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Making Halo More Newb-Friendly

Stephen Totilo and N'Gai Croal finished their series of debates on the Halo 3 Beta last week, and since a lot of what they covered intersects some of the pieces I've written on this site in response to complaints from hardcore gamers to the effect that Halo is unfair and unsuitable for serious competetive play, I thought I'd remark on some of the points they raised.

Croal writes:

I am indeed looking for ways to make the individual experience within "Halo 3" multiplayer more engaging and more inviting, particularly for newcomers. Otherwise, the same fate will befall "Halo 3" as did its predecessors and fellow multiplayer games: It will calcify into something suited only to the hardcore.

It's worth noting that Croal seems to consider Halo 2, the most popular game on Xbox Live from its launch until the release of Gears of War a full two years later, to be a game suitable "only to the hardcore". The hardcore, meanwhile, complained loud and bitterly that Halo 2 was a spray and pray affair, more luck than skill, and dumbed down for general audiences.

By the admission of Gears' own designers and, I think, the intentions of Bungie Studios as can be derived from their design choices, neither the Halo series nor Gears of War were specifically designed for professional, competetive play. The attempt to give power weapons certain weaknesses, to provide some weapons that are easier to use, and to give players a chance to defeat superior opponents, on occasion, says to me that these games are intended for a more general audience; that even those, like myself, who lack serious FPS skills, can have fun playing these games.

Croal gets to the core of his assertion about what makes Halo online less friendly to new players, compared with campaign play:

My admittedly limited experience with "Halo 2" and "Halo 3" multiplayer has convinced me that matchmaking alone is insufficient to guarantee a rewarding online experience. In single-player mode, games are generally paced in such a way as to teach us how to play the game: They slowly increase the number of weapons, abilities and options; they gradually increase the difficulty; and they also provide a range of difficulty settings. In multiplayer, it often feels as though I've been thrown into a game where the difficulty has been set a couple of notches too high, coupled with unpredictable allies and enemies and a slew of options to choose from.

While Croal has already pointed out the most readily available remedy for this situation-- getting together a group of friends and practicing-- he does suggest design choices that could also aid in this. Although he doesn't mention it, the Beta's playlists do include such games, actually, although you don't get them very often, and mostly the intent there is to provide variety and fun. Rockets-only games occur both in rumble and team playlists, as well as games of shotties and snipers. Both feature unlimited ammunition and a limited selection of weapons, so it allows players to focus exclusively on terrain and positioning. So much of regular slayer games revolve around getting the right weapons, cycling them, keeping them, and getting a matchup that favors you. You don't want to run headlong around a corner indoors when all you've got is the sniper and the laser; especially not if the guy coming around the corner has the shotgun. Both the above gametypes remove those issues. Of course, the easiest way to practice such games is Customs, but in the beta, these are not officially accessible.

The simplest solution to suggest and one of the hardest to implement is bots. By letting gamers practice — whether singly or in teams — against AI-controlled opponents, newcomers can learn the basics of weapons, equipment, geography, jumping and targeting in a more nurturing environment, while teams — newbies and vets alike — can practice their tactics and strategies, all before going online.

This is probably more difficult, especially for Halo, than even Croal would admit, because of how Halo's campaign AI works. I also think that design-wise, it's a step backwards for the industry. I think the future of NPC control in online games will be players controlled by actual human opponents, not scripts. In Halo's case, this could be tutorials-- team games led by playtesters matched with new players, with some of the specific limitations Croal mentions above-- limited weapons, specific settings.

My most provocative suggestion, however, would involve a change in how Microsoft doles out achievement points on a per-title basis. For titles like "Halo 3," where multiplayer is half or more of the reason people buy the game, developers should be encouraged to include a multiplayer campaign mode with as many achievement points as single-player, effectively doubling the number of points available from that one game.

Gears already does this, and I have to say... dear, god, please no. Achievements already have a social network component: when you display them to your friends, as they appear on your gamer profile. The addition of players in the multiplayer arena who are only there for the achievements tends to warp what is already often a warped experience. To find players in team games who use a weapon or tactic repeatedly, at the cost of other game objectives, because they are seeking to get a particular achievement, is annoying in the extreme, and only makes what is often a tumultuous experience worse.

Despite matchmmaking that attempts to put players of similar skill levels together, despite proximity voice that allows you to hear nearby players, despite team voice communication, getting real teamwork is hard enough. Adding in yet another element that splinters team goals simply isn't worth it.

Part two of the Croal-Totilo debate also brought up communication and teamwork.

