Vs. Mode: Newsweek And MTV News Argue Over ‘Halo 3′ (Round 2)

On Tuesday, Stephen shared the first part of an e-mail debate he's been having about "Halo 3" with N'Gai Croal of Newsweek (see "Vs. Mode: Newsweek And MTV News Argue Over 'Halo 3' (Round 1)"). They're publishing the exchange here at MTVNews.com and on the "Level Up" blog on Newsweek's site. They kept it cordial in the first round. Not anymore ...

To: Stephen Totilo
Fr: N'Gai Croal
Date: May 23, 2007
Re: Ducking and Covering

Stephen,

As usual, you've made some terrific points and posed some excellent questions. And as usual, I'm not going to answer them. Not right away, at least. Instead, I'm going to call you out. Because as terrific as your points and as excellent as your questions may be, I feel as though you're ducking the elephant in the room (our mutual avoidance of online multiplayer gaming) and covering it up (with useful analogies about what "Halo" multiplayer may or may not be). We're both newbs here, dammit, and we should fully engage the experience of that newbitude (yes, I'm bringing back my neologism grenades for this Vs. Mode sequel) rather than simply draw parallels between "Halo 3" multiplayer and single player games, sports and television shows.

The reason I spent an entire post clearing my throat was to explain to our readers Why I Don't Play "Halo" (Or Any Other Online Multiplayer Games, For That Matter.) Having done that, I promised them that I would jump in, and having done so, here is my report from the front lines. (Borrowing from a conceit I developed for my presently on-hiatus tech blog, The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized, my report will be delivered in the form of a brief playlist; the one I would have put on my limited-edition "Halo 3" Zune, had I taken it out of its box.)

1. "Loser," Beck: Anyone who steps into "Halo" multiplayer is going to die the way Chicagoans vote: early and often. To those who play online shooters on a regular basis, this point must seem hardly worth noting. To someone like myself, who tends towards single-player action-adventure games like "Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater" and "God of War II" and arcade-y action games like "Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved" and "Every Extend Extra," it's extremely dismaying to step into a world that is visually indistinguishable from an action-adventure game, but has the death toll (mine) of an arcade-y action game. There's something very public about the repeated failure that online shooters ask you to endure, and for me, it's compounded by the fact that this ritual humiliation (note the small "h," please, as I don't want to overstate this) and occasional victory takes place largely around strangers. The social context of LAN parties that I described in my previous entry — all friends and acquaintances, gaming in the same physical location — obviously isn't present in the grim (dare I say Spartan?), pseudonymous kill-or-be-killed arenas of "Halo 3." Soy un perdidor, indeed.

2. "All By Myself," Eric Carmen: Separately, I've met up with you and Level Up Xbox 360 correspondent Rolf Ebeling, but our handful of shared experiences didn't produce much in the way of coordinated action or in-game camaraderie. The real bonding took place during the after-action reports in the lobbies waiting for the next match to begin. During the games themselves, I felt as though I was pretty much on my own, but crucially and cruelly robbed of the narcissistic godhood around which single-player games are generally based — it wasn't all about me anymore. In other words, I was spawned into a world where I was fundamentally alone, and the only sure thing was that I was going to die. Clearly, a lot of people take to these games like ducks to water, but as a newcomer, I can't say that I found it inviting or welcoming. (By the way, Ziff-Davis' 1UP Yours Podcast has an excellent discussion of what Bungie could do to make "Halo 3" multiplayer more newb friendly; as newbs ourselves, perhaps we should take up some of those points in our next entries.)

3. "Let Go," Frou Frou: After the nasty, brutish and short "Halo 2" multiplayer experience I briefly described in my opening statement, I realized that I was going to need some guidance. That's where Rolf came in. We partied up — this was still before Microsoft's "Halo 3" press event and subsequent release of the beta download — and Rolf offered me the choice of an objective-based mode like Capture the Flag, or something more free-for-all like King of the Hill. Having been thoroughly and repeatedly owned during a CTF match the night before, I opted for the latter.

