Community survey: Microtransactions (MTX) / lootboxes in Halo

Finally!
Below are the intriguing results of my big ‘MTX / lootboxes in Halo’ community survey!
I’ll publish the main results now and follow up with some juicy in-depth analysis at a later time as it would be way too much to digest all at once!

Format: Google Forms online survey
Timeframe: Jan 31 – Feb 03, 2018
Promoted via: Halo Reddit, Halo Waypoint, Facebook
Raw data: Here you go!

Sample prodecure: self-selection
IMPORTANT: Most likely NOT a representative sample of Halo players in general – but more likely representative of community-active Halo fans (i.e. more likely to be better informed, more likely to be dedicated players/fans)

Sample size: 529 responses
As the survey didn’t include any mandatory fields (respondents were allowed to skip questions) the numbers vary from item to item

Let’s dig into the results! (TLDR at the bottom)

1.1.
age
1.2.
income

1.3.
general attitude MTX
(1… strongly negative – 10… strongly positive)

Mean: 3.3
Standard deviation: 2.1

1.4.
H5 MP A-WZ

1.5.
DLC - MTX

1.6.
H5 MTX vs other games
(1… much worse – 10… much better)

Mean: 6.3
Standard deviation: 2.7

1.7.
REQ enjoyment
(1… negative influence – 10… positive influence)

Mean: 4.2
Standard deviation: 2.7

1.8.
Money spent MTX

2.0.
Motivation money-spending
faster progression/completion (i.e. collecting drive)
competitive advantages (Warzone)
wanted a special pack/certain content (e.g. Voices of War pack; Classic Helmet pack, HCS packs)
supporting the game / the developer (e.g. thank you for free content updates)
supporting the community (e.g. Halo Championship)
social reasons (e.g. bragging rights, group pressure)
opening packs is fun / exciting
other / don’t know

2.1.
Worse content free - DLC
(1… strongly disagree – 5… strongly agree)

Mean: 3.4
Standard deviation: 1.3

2.2.
REQ advantage WZ
(1… strongly disagree – 5… strongly agree)

Mean: 3.0
Standard deviation: 1.4

2.3.
REQ fair earning
(1… strongly disagree – 5… strongly agree)

Mean: 3.3
Standard deviation: 1.3

2.4.
Satisfaction cosmetics
(1… strongly disagree – 5… strongly agree)

Mean: 2.2
Standard deviation: 1.3

2.5.
Unlocking items annoying
(1… strongly disagree – 5… strongly agree)

Mean: 3.7
Standard deviation: 1.3

2.6.
Items gameplay only
(1… strongly disagree – 5… strongly agree)

Mean: 4.7
Standard deviation: 0.7

2.7.
Buying next game
(1… strongly disagree – 5… strongly agree)

Mean: 3.2
Standard deviation: 1.6

 

TLDR – key takeaways:

  • respondents had an overall negative attitude towards MTX in videogames (3.3/10)
  • on average respondents thought that Halo 5’s MTX implementation was slightly better than those in other games (6.3/10)
  • however respondents felt that the REQ-system in Halo 5 had a slightly negative influence on their enjoyment of the game (4.2/10)
  • every second respondent spent money on MTX/lootboxes in Halo 5 – on the other hand 50% spent no extra money on the game at all and almost 75% spent less than the usual usual cost of DLC packs in previous Halo games (3 packs = 30$)
  • Top 3 motivations for spending money:
    1. wanting a special pack/content (e.g. Voices of War pack)
    2. supporting the game / the developer (e.g. thank you for free content updates)
    3. supporting the community (e.g. Halo Championship)
  • Items without clear trends / items with very balanced responses:
    – whether or not the free content in Halo 5 was worse than DLC in previous games
    – whether or not players who spent real money had a clear advantage in Warzone
    – whether or not the REQ-earnings via gameplay felt fair
    – not buying the next Halo game if there is an even heavier emphasis on MTX/lootboxes
  • Items with clear trends / items with one-sided responses:
    – respondents were not satisfied with Spartan customization / cosmetics in Halo 5
    – people felt that unlocking items in Halo 5 was more annoying than fun in Halo 5
    – people strongly agreed that there should be items that shouldn’t be unlockable with money

Erosion of trust: Has 343i learned the wrong lessons from Halo 5’s storytelling fiasco?

Speaking at the developer conference DICE 2017 Bonnie Ross, 343i’s studio head, talked about past missteps (MCC, removal of Split-Screen) that lead to an ‘erosion of trust’ in the community and what the studio learned from that. While storytelling failures weren’t put on the same pedestal Ross also touched that subject.

bonnie-ross-dice
Bonnie Ross talking at DICE 2017

What she had to say is eerily similar to what Frank O’Connor (TIME interview) and Kiki Wolfkill (DICE 2017) previously stated:
All three stress that it’s important not to overwhelm the player with story. They argue that not every story is for every person, not every story fits every genre (with FPS requiring a simple story) or medium and it’s not too wise to impose too much character on your player character to not take agency away (player character as an empty vessel).
343i’s problem diagnoses: We tell too much story in our games.
343i’s solution: Tell more simple stories.

While some of those statements are vague and can be interpreted in a couple of ways for me as a fan that doesn’t fill me with confidence. Quite to the contrary I’m really concerned that 343i’s management hasn’t grasped the scale of the problem.

Here is what I think 343i should have learned:

Learning 1: Don’t promise a mature and dark story if you can’t keep it.
Fans long for a more mature and gritty Halo tale. This is why some of them hold Halo Reach in high regard despite all of it’s narrative shortcomings. But that desire was never more noticeable as when Hunt the Truth took the community by storm.

H5G_HTT-S2_Ben
Hunt the Truth – a blueprint of what could have been

343i teased us with a broken hero going rogue, a lot of mystery and a dramatic confrontation between two opposing Spartan teams – yet didn’t deliver.
Halo Wars 2’s marketing wasn’t nearly as misleading but arguably also sold a depth of storytelling that just wasn’t there in the final product.

Learning 2: What we’ve done in Halo 5 storytelling wise hasn’t worked at all, we messed up.
If the removal of Split-Screen ‘eroded trust’ I would argue that Halo 5’s storytelling failings caused even more damage to the series. There is a broad agreement from both press and fans alike that Halo 5’s story is by far the worst in the series.

overlay-h4-h5
440+ respondents community survey – Halo 5’s spectacular fall from grace

While some publications even went so far as to argue that ‘Halo 5’s narrative failings go deeper than gaming’s usual story stumbles’, a 440+ community survey shows that 82% regard the title as a let-down. If that isn’t a giant red flag I don’t know what is.

Learning 3: We have to invest more in quality storytelling as that is a key pillar of our franchise.
343i’s narrative team has practically evaporated. Some key personal left the studio between Halo 4 and Halo 5 (e.g. Chris Schlerf, Armando Troisi), there have been no equivalent replacements and the controversial Brain Reed is still narrative director.
To make things worse the top management can’t seem to decide what their mainline series should be about. There couldn’t have been a sharper contrast between the narrative and character driven storytelling of Halo 4 and the Coop-streamlined, simplified storytelling of Halo 5. Frank O’Connor and Kiki Wolfkill push the agenda that you shouldn’t impose too much personality/character on your player character (Master Chief as an empty vessel), yet of all things it was their own game (Halo 4) that breathed some life into a faceless protagonist.
343i’s lack of direction and ambivalent relationship towards storytelling is at the core of the problem.
While the community overwhelmingly thinks that the single player experience (with storytelling being as important as gameplay) should be prioritized over coop, 343i went in the exact opposite direction.

Learning 4: Telling a good (Halo) story in a FPS is challenging, we’ll prove that it can be done.
If you listen to 343i’s management you get the impression that the FPS genre is only suitable for simple storytelling, while deeper and more complex storytelling should be delivered via other mediums. This is based on the conviction that some players simply don’t care about the story and that story gets into the way of player agency.
For me all of the above feels like an easy cop-out. Yes, telling a good story in a FPS is without a doubt challenging. Due to the genre’s limitations (generally shorter length of campaigns, greater emphasis on action) you have to probably be twice as creative and twice as efficient to stimulate the mind and evoke emotions. But it’s perfectly doable.

wolfenstein-infinite-warfare
‘Wolfenstein: The New Order’ and ‘Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’: Great storytelling in FPS

Other developers accepted the challenge and reaped the rewards: ‘Wolfenstein: The New Order’ a FPS about space invading Nazis was praised for it’s mature storytelling and great characters. ‘Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’ beat Halo at telling a sophisticated military Sci-Fi story. In both games great storytelling elevated not handicapped the rock solid gameplay resulting in fantastic experiences.

