Maptastic Chief and Where to Find Them
Halo Infinite’s second season is finally upon us, and with it comes new cosmetics. Naturally, that means that Infinite fans (“fans?”) are once again making polite conversation over the game’s monetization.
Infinite’s monetization has been a hot button topic since launch. The Halos of days past traditionally favored gameplay unlockable cosmetics, eschewing paid aesthetic unlocks for one-time purchasable map packs. Halo 5: Guardians was the first to deviate from that mold, introducing “REQ Packs” (effectively cosmetic lootboxes) as their primary customization vehicle and making all gameplay & content updates free. While controversial with players, the move seemed to work. REQ Packs generated $500k in Halo’s first week, made at least $1.5 million just 4 months after launch and evidently helped fund the game’s 11 free content updates.
While it’s unsurprising that 343 Industries opted to return to the paid cosmetic angle with Infinite, what has been shocking has been fan backlash to the move. Veteran Halo fans- accustomed to the unlock systems of legacy Halo and the Master Chief Collection- have largely panned the move. A simple stroll through the extremely friendly subreddit tells the tale. Halo fans are mad (as gamers are wont to be), but one thing they have remained mad about across seasons is paying for aesthetic options.
There have been plenty of articles on the good, bad and ugly of Infinite’s cosmetic shop: how it can be improved, if it can be improved, the works. I wanted to focus today’s blog post on a different query I see come up in the Great Meowjlnir Debate:
“Why doesn’t anybody just make Map Packs anymore?”
In fairness: it’s a great question. It wasn’t too long ago that map packs were the bread & butter of the FPS moneymaking machine. Halo map packs would ship early with entire different games (where my Halo Wars Limited Edition & Halo 3: ODST fans at??). Getting into those map-specific playlists early in Halo 3 felt like a VIP queue. I remember getting stomped by HBO’s own Louis Wu in the original Team Mythic playlist when Halo Wars came out and feeling like I’d met a celebrity.
Map pack mania wasn’t limited to Halo, either. Call of Duty, Halo’s far-flung friend, was (in)famous for map packs upon map packs upon map packs. CoD Map packs arguably played into the 360’s shooter superiority in the 2000s: map packs for the iconic FPS franchise launched on Xbox first from 2010 until 2015, when the roaring success of the Playstation 4 tipped the scales in Sony’s favor.
Yet as of 2019, Activision has officially martyred the map pack. Even DICE’s Battlefield 2042 seems to be avoiding the paid map pack route (although EA-DICE seem to have greater problems to worry about). 343 Industries, in turn, have also opted to make new maps free additions.
So… What gives?
Banana Splits (the Playerbase)
Perhaps the most obvious problem, it also happens to be one of the most impactful. Adding a paid map pack splits your playerbase between owners and non-owners. Each subsequent pack added further fragments that base. Let’s say you have 100 players and 69 of them like your game enough to buy your first map pack (nice). How many of those 100 players are buying your second one? How much overlap is there between the 69 Nice Players and Map Pack 2 Buyers? What about Map Pack 3? At what point do you have to consider “are we spending more than we are earning on these maps?” as well as “are players actually getting value out of these packs?”
Then you have to account for balance. Live game data is almost always more useful from a balancing perspective than internal data, simply because of the volume you get to work with. If only 69 people have your new maps, how much practical data are you getting to balance around? What about your later packs, when the number is even lower? How do you determine if a map is fit for, say, a competitive playlist when your pool of data is that much more limited.
Speaking of competitive: how do you handle paid maps in a competitive playlist or environment? If you opt to include paid maps in your competitive playlists & modes, you have to accept that there may be a $10, $20, $30, etc. barrier of entry for your competitive scene (on top of whatever you charge for the game itself). That splits and reduces your ranked/competitive playerbase. If you opt not to, your competitive audience has no incentive to purchase those maps, losing you time & revenue spent making them. To touch back on practical balancing data. What if you include those paid maps but, as a byproduct of your limited data, their competitive variants kinda suck? Do you just accept that, by nature of them being poorly balanced, you’ve now disincentivized your competitive audience to buy those maps to avoid getting them in the queue?
In short: gone are the halcyon days where 1 or 2 multiplayer games held the lion’s share of people’s online time. Splitting your audience based on map ownership was already a hairy prospect for developers even when they could be certain their shooter was going to longterm dominate the market. Consumers’ attention is now ever-fleeting: faced with the prospect of having to pay $10 to play with their friends on maps they may not like, players may just opt to play something else (where content updates are, based on industry trends, probably free).
More Money, More
Remember how I touched on “are we spending more than we are earning on these maps”? I really hope so, because it was only a few paragraphs ago. Anyways, this is where we’re going to talk a bit more about that.
The short of it: Making maps is expensive, but maps do not make that much money.
The long of it: Let’s be blunt: as of 2017, Halo 5’s microtransactions had brought in more than the cumulative DLC sales of any prior Halo title. In other words: microtransactions made more than all of Halo 3’s DLCs combined, or Halo: Reach’s DLC’s combined, et cetera. That’s huge. Halo 3 had 4 paid DLC map packs totaling $40 (or 3200 Microsoft Points, remember those?). In arguably its heyday game, Halo 3 made less money in map pack DLC than it did in 2 years of Halo 5 microtransactions.
