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

On Wednesday, Stephen shared the second 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 2]"). They're publishing the exchange here at MTVNews.com and on the "Level Up" blog on Newsweek's site. Now it's time for the final round. Pity a little fly who got in the way ...

To: Stephen Totilo
Fr: N'Gai Croal
Date: May 29, 2007
Re: A Campaign for Change

"Don't be such a bunch of pu-----. It's fine. All you need to do is practice."
— John Davison, paraphrasing some message board responses to the May 25 1UP Yours podcast about how "Halo 3" multiplayer could be made more newcomer-friendly

"I mean, listen, we're sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, but we're talking about practice. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it's my last, but we're talking about practice, man. How silly is that?"
— Allen Iverson at a May 8, 2002, press conference after the 76ers were defeated in the first round of the playoffs

Stephen,

Thanks for indulging me in my desire to tackle the experience of playing "Halo 3." As for our shared forays into battle, I wish I could say I was grieving when I tagged you with the sniper rifle, but I don't even remember doing it. As for our team-chat debacle, that's what we get for not reading the manual — I mean the FAQ.

I kicked off my final entry with the pair of quotes above because I'm sure that after Round 2, the grizzled "Halo" vets among our readership — the ones with the thousand-yard stares, the war stories from long nights spent in the sh-- and the astronomical rankings to prove it — are almost certainly wondering, "Why don't these guys just stop bitching and practice?" And when the completed version of "Halo 3" ships on September 25, with a broader range of players available for matchmaking than the self-selecting group of hardcores who signed up for the beta, they'll have a point — up to a point.

Because as you point out in your last e-mail, 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. None of this, by the way, is meant to suggest that "Halo" is in any way broken for its devotees. It's not. I'm just trying to figure out how Bungie can increase its appeal to the rest of us — no matter when we decide to Jump In, no matter how weak our skills might be, no matter whether we decide to take a break and then return.

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. Some might find that appealing and dive right in, but I find it as overwhelming as if someone were to hand me the controller halfway through "Ninja Gaiden Black" and say, "Now you play." If single-player games were designed in this manner, with the game becoming more difficult to play the longer you take to purchase it, a lot fewer people would play games. And over the life span of a shooter, the net effect is polarizing: a large but stagnant group of experts and a much smaller number of novices, with not much of a continuum in between.

It doesn't have to be this way. But the solutions aren't exactly cheap. They will require more money, time, manpower and genuinely inventive thinking. And given how successful the "Halo" franchise has been to date, I'd be surprised if the brain trust in Redmond feels that any of the following additions are in order. Still, it can't hurt to try, and I think that each of my ideas will actually appeal to the hardcore as well as the newbie. Moreover, none of these concepts takes away anything that the core gamer likes; they're all additive.

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. (For bot matches with just one human player, imagine that this feature were paired with an optional 10-30 second rewind — think "Full Auto" or "Prince of Persia" — so that gamers could un-frag themselves and learn from their mistakes in real time.) The trick is that programming good bots is extremely hard work, which is why most multiplayer games don't even bother. But the continued absence of bots from many such titles will only perpetuate the alienation of newcomers from these games.

Another solution is for the game to help players understand where to go and what to do once they get there. You and I recently got separate demonstrations of "Enemy Territory: Quake Wars," and we both agreed that Splash Damage and id Software's solution to this problem is ingenious. Just press the M key, and the CPU will assign you a mission specific to both your character class and the state of the conflict. An onscreen icon tells you where to go to complete your task while another highlights any allies who've accepted the same mission. Complete the mission, and you get not only recognition, but also the satisfaction that your accomplishment has taken your side one step closer to achieving its goal. Because of the clever way in which "Quake Wars" embeds a single-player experience within its objective-based multiplayer gameplay, I felt like a beautiful and unique snowflake (think "Fight Club," not, uh, "Glory") with something to offer the cause rather than a maggot with a major malfunction.

Since "Quake Wars" has a more elaborate set of the objectives than does "Halo 3," it's unlikely that this solution would entirely fit Bungie's forthcoming opus. Bungie does, however, give you the option of recording your matches to the hard drive. Shouldn't "Halo 3" be able to provide me with a computer-aided analysis of what just went down? Imagine if the game could tell you that you were consistently aiming high and to the right; that you should have switched weapons in the firefight rather than reload; why the battle rifle might have been more useful than the shotgun in a particular situation; or some other contextual advice. This tool, which I've long wanted to see in "Madden," would go a long way towards teaching newbies the ropes, while vets could use it to help eliminate any holes from their techniques.