Learning 5: In order to tell a good Halo story we have to do more than reducing complexity.
Simple doesn’t have to mean bad.  Simple in the sense of focused, self-explanatory and not-convoluted is something Halo is in dire need of. Halo 5 somehow managed to tell both a thematically banal story and overwhelm players with a bloated cast of badly introduced characters.

But taking complexity away is no panacea and over-simplification has caused as much damage in the past. Halo 4 told a beautiful, deep story with some of the best characterization of the series. But the game stumbled because instead of giving some side characters and concepts room to breathe in the game itself some key information relevant to the plot was hidden behind terminals.
The Didact is not the sole antagonist with unfulfilled potential. 343i advertised Atriox as a highly intelligent and unconventional Brute, yet in Halo Wars 2 all we got to see is another stereotypical beastly depiction.

didact-atriox
Didact and Atriox – two antagonists robbed of their potential?

343i has to learn when it’s the right thing to reduce (e.g. number of [new] characters, jumping around between places/concepts) and when to actually add complexity (e.g. characterization, lore relevant to the plot).
But that isn’t the sole aspect that hold Halo 5’s story back. The game additionally suffered from bad pacing, tonal inconsistencies (Cortana and MC in Halo 4 versus Halo 5) and the lack of any character development.

Conclusion:
I would love to be wrong but my gut feeling tells me that 343i won’t put storytelling front and center where it belongs. There is very little we know about Halo 6 but initial indications suggest that 343i will double down on the squad-based character of Halo 5’s campaign.

“I think certainly we feel great internal success with the cooperative play in Halo 5, so I think it’s something we’re heavily invested in and we won’t simply abandon.”
Frank O’Connor – TIME interview

In a world of Destiny and other popular Coop-games let’s hope that Halo doesn’t lose what makes it special: A great single player campaign, characters and a universe we truly care about.

Yes we care: Big Halo campaign & storytelling survey results

metacritic

The inconvenient truth is that from a critical perspective Halo has fallen into a downward spiral. That trend accelerated with the completion of the original trilogy and hasn’t stopped yet. There are probably hundreds of potential reasons for that (e.g. perceived innovation of the franchise, review standards, loss of quality,…) but one might ask:
Why on earth is Halo 5 with it’s (arguably) much superior mechanics and MP-components even worse rated than Halo 4?

While studying dozens of reviews for both games, I came to a very simple conclusion (see my analysis here): Editors care a lot for campaign as well as storytelling and Halo 5 just didn’t deliver.

But what about the wider Halo community? Do we the players mostly care about MP aspects as forum discussion might suggest? Is the uproar about bad storytelling in Halo 5 just that of a small minority?

I wanted to find out.

Big Halo Campaign & Storytelling Survey

Format: Google Forms online survey – LINK
Timeframe: Jan 29 – Feb 03, 2017
Promoted via: Halo Reddit, Halo Waypoint, Facebook, Twitter
Can I have the raw data? I’ll send you the Excel-file if you ask me nicely.

Sample prodecure: self-selection
IMPORTANT: Most likely NOT a representative sample of Halo players in general – but more likely representative of community-active Halo fans (i.e. more likely to be better informed, more likely to be ‘opinion leaders’)

Sample size: 440+ responses
As the survey didn’t include any mandatory fields (respondents were allowed to skip questions) the numbers vary from item to item

Let’s dig into the results!

I. General

1.1 How old are you?

age

The good news first: The respondents are much younger than I’ve feared. I always had that picture of an aging fanbase  in my mind (HCE released 16 years ago!) but as it turns out three quarters are 23 years old or younger.
The bad news: As 30+ I’m feeling pretty old now.

1.2 What was the first (mainline) Halo game you played?

first-game

Despite the young age of the respondents more than 60% had their first Halo experience with Halo Combat Evolved. What may sound contradictory at first (at the time of release most respondents were 7 years and younger) isn’t that surprising on second thought. It only makes sense to start with the first entry of a series, even if you pick up a game years after release.
Another interesting note: For almost 93% of the respondents a game of the classic trilogy (H1-H3) has been their entry point into the franchise which might partly explain the prevalent strong emotional attachment in the community.

II. Importance of campaign aspects

The bigger the number (1-10) the more important the aspect.
1… not important
10… very important

2.1 Single player experience

sp-experience

2.2 Coop experience (in general)

coop-experience

2.3 Split-Screen Coop

split-screen

2.4 Presentation / graphics

graphics

2.5 Music / sounddesign

music

2.6 Gameplay

gameplay

2.7 Storytelling

storytelling
2.8 Campaign aspects comparison
Mean… average score
SD… standard deviation (the bigger the number the more different the opinions)
campaign-aspects
The biggest takeaways:
* Respondents almost universally agree that the SP experience is of utmost importance
* The Coop experience is quite important as well, yet the importance varies much more strongly
* Split-Screen Coop has the greatest variation i.e. some people care a lot, others not at all
* What most likely distinguishes Halo from other AAA games: The Halo community cares more about music / sounddesign than presentation / graphics – quite remarkable!
* Not surprisingly gameplay is king
* But here comes the big surprise: Respondents think that storytelling is as important as gameplay (!) with more ’10’ ratings (312 = 70,3%) than any other item and very little variation (94% rated ‘8’ or higher).
A friendly reminder that Halo isn’t your typical FPS and that you shouldn’t mess with storytelling (Halo 5 says ‘Hi!’).

2.9 Bonus question: Is the importance of storytelling dependent on the age of the respondents?

age-storytelling

Storytelling is extremely important to all respondents regardless of age. The graph makes it seem as though the age groups of ’34-38′ and ’39+’ care even more, with such a low number of people in these groups (9 and 6) however that might be a coincidence.

2.10 Bonus question: What should 343i prioritize given limited ressources (time/budget)?
prioritize

Another clear statement from the respondents: More than three quarters would prioritize the SP experience over the Coop experience.
Side note: Imo 343i did exactly the opposite with Halo 5.

III. Rating of the Halo campaigns overall

The bigger the number (1-10) the better the rating.
1… awful
10… perfect


3.1 Halo Combat Evolved – overall campaign experience
campaign-hce

3.2 Halo 2 – overall campaign experience

campaign-h2

3.3 Halo 3 – overall campaign experience

campaign-h3

3.4 Halo Reach – overall campaign experience

campaign-hr

3.5 Halo 4 – overall campaign experience

campaign-h4

3.6 Halo 5 – overall campaign experience

campaign-h5

3.7 Overall campaign experience comparison

campaign-score

The biggest takeaways:
* Halo 3 has the best rated campaign followed by Halo 2, Halo CE / Halo Reach, Halo 4 and Halo 5
* Respondents clearly favor the Bungie Halo campaigns which doesn’t come as a surprise
* What’s striking is the big gap between Halo 4 and Halo 5.

While you see symmetrical bell-shaped curves in both distributions there is a noticeable high number of ‘1’ ratings in Halo 5 indicative of great frustration or disappointment.
I would argue that the reasons for Halo 5’s poor result have very little to do with the quality of the core gameplay mechanics or that of the level/mission design (both superior to Halo 4 imo). There might be two key differentiators: The quality of the single player experience and that of the storytelling (I’ll come back to this soon).
Regardless of the reason it’s very easy to see why Halo 5 fell behind Halo 4 in the Metacritic ratings.

3.8 Bonus question: Does the first Halo game you played influence your ratings?

first-game-scoreThe above graph indicates that this might indeed be the case. People who started their Halo career with a certain game always rated that game higher than people who first played another Halo entry. The effect seems to be stronger in Halo CE and Halo Reach.
As only 5 respondents in total said that Halo 4 and Halo 5 were their first Halo games, they’re not included in this analysis.

IV. Rating of the storytelling

4.1 Storytelling – Halo Combat Evolved

storytelling-hce

4.2 Storytelling – Halo 2

storytelling-h2

4.3 Storytelling – Halo 3

storytelling-h3

4.4 Storytelling – Halo Reach

storytelling-hr

4.5 Storytelling – Halo 4

storytelling-h4

4.6 Storytelling – Halo 5

storytelling-h5

4.7 Storytelling – comparison

storytelling-score

The biggest takeaways:
* Halo 2 und Halo 3 share the first place, followed by Halo Reach, Halo CE, Halo 4 and Halo 5. Who would have thought that after Halo 2’s introduction of an unpopular second protagonist and infamous cliffhanger ending?
* While there is once again a ‘Bungie bonus’ Halo 4 manages to come pretty close
* Halo 5’s downfall is brutal compared to Halo 4 by the same developer (-3,5 on average). The respondents are clearly dissatisfied with the change of direction which perfectly corresponds with the media’s critical reception as well.
I’ve laid the results on top of each other in order to call attention to that striking difference:

overlay-h4-h5

V. Approval of statements

Approval of statements (1-5)
1… strongly disagree
5… strongly agree

5.1 “I think there should be a greater emphasis on storytelling in future Halo titles”

emphasis-storytelling
Another testament to the high importance of storytelling for the respondents. 94% agree or strongly agree that there should be a greater emphasis on storytelling in future Halo games.

