It’s not exactly a unique perspective to say that the gaming industry doesn’t always have its eye on the ball. Between the obnoxious saturation of micro-transactions in full priced games and increasingly bizarre pre-order schemes, gamers have long been aware of the ways publishers twist their products to meet strange and unknowable agendas. Thankfully, the well-informed consumer has the means to circumvent these tactics, whether that be maintaining skepticism throughout the typical hype circus that encapsulates the latest releases, or simply avoiding products with questionable monetization altogether. Today however, I’d like to discuss a more subtle, and far more insidious form of meddling: responding to market pressure.
Now I know how that may sound on a surface level. Surely responding to changes in the market is the cornerstone of success? Well, yes and no. Absolutely, in an abstract sense of things, the market is king, if FPS games are popular you should probably consider making one, but when put in practice, things become a bit muddier. In reality, the games industry, especially those banking on franchises, are playing the long game, one in which they define the market, just as much as they respond to it, at least in theory. In practice however, it seems more and more companies are simply doing things that conform to the market desires of the hour, and more often than not, this has a detrimental impact on the quality and longevity of games. We can see this in happening in many different areas of the industry, but I’d like to illustrate it with a specific example that is rather near and dear to my heart: Halo 5: Guardians.
As some of you may know already, the Halo series was originally planned to end with Halo: Reach. The previous developer, Bungie Inc, was responsible for the mainline series of the FPS franchise, and posited Halo: Reach as their farewell to the IP, whereupon they moved on to other projects, specifically the as-of-yet unannounced Destiny. Now as one might imagine, Microsoft was not exactly eager to let one of their biggest exclusive names die off, so they quickly transferred the ownership and development of future Halo games to 343 Industries, who soon announced that they would begin a new story arc in the universe, which they now refer to as The Reclaimer Saga.
The first game in that Saga was obviously Halo 4, and the reception was mixed. While the game sits at an impressive score of 87 on Metacritic, and the GOTY edition proudly proclaims it as “The best selling Halo game ever,” long term fans were disappointed in many of the changes made to the multiplayer, considering it to be the weakest in the series, and the new story direction left players divided. Some felt the more personal story being told between the Master Chief and Cortana was a breath of fresh air for a series that traditionally relied on galaxy spanning threats and good vs. evil narratives, (though there was still a lot of that at play), while others felt confused and disoriented by the sudden introduction of numerous elements from the expanded universe, frustrated that so much of the background for this brand new story arc was hidden away in lengthy novels and external sources. Regardless of the complaints, Halo 4 was an intriguing new direction for a series that could have easily rehashed the same basic premise with new coat of paint.
That is, until Halo 5 happened.
Like it’s predecessor, Halo 5 was met with similar critical acclaim, accruing a respectable 84 on Metacritic. But among the fans, the game was perhaps one of the most divisive in the entire series. Although the ever-popular multiplayer received significant improvements, and the game continues to receive praise and updates for the PvP experience, there are very few fans who can claim the campaign was everything they had hoped for. From the inclusion of shallow hub areas pretending to be entire missions to the reduced focus on Master Chief in favor of a B-team with little personality, Halo 5 made a significant number of missteps that had fans complaining. The story and gameplay recieved massive renovations, a game that had traditionally been single player with the option of cooperative play suddenly had three other NPC’s tag along with you throughout, forcing the player to rely on imperfect and often frustrating AI in the heat of battle. Even the writing itself comes across as lackluster, especially in the wake of the Hunt the Truth marketing campaign, which took the form of a thrilling and suspenseful audio podcast.
The most egregious change however, is the overall story direction. In a baffling, and seemingly oblivious show of indifference, Halo 5 quickly and efficiently cuts out almost every significant story arc set up by the previous game and sets about replacing them with a brand new galaxy spanning threat. In fact, in its rush to set the stage for another space opera, it also rushes over every interesting thing that this new setup could have explored as well. The rivalry between Locke and Master Chief, so hyped by the game’s marketing campaign, was reduced to little more than an embarrassing fistfight between the two characters that ends almost as soon as it’s introduced. The events of Halo 4 are hardly even referenced in this new arc, the only relevant plot point being Cortana’s death, which is also brushed aside in favor of bringing her back halfway through the second mission.