Best. Decision. Ever.

After the couple of minutes it took me to get my sea legs, I gleefully gave myself over to the Hobbesian ecstasies of King of the Hill. The genius of this match type is its just-the-right-side of barely-controlled chaos: you rush to get to the "hill" as quickly as you can; you hold it for as long as you can; you terminate all of your rivals with extreme prejudice; your final scores is based on the cumulative amount of time you were able to hold the hill.

So if "Halo" single-player is built around the pockets of action that Bungie refers to as "Thirty seconds of fun," King of the Hill is 15 seconds of fun, washed, rinsed and repeated ad nauseam, mercifully stripped of the various tensions necessary to make the more structured game types work. There's no need for teamwork, patience, affordance, strategy, thought. Everything tactical is removed, but the presence of the hill gives it a focus — both in terms of the geography and the gameplay — that makes it more memorable and rewarding than a pure dog-kill-dog game of Slayer, a.k.a. deathmatch. Just so we're clear: As a fan of the "Metal Gear" series, I'm obviously not opposed to tactical games, and I've stated some of the action games I like above. But when tactics and action are combined, as they are in multiplayer shooters, then topped with skill and accuracy, we're starting to blow past the outer limits of my gaming abilities; in other words, those aren't two great tastes that taste great together as far as my weaksauceness is concerned.

So even though the other night I managed to place third — barely — in a "Halo 3" Team Slayer match, my achievement felt hollow because I'm really not that good. It was pure blind luck in a game type that seems as though it should be about skill. Meanwhile, I'm still buzzing about my King of the Hill session in "Halo 2" because of the expert way it scratched my arcade itch. That, then, was my final revelation about King of the Hill: It's structured in such a way that death doesn't feel like a failure, or even much of a setback the way it does to me in the other game types. It's merely a brief this-second-is-a-good-second-to-die interregnum between virtual killing sprees, making it more like arcade-y action games I praised earlier; it felt like "Every Extend Extra" or "Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved," in 3-D, with human opponents. Finally, my narcissistic divinity was restored, even if I was just a minor deity facing off against the petty god-avatars of other human beings. Finally, at long last, I had found a little piece of "Halo" that I could call my own.

4. "Simon Says," Pharoahe Monch: This final track is here to express my hope that you'll — pardon my Xbox Live — get the f--- up off the sidelines (rhetorically speaking) and join me down here in the rumble pit in trying to grapple with the experience of playing "Halo" multiplayer.

Cheers,

N.



To: N'Gai Croal
Fr: Stephen Totilo
Date: May 24, 2007
Re: Forget "Halo 3." Why Don't They Offer "Halo 101"?

N'Gai,

So the guy who agrees to partner up with me for an exchange about "Halo 3" — but then decides to not answer any questions I have for him — is shocked about the inability for me and him to cooperate effectively when we're actually playing the game?

Fancy that.

It reminds me of the time last week when we teamed up for a match in the "Halo 3" beta and you shot my guy in the head with the sniper rifle. Mistake, right?

The experience I've had of playing "Halo" multiplayer as a newbie and failing with death after death is indeed bringing me back. It's like playing an old arcade game or any of those so-called NES "classics" with the ridiculous jumps. Then and now, I see my character dying a lot. When this happened in the old games I blamed the games' designers. Or, in less rational moments, I blamed the hardware. "Why'd the developers make that jump so hard?"... or ... "I hit the A button! Why didn't my guy jump?" Playing "Halo 3" beta and getting smoked again and again is a nostalgia trip, except now I blame other players. They're too good. They're hustling me. They're ranked wrong.

Notice whose fault my failure never is.