5.2 “I would like to see more depth in Halo’s storytelling (e.g. deeper characterization, more complex themes,…)”

depth-storytelling
While this statement is quite similar to the last it is also more specific. While a ‘greater emphasis on storytelling’ could mean a lot of things (e.g. just doing better what has been done before) this is about more depth and complexity. Halo’s characters and themes have always been simplified for the games – so do the respondents think that this depth of storytelling is good as it is or do they long for more complexity?
At least for me the result was surprising: An overwhelming majority of 84% would like to see more depth in Halo’s storytelling.

5.3 “Halo games tend to confuse me story-wise (don’t know what’s going on etc.)”

confusing-story

There is repeated discussion whether or not Halo games confuse players story-wise (e.g. Didact in Halo 4). While it would certainly be interesting to compare different Halo games, 78% of the respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed. Just keep in mind that these people are very likely better informed than the average Halo player.

5.4 “After Hunt the Truth I’m extra wary when it comes to future Halo marketing”

htt-marketing

It is no secret that the excellent Hunt The Truth marketing campaign for Halo 5 resulted in a lot of disappointed expectations. 64% agree or strongly agree that they are extra wary when it comes to future Halo marketing which might be a challenging hurdle to overcome for both Microsoft and 343i.

5.5 “Storytelling-wise Halo 5 was a letdown for me”

letdown-h5-storytelling

This is another confirmation that a lot of people were very disappointed with Halo 5’s storytelling as 82% agree or strongly agree with the above statement.

5.6 “I’m optimistic that 343i can offer great storytelling in Halo 6”

optimism-h6
Given the relatively harsh reaction to Halo 5 in this survey this result surprised me as the majority of respondents seems to be optimistic when it comes to Halo 6.
If I had to guess it’s because fans really want it to be good. People also argued that Halo 5 stumbled but was a great setup for Halo 6.
I remain cautious: I want to believe but 343i’s lack of communication about the matter and no signs of personal changes in the narrative team do not instill me with confidence.

That is why I would like to urge you: Please spread the message!
Halo fans deeply care about the single player campaign, Halo fans deeply care about good storytelling!

How to make Halo’s campaign great again – Part I: Investigating the status quo

If you happen to read through current Halo discussion threads there seems to be a broad consensus that Halo 5’s campaign (especially the storytelling) just wasn’t good enough. But look a little closer and you realize that this unity only exists at a surface level: While almost everyone agrees that something should be done the suggested solutions do not only vary extensively they sometimes even oppose each other.

halo-6
Halo 6 – fans demand a better campaign, but what does ‘better‘ actually entail?

Some people would like to see Halo 6 evolve into an action role-playing or shared world shooter akin to Destiny, Borderlands or The Division. Others would love a more story- and character-driven experience. And still others want the game to go back to it’s roots.

 

In this two-part series I take a closer look at the status quo of the Halo franchise and try to derive constructive proposals for the next mainline game.


Jack-of-all-trades – or why the old receipt for success doesn’t work anymore
Halo Combat Evolved heralded a new era in console FPS as the genre exponentially grew in popularity. Halo’s greatest strength has always been that the series managed to be a jack-of-all-trades, offering something for everyone while upholding a highly competitive quality. A great single player experience accompanied by fun coop, both competitive and social multiplayer modes, creative features… it wasn’t just the sheer amount of possibilities, if you played it in Halo you could be pretty sure that there was no significantly better alternative out there.
But competition sure as hell didn’t sleep – and with a more and more overcrowded FPS market developers began to diversify. That trend started long before Halo reached it’s peak; yet in the IP’s shadow competition slowly gained ground. Sixteen years later there is a finely tuned FPS-experience for every need, every niche is occupied, from pure single-player experiences (Dishonored, Prey), twitch-shooters (Call of Duty), massive military-FPS (Battlefield), tactical shooters (Rainbow Six) to coop oriented shared world shooters (Destiny, The Division) and action role-playing (Borderlands, Battleborn).

destiny
Destiny, Borderlands and Co offer coop-players hundreds of hours of entertainment

I believe that the jack-of-all-trades model that served the Halo IP well in the past is not sustainable in the competitive environment where 343i operates today. A 2-4 player coop campaign might have once been the thing, but other developers like Bungie have long taken that experience to another level.
In an attempt to close that gap in Halo 5 (i.e. strengthening coop mechanics), 343i destroyed the fine balance that held previous Halo campaigns together, which had a devastating effect on both the quality of the storytelling and the single player experience. What 343i has to do is to ask the same questions that lead to the successful redesign of competitive multiplayer: What makes Halo special? What can we offer that no one else does or at least does as good?

 

Money, money, money – it’s not funny…
But wait, does Halo really have to be best of the class in everything it does? Offering a lot of features within one package (even if other games do certain things better) is a nice value proposition as well, right?
The rich selection of features and play styles of past Halo titles is something that fans vehemently demand whenever a feature gets delayed (eg. Score Mode) or cut (eg. Split-screen). While many gamers regard feature parity almost as a minimum requirement, the seemingly paradoxical fact is that, as time goes by, achieving that goal is getting more and more illusory.
Epic Games co-founder Tim Sweeney argued that the original Gears of War cost $12 million to develop while Gears of War 3 cost between four and five times more. He anticipated that a Gears of War 4 would be in the $100 million region. That corresponds to an eightfold rise in development costs within a time-frame of about 10+ years, all the while sold units practically stayed the same.

costs
Source: Tim Sweeney @Polygon

Which brings me back to the initial question: Wouldn’t it be nice to have all of the past features and more on top (e.g. longer single player focused campaign, extra coop mode, theatre mode, score mode…)?
I think that you can never go wrong with a richer set of features, but the real question is whether or not 343i has the budget to make that a reality.
Consumers take a lot of things for granted. They’re very disappointed if the next Halo doesn’t look and sound the best, yet do not keep in mind, that all of that requires a lot of manpower, time and thus money. Just because they existed before, we regard certain features (e.g. a campaign mode) as equal, while from a development point of view they absolutely aren’t.
The difference is that Call of Duty as a still hugely popular multiplatform IP can easily swallow the costs, while 343i’s budget is limited by X1’s much smaller install base and a decline in the IP’s popularity.

CoD-BO3 Zombies
Black Ops III unlike Halo 5 had a plenitude of modes from the start thanks to being multiplatform (better sales) and sticking to an old engine

What that basically means for Halo 6 is that 343i more than ever has to think about what they want to achieve with the campaign. To ensure that resources are not spread too thinly, they will have to once again make painful decisions as some features will make it (e.g. 60 fps) and others (e.g. Split-Screen) won’t. This is essential if we want to discuss Halo 6 in a reasonable way – talking about your wish list is one thing, talking about what’s feasible is something else entirely.

 

Playing it too safe & franchise fatigue
Halo is a 16 year old franchise now. While other IPs have without a doubt been milked more shamelessly, other series also had an easier time mixing up the experience. Call of Duty for example constantly jumps from one period of time to another, exchanging the set of weapons, player abilities, the protagonists and the adversaries as the developers see fit. Halo’s deep universe with it’s coherent set of rules and inner logic has always been what set the franchise apart. But as time goes by, that is also becoming a burden.
Storytelling wise Halo is becoming more and more cumbersome and overloaded as it gets incredibly challenging to please both long-term fans as well as new players. Gameplay wise many of the thrills of the past (e.g. charging a Plasma Pistol, cruising around with a Warthog) have at least somewhat worn out; it’s not that the mechanics are bad (quite to the contrary) it’s just that we got used to them.

Elite Comparison]
16 years later: We still prefer to fight Elites over any other enemy type

In Halo 5 343i managed to expand the set of core abilities in a natural and reasonable way, yet played it too safe in other respects. Halo’s mission design has practically not changed over the course of 16 years, the Covenant are still the most interesting and fun to fight enemies and the storytelling in Halo 5 – while making a jump forward in Halo 4 – somehow manages to be both incredibly simplistic/cliché and overly hard to understand at the same time.
Franchise fatigue can’t be eliminated per se, but betting on the same formula without any major innovation two games in a row is adding fuel to the fire. Halo 4 got a pass from the press because it was 343i’s first full game, was a graphical beast and had a surprisingly mature character-driven story to tell. But judging from Halo 5’s reviews alone, that period of grace is over.

Without a doubt 343i is in a difficult position. Partly due to their own shortcomings, partly due to influencing factors which are beyond their control.
What can 343i do to turn the ship around?

