Opinion: Microsoft Should Spin off Halo's Multiplayer
Halo revolutionized gaming forever by giving its masterpiece single-player campaign a multiplayer mode. Nearly 20 years later, it’s time for them to go their separate ways.
In 2001, Halo’s multiplayer captivated millions and pushed Microsoft’s new console, the Xbox, off shelves. By 2004, Halo 2 launched to launch-day lines that overflowed into the streets. But Microsoft had something different hidden up their sleeves. With Halo 2’s online, match-made multiplayer, Xbox set the course for the future of gaming.
Since then, many single-player games have gone on to include multiplayer modes. But with the current console generation, the two have begun to diverge. AAA games like Rainbow Six Siege, Star Wars Battlefront and Titanfall shipped without single-player games at all. And despite no small amount of backlash from players, is it hard to blame publishers? Multiplayer games captivate the overwhelming majority of the average gamer’s time, and now they’ve become the main treat.
On PC, however, this isn’t new. The audience for single-player and multiplayer was always split. Games like Quake and Counter-Strike weren’t add-ons, they were distinct complements of their respective single-player siblings, DOOM and Half-Life. All four games pre-date Halo, yet the push for this kind of release wouldn’t hit full-swing on consoles until 2015.
Enter Destiny, Bungie’s “online-always” game in the wake of the Xbox One, Microsoft’s “online-always” console. Seeing a trend? At least half of gaming’s future is online and it’s one that looks very distinct from single-player’s.
Shortly after the launch of the Xbox One, Halo 5 launched to…mixed reviews. The multiplayer was praised by critics and players alike, but the story campaign was heavily derided. The story was so bad, in fact, that some Halo fans demanded it be struck from canon. The immediate backlash stunted the game’s sales, and Halo 5 fell off the map instantly as the worst seller in franchise history.
But three years later, Halo 5’s multiplayer is still going strong. Despite selling worse than its predecessor, it actually boasts a strong playerbase, even rivalling Destiny 2’s. HaloTracker.com shows that over 150,000 players logged into the Winter 2017 competitive season. Without even accounting for casual players, (Microsoft doesn’t disclose the game’s active player count) the game is by no means unpopular.
Halo’s long-term offering has always been its strong multiplayer, and Halo 5 was an exceptionally strong entry. But it’s not perfect.
The inclusion of enhanced mobility and ADS was novel, but turned off competitive and casual players alike. Casual players now had to learn how to maneuver the crevices of maps using clamber, sprint, Spartan Charge and boost just to compete with players slightly better with them. ADS meant that battles were suddenly longer-range, leading to sweatier matches across all skill-levels.
Competitive players quickly complained that enhanced mobility had completely altered the flow and momentum of the game. With sprint, boost and clamber, players at the highest level were no longer punished for their mistakes, leading to less competitive rounds. Expertly timed nades can be dodged away from and poorly picked engagements can be sprinted away from. It erodes at the competition of the game.
The problem with enhanced mobility is that it lowers the skill ceiling for the game’s best players while raising the skill floor for casual players.
While the game was pretty good, it was kneecapped by iteration that wasn’t inherently bad. None of 343’s additions were entirely bad. In fact, in most ways, they were improvements on the Equipment and loadout systems in Halo 3, Reach and 4.
The problem, is that 343 has been completely unable to make dramatic modifications to the game until Halo 6. For casual players who’ve stepped away and competitive players playing season-by-season, that just isn’t an answer that inspires hope.
Halo 6 is most likely releasing in 2019, four years after the release of Halo 5. For perspective, Call of Duty went from boot-on-the-ground, to an entire trilogy of sci-fi games, and back to boots-on-the-ground, within four years. Call of Duty may have alienated fans with its sci-fi iterations, but they were rapidly corrected thanks to its yearly cycle, and the multiple studios involved. Halo has no such luxury.
Halo 5’s problems are minor compared to those that faced Advanced Warfare, Ghosts or Infinite Warfare –all released within four years—yet it has no ability to rectify what small problems it has. And ultimately, that may prove to be more damaging.
Call of Duty exited its tumultuous identity crisis with COD: WWII atop the console sales charts. It’s hard to imagine Halo 6, even if it’s a perfect 10/10 masterpiece title, pulling off the same. Slow iteration in multiplayer may prove to be Halo’s death sentence.
Halo’s releases are being forced to compete with multiplayer-first titles and single-player-first titles simultaneously, and should either fail players’ expectations, the whole package is doomed. It’s a waste of two perfectly viable products that shouldn’t be bundled and Microsoft is wasting two excellent games that should be lethal weapons in 343 Industries’ hands.
Halo should be duking it out with Uncharted while holding Call of Duty’s head underwater. It can’t do that as a single game.
First, Halo’s marriage of single-player and multiplayer just isn’t true to how people consume games anymore. Multiplayer needs to be a continuous effort where players are constantly in sync with the devs. Just look at Rainbow Six Siege’s triumph as a continuous live game and PUBG’s fate essentially hanging on its ability to push out updates. This is the world in which Halo’s multiplayer needs to learn to compete.
Halo’s single-player campaigns, on the other hand, need to be cinematic blockbusters that blow people away. Sony’s exclusive lineup of single-player games is holding up extremely well, despite the current prevalence of multiplayer titles, because blockbusters like Uncharted, God of War and Spiderman are slam-dunks in marketing. Stories sell. But they sell for different reasons than multiplayer games.
