Monday, May 21, 2007

Halo 3 Beta - A Study in Xbox Live Dynamics

The Halo 3 Beta is well under way by now. My stats are here. I was one of the lucky players who got into the Bungie Friends and Family phase of the beta before the larger public beta began, and the contrast between those few days and the present state of beta play has been surprising. In fact, I'm once again stepping outside my typical legal commentary to make this post as more of a business model commentary.

The overarching problem with large scale online systems, be they online PC gaming, Xbox Live,, Nintendo WiFi, or any others, is the interaction between the players. By that I mean a combination of circumstances:
1. Player Skill
2. Player Interaction In-Game
3. Player Interaction Out of Game
4. Player Language

Each of these elements can factor into the matchmaking scenario, and while great improvement has been made on many levels, there is still a vast realm of possible improvement in the business model.

Take the Halo 3 Beta as an example. There was a short Friends and Family (F&F) beta that took place before the larger pool of invitees entered the fray. Specifically, these players had to be invited by Bungie directly, or have the proper connections to be invited (for example, the staff at Rooster Teeth made some invitations available to site members if they offered to "help test something" during the right time period). And as a result, the Halo 3 Beta F&F play was some of the most enjoyable online gaming I've experienced in any game. And that goes back as far into online gaming as I can remember. I played Diablo on when it came out, I played Ultima Online back in its prime, I played CounterStrike online in its early days, and I (of course) played some Halo 2 online when it came out. None of them (or any other example I could give) provided the kind of experience the Halo 3 F&F did. It was the ideal mix of the four elements:

1. Player Skill
Everyone was good. I will readily admit I was not anywhere near the top of the players in the F&F, although I will also admit this was the first FPS I had picked up since PREY last summer. However, the skill level wasn't too skewed in the other direction either. This does speak well of Bungie's new matchmaking formula, but it wasn't the skill that really made an impact on me, it was the other three elements.

2. Player Interaction In-Game
Politeness. Teamwork. Two words that most people do not expect with online gaming, or at least not where a real sense of competition is retained. However, the F&F beta proved this was not only possible, but can occur in excess of 90% of the time with the right mix of players without sacrificing any element of the competition.

3. Player Interaction Out of Game
The general feeling in the game was mirrored in the dead time between matches. Every round ended with a genuine (or at least genuine sounding) "Good Game." If someone asked a question about a gametype they had not seen, they generally got a good answer. And of course, when there was some banter, it was always good natured.

4. Player Language
This is not about the native language of the player. Rather, it has to do with the profanity and terminology of the player. While I've grown to expect a certain level of internet slang and profanity online, the F&F was quite the opposite. People spoke in real English without using profanity every other word. It was really quite remarkable.

Of course, the F&F period has ended and the larger beta is going on right now. I've logged a few more hours in all of the game types (rumble pit, team slayer, team skirmish). The Beta is now populated by far more of the "typical" online gamers. Bad sportsmanship (in victory or defeat), extreme profanity, and general unpleasantness. In fact, I don't even typically plug my headset in anymore.

Is there a solution to this? There must be people who genuinely want to play with other polite players. One person has suggested that Bungie open up a special playlist to F&F participants only. While this may be a solution, I think a broader solution might better serve the gaming community. That is, some sort of monitored division of the gamers at large. Microsoft's different Xbox Live groups (professional, recreation, underground) initially looked like this kind of division, except they don't seem to actually do anything. And player reviews can only subsequently avoid players.

A potential solution might work like this. Take an initial group fitting the criteria, say the F&F Halo 3 Beta group. Allow others to play into the group, and have user reviews remove those who don't conform to the code of conduct set up for the group's operation. While it may sound exclusive, it could allow gamers who enjoy a certain level of politeness to band together and not be forced to deal with the general population. Participation would be voluntary, and players could even have the option of playing the general public rather than the group if they so choose. Think of it as a hybrid between the unrestricted pool of Xbox Live and the overly restrictive DS/Wii friend code system. Moreover, it could be expanded to include preferences on other factors, such as native language, age group, or locality.

Is this possible? I'm certain it is, but it will take a company with the initiative to implement it to make it a reality. Generally, I think most gamers will appreciate it. I know those who prefer the more polite play of the F&F beta would.

Just as a side note if anyone at Bungie happens to read this, Team Slayer shouldn't be included in the Team Skirmish gametypes. There's an option to only play Team Slayer, so if I've picked Team Skirmish, I expect Capture the Flag or King of the Hill or Oddball or VIP. But that may just be my opinion.

1 comment:

Mark N. Barker said...

While this does indeed fall outside the legal arena, the observation is pointed and very valid. I do not do any online gaming at all, even with the advances in the online arena management I find there is still way too much ability skewing and tendency to allow baser behaviour to take hold.

I am not a counterstrike player, but having made my way through half life and wanting to buff the skill set a bit for playing with friends, I tried participating in some online tournaments. Contrary to skill building at all, I was constantly being removed from play by players with much more experience than I, and instead of assisting me, my team members either A) switched teams or B) framed any potential play advice with the vilest comments about my race, religion, sexual orientation, intelligence, and bathroom habits. Bear in mind, they only knew my online tag of "shesta".

The MMO experience is not, in my opinion, a pleasant one. If more companies made more of an effort to address the four factors listed above, they might have at least one more ongoing and constant customer. I would believe many more.

My free Xbox live membership that came with my 360 still remains in the box with the product documentation in my storage closet.