 

Coming soon: How to make Halo’s campaign great again – Part II: How to break with bad habits

Why the creator and public face of Hunt the Truth doesn’t (isn’t allowed to?) talk about it anymore (report)

Hunt the Truth remains a thorn in the flesh of the Halo community. The campaign seemed so promising yet turned into one big letdown when Halo 5 didn’t even come close to what the advertising made us believe. IGN even went so far to argue that Microsoft lied to us, unfortunately the press hasn’t done more than publishing an ‘opinion piece’.
So whenever I read discussions about Halo 5’s campaign or storytelling, there is still this lingering question: Why? How could that happen?

I wanted to contribute by doing some research (please read my extensive analysis). But when I started digging I realized that only one party can end what ironically turned out to be the true hunt for truth: The creators of the marketing campaign.
So I contacted Noah Eichen, Associate Creative Director from Ayzenberg, and one of the masterminds behind the excellent Hunt the Truth podcasts.

H5 comic con
Noah Eichen (second from right) – Halo 5 panel Comic Con 2015

Although I already knew that Noah did a couple of interviews in the past, I was pleasantly surprised how quickly he responded to my interview request. Noah agreed to answer my questions. I really wanted to grasp this opportunity, and took some time to develop the right questions. I was aware that I had to be diplomatic, as Ayzenberg as a marketing agency is dependent on Microsoft as a customer.

It wasn’t hard to find something flattering to say as I’m a big fan of what Noah and his team accomplished with their audiofiles. On the other hand, I wasn’t willing to restrict my interview to niceties. I really hoped that Noah could provide the community with some well-deserved answers.
You can read my final interview questions below (at the bottom of the article).

H5G_HTT-S2_Ben
The Hunt the Truth podcasts are arguably one of Halo’s best storytelling efforts ever

A week after I sent him my questions Noah informed me that he had to get approval from the PR team before he could send back answers. After another ten days without any response I contacted Noah to ask if there was a problem with the questions. He said that there was nothing wrong, and that he just had to find a person who could approve his participation in an interview (as people have moved to other projects). Noah promised me to do his best to get me an answer that week.

At that point I had given up any hopes that something would come out from the interview. 23 days later Noah informed me that he couldn’t do the interview because there was obviously no one who could approve it and he didn’t want to speak out of turn.
He thanked me for reaching out, apologized for the delay and also let me know that creating the podcasts had been a dream come true for him and his team (all Halo fans).  He emphasized that they look forward to supporting 343i and Xbox in the future, if they called on them again.

H5-LockeVSChief
Future Halo marketing: More of the podcast quality, less trailer bullshitting please!

Of course it’s disappointing that Noah agreed to answer questions just to inform me (42 days later) that he can’t talk about HTT anymore.
I would really like to know what happened in the background. Noah has always been the public face of HTT, that he can’t talk about it anymore, that he can’t find anyone to approve the interview, doesn’t sound very convincing.
But I’m not angry, as I think that Noah Eichen is not the problem. If you have listened to the team’s podcast you know that these people really care about Halo and I’m convinced that he would have answered the questions if he had the choice.

Thus I’m publishing this small report not to shed a bad light on Noah or Ayzenberg, in fact I really really hope that Microsoft lets them work on Halo again.
I’m doing it to give you a little insight into why we probably won’t ever see someone taking a clear position on what happened with HTT and Halo 5.
Some bigger players than I (IGN, Halo Follower,…) might have had a small window to put some pressure on Microsoft but I’m afraid that this opportunity is gone.

Check my blog for further analysis – I promise you that I won’t stop asking uncomfortable questions whenever it is necessary.

 

Hunt the Truth interview questions:

Some readers might not know about the involved parties behind Hunt the Truth.Noah, can you explain how and where the idea for Hunt the Truth originated and at what point you and your team from Ayzenberg came in?

You’ve talked about a first meeting with Frank O’Connor, Brian Reed and Kiki Wolfkill. How closely have you been working with 343i after that? How was the greenlighting process? Did you need approval for every individual episode?

The “Hunt the Truth” audio series is simultaneously marketing and extension to the Halo lore. How much have you been told about the actual themes or plot points of the game beforehand so that you could work accordingly?

Halo fans around the world have experienced amazing marketing ideas/campaigns  over the years – from “I love Bees” to H3’s “Believe Diorama”. As a huge Halo fan myself I´m hard pressed to find anything that has left a greater lasting impression on the community than your Hunt the Truth audio series.
Looking back, what do you think it is that not only made it an effective piece of marketing but also something fans treasure until this very day?

I’ve repeatedly read that a main goal of the Hunt the Truth campaign was to break the notion of “just another Halo release”. You wanted to get new people on board as well as make the existing fan base question what they thought they knew about the Halo universe.
In your podcasts you’ve tackled some surprisingly dark and unsettling topics such as surveillance and oppression by intelligence services, psychological terror and child abduction.
All together subjects that the Halo games avoided for the most part and not even the extended fiction addressed in such an uncompromising way.
Were you ever afraid that you could go too far with it? How did Microsoft´s marketing and 343i initially react?

You guys won the best of games at the “Shorty Awards” and were selected among “iTunes Podcasts Best of 2015”. Which achievement are you personally most proud of?

It wasn’t all sunshine in the aftermath of Halo 5’s launch though. Lots of people had been emotionally tied to the Hunt the Truth campaign at that time. When the actual game turned out to be much lighter in tone and some of the introduced themes (e.g. huge conflict Chief – Locke, Chief being hunted as a traitor/being declared dead) weren’t followed up at all or only in a diluted form, voices arose that the Hunt the Truth campaign had actually been highly misleading.
Mitch Dyer from IGN even went so far as to argue that
“Halo 5’s ads lied to you”.
As someone who has been a part of that campaign, what’s your take on this controversy? Do you understand these reactions and if so, what can be done to avoid these bad feelings in the future?

Noah, from what I know you consider yourself a Halo fan as well. Strictly speaking as a private person – assuming that you’ve already played it through by now – how did you like Halo 5?
What are your thoughts on the narrative?

Some fans would like to see you and your crew doing some writing for upcoming Halo games. Would that be something you would like to try out at some point in your career?

I think it’s pretty obvious that the community wants to see you come back for more Halo in the future. Would a campaign for let’s say Halo Wars 2 be something that would be interesting for you? What are the themes you would personally like to explore in the Halo universe in the future?

Did the Hunt the Truth marketing campaign ultimately help or hurt the Halo franchise?

Six months after H5’s release Hunt the Truth is still a controversial subject among the community. On one hand the Hunt the Truth podcasts in particular are arguably one of the best Halo storytelling efforts of all time. On the other hand, Hunt the Truth created certain expectations that H5 fell short of, leading to a sense of betrayal and disappointment. Some people even went so far as to argue that the ads actually lied to us (IGN – “Halo 5’s ads lied to you”).

If the marketing was indeed misleading – who is to blame? The marketers or the game makers?

A look behind the curtain
It’s the publisher’s not the game developer’s job to market a product. The idea for Hunt the Truth came from Xbox’s marketing division not 343i themselves.
It’s no secret that the provocative nature of Hunt the Truth was not only intentional; it was at the core of the campaign. Chief going AWOL, a huge conflict between the main heroes, UNSC declaring Chief dead, Osiris hunting him down – all dramatized for the purpose of making people talk about a 15 year old franchise again.

H5-LockeVSChief
‘All Hail’ – a lot of drama that had little to do with the actual game

As marketing for H5 started quite early Xbox Marketing needed a creative partner to fill the gaps in between TV commercials and other promotions. The Ayzenberg Group jumped on board, who developed and produced the Hunt the Truth podcasts while Xbox marketing was responsible for the ‘All Hail’, ‘The Cost’, ‘A Hero Falls’ and ‘The Hunt Begins’ commercials (among other things).

This is actually an important distinction to make as the mismatch between marketing and game is arguably much more severe when it comes to the material produced by Xbox Marketing. From the over-dramatized confrontation between Locke and Chief in ‘All Hail’ and ‘The Cost’, to Chief being accused of having something to do with the awakening of the Guardians (and the resulting destruction) and the hero being declared dead in ‘A Hero Falls’ and ‘The Hunt Begins’ – this is at least a misrepresentation of the advertised product as it’s not being reflected by the game’s narrative and tone at all. With all due respect for the challenges and creative freedom of marketing, this is as close to misleading as it gets.

Halo 5 The Hunt Begins
‘The Hunt Begins’ – “He is letting these things loose”… well, not much of a UNSC concern in Halo 5

And no matter how forgiving you are, even from a pragmatic view it’s incredibly short-sighted and potentially damaging for the brand. Probably you got more people talking about Halo again, but both the press and fans alike will be twice as cautious when you try to sell them the next big Halo title.