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. This new multiplayer campaign mode would be an expansion of the training mode that you suggested, modeled after racing games like "Burnout" (maps and match types would be made available in tiers) and "Gran Turismo" (license tests for maps, weapons, equipment and match types) so that gamers are systematically trained for multiplayer — including team play and clan play — in much the same way that racing games teach us throughout single-player.

As I stated at the outset, all of my suggestions would be additive. So fear not, "Halo" champs: The vast majority of these achievement points would be earnable through regular online play, making the multiplayer campaign entirely optional. And as always, all maps, all weapons, all game types will be available to anyone from the start, so even trainees can duck in and out of the multiplayer campaign. But for newcomers, this new mode would steadily guide them from new recruits to grizzled vets by starting them out with, as you suggested, a limited number of weapons, maps and abilities and increasing them as players complete their in-game tests on sniping, jump-shooting, shield counter-attacking, team ambushes and the like.

At the first stage of the campaign, rookies would start out by being matched against bots to ease their way in. Subsequent stages would give gamers the option to complete some requirements against bots rather than humans, but as the multiplayer campaign continues, the ratio of achievements that can be completed against bots as opposed to humans would keep tipping towards the latter, because the campaign's ultimate goal is to propel players online, with the confidence and the skills required to make "Halo 3" a genuinely enjoyable experience. Think of it as "Halo Age: Train Your Trigger Finger in Minutes a Day," with the disembodied heads of Dr. Frank O'Connor and Dr. Luke Smith encouraging us to stick it out. I'd sign up for that. Wouldn't you?

Since you seem intent on my revealing what I think about "Halo 3" 's graphics, I'll wrap up my final entry by doing so briefly. They seem just fine to me, and they are definitely an upgrade over "Halo 2." However, I can see three reasons why a number of journalists and message board posters have said that it looks like an up-rezed version of "Halo 2." First and foremost, we're looking at "Halo 3" multiplayer, not single-player — it would be as if the first time we saw "Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter" we were shown the online game rather than the campaign mode. Take out the netcode and other multiplayer requirements, and there's enough horsepower left for a 50 percent graphical improvement, according to folks working on the game.

Second, "Halo" was art-directed around the limitations of the first Xbox. That doesn't give Bungie the same kind of leeway that new IPs have to design their aesthetic from the ground up around today's more powerful consoles; if they deviate too much from their established guidelines on color and style, it won't be "Halo." Finally, the critical acclaim and sales success of "Gears of War" have established a visual benchmark that many games are laboring under. Even though "Halo" is more about wide open battlefields than "Gears" ' urban combat, the expectations that "Gears" has set will negatively impact gamers' reactions to a number of subsequent titles until it is consistently surpassed.

Thanks for sparring once again, and best of luck putting the final touches on your wedding.

Cheers,

N'Gai



To: N'Gai Croal
Fr: Stephen Totilo
Date: May 29, 2007
Re: Totilo 1, Fly 0

N'Gai,

Are you trying to make enemies with people? Really, are you?

I ask, because, if I read your letter right, you've called for Bungie to make future "Halo" games one-third bigger. You want the games to include lengthy multiplayer campaigns in addition to the single-player and competitive multiplayer modes they already typically contain? So either you want those Bungie folks to work harder or you want the games to take even longer to make, thereby enraging "Halo" fans. See that flicker on the horizon? I think I see a Spartan Laser setting you in its sights.

Now how about I be the good friend and step out in front to take the hit? (By the way, has there ever been a multiplayer shooter that rewarded players for the valor of taking one for the team? Make that an achievement!)

I think what you were really trying to say is that poor Bungie is a victim of its own success. Theirs is the rare game series that is beloved for both its single and multiplayer modes. Not many other top franchises can claim that. "Unreal Tournament," "Street Fighter" and "Mario Kart" are all celebrated far more for their multiplayer than for their solo modes. "Final Fantasy," "Tetris" and "Splinter Cell" are much more popular as solo games. Only "Call of Duty" and "Pokémon" come to mind as games that are championed as much for what you can enjoy playing them alone as you can competing with other people. We've talked about this. You actually noticed this first.

And it's a great point, one worth bringing back up, because maybe the price Bungie will pay for having to make high-quality solo and competitive multiplayer modes is a lack of time, resources and focus to truly advance either the solo or multiplayer game development. The team will always have to split its collective intentions and never be able to advance either front as much as we'd want without making their game unwieldy in scope. Though imagine, if you will, if the minds at Bungie only had to think about multiplayer "Halo" for the last few years. Imagine what we'd be getting.

I think that's the point you were trying to make, that Bungie has an unenviable, hard task tending to the "Halo" series. You didn't mean them ill. But I think I still hear a Warthog rumbling in the background and heading straight for your position. So let me make sure they see that I've gotten you off the hook.

