Friday, May 16, 2014

EDITORIAL: HOW RANKED PLAYLISTS CAN REVITALIZE THE HALO FRANCHISE


Earlier today 343 Industries announced that Halo 5: Guardians will release in the fall of 2015!

There's no announcement-trailer yet or details about gameplay, and while 343 and Microsoft remain coy about "the future of Halo", even the mere mention of a new Halo game is cause for celebration for diehard fans of the series.


Last year's E3 Next Gen Halo Teaser

Fans alienated by the derivative, Call of Duty nature of Halo 4 can rest a little easier based on 343's approach to their next installment.

Franchise Development Director Frank O'Conner wrote the following in his blog as early as January 2013:
We have a lot to learn. We made a lot of mistakes. We can do better. And we know this, and we will. But I don’t want to spend the first moments of the year thinking about the negatives, because frankly, I am incredibly proud of both the team and the game that team created.

And for a first effort, it wasn’t half bad.
The announcement released by 343 earlier today echoes these sentiments:
It’s a game that will hopefully demonstrate the talent, learnings and abilities of the 343 Industries team. A game that will incorporate the things we learned from “Halo 4” about technology, aesthetics, performance and scale – and perhaps more importantly, understanding and embracing a community of gamers who love what lies at the heart of this game, and the limitless potential of the “Halo” universe.
When I read these statements, as someone who spent most of his twenties doing battle on the hollowed grounds of Halo 2 & 3, I just think:

"Does that mean you'll finally bring back ranked playlists?"

The only thing I want from Halo multiplayer is the ability to play ranked matches.

That's it.

Just a simple number next to my Gamertag in a menu screen that reflects my skill.

A number that goes up and goes down based on wins and loses.

That one, simple number, if based on defeat and triumph, will keep me playing the game for several years.

That is all 343 needs to do to bring me, and the majority of the Halo community, back to their game.

Thought-provoking artwork for Halo 5. The Chief is featured less prominently than the mysterious character on top. Might Halo 5 reflect Halo 2, with players taking on the role of hero & villain?

Halo 4 had the fastest population decline of any Halo game in history. While there are many factors contributing to that decline (least of all the monolithic success of Call of Duty), based on diehard fan-reactions, Halo 4 was too beholden to multiplayer trends established by other popular first person shooters that disrupted the distinct Halo style: custom loadouts, over-powered weapons, perks, armor abilities, and the like.

via halofanforlife.com
Skill-play was nixed in favor of catering to a casual audience, a casual audience that will always go with Call of Duty. In attempting to compete with COD in this way, 343 alienated their installed user base and brought the franchise (in multiplayer terms) to a screeching halt.

Halo had always been a game based around skill, a competitive, exciting multiplayer experience with an even playing field that catered to the hardcore and social gamer alike. There were ranked playlists. There were social playlists. People who wanted to compete in intense matches against similarly skilled players had their arena. People who just wanted to have fun had theirs.


You can't even see your old rank anymore on Waypoint when you scroll through the previous games' service records. Oh and that K/D isn't indicative of how I was playing for the majority of my Halo 3 run. That reflects the hit I took when I went back for brief moments after years of not playing. At our best, my friend and I could hang with the best in the world.

Everyone was happy back then.

Nothing was wrong (except for the occasional camper or cheater - things next-gen systems could easily fix).

This model was first abandoned in Halo: Reach in favor of a convoluted arena system that gradually lost all prestige and support as Bungie departed from the series.

Halo: Reach's ranking system. Eclipse? Onxy? Not nearly as satisfying or pertinent as General 50.

Such competitive play with a simple ranked playlist entirely vanished come Halo 4, and most of the online Halo community along with it.

Being that this is the case, where did those Halo fans go? Where are they?

I can only assume, using logic and some information I've gleaned perusing the internet, that they're either still playing Halo 3 or Halo: Reach or they've bitten the bullet and started playing the games everyone else is playing simply because those games have a larger community or offer an MLG (major league gaming) playlist.

Based on my own experience, I played Halo 4 all the way up until the release of Titanfall (the best, most enjoyable, and as close to competitive multiplayer experience I've had since Halo 3). But I wasn't playing anything other than Ricochet in the end (a playlist/gametype that no longer even exists) because it was the only gametype that was fun, exciting, and reminiscent of the intensity I once found in the series.