The team from Ayzenberg on the other hand proofed to be much more respectful with their Hunt the Truth podcasts. While there is a tonal mismatch between the storytelling in the audiofiles and the game (HTT is generally much darker), they at least don’t contradict each other. The podcasts are this unusual mixture of marketing and extended fiction, which makes them so special.
Of course it’s not entirely fair to compare short commercials which have to work for TV to the podcasts which are based on a fundamentally different format – but even taking this into consideration, listening to the audiofiles felt like reading a Halo love letter, which I can’t say for the TV spots.  Even without knowing that the people behind the podcast consider themselves fans as well I already knew that they got Halo.

So I’ve talked about marketing – but what about 343i? Didn’t they have anything to say in all of that?
We know from interviews with Noah Eichen (Associate Creative Director – Ayzenberg) that there were of course meetings with 343i’s staff. There must have been some collaboration between Xbox Marketing and 343i as well, although we will probably never find out how commercials such as ‘A Hero Falls’ and ‘The Hunt Begins’ were allowed to be released the way they did just a month (!) before release.
This also makes it implausible that the mismatch is the result of a late development rewrite or change of direction. According to Ockham’s Razor the simplest answer is usually correct. In this case it’s marketing doing it’s best to get peoples’ attention without caring too much about the veracity.

 

Why it still hurts

Misleading marketing for videogames is nothing unheard of, it’s not even new for Halo fans. Halo 3’s ‘Believe’ trailer for example hyped fans with huge battlefields full of drama and also played with the concept of Master Chief’s death.

Halo 3 Believe Trailer
Halo 3 ‘Believe’ – Chief dead?

So why is there such uproar when it comes to H5?
The truth is that no matter how misleading marketing gets people are quite forgiving if the product turns out to be good anyway. Most fans expected and hoped for a dramatic fight on and for earth in both H2 and H3, however most were satisfied with what they got instead.
The same can’t be said for H5. We didn’t get what we expected and were (mostly) disappointed with what we got instead.

There is a powerful contrast effect at work here as well. It’s not so much about specific thematic or tonal mismatches – it’s about the overall quality and maturity of storytelling regardless of the medium.
The Hunt the Truth podcasts were a surprise for many (especially for those who never cared about the Halo lore in the past as they thought it was dull) as the often dramatic episodes showed how thematically complex and emotionally moving a Halo story can be.

H5G_HTT-S2_Ben
Hunt the Truth made us really care for the characters

And while we understand that we’re talking about two different formats with their own unique sets of strengths and weaknesses we also know that Hunt the Truth made us care for the characters and their fates while H5 left many cold. We don’t want Halo games to be exactly like Hunt the Truth, we just long for a similar emotional impact.

But we don’t only want to feel something we also want to be stimulated on a mental level. Hunt the Truth treated us like adults with a plenitude of mature themes. Oppression by intelligence services, collateral damage, child abduction and media manipulation just to list a few.
H5 on the other hand didn’t challenge us the same way. It’s once again all about good guys always doing the right thing, loss seemingly not having any major impact on the hero (Chief is obviously too heroic for that) and even if something controversial happens (good AI Cortana turning into the antagonist), there isn’t much of an ambiguity there at all (Cortana wants to enslave you all *EVIL*).

Agent Locke
Jameson Locke – antagonistic in the marketing, polite and respectful in the game

The Hunt the Truth podcasts and H5 couldn’t be further away from each other in that regard.

Hunt the Truth is a thorn in our flesh as it constantly reminds us of Halo’s potential and what could have been. H5 in particular was such a disappointment because both H4 and Hunt the Truth instilled confidence and trust in 343i’s narrative capability.

Which brings me to my initial question: Has Hunt the Truth ultimately helped or hurt the Halo brand?
I think it’s both.
The end (making people talk about Halo again) doesn’t justify the means (misleading marketing). It’s the games’ not the marketing’s job to achieve that goal in the long run. Controversial marketing without an excellent product to back it up can only get you so far.
The Hunt the Truth podcasts on the other hand, while making it awfully clear how bland H5 was in comparison, might be a necessary wake-up call for 343i. Both fans’ and critics’ message was loud and clear: We want more of that quality storytelling, what H5 offered was simply not good enough.
Hunt the Truth can be considered a chance for the franchise in that regard.

Will 343i listen? Just taking press reactions into consideration, they would be crazy not to.
But what can we do? Keep talking about it! And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Sources:
Bleeding Cool – ‘Talking To Showrunner Noah Eichen About The Creaton Of Halo Audio Series HUNT the TRUTH’

alistdaily – ‘Ayzenberg’s Noah Eichen Talks ‘Hunt the Truth’ Season Two’

alistdaily – ‘Audio Killed the Video Star?’

TIME – ‘Listen to an Exclusive Preview of Halo 5‘s ‘Hunt the Truth’ Season Two’

 

Halo 5 cut content, change of direction – evidence based investigation

H5’s marketing campaign, from the game’s reveal trailer at E3 2013 to the brilliant Hunt the Truth in 2015, shaped our expectations of H5’s tone and narrative ambitions. When the actual game turned out to be nothing like that and was furthermore heavily criticized for different storytelling missteps, fans understandably asked themselves: How could this happen?

While I was searching for answers myself one explanation I heard time and time again was that something must have gone wrong during development. Was there a drastic change in direction? Can cut content explain some of the imbalances (e.g. Blue Team – Osiris mission count) or narrative disharmonies?

While the search for explanations is typical human, the crucial question is whether or not there is some hard evidence for these theories out there. I’ve done a comprehensive investigation to provide you with some answers.

 

Theory 1: H5 has undergone some serious development troubles
Generally speaking there is no evidence suggesting that there have been any H5 development troubles that could be considered unusual. AAA development is (unfortunately) a struggle and I’m sure H5 was no exception in that regard – but it seems as though 343i’s management was very careful to not exploit the team’s resources this time around.
We know from different sources (e.g. Gamasutra ‘Making Halo 4: A Story About Triple-A’) that H4 was an immense effort for the young and rapidly growing studio, resulting in a troubled production.
In a H5 retrospective Bonnie Ross had this to say:

We also promised, I promised, the 343 team we would not repeat the crunch we pushed the team for Halo 4. I am pretty sure I promised the team this in an all team meeting that was filmed or a few that were filmed. I’m pretty sure that this film clip replays at most of the developer team’s desks each weekend over the last few months with various colorful edits and gestures. While overall we did do a better job than Halo 4, the quality of Halo 5 is a result of the long hours, efforts and sacrifices the team made to deliver this experience.
Bonnie Ross – The Halo 5 Journey

So what we can infer from that is that an efficient management of resources was very likely a priority from the very beginning of H5’s production. Of course that doesn’t eliminate the possibility that the team ran into unforeseen problems or bit off more than they could chew once again.
However if you look at their approach to H5’s content production in general the picture is pretty consistent. From ‘release it when it’s done’ (e.g. Forge) to ‘prioritize core features – delay/cut secondary features’ (e.g. split-screen, game modes), it’s pretty clear that 343i valued quality over quantity and took their time to get things right.

 

Theory 2: There has been a drastic change of direction for H5’s campaign
H5’s reveal trailer at E3 2013 depicted Chief as a lonesome warrior hiding under a cloak. That added to the impression of isolation and mystery which led to intense fan speculation for months.

halo-5-guardians-e3-2013-reveal
Halo 5 reveal trailer – E3 2013

Locke debuted almost a year later with Osiris and Blue Team following suit.
With artwork showing the same cloaked Chief (also H5 achievement art) and even a matching action figure for sale some people wondered if there had been a different plan for H5’s campaign at one time.

One thing is for sure: 343i thought about implementing Blue Team as soon as H4, thus it’s very unlikely that Chief was ever envisioned as walking alone in the next game.

Halo 4 Artwork
Halo 4 artwork featuring Blue Team

H5’s reveal trailer debuted at a time when certain characters weren’t set in stone yet (e.g. later replacement Thorne – Buck), another Halo game (Master Chief Collection) was secretly in development and it was still a long time until H5’s planned release. There is an artwork (also the cover of ‘The Art of Halo 5: Guardians’) depicting both Blue Team and Osiris – with Josh Holmes confirming that it’s from ‘early pre-production’.

h5-artbook
Early H5 concept art – featuring two opposing Spartan teams

Additionally Brian Reed (narrative director) talked about Osiris’ creation indicating that there had been considerations for a second Spartan team all along (Team Majestic at that time).
When H5’s reveal trailer aired, Team Osiris was just taking form (creative director Tim Longo joined 343i in May 2013). What we saw at that time was nothing more than a symbolic representation, an artistic interpretation. In fact Chief wasn’t the sole Spartan with unusual clothes – there is a concept art with Fred featuring a stylish scarf or even a Poncho as well.

So in short 343i made some art decisions but H5 was planned with a coop focus and two opposing Spartan teams from the very beginning.

