A Christmas Wish To Bungie

Last time I wrote about whether or not there really is something you can call a "Halo Community". What the question really is, of course, is whether or not that community is like the old Bungie communities were, just larger-- or is something else entirely, and if that something else is a good thing or not. I think the Halo community is something different, not only because the installed base of gamers, first on the Xbox and now (finally) on PCs and Macs, is much larger, but because of the way Halo was on the Xbox (no mods or out-of-the-box Internet play) and the way it is now on the PC (Modding possible but difficult with no official tools yet released, no interoperability with the Xbox version). This isn't necessarily bad, and Bungie fans, both new and old, being an imaginative and dedicated bunch, have made the best of it: fan films, fan fiction, comic strips, and so on. But some of the elements of old Bungie communities, namely mods and ranking, are missing. Halo modding may never reach the level that Marathon and Myth modding did. The game engine is more complex, the methods required more advanced, the file sizes much larger. There will probably never be the sheer proliferation of fan-made Halo levels that there were for Marathon and Myth. Some may say that is a good thing, echoing the axiom that 95% of everything is crap, and so most of the fan-made Halo levels that will never get made would have been not worth the download anyway. Of course, if that follows, and there are only ever 10 fan created levels made, that means nine of them will suck and only one of them won't, which is a depressing prospect. But whether or not Halo modding eventually hits a technical brick wall may or may not be the point, because while at the same time the release of PC and Mac Halo have made this now a practical possibility, whereas Xbox hacking was open only to a few brave souls, what is coming in the future may attract the community's attention away from this. Of course, I'm talking about Halo 2. We don't know that much about Halo 2. We've seen trailers and demos... and they definitely look cool. We know we're going to see the continuation (if not the conclusion) to the Master Chief's story, begun in the first game and fleshed out so far in three novels. We know it will support Xbox Live. How it will support it, we don't quite know, although a good assumption would be that at the very least, the kind of options open to Xbox players over LAN play now will be available over the Internet through XBL. This seems reasonable. Of course, maybe other things will be forthcoming, too-- episodic content, new units, maps, and vehicles-- similar to what's been done with the MechWarrior game. The mind boggles at what might be done. But at the very least, this is probably going to be a system that has some similarities and some differences to what things were like in the old Bungie.net days with Myth. Like Marathon and Halo, Halo 2 is a shooter. Shooters tend to handle online gaming a bit different than Myth, an RTS, did. Most likely it'll follow the usual patterns-- servers will cycle through a sequence of maps and gametypes with an ever-changing flow of players who drop in and drop out. Myth games, on the other hand, always had discrete beginnings and endings, and players could not join games in progress, although they could leave, or be disconnected.) Once again, a Bungie game will be held together online by the glue that is Bungie.net, even if it is in the guise of Xbox Live. And so something that Bungie.net had, which Halo has lacked, may return, for good or ill. Rankings. Myself, I was never a particularly good Myth player. I was never good enough to feel I should even bother about what my rank was, although I did play in ranked rooms and enjoyed the feeling (sometimes) of seeing my rating increase after a victory, and was disheartened when it dropped after a loss. I read with some interest, although not with the zeal some others applied, about the Bungie.net ranking system and how it worked-- what was good about it, what was bad, what was missing and what was broken. At the very least, it provided fodder for discussion, and for some-- rank was the very reason to play. Halo PC might have some ladders-- but it's not a centralized, defined thing, like Bungie.net was. Bungie.net had a position for Myth players called the Comet-- a single highest-ranked player, determined by an algorithm maintained by Bungie that balanced a number of statistics related to performance in games. This was good... and bad. Some people took to "gaming the system"-- trying to find out as much as possible about how ranking worked in order to maximize their rating. Some tactics involved bug exploiting, some involved various other cheats, some involved judicious "dropping"-- disconnecting from a game when it looks like its conclusion might damage your rating. Bungie attempted to adjust the ranking system to absorb these kinds of tactics, to try and make it so the system rewarded good players playing in games that were fun. I'll leave the conclusion of whether or not they succeeded at that to those who know more than I (of which there are many). Halo 1 didn't have Internet play without tunelling, so this was a non-issue. But with the upcoming release of Halo 2, with Xbox Live support, theoretically Bungie will once again have access to a centralized point for the collection of game statistics-- meaning they could again have a Bungie.net ladder, this time for Halo. Maybe they will-- it seems a lot of attention has been paid to the Bungie.net site in recent months, and perhaps it is in anticipation of adding just those kinds of features. But before all that happens, I'd like to just make one suggestion. Perhaps it's already been thought of, and either accepted or discarded; perhaps not. But for what it's worth, I think it's an idea that would add even more to the experiences of the Halo fan community, and in particular, Halo fan sites. It'd be great if Bungie.net again has a ranking system for players. But it'd be greater if Bungie used a system that allowed fansites to query Bungie.net for the raw statistics on player performance, and published an API that describes what this data is, so fansites can generate their own rankings based on their own system. Some, of course, may quickly point out what they may see as the downside of such an idea: that each "clan" of players will tweak their ranking calculations for their own advantage. I submit this is no problem at all-- any ranking display so tweaked would easily be ignored. However, I think there is real value and advantage here to the Halo community. Game rankings are always