Gavin Stuff

Halo: Infinite Isolation

Halo: Infinite’s multiplayer beta is nearing the end of its first weekly event and I cannot get over how goddamn lonely 343 Industries has managed to make a multiplayer game. A series known for a bustling community has been reduced to an excellent video game choked underneath a thick layer of tried and true moneymaking tactics. In the olden days one could boot up Halo for hours of fun, joining naturally-forming micro-communities and potentially making friends with complete strangers. Halo: Infinite is the online multiplayer equivalent of walking around a dead mall. Sure, there’s technically other people there, but it stands as more of a reminder of times when the area thrived. 

Warhawk (2007), featuring the least-comfortable bluetooth headset I’ve ever encountered.

I cut my teeth on multiplayer gaming in 2007 with a DSL connection and a copy of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for the Playstation 3. It was a console that made communicating with other users… an adventure. The multiplayer-only game Warhawk relied on team communication so much a Jabra BT125 headset came with physical copies. This is the closest the PS3 came to having a microphone bundled with it. Gaming headsets were such a rarity with console players at the time the publisher preferred giving players a garbage bluetooth mic (that was actively difficult to pair with the console) than run the risk of nobody talking. 

The Sixaxis controller. It was… okay.

The PS3 also had no universal party chat functionality. While Xbox 360 users could simply join a party and chat regardless of what they were doing, PS3 users had to exit out to the main menu and enter a special chat area just to hang out. Imagine Skype but without the ability to do anything else besides stare at the flickering profile image of another person. Some games made voice chat physically painful. Playing Team Fortress 2 on PS3 required some digit gymnastics as one had to press the triangle button on their Sixaxis while also using both analog sticks and pressing shoulder buttons to continue playing. 

Yet, despite the lack of standardized hardware and countless Sony software issues (I couldn’t buy DLC for over a year because Playstation hadn’t anticipated debit cards) there were glimmering moments of fun. Some of my first long-term friendships were formed in the cauldron of jingoism, propaganda, and racism that was CoD4. Small communities would spring into existence as players started chatting in pre and post-game lobbies. CoD4, like most console-based multiplayer games, relied on a matchmaking system that’d group players into one server then keep that server rolling for as long as a majority of the players hung around. It wasn’t uncommon to see the same group of people get shuffled around through teams for over an hour. If you found a good group of people who weren’t shit-talking (or people who were shit-talking who you took great pleasure in defeating over and over), you stuck around. 

Two years later I was seduced into joining the Xbox ecosystem after a PS3 friend would come back to our Skype-but-bad hangout chats with stories of being able to have fun while chatting, as well as all the wonders of Halo 3. I’d played the first two games offline quite a bit. Being a homeschooled kid with bad internet and poor, tech-apathetic parents meant I spent a lot of time just walking around Blood Gulch envisioning how fun it’d be to actually play. 

A time-honored Halo 3 Forge tradition of using janky physics to make the massive Elephant crawler fly around the map before blowing it up.

In 2009 I fell headfirst into Halo 3 at the peak of its multiplayer community. There were entire YouTube channels dedicated to trying out custom maps made in the Forge editor. Strategies formed on the Bungie forums created super-nerds who’d bounce from friend group to friend group on Xbox Live, coaching others on how to unlock the tricker-to-obtain armor sets and achievements. Myths and theories about upcoming content spread like wildfire. The ability to save match replays and a hearty community of people with capture cards created a wonderful machinima scene. Players were able to upload their coolest replay clips and custom maps to a mini-portfolio that anyone else could access while talking to them in pre and post-game lobbies. 

Little did we know those were the salad days of online gaming. At the time the concept of a “pass” was relegated to $30 season passes (a handful of planned small expansion packs released over several months) that came free with a retail purchase of the game. Even at the time it was obvious they were little more than thinly-veiled attempts to make money from players who purchased used games. Industry watchdogs like James Stephanie Sterling warned of horrible potential futures if gamers supported new predatory monetization trends. Would that gamers had listened to their predictions.

Promo image for the first battle pass season of Halo: Infinite themed after Halo: Reach.

