playing with somebody,’” as Dunn put it. That won’t be how it works on Xbox One. Instead, the SmartMatch system will try to “make sure you’re playing with people you can have a conversation with… that’s where reputation comes in.”
Reputation on the Xbox One will be represented by a sliding scale from 0 to 100, but unlike Gamerscore, players will only see that raw number in limited circumstances. Instead, reputations will be represented by a gauge indicating if a player is in one of three reputation regions: “good player,”’ ‘‘needs work,” or “avoid me.”
As the name implies, the “avoid me” group is the one that will be set aside from the rest of the playing population for random matchmaking (privately arranged matches are a different matter, of course). Someone in the “good player” group could end up with someone who “needs work,” but only if there aren’t any closer reputation matches available at the time.
Players and developers will be able to play with the balance between forced reputational compatibility and matchmaking flexibility, offering different modes for players who care more or less about having a precise reputation match. But Dunn said the hard line between “avoid me” and the rest of the population can’t be broken as far as random matchmaking is concerned.
While there are three broad reputation categories, Microsoft isn’t dividing the playing population into equal thirds, Dunn said. “We’ve definitely gone more along the lines of a bell curve. You can imagine it like the ‘good players’ are like the 80 percent, the ‘needs work’ and the ‘avoid me’ are kind of the thin tail out from the rest of them.”
The specific percentage sizes for each reputation region are not set in stone, but Dunn said that the “good player” region will definitely be the largest. He also noted that your reputation isn’t an absolute number, but more of a percentile ranking based on a “look across the whole population.” In other words, no matter how many complaints you get, you’re not truly worth avoiding as long as a certain percentage of the population is worth avoiding even more than you are.
Preventing false negatives
New players will generally “start with a score that’s in the 75 range, which is definitely a good player,” Dunn said. “In general, we assume until you’ve proven otherwise that you’re a good player.” But there are situations where a new account could start with a lower score if the enforcement team notices some questionable patterns. If you ruin your reputation and then scrap your Xbox Live account and try to start over on the same device, for instance, “we can start noticing those kinds of things, and those are the kind of people who are going to start with a low number,” Dunn said.
The more matches someone goes through without drawing a negative report from another player (or from the game itself—see sidebar), the more that player’s reputation will rise. For this reason, Dunn said, most players will remain safely in the “good player” range forever. “The majority of our players are great players,” he said. “They actually have no feedback.”
Complaints obviously bring a reputation down, but it takes a critical mass of issues to land a player in the “avoid me” zone. “The theme is it really takes hundreds or thousands of people across the community to affect your rep as a new player,” Dunn said. “One or two pieces of bad feedback from a week’s worth of play or something—that’s not really going to affect you very much. Everyone has an accident, everyone has a bad match, someone they didn’t get along with. But if you’re consistently, across the community, a person people say they don’t like, that’s what’s going to affect you.”
Don’t worry about an arch enemy griefer, or even a group of the same, flooding you with hundreds of reputation-ruining complaints, either. “If it’s just the same people over and over complaining, we’ll take that feedback, but we’ll err on the side of safety,“ Dunn said. “We want that feedback from a broad set of users, so you have to play matches with a lot of different people. If there’s just someone who doesn’t like you and keeps reporting you and reporting you, that’s not going to dramatically change your reputation.”
Not all feedback is created equal, either. Players who the system identifies as having “better judgment” will have their complaints given more weight over time, Dunn said. If a certain player consistently complains only about people who eventually end up in the “avoid me” bucket, for instance, the algorithm can be relatively sure that person’s complaints have some merit. On the flip side, players who throw around tons of complaints that are rarely corroborated by others might see their complaints counting for less.
Avoiding “Avoid Me”
One of the key parts of Microsoft’s reputation overhaul is letting people know when and why their reputation is being wrecked. “On the 360, we never really told you about your stars changing or the rep stuff, so no one knew what it meant, so why do I care, right?” Dunn said.
On the Xbox One, Microsoft will send players messages when their reputation starts dropping, along with “a general category [of complaint] so the person can better understand what people are upset about,” Dunn said. The hope is that players can notice and rectify their behavior before they reach the dreaded “avoid me” status.
If you end up in the “avoid me” bucket after the warnings, Dunn stressed that you can still play, but only with other people identified with the same label. You can eventually work your way back into the general population, but only by playing through a lot of matches without drawing a legitimate complaint. “They can’t just disappear from Live for a few months and have their rep be fixed; they have to prove that they can play and be trusted with other players,” Dunn said.
The relative nature of the reputation algorithm makes it hard to cite the specific number of complaint-free matches it takes to claw your way out of “avoid me,” but Dunn did say that “it’s a little harder to rise back up because you haven’t proven you’re a trusted player.” Still, “if you were to play 100 matches without negative feedback, you’d probably bubble back into ‘needs improvement,’” he said. “You’re not going to be a ‘good’ player at that point, but you’re going to be just barely back in the general population.”
The Microsoft enforcement team can also override an “avoid me” designation if they determine it isn’t valid. Say your jerk of a cousin tanked your reputation while using your Gamertag during a month-long house sitting stint, for instance. An Xbox enforcer can reset your reputation if you convince him that you weren’t responsible for the complaints. “We hope that won’t happen that often, but of course it will happen sometimes,” Dunn said.
The goal of the overhauled reputation system isn’t just to create some sort of stratified social hierarchy inside Xbox Live, but to improve the quality of matchmaking. Dunn said he hopes that as the quality of the system’s matchmaking gets better, there will be fewer reputation-ruining complaints in the first place.
“Let’s get really good matches with people to begin with, then there will be nothing to complain about,” Dunn said by way of summing up the philosophy. Then, after a moment of consideration, he amended his statement. “There will still will be complaints, but hopefully a smaller percentage.”