It's hard to argue with Halo Waypoint. Launched in late 2009, Microsoft and 343 Industries' online hub offers Halo players a granular breakdown of their multiplayer exploits across the franchise. Beyond tracking data, it also operates as a community hub by linking up members with one another and hosting a variety of gameplay videos and tutorials.
With Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary slated to arrive for the Xbox 360 on November 15, 343 Industries is also planning a substantial revamp for Halo Waypoint this fall. As part of a New York Comic-Con panel tonight, the Halo factory offered a first look at those updates, which will include a new multiplayer map aid, called ATLAS, which runs on Windows Phone 7, as well as a redesigned look.
To begin, what is ATLAS? "Advanced Technical Assault System," Halo franchise development director Frank O'Connor told GameSpot. Yes, but where is the L? "It's a real term, so we pulled an acronym out of it. So the L is the L in Technical."
As for what it does, ATLAS is a Windows Phone 7 app that will be available this holiday that offers a top-down view of any official Halo: Anniversary or Halo: Reach map (but not custom maps). The map is updated in real time as players battle it out, which means combatants can keep tabs on their allies and where weapon drops are throughout the course of a match.
"We tried to imagine what a Spartan in the field might actually have if they had an assisted system from the future," explained CJ Saretto, lead producer for Halo Waypoint. They posited that future soldiers would have satellite imagery, as well as floor plans for facilities, all annotated with notable information, such as where weapon drops and vehicles could be found, what weapons players' allies are wielding, the match's score, and so on.
The maps themselves can either be viewed as satellite imagery or "what [you] might think of as map view from Google Maps."
Of course, all of this information is only useful if players are able to actually view it, which is not the easiest thing to do with a controller in hand and plasma discharging all about.
"There are a number of setups that we've imagined," Saretto said. "We've imagined the phone kind of sitting on the coffee table in front of you and you checking it out on occasion if you're wondering what's going on. We've also imagined a copilot style scenario where another person is watching what's occurring while you're playing and kind of giving you additional information."
"We also think about, if you're in a firefight, you've ducked behind a corner...you're kind of hidden; you take time to look at where your teammates are," Halo Waypoint executive producer Doug Hebenthal added. In other words, steal a glance while the Spartan's shield recharges. Saretto also noted that the app will follow players as they move through the level, so there isn't a process of orienting oneself in the app.
The ATLAS app appears as if it will give players a leg up over those who don't own a Windows Phone 7 device. However, O'Connor noted that the app actually has "built-in" balancing, in that every time players glance down, they are splitting their attention away from the game, a move that always comes with hazards.
When asked whether the team had ideas as to where to take this app in the future, O'Connor replied, "Yes." Fair enough.
"Now that we've got all of this very interesting data coming out of the game, there's a lot of very exciting stuff that we can think about doing with the data," Saretto added. "We just need to figure out, you know, when we're ready to bring those kinds of exciting experiences online."
ATLAS isn't the only change in store for Halo Waypoint. This fall, 343 Industries also plans to launch a new interface for Halo Waypoint, with a primary goal being that the service will be equivalent regardless of whether it's being accessed through the Xbox 360, PC, or phone.
"If we just go from a purely aesthetic point of view, one of the things we really wanted to do is make Waypoint look and feel the same across all of the devices and platforms that we support," Saretto explained. "If we've got stats in one place, we've got it everywhere. If we've got career in one place, we've got it everywhere. And weve taken the look and feel of Waypoint and made it very uniform and consistent across all of the devices that we support."
Taking the console version as an example, Saretto said that the team has massively overhauled the look, making it easier to search for and find content. He also said that the Halo career feature, which had previously been available only on the console, will now be accessible through the Web and mobile phones.
The Halo Waypoint update will also offer players a more granular look at stats, such as how they do with a particular weapon against a particular enemy on a particular map. "The new interface, particularly on the Web, gives you really flexible ways to dig in very deep and see very granular details," Hebenthal added. "But in a way that doesn't really scare away the more casual user who's just interested in seeing some of this stuff."
Custom challenges are another new feature that 343 Industries is excited about. The feature is a riff on the daily and weekly challenges that 343 issues. It allows friends to create their own challenges for one another, such as scoring 50 headshots in a multiplayer match within 24 hours. The custom challenge option will be available in Campaign, Matchmaking Firefight, Multiplayer, and Custom modes.
More than just bragging rights, completed custom challenges yield Halo: Reach credits, at a rate that fluctuates depending on the difficulty and circumstances of the task. Reach credits can then be spent on cosmetic upgrades, such as new Spartan armor.
Halo Waypoint's overhaul comes as the service gains competition of a sort in Call of Duty: Elite, which Activision is launching alongside Modern Warfare 3 on November 8. One notable difference between the two services is that Elite will have a $50 premium component. For now, at least, 343 Industries doesn't plan to follow suit.
"As of right now, we're staying with the model that we currently have," Hebenthal said. "So we don't have any plans in the short term to operate premium versions of Waypoint. But, you know, you could see things change in the future as we think about new things that do have value and would stand on their own; think about it that way."
And as one last announcement, 343 Industries also confirmed today that work has concluded on Halo: Anniversary, and the game has gone gold in advance of its November 15 release date. For more on that game, check out GameSpot's previous coverage.