 

Theory 3: There has been a tonal shift in H5’s storytelling
But what about the thematic and tonal mismatch between marketing and the actual game?
The Hunt the Truth campaign started in March 2015 at a time when H5’s story must have been locked in stone for a while.
Why there is such a dramatic divergence (e.g. hunter VS hunted, declared traitor, darker tone HTT) between the marketing material and the actual game remains a secret until this day.

H5-LockeVSChief
Hunt the Truth: Much darker in tone

It is perfectly conceivable that 343i had something more edgy in mind which they abandoned for a safer, less risky approach – the problem is that aside from some weak indications (e.g. early concepts of Chief hiding under a cloak, fight against Insurrection see below) there is very little evidence of a significant change.
A much simpler explanation is that those responsible for the marketing just did a damn fine job catching our attention not only outshining other similar campaigns but 343i’s own storytelling efforts as well. But don’t forget that these external partners don’t work in a vacuum; there was a close coordination with 343i from pre-production to the very end. So this has probably more to do with creative freedom and the more provocative nature of marketing versus the risk-averse and overall more conservative videogame storytelling.

Theory 4: Cut content can explain some of H5’s imbalances (e.g. Blue Team mission count)
So what about the rumors about cut campaign levels or other content? Well first of all I’m pretty sure there is no AAA game without some cut content – but unlike other games (e.g. Halo 2, Destiny) there is very little evidence that there have been some dramatic last minute cuts that significantly altered H5.

But let us discuss some of the concept arts which fueled rumours.

One of the first H5’s concept arts we got to see was this:

sparth-nicolas-bouvier-infinity-miningplanet-04final
Mining Planet – Nicolas “Sparth” Bouvier

If you look at the file’s name “infinity-miningplanet” it’s pretty obvious that it’s an early concept (2013) of Meridian.
It’s very likely that these concept arts (“The Wanderer”, untitled) depict Meridian as well (see mining machines, glassed/black surface). What’s interesting is that there seemed to be some kind of mining robot enemy (“The Mechanic”).
As Chief can be found on another Meridian concept art featuring a coat and it’s very likely that what we saw in the H5 reveal trailer was an early depiction of that same planet as well, it’s not out of question that this was a Chief / Blue Team mission once.
Just keep in mind that these are most likely very early concept arts made at a time when Team Osiris didn’t even have a final design. Probably it’s more important to look at the depicted locations and not to read too much into the choice of character.

One stubborn rumour was that a city themed campaign level got cut. We know that some of the concept arts in fact depict MP locations. For example this and this picture are early concepts of Eden (code named ‘Highrise’). This concept art titled “Rooftops” was released alongside early (much darker themed) Empire and Truth images after the Xbox Gamescom briefing 2014 – so it’s pretty much guaranteed that this isn’t a depiction of a campaign location.

Halo_5_Guardians_Concept_Art_urban_warfare_Final_approved_small-680x946
“Urban Warfare” – Kory Lynn Hubbell

One concept art titled “Urban Warfare” by Kory Lynn Hubbell is most likely a very early concept of what should become Battle of Noctus. This picture by Sparth has been mistaken for H5 concept art, while in fact it’s from the artist’s work on RAGE (2006).

There are in fact very few concept arts that can’t be linked or categorized. One such artwork is “False Dawn” by John Liberto.

false dawn h5
“False Dawn” – John Liberto

What’s interesting is that Liberto is also the man behind the previously mentioned “Wanderer” and “The Mechanic”. There was very little I could find regarding the creation of the picture (date, intended use) – what I could find however are some very interesting picture descriptions (e.g. Barker Animation or ACME Archives).
The description for “False Dawn” is:

“Threats to the UNSC come from the vicious Covenant, the voracious Flood, and extremist human rebels.”

The description for “The Mechanic” is:

“The Insurrection makes extensive use of sabotaged and suborned industrial automata in their guerilla war campaigns.”

So Chief versus the Insurrection? Sabotaged Meridian mining robots attacking him? What is it that he has been hiding from – the UNSC, the Insurrection or both?

Another concept art that has caused confusion is “Space Station” by Nicolas Bouvier. It’s a concept art of the MP map Torque.

sparth-sparth-space-station-finalfinal-s
“Space Station” – Nicolas Bouvier

 

Bottom line

While there are certainly some unanswered questions left, there are lofts of indications that H5 is for the most part the game 343i intended to make from a creative perspective. It is evident that H5 has been planned as a coop focused game from the very beginning, featuring Blue Team and what we now call Team Osiris. Unlike H4 there are no signs of a troubled production; based on the current status of information it’s also very unlikely that major content got cut at a later stage of development. If there have been changes of direction from a creative or narrative standpoint (e.g. Chris Schlerf leaving 343i in November 2013; Tim Longo joining the team in May 2013) these must have been at a relatively early time giving the team enough time to realize their vision.

In my opinion this is both a good and bad message: Good because the team at 343i seems to have learnt a great deal from H4’s (and probably MCC’s) production. Bad because some of the disappointing end results (e.g. weak narrative, dismatch game – HTT, small number of Blue Team missions) can’t be so easily explained with a troubled production or last minute cuts.

Brian Reed & the mismanagement of 343i’s narrative team

The bogeyman
343i’s narrative director Brian Reed is Halo fans’ bogeyman. If you search for “Brain Reed 343” in Google there are five results that directly question his capability as a writer or demand his resignation on the first page alone. People on the Halo Waypoint forums got used to not explicitly call out his name as Brian Reed threads get locked on a regular basis.

It’s no wonder that Reed went on a social media blackout, masking his identity. As of today it’s practically impossible to reach out to the man without some serious digging or a direct contact to 343i.

brianreed
Halo fans want Reed to go (LateNightGaming – Youtube)

 

But is any of that justified? Is Brian Reed just a victim of misguided frustration, a scapegoat?

First of all let me say that there is no justification for any kind of harassment or personal attacks, these things have to stop immediately. On the other hand I think that it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize a person who is in a leading position. Brian Reed is narrative director, thus it’s only logical that storytelling complaints (unwarranted or not) go his way.

Radio silence
But that is one part of the problem. While Reed should theoretically be the point of contact no one at 343i (including him) seems to feel responsible for addressing this kind of criticism or communicating with that part of the community in general. While Josh Holmes, Frank O’Connor, Bravo or Tom French are relatively quick to react to multiplayer or Forge related questions there is no such public face for campaign/universe/storytelling matters.

 

tomfrench
Tom French – a fan favorite because of his direct communication

Although both campaign and storytelling are still extremely important to a huge group of Halo fans and H5 got heavily punished for shortcomings in that regard by the press as well there’s nothing but silence coming out of the 343i headquarters.

But frustration doesn’t go away just because there is no dialogue. Quite to the contrary the lack of communication is the fuel in the search for a simple explanation, in the search for someone responsible. And that person has been identified as Brian Reed.

Were it so easy
We have limited insight into what goes on behind 343i’s scenes. We don’t know why key players like Armando Troisi or Christopher Schlerf left the company and how Reed became narrative director. We don’t know who’s deciding who’s going to write the story script and how other people like Frank O’Connor (franchise development lead) or Bonnie Ross (general manager) influence storytelling decisions.

What we can however do is to look at a person’s professional experience and his individual work. Which is exactly what some fans did and why Reed became the focus of criticism even before he was narrative director.

Reed was a comic book writer for Marvel before he joined 343i. He never worked on any other major videogame before. Consequently he was listed under ‘franchise development’ and not the narrative team in the Halo 4 credits although he did the writing for Spartan Ops and the terminals. Brian Reed’s first Halo work was the comic book adaption of Nylund’s ‘The Fall of Reach’ titled ‘Halo: Fall of Reach’. He was also responsible for the comic miniseries ‘Halo: Initiation’ and issues 7-10 of ‘Halo: Escalation’.

SarahPalmer
Sarah Palmer – overly aggressive, reckless and with a difficult to understand hate for Dr. Halsey (Spartan Ops)

Some fans heavily criticized his work especially the two-dimensional characters, silly dialogue and plot-holes.  The consensus was that Christopher Schlerf (who also wrote for ‘Halo: Escalation’) did a much better job overall. Most people agreed that Reed isn’t necessarily bad for Halo – he just shouldn’t be the one writing the plot for a mainline game anytime soon. Retrospectively speaking that assessment was justified. Under Reed’s lead H5 suffered from the same flaws that had plagued his previous Halo works as well – in particular flat characters and an incoherent plot.

While the quality of an artist’s work is always debatable Reed’s professional experience is not. Brian Reed is without a doubt a seasoned comic book writer but that doesn’t automatically qualify him for the job of narrative director of one of the biggest videogame franchises of all time. So how did that come about?