There were typically only a couple hundred people on each playlist, and despite 343's attempt at incorporating a rank (a number you could only view on Halo Waypoint), nothing truly competitive or skill-based ever existed.

SR 80? A meaningless rank that simply reflects the amount of experience I gained by playing the game. This represents the time put in not my skill. CSR 28 supposedly reflects something skill-based, but such is unclear, and never actually represented in the game menus themselves, forcing gamers to go to Halo Waypoint to view this confusing number.


When I recently went back to see how Halo 4 played when compared to Titanfall, it felt as though I was returning to a condemned house that had long ago been abandoned by a once thriving family.


Multiplayer console gaming has devolved into a purely experience-based model, where players are rewarded with perks, weapons, and abilities simply for playing the game for as long as possible. There is no representation of one's actual skill in the form of a numerical value or insignia. A player's rank, even in a game like Titanfall that actually does require gamers to earn their "Generation Badge" by completing challenges with various weapons, mostly reflects the amount of time that player has put into the game.

Not their skill.

Because there aren't arenas anymore, multiplayer gaming has become less satisfying and significant for a large portion of the gaming population, an attention-deficit pastime where gamers are constantly stimulated with an endless stream of rewards, flashing experience points, and unlockables without necessarily "earning" anything.

The thought process behind making "ranking up" a less exclusive and more casual experience is inherently flawed and satisfies no one. The idea seems to be that game developers want everyone to have the satisfying experience of seeing their rank increase, to keep them invested in the game through the promise of unlocking new content. But casual gamers who were playing video games when ranked playlists existed weren't playing because they cared about ranking up. They were just enjoying the gameplay.

Halo 3 Multiplayer had a wide variety of ranked and social playlists featuring almost every gametype available in each list.

The satisfaction of ranking up because you defeated someone of a similar rank (therefore increasing your skill) is a unique gaming experience that cannot be recreated by unlocking a new attachment for one's weapon. They are disparate experiences, appealing to two entirely different mindsets and should remain separate.

The current multiplayer environment is certainly satisfying for the casual market that just wants to have fun, but there is a massive community of neglected gamers that no longer has an outlet for their competitive natures. And especially those competitive gamers that want to play a Halo video game.

Not only is there a shortage of competitive outlets for gamers, there is also an increasing lack of variety in multiplayer games themselves. The current experience-based model results in fewer playlists and fewer gametypes.

343 has the opportunity to change that.

Halo 5: Guardians concept art. Certainly hints that "open-world" rumors are true.

It's long been rumored, and all but been announced in a coy blog today from Frank O'Conner, that 343 will release Halo 2: Anniversary Edition later this year.

Microsoft's own Phil Spencer has said, with regard to this potential game:
In this fictitious world where that game existed, it’s an easy answer: it has to be just the multiplayer experience that we all found in that first Halo 2 game.
It remains to be seen if Halo 2: Anniversary will run on the Halo 4 engine or the brand new next-gen engine 343 has created for Halo 5: Guardians, if it will be for Xbox 360, Xbox One, or both.

It remains to be seen if the game even exists.

And while last year's E3 next-gen Halo announcement trailer states that gamers will get their next-gen Halo adventure in 2014, that could easily be referring to anything other than a remade Halo 2.

But if it does exist, and 343 brings back the deservedly beloved Halo 2 multiplayer, with ranked playlists and all, they will secure the continued success and, ironically, the evolution of the franchise and online gaming as a whole.


If Halo 2: Anniversary comes to Xbox One with a new engine (which it most definitely should but development cycles will inevitably determine this), then not only will 343 expose a new generation of gamers to the pinnacle of the Halo saga, they'll quickly win back all those diehard Halo fans clamoring to relive their glory days.

Halo 2: Anniversary can also act as a segue into Halo 5 matchmaking, reintroducing ranked play to the multiplayer community at large, re-establishing the Halo franchise as the place for competitive gaming, thereby carving out its niche and more effectively competing with other FPS triple A titles that don't have such playlists.

