Halo: Making Multiplayer ‘Free-to-Play’

May 20, 2014 by

The next game in the Reclaimer Saga; Halo 5: Guardians, will be coming to Xbox One in fall 2015, but I’m not as excited as you’d expect for the next outing in the acclaimed science-fiction series. Why? Because Halo’s multiplayer is dead. Here’s how to revive it.

The next game in the Reclaimer Saga; Halo 5: Guardians, will be coming to Xbox One in fall 2015, but I’m not as excited as you’d expect for the next outing in the acclaimed science-fiction series.

Over a year ago, I wrote an article discussing the revolution that Halo 4 would bring to competitive gaming. Infinity, as the mode came to be known, was to give meaning to the renowned Red vs. Blue through the linking of campaign and multiplayer gameplay. There’d finally be deeper meaning to shooting your best friend in the head whilst he drinks his Mountain Dew.

But a new saga, a new engine, and even a new developer in the form of 343 Industries couldn’t prepare for the epic disappointment of November 2012. Election day for some, doomsday for many as a million voices cried out a uniform “Oh”.

The game didn’t change the industry like I hoped, as we all know by the lack of pizza-fuelled LAN parties in 2013. It didn’t even make a dent in the impressive populations of the Call of Duty and Battlefield IPs that have enjoyed a stable fandom for a number of years. In fact, as I sit here contemplating the sci-fi shooter’s future, there are just 3,429 people playing Halo 4. That’s it. You’ll find more people raiding a dungeon on Runescape whilst Nicholas Cage tells them what its like to be sexy. My nostalgic dream of friends playing Slayer every night hasn’t materialised, and I’ve all but lost faith in the game as a force for fun.

Halo 2 is regarded as the champion of the Xbox LIVE service.
Halo 2 is regarded as the champion of the Xbox LIVE service.

A 2010 article in The Escapist predicted that the ‘free-to-play’ market would be worth over $2 billion by 2015. As we approach said year, its all too convoluted to say if that claim was correct, but just days ago, video games analyst Nicholas Lovell reported to GameSpot that the yet-to-be-release Elder Scrolls Online will inevitably go free-to-play. This shift in the marketplace to a freemium model supported by microtransactions is good reason for 343i to reconsider its approach to Halo Infinity, the multiplayer segment of the game. It’s a model that’s often reserved for MMOs, but nevertheless, 343i would do well to adapt it to their needs, and with good reason.

Despite its stagnating performance, for nearly fifteen years Halo has been the flagship title of Xbox, its property amassing a value of nearly $4 billion. In 2012, George Lucas sold his illustrious Star Wars IP to Disney for $4.05 billion; a steal to say the least, but a strong indication of the importance of ownership and growth in the entertainment industry.

In 2004, it launched the Xbox LIVE platform itself, with Halo 2 evolving into the template for online gaming, setting industry standards for quality and gameplay. But the world has changed, gaming has changed, and Halo isn’t the orchestrating force it once was. The key thing here, is that it can be once again. By making Infinity free for all Gold members, there is an opportunity for Microsoft to alter the course of history in tribute to bygone times.

Red vs. Blue
Red vs. Blue

Halo Infinity free for all Xbox LIVE Gold subscribers.

Free-to-play models are often seen as the last attempt of the economically drowning. The final nail in the proverbial coffin to catch anyone that might throw a few pennies in the well, if you will. But it doesn’t have to be. Following its switch to freeplay, Penny Arcade Report stated Star Wars The Old Republic had attracted over 2 million new players. Whilst only 0.15% of these are thought to be paying customers, it is evidence of a demand for a new style of gaming and marketing that console games are just waiting to capitalise on.

The reception of a freemium Halo experience would be drastic given the success of the franchise in a short space of time. There are 31 million paying Xbox LIVE members that would have instant access to Infinity straight from their dashboard, along with their friends, family and colleagues. For 343i and Microsoft, the publisher, this radical jump in population opens an entirely new, and fecund market in the form of microtransactions; a demonic word, but a fundamental part of any modern videogame. Maps, armour, weapon skins; all potential money makers, with the potential for fully fledged expansion packs to work in random with the evolution of the Halo universe.

For the gamer, a singular multiplayer realm is crucial to not only the future success of the franchise, but to the basic need of enjoying the gameplay that already exists. The division of players between the various Halo games is the basic factor in the declining population of the games as whole. A global experience in the style of Bungie’s Destiny would allow for a cohesive, yet upgradeable environment for all fans to dwell in.

Gamers will no longer be forced to choose between the active servers of Halo: Reach and Halo 4, but rather will be guided towards a singular medium. Any problems Infinity has, whether its sprint speed of weapon power, are easily correctable and introduced. It relaunches Halo for not only a new console in the form of Xbox One, which has notably lacked AAA games since its launch, but for a new audience that won’t have played the original trilogy or its spinoffs.

The Master Chief and Cortana are symbolic of Halo's epic campaign.
The Master Chief and Cortana are symbolic of Halo’s epic campaign.

Revitalizing the Campaign.

As a pleasant side effect, the ‘campaign’ editions of Halo would no longer rely on multiplayer to shift units. Whilst damning the campaign as nothing more than a storage filler is heresy, Halo 4’s campaign is regarded as dull, and often repetitive compared to the trilogy.

343 Industries would split into two groups; one that focussed upon maintaining the multiplayer, and the other to develop the narrative and single-player experience, which would exist as the full-priced copies of the game available in the past. The campaign would become as important as multiplayer has been to the prolonged success and lifetime of the game in development, offering new opportunities for fleshing out the narrative, inclusion of story-based DLC, and expansion into other aspects of the universe.

Separating the multiplayer and campaign experience is a kin to selling a family member that you don’t like. It seems a little cruel and wrong, but in the long run, it’ll make you happier, and even better, it can’t go wrong. A dedicated team can propel the campaign and lore to a new height on the scales of Mass Effect and Skyrim; primarily single-player, yet highly successful games famed for their rich stories and insight. At the same time, through cultivating a populous online world of affordable microtransactions, Microsoft can create a truly unique and successful MMO of sorts on an unprecedented scale.

What do you think? Can Halo reclaim the top-spot; do you even want it to? Leave your comments and ideas beneath.

About Tom Barron

Tom is an English Italian with the heart of an American and brain of a European. A writer, political junkie, Pearl Jam fan, Labour voter, Star Wars expert, comic reader.