A history of decline
Halo 4 developement
343i started out strong. Armando Troisi who previously worked on both Mass Effect 1 and 2 as lead cinematic designer joined the team in July 2011 as narrative director. Christopher Schlerf who also worked on Mass Effect in the past created the original draft of Halo 4’s script. The narrative team was additionally supplemented by Lindsay Lockhart and Nathan Moller. Brian Reed was listed under ‘franchise development’ at that time.

Halo 5 developement
343i’s narrative lead evaporated within one year after H4’s launch. Armando Troisi left 343i in April 2013 to work for Black Tusk, Fathom Interactive and finally Quantic Dreams. Christopher Schlerf left 343i in November 2013 to work on Mass Effect Andromeda and has now found his way to Bungie.

In that vacuum Brian Reed became narrative lead. Guillaume Colomb, Patrick Downs, Caleb Doughty and Kristina Drzaic additionally joined the team with both Lindsay Lockhart und Nathan Moller still on board from the old crew.

 

christopher-schlerf
Christopher Schlerf is now working for Bungie

 

Post Halo 5
As of today six out of nine persons working in 343i’s narrative team have left the company. Troisi (Quantic Dreams), Schlerf (Bungie), Moller (Bungie), Colomb (Bungie), Drzaic (Amazon Studios) and Downs (freelance) are out – Brian Reed, Lindsay Lockhart and Caleb Doughty remain.

There have been no new personnel according to my research.

So what does that tell us? Personal fluctuation isn’t unusual in this industry especially for narrative designers (often contract workers). What is noticeable however is that some of the key departures (Troisi, Schlerf) have not been replaced equivalently. No matter how you look at it – 343i’s narrative team has lost quality over the years which might be a sign of bad management.

A question of significance
Filling a vacant executive position with someone from within the team is nothing unheard of. But if you do so you have to be sure that this person is not only loyal and passionate but will be able to live up to the task as well. When it comes to the person in charge of Halo’s storytelling there can only be one credo: Hire the best!

Is an experienced comic book writer an enrichment for the team, especially when it comes to trans-media projects or franchise development? Definitely!
But is a man, with no writing or leadership experience in the videogame industry, a good choice for narrative director for Microsoft’s most valuable entertainment IP? No!

H4 Chief
Is good storytelling important for 343i?

Writing for comics is not the same as writing for videogames. Penning the script is something else entirely and can’t be done by everyone. H4 while absolutely not perfect proved that with an experienced director (Troisi) and a good script writer (Schlerf) Halo can tell a compelling and surprisingly mature story. Consequently both fans (e.g. Haruspis level-by-level analysis) and press (e.g. Forbes ‘Halo 4 is a beautiful tragic love story’) praised the game for it’s achievements. H5 by comparison is a train wreck. Gamesradar even went so far as to argue that ‘Halo 5’s narrative failings go deeper than gaming’s usual story stumbles’.

There have been warning signs all along. If however the sheer amount of negative press alone isn’t enough to make 343i’s management rethink their strategy I really fear for my favorite videogame franchise.
Unfortunately the outlook isn’t good. Five months after H5’s release there are no signs of personnel changes or at least some sort of acknowledgement that there is a problem and that 343i is working on it.

But what can we, the fans do about it? Keep on talking about it! Let 343i know that you, that we care!

 

Is 343i taking storytelling criticism seriously?

Halo 5’s storytelling has not been received well. In fact some fans (including myself) have gone to great lengths to express their disappointment in hopes that 343i hears that outcry and will act accordingly.

But is 343i actually signaling that they take this criticism seriously?

With all of the bad press one would assume that the developer would at least like to comment on the situation. While 343i did indeed react, there is very little we can learn from what they had to say so far. There are only two reactions I am aware of.

Judgy Josh from The Critical Gist did an amazing job explaining the importance of character-driven storytelling and H5’s shortcomings in that regard. Brian Reed (343i’s narrative lead) let him know that he watched his video (see Youtube comments).

Frank O’Connor (343i’s franchise development director) gave TIME an interview which heavily focused on the editor’s storytelling criticism.

I’ve read that interview a couple of times now. And as a fan that really cares about Halo I simply can’t wrap my head around some of the things Mr. O’Connor says.
To make things worse the things he doesn’t say irritate me even more.

The title of the interview is ‘Halo‘s Frank O’Connor Reacts to Criticism of Halo 5’. Yet I find no critical self-reflection at all. Questioned about the criticism, TIME’s editor (Matt Peckham) only seemed to get vague or evasive answers (unfortunately he didn’t broach the subject again).

 

Master Chief – back to being a machine
In his review Peckham argues that H5 fails to evoke an emotional crises as most of it’s characters are too taciturn and that the concept of an empty vessel (i.e. projecting yourself into Chief) might not work anymore.
In the interview O’Connor responds by underlining that:

“[…] we certainly have got opinions contrary to yours, of people who enjoy that, and there are definitely Master Chief fans who’ve been literally asking for this.”
Frank O’Connor, TIME interview

Are there really? First of all projection processes are on a subconscious level. Some of the more hardcore fans certainly know about that discussion (empty vessel VS character with personality) but it’s pretty unlikely that someone would demand: “Please make Chief an empty vessel so that I can pour myself into that emotional black space!”
Most people aren’t even aware that there might be more to the design of Master Chief, for them he is most likely just another stereotypical, flat videogame protagonist.

What fans might actually ask for is to not mess around with Chief’s character (i.e. turn a stoic hero into a sentimental, talkative one).
But who would want that anyway?

I think that Peckham intuitively understood that things have changed over the years. We accompany Chief for 16 years now (at least four mainline Halo games) and carried out all kinds of heroic deeds in that time. Those superhero shoes are getting worn out and we’re asking ourselves if there is more to the character we care about.

The real issue is: You need good writing to subtly carve out nuances for a character like Chief or you end up with a lifeless brick or cliché. The most bizarre thing is that it was 343i who managed to do exactly that with Halo 4 – something the franchise director doesn’t seem to remember.

“But we’ve also got lot of other players who, maybe they’ve read the books, maybe they’ve just followed the games very closely, and they’ve projected their ideals about heroism onto the Chief, and actually given him far more personality than we ever have.”
Frank O’Connor, TIME interview

Halo 4 and even Halo 5’s marketing campaign was all about the humanization of Master Chief.

H4 Chief
“She said that to me once. About being a machine.” – Halo 4

It still hurts me almost physically that this beautiful transformation warranted no more than a side note in Halo 5.

 

A band of brothers machines

“I don’t think any of [Chief’s] Blue Team have particularly strong personalities […] But when Chief’s with his team, there’s enough information coming that it does work as a kind of surrogate for Cortana’s absence, for her Virgil role where she’s leading you through the Inferno.”
Frank O’Connor, TIME interview

Blue Team is not a sufficient surrogate for Cortana because they only cover one part of what made the AI a great companion. Yes they give some context (mission objective etc.) but they lack charm and personality (e.g. sense of humor).

So is there really not more to these characters as O’Connor implies?

While Spartan II’s aren’t like ‘normal’ people (they’re soldiers through and through both psychologically and physically) it’s exactly this fact that also makes them interesting. As with the Master Chief himself the Halo games (except H4) simply weren’t interested in exploring the humanity of these characters.

blueteam
Blue Team – more than Master Chief coop copies

 

What these characters however need is (again) good writing and something that works as a catalyst. For Master Chief it was Cortana who broke through his reserve and challenged him as a person. 343i could have used outside events (e.g. ONI coup, reappearance of Cortana) and subsequent conflicts to breathe some life into Blue Team.
They could have challenged their core values (loyalty to their Spartan family VS dutifulness as a soldier) or more often used third parties (Cortana, Osiris) as a contrast or to express what was previously implied.

H5 did far too little to establish Blue Team as interesting characters – reducing them to mission commentators is simply not enough.

 

When balance kills depth
In a separate section of the interview O’Connor is quoted as saying:

“We’ve got a lot of people who don’t care about the story,” says O’Connor. “We’ve got a lot of people who love playing campaigns but skip all the cinematics. We’ve got a lot of people who only play multiplayer. We have so many constituents to appease, that it’s always a careful balance and a fine line to walk.”
Frank O’Connor, TIME interview

I’m not disillusioned. I know that there are people who couldn’t care less about storytelling in general. But I’m also convinced that this group of people is a minority and that the core issue is not the lack of interest in storytelling per se but the quality of said storytelling in the Halo games. Probably people lose interest in your narrative because it’s too confusing (knowledge of EU required) or lacking depth (both emotionally and thematically)?

Apart from that the right answer to appease different interest groups is NOT to achieve a compromise (see the lessons learnt in multiplayer).
If you want to play PvE coop with your friends you don’t want narrative elements to get in the way (e.g. lengthy cinematics, complex audio files, lots of dialogue).
But good storytelling and immersing yourself into the world is incredibly important for a single player campaign in a series’ fifth main entry. Arguably it’s difficult to surprise players gameplay-wise without fundamentally changing the game’s core thus storytelling is getting more and more important.