Totilo writes:

I've primarily enjoyed the cover of team games. I have tasted the joy of team play and hope to transform myself from jovial bench-warmer to power-player. Like you, however, I have yet to enjoy the serendipity of teamwork in matches. I've yet to find a friend on the battlefield, hatch a plan so crazy it just might work and then rocket to the number-one spot on the stats list.

But let's be completely honest, N'Gai, and admit to the readers that we're such neophytes that when we played the same maps together we couldn't even get the Team Chat function working. We weren't working together because we couldn't talk to each other. I do recall one map where a player far better than us — so talented that he even knew how to use the Team Chat function! — effectively guided our little band of half-brothers to momentary mid-match success. Then he stopped coaching us, yelling something about desperately needing cover fire, and we went back to losing our match.

There are a few factors at play here. First, unlike Bungie's strategy game Myth, Halo has no place for team-only chat prior to the game starting; no equivalent of Planning Time. In the pre-game lobby, everyone can hear everyone, so you'd best not discuss strategy there. Once the game starts, in a team match you should all spawn together, but without any previously agreed-upon structure, players most often just run off for their favorite spots and weapons. If you're lucky, they'll tell you what they're doing. If you're unlucky, they either won't tell you, or you'll find out that their favorite weapon is also your favorite weapon. Plenty of matches start off with two players calling sniper and go downhill from there. Because there's usually no agreed-upon strategy prior to that point, there's no way to get players to agree to fit into a role other than their favorite, because they don't see a reason to. If you're with a group of friends already you can discuss this stuff in your party before you enter matchmmaking. If you're the random guy, it's tough, and most of the experiences Croal and Totilo talk about seem to be like that-- the experience of being the random single guy on a team, who is likely blamed for failure and given no credit for victory unless you happen to lead the team statistically.

The Team Chat feature isn't hard to use in the beta. Hitting any direction on the d-pad will do it. However, I'll say it again: having voice communications broadcasted unintended to nearby enemies, but requiring player intervention to be sent to teammates, is unrealistic, counter-intuitive, and counter-productive. The argument I've heard against the opposite-- that Halo is too loud a game for constant team chat, and this will result in unpleasant echo-- is simply not convincing enough. Play campaign loud. Play multiplayer toned down a bit, or else get Plantronics to make a Halo 3 headset with a noise-cancelling microphone.

The question for me is how a newbie can learn good team tactics. Solve that and you've solved one of the few problems that "Halo" clearly has. That problem is that the "Halo" virus has limited potency. The series is a fever that's hard to catch if you didn't catch it within a few months of when your friends did. I've found that if you didn't, then playing "Halo" with them winds up being a pointless exercise for both sides. The skill gap is just too great. Bridge that gap and "Halo" — and other skill-based video games — could welcome an ever-expanding base of players rather than a large but exclusively skilled set.

Totilo has hit the nail on the head here. For various reasons, I hit the Halo and Halo 2 multiplayer scenes quite late. The beta allowed me to play about the same time as everybody else who got to play, and while that didn't make me any better of a player, it did change the experience.

However, the game itself still provides no substitute for a group of friends to learn the game with. The "party up" feature in the beta, that allows players thrown together by matchmmaking to group up going forward, is a step in the right direction. However, not enough players use team chat during a game, and it seems to me unlikely that players who go through a team game silently are going to see any benefit to partying up-- especially if they lost the match. Halo 3 still doesn't encourage or require the use of voice enough to nudge people into being truly social; at least, not the way that other online games do, especially in other genres, or in FPS variations that are more tactical.

How about a fifteen-second period after the map is loaded, but before the players spawn, to allow teams to have a private chat? How about showing a map flyover during that space, showing key objectives like flag and hill spawns? How about choosing a player from each team to have camera control during that flyover, perhaps to illustrate a particular place or object of importance?

Halo isn't a tactical shooter or a strategy game; the extensive planning time and the special role of the team captain don't really have a place in Halo. However, a few nods in the direction of Myth might address some of the newbie probems Croal and Totilo bring up, without alienating Halo's existing fanbase.

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Comments

This is a very well thought out article. I had followed the debate between Croal and Totillo and completely agree with your response/assessment. I think it all comes down to them not playing with the right people to accurately gauge the multiplayer experience in a good/bad manner. SG Noodles

I actually agree with the idea of a limited time before the match to strategise with your new-found team mates. Often times, if you try to do it when the match has already started, the other team gets the jump on you, gets the better weapons in the middle of the map and its a difficult uphill struggle from there to stay in contention, much less actually execute your plan. It would certainly help I think, to have that time. And for newbies, a fly-over would also help them have a proper look at a map they've never played before, or refresh anyones memory, without the pressure of trying to win the game.