Now in 2021 the season pass has evolved into a reflection of the unbridled greed of game publishers. With the wild success of early adopters like Fortnite, the battle pass is here to stay. Instead of four or five singleplayer story expansions or map packs, the modern pass consists of a handful of desirable cosmetics for a player’s character padded out with dozens more not-so-desirable paint jobs, weapon skins, and consumable items. The items can only be unlocked by playing matches and getting extra experience points by completing random challenges (e.g. get _ kills in _ gametype). The insidious part comes in with the fact a battle pass usually costs eight to ten dollars, has a limited amount of real-world time players can unlock said cosmetics, and XP is doled out just slow enough to encourage players to spend an extra $20 to unlock levels of the pass automatically. 

With the battle pass comes the classic Fortnite storefront. For a more thorough breakdown of the evils Fortnite taught the gaming world, I recommend the item shop section of Folding Ideas’ video Manufactured Discontent and Fortnite. To summarize what became the format for every free-to-play game for the rest of time: a Fortnite-styled item shop only offers a handful of items and cycles them out in relatively short spans of real-world time, creating a sense of urgency and uncertainty the player will see that particular cosmetic item available for sale in the near future. Items are also only available using a given game’s fake currency to obfuscate how much real-world money one is spending on a gun skin or armor set (which are conveniently always priced in such a way players have to purchase more in-game currency than is needed so they have a leftover balance that will further encourage them to consider purchasing something else later). 

The end goal of all of these microtransactions, passes, and challenges is simply to make that one video game the only video game you, the consumer with a job and real-world obligations, have time to play and spend your fuck-around money on. If every mainstream shooter uses a battle pass (as they do), players are forced into brand loyalty contracts if they want to make the most out of their $9 battle pass purchase. And maybe they’ll pick up that cool astronaut armor set for $15 while they’re at it. Might not see that one in the store for a while, you know?

343 Industries has tinkered with Fortnite-ifying Halo games in the recent past, implementing a standard battle pass system in the maligned Master Chief Collection and the original-battle-pass-concept-do-not-steal REQ system in Halo 5: Guardians. They learned some important lessons after publishing two mainline Halo entries and their newest effort shows where both 343i and Microsoft’s true intentions lie. They attempted to make free-to-play battle pass-based microstransaction work in a game with a $60 price tag to some success. Now they’ve removed that barrier to entry altogether. 

A screenshot of Steam as of 11-28-21

That’s right. Halo: Infinite is technically a free-to-play game. No longer is the newest installment in this storied series A Halo Game With Multiplayer, it’s a free-to-play shooter with an optional $60 story mode. Steam has Infinite listed as a free game with a $60 DLC with Master Chief’s face plastered on the preview image to further sell the concept that you don’t get to hang out with old John for free. It’s likely Xbox Gamepass users will never notice the difference besides a massive update on December 8th whenthe full game drops, but the difference is there and it’s vitally important. 

The beta version comes packaged with a tutorial meant to both get old-school Halo nerds hyped for the campaign and new players acclimated to Halo-style online play. A highly-polished cutscene shows new character Laurette Agryna saved from Covenant invasion by a group of Spartans while a future version of her (that has become a Spartan IV) gives a rousing speech to new Spartan cadets. She singles out the player, hints at Halo 5 lore, and sends them off to complete training. It’s a cool tutorial that introduces players to the customizable AI system, shows off the traditional New Gun For The Sequel, and cleverly gives players hands-on experience fighting bots on one of the multiplayer maps. At the end Agryna returns to tease cool things are going to happen soon, all but spiking the camera and saying “buy the campaign to find out more.”

Spartan Agryna in an official still from 343i

Leaving the tutorial I was fired up to jump into the fray. A Halo game in a free multiplayer beta? The game Crackdown sold thousands of copies purely because Halo nerds could only access the Halo 3 beta through the Crackdown disk. One could only imagine the thriving community a PC player would encounter with crossplay between Xbox Gamepass and Steam! 

This was my first mistake. 