With unlimited resources the right solution would be to have a specially tailored offer for everyone (e.g. tightly narrated campaign, SP/Coop PvE modes, competitive PvP mode, casual PvP mode). However we all know that in times of exploding development costs that is hardly realistic (at least at launch).
However trying to counteract by mixing modes together is a sure recipe for mediocrity. I say have the courage to limit your focus – but make what you have excellent. That above quote sounds to me like a franchise director not knowing what his own game should be about.

 

Misleading marketing – off-topic statement
Peckham also asks O’Connor about the game’s departure from the marketing campaign’s intimations but doesn’t get a straight answer. While the thematic mismatch between marketing and game never gets addressed O’Connor at least references the Hunt the Truth campaign:

“But I think one of the reasons our Hunt the Truth tie-in podcast worked so well, is that we’re using a fully established medium for telling stories. And I hate to say this because so much work goes into Hunt the Truth, but it’s easier than making a game. You can control what people are listening to in a radio play, taking then down a very linear process.”
Frank O’Connor, TIME interview

Again, what I’m missing here is critical self-reflection. What O’Connor says isn’t unreasonable it just seems to me like a convenient cop out.
Storytelling in videogames is hard, please understand!

huntthetruthH5
Strong Halo storytelling – reserved for other mediums

But what about comparisons within the medium? Why was ‘Wolfenstein: The New Order’ praised for it’s storytelling while H5 was heavily criticized? There is even a Gamesradar article out that argues that ‘Halo 5’s narrative failings go deeper than gaming’s usual story stumbles’.

Halo 4 toyed with more mature themes and complex characters – but H5 couldn’t?
The problem is definitely not the medium.

 

Is 343i willing to learn from their mistakes?
Obviously we can’t know what goes on behind the scenes.
However what worries me is that I’ve noticed very little of what I would call problem awareness.

After the H4 multiplayer (gameplay) backlash 343i reacted: They got the Pro Team on board and actively communicated with the dedicated fan-base (Team Beyond etc.). They still went their own way (which is perfectly fine) however you clearly see the positive result of that learning process in H5.

Is storytelling as important for 343i? Simply based on the interview above, key departures (Chris Schlerf) and Halo’s ambivalent past I’m not so sure. 343i hasn’t really addressed the H5 – Hunt the Truth ambivalence that IGN described as “H5 ads lied to you”.

They didn’t address the storytelling criticism and they didn’t signal that storytelling was something that they want to focus on with H6.

I would really like to hear Brian Reed’s (343i’s lead writer) take on the situation. Let us not forget the importance of this issue as a whole as our attention shifts more towards the multiplayer side of things!

 

What has caused Halo 5’s storytelling regression?

Halo 5’s storytelling has been widely criticized as one of the game’s weakest points both by press and fans alike.

You’ve probably heard people lamenting about the misleading marketing campaign (Hunt the Truth) that had little to do with the actual game, H5’s overall disappointing and thin plot or the lack of characterization or character development.

In this analysis I’m searching for answers: What might have caused this step back after Halo 4 successfully introduced a more mature and character driven approach to storytelling for the series?

Change of key staff
Without any knowledge of 343i’s internal processes it’s unjustified to point fingers. However it’s important to note that some key figures changed in 343i’s narrative department.
Armando Troisi (narrative director) left 343i in April 2013. Christopher Schlerf (senior writer), who created the original draft of Halo 4’s script, left 343i in November 2013. Brian Reed, a former comic book writer, who is viewed critically by the dedicated fanbase is now narrative director.

639px-Christopher-Schlerf
Christopher Schlerf – now working on the new Mass Effect

In short: In-between H4 and H5 there was a full replacement of 343i’s narrative lead. It’s up to everyone to speculate about how that might have affected H5. While storytelling in a videogame of this magnitude is always a collaborative effort those responsible should be called to account if 343i wants to avoid another backlash in the future.

Change of direction (coop first, expanded cast)
H5’s campaign was the first Halo campaign designed with the coop experience as a priority. That went hand in hand with 343i’s wish to expand Halo’s cast of characters. This process started with H4 which introduced a plentitude of new faces (Palmer, Thorne, Jul ‘Mdama, Lasky, Roland, Didact, Libarian). There even seemed to be considerations to include Blue Team at one point.

Halo 4 Artwork
Halo 4 Artwork featuring Blue Team

Luckily for H4 the plot revolved around a very personal affair (Chief – Cortana relationship) which grounded the whole narrative and made it arguably more relatable than any other Halo game before.
With H5 and Tim Longo (creative director Republic Commando) on board 343i went one step further: What began with Fireteam Majestic/Crimson (secondary characters) turned into Fireteam Osiris (main characters). With the inclusion of Blue Team the number of teammates with an own identity suddenly exploded from a series maximum of four (Halo Reach) to double of that in H5.
For a FPS series with an emphasis on a detailed sci-fi universe this would have been an enormous challenge for any narrative team given the limited length of a typical Halo campaign.
H5’s bloated cast of characters turned out to be a death sentence for characterization and character development. There are so many protagonists with so little screen time that H5 couldn’t manage to do justice to anyone (even worse for Chief and Blue Team).

halo 5 characters
Halo 5 – many characters, little characterization & character developement

One would assume that the narrative team at least tried to counteract with a plus in cut scenes. I was quite surprised to learn that H5 only has about 49 minutes worth of cut scenes while H4 has 55 minutes. Just to put this in perspective: ‘Wolfenstein: The New Order’, which was praised for it’s great characters and surprisingly good writing has 1 hour and 51 minutes of cut scenes.
While – aside from the fact that they’re both FPS – these games aren’t directly comparable (single player campaign only VS single and multiplayer experiences) that tells us something about 343i’s priorities. The greater focus on multiplayer (4 player coop) has additional implications on storytelling.
The writers had to take up to four chatting players into account – this is a great setup for fun gameplay experiences but not so for following a complex story. If you play with your friends you do not want to watch excessive cut-scenes or terminal videos. That is probably why there have been terminals in every 343i produced Halo game but not in Halo 5.
If one of the players finds an audio log that should be easily consumable too. Halo 4’s terminals have an average length of 128 seconds per video while Halo 5’s audio logs have an average length of 19 seconds. At first 117 audio files sound like a lot – however the truth is that with a mere 19 seconds per audio file they are little more than collectibles instead of worthwhile narrative devices.

h5 intel
Halo 5 intel – narrative fast food

With a greater focus on coop and the questionable decision to include eight playable characters in a 7-9 hour FPS campaign it seems as though storytelling has once again taken a backseat for the Halo franchise. That doesn’t explain all of the game’s narrative shortcomings (e.g. thin plot; bad pacing) – what is there could and should have been better – but it might explain why there is so little narrative substance per se.
H5 is first and foremost a game designed for the multiplayer gamer. 343i’s underestimation of the importance of a quality single player experience (with storytelling being an important part of that) already backfired. No other Halo game before has received so much storytelling criticism from the press.

A question of significance
How important is good storytelling to 343i?
The people in charge of the Halo franchise always seemed to have a somewhat ambivalent relationship when it came to storytelling in their videogames. Halo was and still is one of the few franchises with a rich universe that fans really care about.
Before the launch of every new Halo game there are months of speculation regarding the game’s plot and the fate of the main characters. Few other videogames have such a rich extended universe with a plentitude of comic books, novels and video productions. Halo 5’s marketing campaign was very untypical for a FPS too as it was highly focused on narrative aspects. With great success: The ‘Hunt the Truth’ podcasts hit 2.15 million total listens in just eleven days.
Yet when it came to the actual games both Bungie and 343i seemed to be deadly afraid to not ‘overwhelm’ the player. Halo games have been repeatedly stripped off of layers of complexity – especially in terms of more mature themes and characterizations (e.g. Hunt the Truth VS Halo 5; Didact in the EU VS Didact Halo 4).

didact h4
The Didact – a complex character in the novels, a stereotypical villain in the game

When a game about moon invading Nazis with mechs has better written characters, a more coherent plot and more emotional depth that does say something about a developer’s ambitions. Machine Games set out to tell a better, more character driven story while 343i’s franchise development director still worries about players who don’t care about story.

 

“We’ve got a lot of people who don’t care about the story,” says O’Connor. “We’ve got a lot of people who love playing campaigns but skip all the cinematics. We’ve got a lot of people who only play multiplayer. We have so many constituents to appease, that it’s always a careful balance and a fine line to walk.”
Frank O’Connor (343i Franchise Development Director)

TIME – Halo‘s Frank O’Connor Reacts to Criticism of Halo 5

Mr. O’Connor, probably some people don’t care about the story because you’re still not doing a good job telling an interesting one?