Considering how much time, effort & money cosmetics generally are vs. what it takes to produce 3 maps… that’s a colossal differential. That’s also not accounting for the fact that map packs are a one-time purchase, whereas cosmetics are continuous. Once a player has spent their $10 on maps, they never spend again. Which is great for them! Most people aren’t interested in ongoing payments unless it’s so they can AFK on an catgirl in an MMO capital city. However, if you’re a developer whose goal is to fund ongoing development… it’s not exactly ideal. And while I am vehemently against tactics such as lootboxes & FOMO to pressure audiences into a “Spend! Spend NOW!” mindset, I fully understand & appreciate that online games generally require a steady revenue source to ensure developers aren’t eating rice & beans for every meal out back.
Backing the cosmetics horse, generally speaking, offers studios a more consistent & (theoretically) ethical means to fund creation of new content. It suddenly matters a little less that making maps is expensive if rolling out Sci-Fi Cat Ears covers the development cost. There’s more room to play in map & mode design when “success” no longer hinges on “as many people as humanly possible must buy this map, ergo it must be appealing to as many player niches as possible”. Halo: Reach ran into this problem with its supplementary modes, Invasion & Firefight, who received only 1 & 2 additional maps respectively. It makes sense from a cost point of view- they’re niche game modes and a map pack needs to appeal to as many players as possible to incentivize sales- but it was a major disappointment for fans of those modes (I still miss Invasion). Contrast with Halo Infinite Season 2 map “Breaker” which, while added to Big Team Battle, launched with a unique game mode (Last Spartan Standing) that takes advantage of its specific terrain. It’s arguable that divorcing Infinite’s financial success from its multiplayer content updates afforded them the opportunity to create both a unique new game mode and a map designed in consideration of that game mode.
Xbox Live (…Service Games Need to Think Long-Term)
The culmination of the prior two points.
Per 343 studio head Chris Lee, “It’s really about creating Halo Infinite as the start of the next ten years for Halo and then building that as we go with our fans and community.” Microsoft & 343 Industries intend to invest in Halo Infinite long-term, conceivably to mirror mainstays like Fortnite’s longevity or Destiny’s 10 Year Plan. As such, it’s in their best interests for there to be as few hurdles in place as possible for a new player to go from Installation to In-Game. A cursory search for “new player” in r/DTG, for example, highlights how Destiny 2’s systems-on-systems, content release formula, et cetera serve as its worst barrier to entry for new players. It’s a very fun game, but getting to the point where you can have the fun can be very hard (and it’s a testament to Destiny’s community that so many players, sherpas etc. are available to help you get you bearings!).
By building on a cosmetic-funded system, Halo Infinite avoids the historical issues that befell arena/sandbox shooters: the $20-$80 maps (and potentially game) entry fee. Anyone can pick up Infinite, right now, and have access to all the same multiplayer maps and game modes as a day one player for free. And when ‘free’ is the entry fee for AAA shooters from Fortnite to Call of Duty’s Warzone… it’s a hard sell to convince the contemporary player to invest $10 per pack on maps for a game they may only boot up once or month.
For better or worse, expectations for multiplayer shooters have changed. 343 Industries is simply getting with the times.
Do I think 343 Industries has handled Halo Infinite (and the conversation around it) perfectly? No way. Absolutely not. In my opinion, they’re adopting contemporary business practices while sticking to “traditional” communication ones and it’s damaging their relationship with their fanbase. Their communication comes across as very old school “stuffy” studio- they announce or make changes, often with little insight as to why, and simply leave the community to argue amongst themselves. As of Season 2, several bugs/interactions that either a.) added brevity or b.) added a skill ceiling have been patched, and the Halo community is extremely not mad at it whoa the subreddit is most certainly on fire.
While I can’t comment on the validity of all the outrage (nor do I think anyone is currently interested in having a nuanced take on Reddit!), arguably 343i’s greater problem is there has been a communication deadzone around these topics. None of these changes were going to be popular, of course. There may well be valid backend reasons some of these things had to change, even if 343 Industries themselves did not want to. However… we’ll never know. Instead, frustrated fans will speculate in an ouroboros of anger before inevitably lashing out on a completely unrelated Halo Twitter post.
I want to say that I understand 343 Industries’ game plan in theory, If Infinite is the bedrock for “the next 10 years of Halo”, it makes sense that they’re taking their time to implement each piece just right. It’s also being built on the back of Halo Infinite’s tumultuous development, which undoubtedly has contributed to some of their struggles. That being said… it sometimes feels as though 343 is so focused on Halo Infinite’s future that they neglect its present. After all, getting to year 10 of the aforementioned 10 year plan requires satisfying players in years 1 through 9. I can’t help but wonder where their community sentiment would be if they were more proactive in communicating the reasoning behind certain changes, but then again… they are Halo fans, after all.