It sounds like you're looking for ways to make the solo-ing in "Halo" more fun. I'm with you. I too feel the sting of frequent defeat and would prefer a more delirious buzz (see "Multiplayer: The Elusive Joy of Losing — A Proposal for 'Halo 3' "). I think, however, that I've failed to appreciate one nice touch Bungie has already put in the game: the ranking system. When I'm a Level 4 and I'm getting whacked by Level 8 opponents, I can deal. I have been nervous when the matchmaking system makes me the highest-ranked person in a match. Then I feel the responsibility to outshine everyone else. And when I've inevitably struggled to do so, I tell myself it's because everyone else saw my king-size rating and decided to go gunning for me.

Now, I'll have you know, Mr. Third Place, that in the course of the "Halo 3" beta I finished a Team Slayer match in second place once. Second place! The brilliant performance was all my doing. I've also won some Team Skirmish "Territories" games, though that was mostly because the three other guys on my team were better at grabbing land than a baseball team that wants a site for a new stadium.

I have not played King of the Hill. I have not had a triumphant session as a lone Spartan soldier. 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.

That match left me thinking about teamwork in these games and what kind of teamwork is the most fun and even how a game might be designed to emphasize that type of teamwork. I could certainly diverge into a discussion of why co-op story-based multiplayer might therefore be a more appealing feature than competitive arena-combat multiplayer for neophyte players like us. I could explain how that kind of solid contiguous mission structure could diminish our moments of blind flailing. But if I went into any of that you'd scold me for not talking about the "Halo 3" experience.

So, yeah, I think the experience of team-based multiplayer is tops — like the time I got in the back turret of a Warthog jeep in "Halo 3," had another player jump in the driver's seat and proceeded to collaboratively mow through the enemy forces. Oh wait. I'm remembering that wrong. The last time I tried that, I jumped in the jeep, manned the turret, and then waited for someone to get in the driver's seat. They didn't. I just stood there.

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.

How do newbie players get better? Throwing them on the battlefield or expecting them to learn through the single-player mode of the game aren't the best answers. Need I remind you that I beat "Halo" and that hasn't helped me a lick on the multiplayer of "Halo 3"?

How about if some players online could lend me a helping hand? Let me share something with you: I'm such an expert gamer that I'm a bona fide level 12 druid in "World of Warcraft" (just about the equivalent of not even having put the quarter in the "Pac-Man" machine yet, if you can't catch my sarcasm). In my brief time in "WoW" I had one player spot my newbitude (or can we call it "casualosity"?) and did he challenge me to a duel and smite me with a blood spell? No, he offered me help. On the battlefield of "Halo 3" there is no helping hand. There's not even a Molly Pitcher. Then again, on the battlefield of "Halo 3" there's not a person who likes helping me — rather than blood-spelling me — so much that, the next time I log in, he warps to my spot, turns into bear form, licks my character's face, and gives me pause to ever log into the game again. But there's also no help. Not much. It's, at most, a 16-player game. People need to survive in "Halo," not give classes.

I do have an idea that would help us neophytes. You know how in single-player games you often learn one ability at a time, gain one new weapon or tool every few minutes but never have everything thrown at you all at once in a situation in which you're expected to excel? Imagine bringing that kind of pacing to multiplayer. Imagine being able to play multiplayer in training tiers: first maybe a map where jumping is disabled, then a map where jumping is enabled but shooting without both feet on the ground is not, then turn on a couple of extra weapons in the next map, then some heavier weapons in the one after that. Some of that map customization is already in the game, but not all of it. I think that kind of training routine could help a lot of players.

I expect some people might think this would be unpopular. Only newbies would want it, and what good is that? It would be like opening the local gym only to first-timers for a day. Having some trainers around is preferable. How do you get the experienced players — the potential trainers — to participate in the training maps? Simple: Give out 100 Achievement points for any player that puts three hours into the training maps as student or teacher. Those expert gamers do love collecting their Achievement points. Problem solved.

How would you make "Halo" friendlier to new players?

And, oh yeah, is there anything wrong with the graphics?

-Stephen