a very complicated thing, even for very simple games. One might argue that, statistically and mechanically, Halo is a simpler game than Myth: its game objectives are similar, there are fewer units involved, etc etc. Back in the early days of Mac online gaming, though, there was another exceedingly simple game that had a multiplicity of extremely complicated ranking systems, as well as the discussions, controversies, and flame wars that came with them. That game was Bolo. Graphically, it was a simple tank duel like the old Combat cartridge that came with the first Atari consoles. You drove a tank around, captured refuelling bases and stationary guns, killed other tanks and tried to keep from being killed. You could play with up to sixteen others arranged in as many as four teams, and unlike most shooters, alliances between players could be formed and broken on the fly within games. Games ended when all the bases were in the control of one player or alliance. It was rather like a CTF game in Halo, except there are more than two teams, more than two flags, and the configuration of teams and flags can shift-- several times-- within the course of a single game. But out of such simplicity came a wide variety of statistics even on simple mechanics, such as killing, dying, and taking damage. A long debate raged-- that was never adequately settled-- about assigning points for killing and penalizing players for dying. Were only kills worth points, with deaths not to be considered? If so, this might reward reckless players, who charge into battle like kamikaze pilots, dying over and over again in mad rushes with no regard to strategy. Should deaths subtract from player ratings? If so, this might encourage a certain kind of "camping"-- where players achieve a few kills and then go hide so they won't be killed, bringing their kills to death ratio up to a high grade. I don't know if that kind of question will ever be answered. But if Halo 2 online is going to have a single point of ranking-- as Myth did during the Bungie.net days-- and if that system will have a comet-like position for the highest-ranked player-- then Bungie will have to answer that question, as they did for Myth. They will have to come up with a single set of mathematical operations that weigh factors like kills, deaths, flag captures, assists, ball time, etc, to come up with those rankings. And with time (and mods, of course) the original Bungie.net system also saw some strain. If you allow players to play in "ranked rooms" using modified units and maps, how do you score those? Many players complained that the Bungie.net ranking system was ruined by those who played the popular World War II mod, because its function, gameplay and objectives were so different from the original game's. If Halo 2 won't have mods, then that's not an issue. But who knows? Regardless of how Bungie answers the question, there will be those who like it, those who don't, and those who say whether anybody likes it or not doesn't matter, because the ranking will be a reality. However, in other areas-- like professional sports-- this isn't always the case. Those systems have "official" rankings, based on wins and losses-- which sports governing bodies, like the professional leagues and the NCAA, tweak with from time to time. But media outlets-- newspapers, magazines and television-- have access to the raw data to make their own predictions and ranking systems. Some are just subjective-- reporters spout off on what they observe, predict the outcomes of games and tournaments from the seat of their pants, and have done with it. Others create magnificient ranking systems, like ther PWR, RPI, and KRACH ranking systems used to describe college hockey, with access to the raw statistical data. Although exceedingly complex is theory and execution, many of those systems rely on relatively few points of data: wins, losses, ties, margin of victory of each team-- weighing in that same data for opponents to arrive at a value for each win, loss, or tie-- an interconnected system that handicaps each team, by assigning them not a binary 1 for a win and 0 for a loss, but tries to determine how much each game is worth based on the performance of the two teams in that game against other teams... their opponents performance against their opponents and against their opponents' opponents... and so on. This could be something the community could use to differentiate groups, provide material for discussion, predict the outcome of tournaments, and many other things. Of course Bungie could, and probably would, have its own "definitive" ranking system, with a real Comet at the top. And people will argue about whether its the right result or not. But other sites could choose to have their own systems, emphasizing different aspects of the game, and assigning importance accordingly. This would take the burden off of Bungie to tweak their system to meet the preferences of many users, or from having to overanalyze statistics at Bungie.net to meet all users requests. With access to the raw statistics, if a fansite saw an opportunity in providing a certain kind of analysis, they could provide it themselves. Maybe some fans who fancy themselves great Warthog drivers will want to see detailed statistics on that-- kills vs deaths while driving, perhaps weighted for the presence or absence of gunners and passengers. Mean time to flag capture while driving. Perhaps an adjustment for flags captured by drivers and passengers. Maybe some players will specialize as Banshee dogfighters, and want to see statistics on that-- time aloft without dying, accuracy of shots, amount of damage taken. Maybe those who complain about players who overuse what they consider unbalanced vehicles, or weapons, will want to see raw statistics balanced for the use of those-- by adjusting the value assigned to a kill or death while using an overshield, or active camoflauge. Of course, not everyone will agree that such a system would be a good thing-- or what it should look like if it came into being. And some will still find ways to "game the system"-- trick the ranking system into giving them a high rating for achievements not really reflected in game play. But those things will happen anyway. Anyway, that's the Christmas present that Rampancy.net would ask for from Bungie-- access to raw XBL Halo 2 statistics, so any fansite that wants to can easily have little boxes that rank and compare players in many different kinds of statistical areas. We've tried to be good this year, really we have. And we didn't hit Susie Derkins with a snowball this winter. At least, not more than once.
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