It was not long ago when Halo was number one with a bullet. Every game developer had their sights set on the Juggernaut that was Halo. “Halo Killer” was the new cliche that developers and gamers liked to use to hype an up and coming, and ironically probably now forgotten, FPS (Halo 3 is still in the top 20 most popular Xbox Live titles). During this generation of consoles Call of Duty came into full force. Although COD by now means “killed” Halo, it has taken the crown in both sales and online multiplayer popularity. Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops still outpace Reach and Halo 3 on Xbox Live for example. COD is the new multiplayer king of the hill these days, and everyone from Crytek to Battlefield is keen to knock it down, or at least get a cut of the multiplayer pie. But with Halo and COD holding such a stranglehold on online fun, how is a title to become the next “Halo Killer?”
Crysis 2 was called a “Halo Killer” by EA Games label president Frank Gibeau. For the record, last week I had a hard time finding a match in anything other than “Instant Team Action” for multiplayer on my 360. I could not even get into a game on the new DLC maps. Sad, because I love Crysis 2 multiplayer, but I don’t like waiting in lobbies, so I played something else instead. To throw salt in the wounds of Crytek, a new map pack came out just recently, and this was during the “Double XP weekend” yet I struggle to find a game. I picked up my match of choice in Halo Reach in seconds just to prove I could. Last Month Major Nelson released a list of the top 20 Live games for the 360. COD took the #1 and 2 spots, then came Halo Reach. Crysis 2? Not on the top 20. Sounds more like Crysis 2 was less of a “Halo Killer”, and was more accurately “killed by Halo.”
And what about all those quality AAA games that took time to lovingly craft a multiplayer offering? Homefront is off the Live top 20 and gathering dust on the shelves of your local used game store. Metal of Honor is but a memory. Dead Space 2? Bioshock 2? Dead and gone. Many would argue that they should have never had multiplayer offerings in the first place. Games like that make me happy that titles like Mass Effect 3 and Batman: Arkham City have bucked the multiplayer trend and stuck with doing what they do best: Single player. Yes multiplayer is popular, but don’t go throwing in multiplayer “just because.” Do it right, or don’t bother.
So how do games compete with COD and multiplayer? How do you become a “Halo Killer?” It can be done. First you need polish. No day one glitches that get patched one month later. Guess what developers, patching a critical flaw one month later is too late: The game has been shelved or traded in by that point. Second is that you need a hook: RPG elements keep gamers coming back for more. The carrot on the stick works. And lets not forget Innovation. Don’t think you need to be Halo/COD to beat Halo/COD. Don’t try to beat them at their own game, because you WILL lose. Carve your own niche and grow it. Finally, in the recent world of P2P hosting, we all know that you need critical mass and numbers to get a solid multiplayer experience. No one likes waiting for others in lobbies, lag, or game ending dis-connections. Do you want to build a multiplayer franchise up from the bottom? Suck it up and provide dedicated servers. It is the only way to keep a smaller number of gamers happy with a high quality online experience. High quality experience = more gamers = more money. Think long term not short term. Otherwise, expect to fall hard and fast, just like Crysis 2 multiplayer did. Halo and COD are still running strong: They have critical mass, tight gameplay/presentation, RPG hooks, and innovation… ok, maybe you can argue they left the door open on that last one…
I want to end talking about a game that had me VERY interested: Section 8: Prejudice. For those not in the know, this is a multiplayer-focused shooter title that chose to bypass traditional box stores and offer itself as a low-cost 15$ downloadable alternative. It was a true gaming experiment. It is hard not to call it a Halo clone (and yes, people have tried to call it a Halo-Killer before), but it did add some spice and innovation to the popular formula (including impressive orbital drops). It was a relatively polished experience (but it lacked the graphics of an AAA title). It also tried to achieve critical mass with a low-entry cost (and a low advertising budget). To top it all off, they innovated the ability for gamers to pay to “rent” dedicated servers.
How will Section 8: Prejudice do? It is no Halo Killer, but I am watching, and I am sure Activision and EA are closely watching the reaction to, and popularity of, the paid dedicated servers. Don’t be surprised to find similar features in “Elite” offerings for other online games in the future.