The problem is that you can’t sell Rainbow Six Siege and Uncharted 4 in a bundle together. It’s just not true to how players experience games. Halo dominated because it was both the best single-player console shooter and multiplayer shooter on the market. It didn’t have competition. Now it does, and the market’s diverged in a way that makes those two very, very different arenas to fight in.
Halo is selling two different games for two very different reasons; they may not even have the same audience, yet they’re bundled. Beyond marketing and sales, it’s just not practical in supporting the game throughout its lifespan. Multiplayer games now require a huge time investment from developers that can’t be given amidst the development of the next sequel.
Microsoft should split Halo into two separate games. The single-player portion should retain the franchise’s traditional numbering, eg. Halo 6. This would retail for the standard $60 and be available on Xbox Game Pass.
The multiplayer could just be called ‘Halo.’ The simplicity of the experience is ultimately what’s going to sell it, and if we’re being technical, there’s never actually been a game called “Halo,” since the first entry is titled “Halo: Combat Evolved.” If Microsoft’s branding overlords won’t sign off on that, I’d accept “Halo: Arena” or “Halo: Wargames."
I truly believe this would make Halo better, for the following reasons:
1. Bigger, Badder Story Campaigns
Halo 5’s campaign was compromised by the game’s multiplayer. Abilities that were designed for its eSports focus were forced into its level design. The problem is that Halo’s sandbox is fun to play in because of wide-open spaces where players are forced to wade knee-deep into enemies and fight their way out with guns, melees and nades.
Halo 5’s sprint and ADS -balanced for multiplayer- meant that all the game’s uniqueness went into designing encounters around abilities that weren’t even designed for a single-player campaign to begin with. The uniqueness of The Covenant enemies is Halo’s strong-suite, but they may as well be bland COD-style enemies when the game forces you to engage them from 500 feet away. ADS and sprint ruined the campaign.
What players want is a Halo game built without multiplayer in mind, built entirely to exploit the sandbox for the maximum possible fun and the greatest possible story. Cutting the multiplayer into its own game gives the devs freedom to create the best campaign possible.
Uncharted is such a terrific game because the characters, guns and gameplay are all designed around maximizing the immersion of the player. You’re meant to experience the game in Nathan Drake’s shoes, so the systems support that perspective.
Halo 5 does no such thing, and it can’t. It’s designed to be balanced for a multiplayer game mode. The illusion of being a badass Spartan becomes a secondary objective, and the gameplay is now designed around things that have nothing to do with the character. It’s a worse game for it in virtually every regard.
Now, imagine Halo entirely unchained. A Halo game built exclusively to support the story and power fantasy. That’s a game I’d play, and I image it’s a game Microsoft wants to sell. It’s the kind of game that can compete with Sony’s single-player titles like Uncharted, God of War and Spiderman, which never had the restrictions that bogged down Halo 5.
2. Frequent Multiplayer Updates
Halo 5 excelled at post-launch support, with free new DLC being added at a regular basis. New modes were slowly added, although most of them were arguably modes that should have been there at launch, like Infection, BTB, Oddball and Grifball. Once again, it’s hard not to see how badly Halo 5 was hurt by its split-focus between campaign and multiplayer.
Better yet, if it’s its own game, with its own dedicated staff, the game can receive this kind of support year round, constantly. Imagine a Rainbow Six: Siege or Overwatch style game where updates are constant, with new maps and Spartan armor continuously put in rotation. The variety just explodes.
If players have problems with balance, or don’t like features, that’s no longer a discussion that needs to wait 3-4 years for the next Halo game. The worst problems would have turn-around times of months, rather than years. Microsoft and 343 clearly want Halo to succeed as an eSport, and this is the kind of game that successful eSports need to be.
Counter Strike, Overwatch and Rainbow Six: Siege aren’t bound by numbered entries in a story-based franchise. Why should Halo?
But beyond the improvements to the game, I believe splitting Halo actually benefits Microsoft's vision, not just for the franchise, but for Xbox as a whole.
Halo's True Value to Microsoft
Halo is the juicy piece of content that Microsoft has dangled in front of gamers to sell the Xbox platform. Halo: Combat Evolved single-handedly put the Xbox on the map; Halo 2 turned Xbox Live into a juggernaut and set the stage for Halo 3 to turn the Xbox 360 into an unstoppable, online powerhouse.
The original Halo trilogy was a series of technological leaps forward for Microsoft; each successive Halo title had them sell another piece of their vision of the future. And it worked flawlessly. The Xbox’s PC hardware is now industry standard. Xbox Live remains the unmatched standard for online gaming. Microsoft/Bungie’s clever matchmaking system is now baked into virtually every multiplayer game made since.
Now, Microsoft stands on the brink of the next leap forward. This is Microsoft at its best, charging ahead and changing the landscape, rather than letting it dictate its course forward.
With the next console generation, Microsoft plans on killing physical games completely. The Xbox One failed to do it, but the company now has a new tool, whose importance can’t be understated: Xbox Game Pass.
Microsoft wants to create the Netflix of games, and to do so, it needs to create a universal platform across Xbox and Windows that will deliver games that keep players invested. If it works, Microsoft could destroy physical game retailers and break the still-young digital retail market. If history is any guide, Halo is the perfect envoy of that vision.
Halo’s multiplayer is the kind of excellent ongoing game that can get players invested in a monthly GamePass subscription. Throw in periodic games like Sea of Thieves, Crackdown 3 and future Forza, Gears and Halo games, and GamePass keeps people invested. But I don’t think any single game game release can get players invested like a strong, continuous Halo multiplayer experience.
Beyond the selling of GamePass and the Xbox platform, the splitting of Halo actually benefits the franchise.