In bringing back ranked play, Halo will differentiate itself from the pack, forcing others to follow in its footsteps yet again. To evolve this franchise, and online gaming altogether, Halo 5 must marry the old with the new, offering up the frenetic, competitive play gamers loved in Halo 2 and 3 with the smoothness and reliability of next-gen controls and dedicated servers.



"Ranked play" and "competitive online play" should be the E3 buzzwords this year, and such should be resultant from the 343 section of the conference. That should be 343's marketing strategy - reiterating ad nauseum, "competitive play, competitive play". If 343 discusses Halo 5 multiplayer at E3, the very first thing we should on the massive presentation-screen is the number 50.

There will be uproarious applause.

If 343 wants to reassert Halo as a dominant multiplayer game, then it must offer something only Halo offers - competitive, skill based play. And it shouldn't shortchange those that want competitive player, limiting them to two or three gametypes. Every gametype should have a ranked playlist and a social playlist. This is something that should have existed long ago in Halo 3. Now is the time to incorporate something so basic and logical into an MP game, allowing time to dictate what gametype stays and goes.

It's understandable that 343 would want to try new things and take the series in new directions. That's admirable. But mimicking the success of others, attempting to compete with others by adopting the creative decisions of others results in something anachronistic and alienating. And that's what Halo 4 is. Not a terrible game in the least. Objectively, it wasn't "half bad" as O'Conner puts it. But it's just not Halo. And it's not different enough to maintain a consistent population.

Halo 5: Guardians can be different and attract the attention of new and old gamers alike, by maintaining the winning, competitive formula of previous entries whilst simply offering gameplay tweaks that streamline the experience, smoother matchmaking thanks to dedicated servers, improved visuals, a new arsenal, and innovative gametypes.

Halo 4 gametypes.
And while I've already belabored the point, it cannot be emphasized enough how important it is that Halo 5:Guardians "bring the 50 back". Having a 'true skill' rank will help maintain a robust population, set Halo apart, and make Xbox One the destination for competitive multiplayer gaming.

Ranks require gamers to continue playing to increase their rank, but then, when and if they manage to achieve the maximum rank they must continue to maintain it. This is what keeps gamers coming back and this is the type of gamer Halo always had, and has since taken for granted. There are only so many pieces of armor and weaponry one can unlock before that becomes stale.

Maintaining a high rank, fighting for your skill, proving yourself on the virtual battlefield against your peers - that's a thrilling experience that's inherently rewarding and addictive.

Something so simple, so seemingly easy, could do wonders for this franchise and make it feel new again.

So, if you would like ranked playlists to return to online play, and if you'd like to see the Halo franchise return to its former glory, please do your part and spread the word.

Tweet, comment, troll, rant, rave, send out smoke signals - just make sure 343 hears you. They say they're listening, and I want to believe them. But there's always a chance the message is getting lost in translation, or that they are simply limited in what they're permitted to create.

Regardless, another Halo is on the way. The Chief shall ride again.

Hopefully, so shall we.



All photos via www.HaloWaypoint.com.

Follow @MaximusWrestler on Twitter and help spread the word that we want Halo competitive play to return!

2 comments:

  1. I've been saying this since Halo: Reach! You are 100% percent correct and I pray that 343 finally listens. As soon as they took out the ranking system that everyone loved they immediately saw a steady decline in their gamer population. I've been to 7 or 8 MLG events for Halo 3, Reach, and Halo 4. It kills me to see this franchise dying and this is their last chance to renew what they once had, and all they have to do is add a number beside your name. Halo 3's 1-50 system was the most fun I've ever had playing a game. Getting your MLG 50 was so prestigious and keeping it thereafter was even a challenge. Please 343, please hear us, add a skill-based ranking system.

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  2. what a well written and presented article. The only reason I played halo was because of the competitive edge that it offered over every other game. Before the release of Halo 4, the conversation of will it have a ranking system was a buzz all over the internet. Now with dedicated servers and advanced technology there is no reason to not have because hackers or boosters will abuse it. I of course will get the game either way but a rank system is the difference between me shelving the game a month after its release like Halo 4, or putting 2-3 years in until the next one emerges.
    GT - itz Rabyz (for those who want to have fun and play when it does come out)

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