Halo: Infinite has stripped the multiplayer experience down so much that playing in (relative to Halo) massive 28-player battles feels effectively identical to dicking around in an open-world co-op game with a couple of friends. Sure, it has the weapons and trappings of Halo but there’s no communication, no community. The only way players can express themselves to other players is through armor customization (the majority of which costs money) or by honking the horn of a Warthog. Text chat is limited to just the player’s team. Gone are the days of firing of “glhf” at the beginning of a match or a well-deserved “gg” just before the final scores fade away. Proximity chat still exists, but it feels like an oversight on 343i’s part rather than something intentionally included. 

And as those post-game scores fade away the biggest casualty of Infinite is displayed: 343i killed the post-game lobby. The pre-game one, too. Players get one match together before being thrown out into a series of menus, sifting through any challenges completed, experience gained, and which Halo-themed tchotchke they would have unlocked if they’d paid for the battle pass. Infinite wants players to only congregate in small fireteams (Halo decided it was too cool to use the word “squad”) of up to four friends. The only indication a player is even encountering strangers on the digital battlefield is a short pre-match cutscene in which a camera pans across everyone in the team, showing off their armor and usernames. A moment that itself is driven by an ulterior motive to show off other player’s cosmetics in hopes that you, a player with money, will want to go make some purchases after the match. Even in this one brief moment of player self-expression, Halo: Infinite is trying to make money.  

I probably encountered well over a hundred people while playing Fiesta matches on stream yesterday. They could’ve all been bots and I wouldn’t have noticed. Halo used to be a place where one could go to have some solid arena shooter fun with the added extra game of sifting through dozens of toxic teenagers hurling slurs to find a handful of cool like-minded people to hang out with. To game, perchance to bond. 

My initial reaction to Infinite following in the footsteps of other shooters that’ve axed the pre-game lobby was that of efficiency. 343i doesn’t have to worry about moderation if they simply delete the thing during which the most reports of issues with other players tends to come from. Separate them out and communication becomes more difficult. Then I glance up and notice a good portion of the Multiplayer search menu is taken up by a huge button to check up on your battle pass. Isolating players isn’t about efficiency or improving the game, it’s about ensuring players have as much time as they need to look over the damned pass. 

Without the expansive open world of Infinite’s campaign to soften the blow (though the meme of making an existing linear franchise open-world is a huge red flag in its own right), Halo: Infinite is well-polished shooter trapped inside layer upon layer of profit-motivated decisions that makes it feel more and more like a job. Oppressive moneymaking tactics applied to a game that would have shifted millions of copies without them. Hell, it likely would sell more copies because it didn’t have a battle pass and Fortnite store. We’re likely on the verge of some big franchise releasing a game with the marketing gimmick of every cosmetic being purely unlockable through gameplay. One can only dream of such a wonderful day.

What’s worst about the whole affair is Infinite isn’t unique. Multiplayer-focused titles have been gradually shifting in this direction over the past decade with no sign of slowing down. Developers have shifted from being stewards of their own communities to simply being figureheads who only appear to promote the newest thing to buy. Here’s the new game, some assembly required. Players not included. You better be ready to join a handful of Discord servers because otherwise you’re on your own, kid. Call of Duty, Battlefield, Sea of Thieves, if it has a gun and online functionality there’s an extremely high likelihood you’ll need at least a Wiki open on a second monitor and access to a Discord server if you want to make any progress unlocking free cosmetics and hanging out with people who also play the same game as you.

Without a sense of community Halo: Infinite has stripped one of the most fun experiences one can have in gaming down to playing against particularly good bots who occasionally have entertaining usernames above their heads. Capitalism is squeezing the life out of this thing that’s inherently designed for people to have fun together on, and that’s depressing as hell. I have some hope the full version of the game can fix these issues. There’s ghosts of what appears to be a system that lets popular player-made Forge maps get displayed to everyone in the community. Perhaps the player-based portfolio will make a comeback. Maybe someone with an audience will make a stink and pregame lobbies will return. It’s a lot of question makes to hang one’s hopes on, but that’s all we can do at this point.

Fuck battle passes. Now I’m going to go play more Fiesta so I can unlock a set of samurai-inspired armor I’ll probably never actually use.

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