You didn't mention it, but I think you were trying to hint to them that they should look at good old "Perfect Dark" on the Nintendo 64, a game so ahead of its time that when they made a sequel years later, they had to number the new one as a prequel. "Perfect Dark" was cool for many reasons. One was because the developers hid a piece of cheese in each level. Another was because it had one of the great level concepts of all time: Rescue the President on a hijacked Air Force One. And another was because it didn't just have single-player. It didn't just have competitive multiplayer. It also had co-op multiplayer, something crazy called counter-op (which looks like it will resurface in a game called "The Crossing"), and — get this — it had a multiplayer-map set of training missions called challenges that lurked within the game's combat simulator. You played these challenges against — and sometimes with — computer-controlled bots. You could play them by yourself or with friends.

The challenges are what you and I are looking for in "Halo," I think. You could use the challenges to train yourself in certain multiplayer situations. Objectives included stuff like Hold the Briefcase and your favorite King of the Hill. The bots were called Simulants in "Perfect Dark" and were named after their artificial intelligence routines. The PeaceSim always tried to disarm you. The JudgeSim always attacked the player in the lead. The CowardSim went after the least skilled players.

(A necessary note of praise: Some guy or girl named CyricZ did a bang-up job writing a "Perfect Dark" guide at GameFAQs. He or she not only listed Simulant difficulty levels but provided "real person equivalent[s]." For example, Cyric described EasySims as "your rheumatic grandmother or three-year-old cousin." NormalSims are the "average person off the street, or your younger sibling of a few years.")

So I believe what you were trying to mention to Bungie — without naming games and therefore hurting feelings — was that developers have been able to include 30-mission multiplayer training mode with bots in their first-person shooters before. You wanted them to find inspiration. I'm with you, man. I too believe Bungie can fly, N'Gai. I too believe they can touch the sky.

Since I'm defending you so capably, can I tell you about a game I just finished last night? It's called "God Hand," the only slapstick single-player brawling game I played last year, possibly because it was the only slapstick single-player brawling game that was made last year. I think you told me you didn't get far. Well, I played it in easy mode so I could get somewhere on it, and that mode was still almost too tough for me. My guy, toughly named Gene, was killed a lot. He got slapped, punched and kicked in his family jewels. This game pummeled me as bad as the people in the "Halo 3" beta.

But bit by bit I made progress. Bit by bit I managed to get Gene killed in new, more advanced places in the game's adventure. (Speaking of getting pummeled by advanced competition, a fly just landed on my keyboard and when I typed the "G" in Gene I accidentally killed it. Sorry, little fly! You were my "Halo" newbie.) "God Hand" kept me playing because I saw a sign of progress: changing scenery. It gave me just enough success for each pile of failures that I wanted to keep playing.

Then I reached the game's final boss battle and was handily crushed like a fly on the letter G. There was no more new scenery to be seen, just a final brick wall into which I could bash my head. I tried and failed to beat this wretched video game cliché of a boss — he was one of those bosses that consists of a floating head and two big hands; yeah, another one of those — three, four, five times. I died, died and died. I started thinking about my rep as a gaming reporter who finishes lots of games, and, honestly, I started thinking I would list a new category of games I failed at in their 11th hour. But I couldn't leave that be, and I went back to it again and again. At last, I beat it. I crushed the hands and smacked the big cranium. Game complete. Roll credits.

What kept me striving in "God Hand" when similar failure in a few "Halo 3" multiplayer maps drives me to the log-off button to end an early night? Besides the scenery-changing stuff, I think the difference is that offline games have long given me the sensation that I'm in control. I make a character move. I input commands. I own an inventory. I take missions. I deal with things. Video games put me in a driver's seat, or at least create that illusion.

The jarring thing about playing "Halo 3" and getting aced in it again and again is that it represents the opposite feeling: When I'm getting schooled on the Valhalla map I feel like I have almost no control. The skill disparity between me and my betters is such that I feel like I've got no handle on the situation. I'm not dealing with things. And that kind of experience, well, I've got enough of that in real life. It's not an experience I look for in games.

Now does that mean there's something wrong with the game? Or maybe there actually is something wrong with me. I'm having a hard time adjusting to the "Halo 3" experience because I expect a sensation of control, not competition. But what are games — "Halo," checkers, basketball — really about?

I think I've got you in the clear. I think you are safe now. But just in case you're not yet, let me distract them.

Here goes: Hey, did I mention that I'm going to name the tables at my wedding after video game places? I think I'll name one after that "Halo" mission called the Library. You know that mission? Everyone groans about it. So this wedding table will have to be really boring and tedious, full of people who repeat themselves.

There you go! Now Bungie will be after me instead. Of course, I just insulted some of my wedding guests! Sorry, folks.

-Stephen