These changes become even more bizarre when looking at the extended universe. Those who played Halo 4 may be familiar with Spartan Ops: standalone missions where the player took the role of a nondescript Spartan Fireteam, battling their way through events that occur canonically after the story of the main campaign. These Spartan Ops set the stage for the continuation of the Reclaimer Saga, introducing a new primary antagonist, Covenant Remnant Leader Jul ‘Mdama, and tied into the comics and books set in the universe. By the conclusion of Spartan Ops, ‘Mdama is preparing to attack the UNSC along with the help of Catherine Halsey, who, having just lost her arm in a failed assassination attempt by the UNSC proclaims, “I want revenge”. Yet, despite significant investment in ‘Mdama as a threatening antagonist, Halsey’s turn against of the UNSC, and the revelation that the Didact, presumably killed off, (twice, at this point) may still be out there, the intro to Halo 5 throws all of this to the wind. It is hastily established that the Prometheans have turned against ‘Mdama, who is then killed off in an embarrassingly one-sided fight to establish Locke as a badass new protagonist, Halsey reveals she actually doesn’t want revenge and instead actively seeks to work with the UNSC, and the Didact isn’t relevant in any way despite spending the entirety of the previous game desperate to destroy all of humanity.
The question, of course, becomes why? Why did this new saga of games, which seemed to have outlined a basic path going forward, see fit to throw everything out of the window in favor of some completely new direction?
In truth, it’s hard to say for certain, and it’s worth noting that I have no insider information on 343 Industries’ or Microsoft’s decision making process. But what seems like the most likely culprit, at least from an outsider’s view, is that Halo 4 did not receive the kind of reception that was expected or desired, and as a result, the development team either chose, or was forced, to go a different direction with the sequel, and this is where the reactionary motions of the industry become frustrating. Forget the fact that this is change of pace for a beloved series that will inevitably get some backlash from the old guard, forget the fact that people need time to get invested in a new set of characters, forget the fact that we already have plenty of material and story to build a satisfying new direction for the series, the game didn’t perform exactly as we expected so let’s scrap it and do something else this time. But you can’t reinvent the wheel every game and hope to maintain an audience for an extended series, you have to give people time to get invested in your game and trust that with a consistent, unified vision, you will produce something of quality that will attract more players over time. A janky, stitched together frankenstein of a series only scares players away, as they become less confident that the next game will interest them. Casual players will be distracted by having to learn a new set of themes and concepts each time, and long-term fans will be annoyed by the constant shuffling of their beloved universe into disconnected, less cohesive fragments.
I’ve used Halo as my big example here, but I don’t want to give the impression that 343 Industries are exceptionally incompetent or even alone in this behavior. If anything, Halo 5 is a reflection of an industry that seems to miss the bigger picture time and time again, and you can find countless examples of shortsighted decisions that ultimately make things worse for everyone. Remember Fuse? That third person shooter released by Insomniac Games? Probably not, it was generic and unremarkable, was released to unfavorable reviews, and was considered to be a commercial and critical flop. But perhaps you remember what Fuse used to be: Overstrike, with its colorful characters and high energy presentation. With a solid concept under its belt, Overstrike looked set to be a charming, excitable game, perhaps even a precursor to the currently trending “Hero Shooters” of today. Or at least it was, until it was put through the wringer of focus testing and market analysis that saw it drained of life and energy and presented to us another generic shooter that no one remembers. Even more recently we see games like Resident Evil: Revelations 2 and Hitman (2016), chopped up into pieces because episodic games are all the rage lately. These are just a few examples of the industry taking solid core ideas and compromising them in half-hearted efforts to “appeal” to a wider audience.
The thing that makes this so self-defeating, is that if the industry simply let these games be, they could have the potential to be far more successful. Imagine a world where Halo 5 was written to truly explore the depths of Halo 4’s story arcs, or Overstrike was allowed to release as it was originally envisioned. Imagine all the games that we would still be talking about today if only they had been given the means to fully achieve their goals without compromising themselves to meet the deadlines and focus tested requirements set out for them. In some ways however, this is just a reality of all creative endeavours, the push and pull between art and business is a struggle that goes far beyond the games industry. There will always be pressure from the money side of things, and there will always be executives and businessmen pushing for safer, more homogenous products, and while I understand their point and view, and respect their role in the industry; perhaps it’s time the artists started pushing back, and perhaps it’s time the industry let them, for everyone’s benefit.