The question: Is there room in the modern gaming landscape for arena style shooters?
There are tons of different shooter subgenres, everything from 1st person to 3rd person, tactical, squad based, arena, twitch, etc. Most of the time, these subgenres fit into their own niche. For example, squad based shooters like Ghost Recon are different enough from twitch shooters like COD that they have their own dedicated audience. Throughout the last generation though, we’ve seen arena shooters decline in popularity, while twitch shooters continue to hold strong. Before I go on, let’s define what I’m talking about.
Twitch Shooters: a relatively modern concept made possible via last generation hardware. This style of shooter emphasizes fast and accurate reflexes. Specifically, in the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation, we saw the birth of player specific perks and load outs. One of the biggest and earliest examples being Call of Duty: Modern Warfare multiplayer progression system that rewarded players with stat boosting perks and load outs designed to enhance the player’s unique style of play.
Arena Shooters: an older sub-genre of shooter, finding its roots in Unreal Tournament and Quake games on the PC. This style of shooter emphasizes map layout and design, map spawned weapons, default weapon load outs, and minimal customization. While power weapons and perks are available, they are traditionally either map spawned or available to all players.
While these differences may seem superficial at first, the effect they have on game balance is tremendous. While meaningful and valiant efforts are put forward, twitch shooters tend to have a harder time balancing gameplay. For example, 10 random players enter a lobby. Four of the ten are veterans of the game, having earned and unlocked multiple perks, tailoring their style of play. The other 6 players are medium to low-level skilled players, with minimal perks or specialized weapon load outs. Matchmaking software will split them into 2 even teams in an attempt to balance the game. The result either two games played simultaneously, where the highly skilled and experience boosted players dominate the map and the lower skilled players attempt to play in tandem, or the lower skilled players become fodder for the higher skilled ones. This is the way COD and Battlefield function (for the most part). It’s an enticing and exciting gameplay style. The frantic gameplay is addictive, the experience perks and unlockable weapons add longevity to the multi-player and help ensure a long-lasting user base. Financially, this makes sense as developers and publishers invest millions in online game development, servers, IT infrastructure, and they want to make sure those investments are capitalized on. The phenomenal success of the COD franchise (a billion dollar franchise) and Battlefield franchise are examples of twitch shooter success. But there is another way.
Let’s look at Halo 3, which launched in September 2007 for the Xbox 360. The Halo franchise is an arena style shooter. Halo 3 focused on map design, fantastic sight lines, balanced weapons, less frantic gameplay, and minimal load out customization. The few power-ups in the game were available to all players and map spawned, minimizing their impact on game balance.
In 2007, the Xbox 360/PS3 generation got their first taste of what that generation of gaming would be. Both COD 4: Modern Warfare and Halo 3 launched in 2007. Halo 3 remained the top played game on Xbox Live for 3 straight years, maintaining its top spot through both COD: MW and COD: MW2. In 2010, COD: Black Ops and Halo: Reach, were the two most played games of the year, and Reach remained in the top 10 most played games until 2012. To put these numbers in context, Halo 3, during its 3 year peak, had roughly 1.1 million unique users A DAY. Halo: Reach fell to about 900,000 unique users during its peak. Simply put, these 2 games helped Halo dominate the top 5 most played games from 2007 to 2011.
(Below: Halo 3 and Halo: Reach UU/Day 1 year after each game release)
Fast forward to Bungie’s exit and 343 taking over the Halo franchise. In November 2012, Halo 4 is released to critical and commercial success. Halo 4 sold 9.05 million copies (Halo 3 sold 11.91 million and Halo: Reach sold 9.5 million). Let’s look at the online user activity for Halo 4’s lifespan.
Within a week, COD: BLOPS 2 is released, cutting Halo 4’s multiplayer population in half (above). Within a year of Halo 4’s release, the online community for that game shrank to 20K unique users per day (below).
WTF happened to Halo?
Simply put, 343 tried something new for Halo, and the fans responded by dropping the MP. With Halo 4, 343 tried to introduce weapon load outs, kill streak perks in the form of weapon drops, a create-a-class that mirrors COD and a new way of balancing out active and passive equipment. We also got overpowered and unbalanced weapons, fewer game modes than previous Halo installments, and a lackluster response to community feedback.
Ultimately, we got a new developer to handle one of the most beloved franchises in gaming history. They tried to fix something that wasn’t necessarily broken. The numbers above show a game that sold as well as any other Halo, but one that people didn’t play online. They show a game that tried to borrow from the twitch shooters, but inadvertently watered down its own experience and alienated half of its fan base. Then when COD entered the picture, half of the population that was left was gone. Of the top 10 bestselling shooters for the Xbox 360, the Halo franchise was the ONLY arena style shooter, amidst a sea of twitch shooters.
What this means for Halo 5
In November, Microsoft is releasing a The Master Chief Collection. This package includes Halo 1, 2, 3, 4 and all their maps. This isn’t fan service by Microsoft, or a quick cash grab. This is them and 343 using us as guinea pigs, and using the MP data we generate to mold the next Halo. This is our chance, our golden opportunity to play the Halo games we all love, the ones that defined console shooters, the one that made Xbox Live a household name. This is our chance to show 343 the game we want by playing the games we love. Let’s show Microsoft and 343 the game we want, the Halo we as loyal fans deserve, because if we don’t, this could lead to the end of the Halo franchise.
– Alex Reyes