Editorial: Three reasons that Halo defined the online gaming experience
There is no denying that Halo as a franchise and Halo 3 in particular have changed the landscape of online gaming and have firmly established Xbox Live as the predominant online console gaming service. Numbers don't lie. Even more than a year after its release, Halo 3 is still able to draw more than 900,000 unique users participating in 2.4 million matches in a 24-hour period. I dare you to find another game that can put up those numbers and then continue to do so more than 15 months later.
So, now that we agree on the obvious we can try to get to the bottom of why Halo has been so successful. Why has reached so many players? Why do people keep coming back to the game? Why do I always have to play just one more game every time I put the disc into my Xbox 360? Well I have three reasons that have worked for me and my cohorts. Take a few moments to reflect on your own reasons...
Good. Let's compare notes.
1) Halo's online offering is super-accessible.
The matchmaking system that Bungie wrote and implemented for Halo 2, and then refined for Halo 3 changed the way that you find and join online games. Up until Halo 2 you had to have a certain level of confidence in what you were doing to in order to even start up a multiplayer game.
Let's use my feeble start with Xbox Live as an example. The first game that I fired up was Crimson Skies. I had played through the single-player campaign and felt pretty confident about my flying skills. However, when I went to play online I joined a game lobby and was immediately yelled at because I hadn't downloaded the appropriate map (I think that was why they were chastising me, it was difficult to understand the hodge-podge of words that were pouring through my headset). It took me two attempts to download the free maps that were available and three more game lobbies before I was finally allowed to join a game. The whole process took me about thirty minutes.
For contrast, when I put Halo 2 into my Xbox I was getting my butt handed to me online in under five minutes. Sure, I was losing. But I was playing. Online. Amidst an ever-changing game experience. If I wasn't persistent, I would never have gotten into Crimson Skies and what is amazing is that there are even Xbox 360 titles that still setup multiplayer games without a matchmaking feature. If you want people to play your game, no matter how good the game is, you need to make it easy to actually get to play it.
2) Like Othello, multiplayer Halo takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.
While those first five minutes of Halo 2 online taught me just how poor my skills were, it didn't take long before I actually won a Rumble Pit match.
I guess what it all boils down to is that you don't have to have a degree in?well?anything to be able to pick up and play Halo. To start with, each of the games have featured variations on the most intuitive control scheme in all of first-person-video gaming. If you've played games before, darn near any games at this point, you can pick up the controller for Halo 3 and have a pretty good feel for what you are doing inside of 10 minutes. Combine this with the ease of entering a matchmade game and you have a working formula to bring in wide audiences.
From there, it is the depth and breadth of the Halo experience that keeps players coming back. Between the map and game type of the multiplayer experience and the weapon and vehicle variety of the Halo game itself there is no better mix out there. Are you tired of team slayer? I know you're not but bear with me. When you do run out patience for team slayer you have rocket races, or the rumble pit, or a zombie infection weekend, or griffball, or? Do I need to keep going? The long story made short is that the experience can keep changing to keep pace with your evolving taste and, more importantly, ability.
One other component that keeps the Halo multiplayer train rolling down the tracks is the skill-based component to the matchmaking equation. While not flawless, this system does a pretty decent job of keeping a multiplayer match challenging, but not impossible. This balancing act keeps spirits up and players coming back into the game.
3) Bungie shows the Halo community love.
This may very well be the biggest, and most selfless on Bungie's part, reason for Halo's ongoing success. If you haven't done so before, browse over to Bungie.net and take a peek at everything that they have going on.
It all starts with the community activity. Sure, you've got the requisite forums but they take it to the next level with the Bungie Blog, RSS feed, and file sharing. You can literally base your existence around the Bungie lifestyle (not the worst of decisions, they are at least clever, funny, and creative). The topper is that none of that is specifically game-driven (though you can download user modified levels), we haven't even touched that pole yet.
If, like me, you are a stat junkie then Halo 3 even handles that addiction, too. Just register your Gamertag and then you are inundated with more information than you could have imagined. From kills to deaths to wins to losses, all broken down map by map and weapon by weapon, it is all there waiting to lend credence to your drunken tirades about how cool you are. Conversely, you can use them to prove just how full of crap that jerk hitting on your girlfriend is (okay, maybe only if you hang in my circle). Either way, the information is there, free of charge, for all Halo 3 players to dawdle over. Do you prefer pictures to numbers? Then go to the heatmaps, a graphical representation of all of the kills and deaths you've been involved with. For good measure, those chaps even throw together special events and gametypes, double experience weekends, and they continually tweak with the playlists to keep things fresh. Really, they go above and beyond the call of duty.
You know what? It has been too long since I've fired up Halo 3 myself. I'm going to go get it going again. Give me five minutes to get things going and another five to shake the cobwebs loose. I'll see you there.