It's 2018, so it is almost expected that the Next Big Game You're Looking Forward To will have some form of microtransactions. It was no surprise at all when a job ad at Halo Infinite developer 343 Industries basically confirmed that the Xbox One and PC game will feature them. As a longtime Halo fan, the way in which 343 responded to those news reports has been frustrating and disappointing. It's time the studio addresses Halo Infinite's microtransactions more directly.
The job advertisement for an Online Experience Design Director includes language that, with the frustratingly little context 343 has given, is understandably concerning to fans. For example, the job post states that the person will be charged with overseeing the team that designs and delivers a "AAA player investment experience." The term "investment experience," along with the job ad specifically stating that this is "including but not limited to microtransactions," has led to predictable worries. A successful candidate will also have a "comprehensive understanding of player psychology and what drives them to return to an experience."
This all amounts to read as if 343 is hiring someone to exploit player psychology to get people to spend more money. Optics are important, and this doesn't look good, even if it's not an accurate or fair characterization of what is going on. And it's also just one piece of the situation.
Microtransactions are not inherently bad or problematic. Games like Fortnite and Overwatch only sell cosmetic items that do not impact gameplay, and these systems are generally well-received by fans while being incredibly lucrative for the developers and publishers. The wording in the Halo job states that Halo Infinite's microtransactions will include methods for fans to "express their passion" for Halo, which sure sounds like a reference to cosmetics. Microtransactions for cosmetics is generally accepted and enjoyed across the industry, and it’s exciting to think about how this could apply in the Halo universe.
Except, because 343 has yet to share any specifics about Halo Infinite's microtransactions, fans are assuming a worst-case scenario where you can pay to get items that give you an upper hand--and this makes sense given the history of the franchise. Halo 5's microtransaction-filled Req system allows players to spend real money to purchase items that affect gameplay, and that system--while lucrative for Microsoft--didn't sit well with all Halo fans. Outside of the Halo franchise, Star Wars: Battlefront II's controversial microtransaction and loot box system is a clear example of a bad actor that rightly and seriously soured the terms and rallied the negative discussion surrounding it. It is not fair to say a microtransaction system is innately damaging and dangerous, but the Battlefront II situation and other bad eggs are still front of mind for many; concerns about pay-to-win are understandable and justified. So it's all the more frustrating and sad that 343 is not being more proactive about stomping down these concerns about Halo Infinite. But it does make sense in some regards.
Chris Lee, the head of FPS games at 343, has said the studio is still finalizing its plans for microtransactions for Halo Infinite, and that is a valid and understandable thing. The game is likely still a long time off, and business models are constantly changing and evolving. 343 taking the time it needs to evaluate different models and dig into the subtleties and nuances of each is a positive. And while some of the wording in the Online Experience Design Director job may come across as potentially problematic, the existence of such a position is a reflection of where the industry stands today as it relates to the increasing popularity of the games-as-a-service model. Not only that, but 343 has said it will hold pre-release testing phases for Halo Infinite to gather feedback from fans to make a better game. It remains to be seen if a microtransaction system will be part of the "flighting" tests for Halo Infinite, but that would be a smart move to get feedback directly from fans about what they like and what they don't.
Personally, I want 343 and other studios to make games that are engaging enough to keep me coming back. I loved how all of Halo 5's multiplayer DLC maps were free and that the game received heaps of new content and continues to do so years later with new updates and playlist changes. As a result, I am incredibly excited to see where 343 goes with the "sustain" element of Halo Infinite, but it's all a mystery so far, and the developer's silence about microtransactions specifically is less than encouraging. At the same time, it's also worth mentioning that the references to microtransactions and leveraging player psychology make up only a small portion of the job description for the Online Experience Design Director. 343 is looking to hire an imaginative and creative person who designs and delivers systems that are fun and engaging. While some parts of this may include microtransactions, it doesn't necessarily mean that 343 sees Halo fans as dollar signs. 343 wants to make Halo Infinite a game worth coming back to.
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Lee, 343's FPS boss, has already come out to say Halo Infinite won't have paid-for loot boxes. That's good to hear, and also not very surprising. While microtransaction systems are popular and prevalent across the games industry overall, loot box mechanics are rightly on the back foot in public perception due to their association with gambling. 343 is making a smart move in distancing itself from loot boxes at the very least. But the news of Halo Infinite avoiding paid-for loot boxes is buried under the lingering question of how microtransactions will work.
Lee, along with community manager Brian Jarrard--who has been working on Halo for more than a decade at Bungie and now 343--have told fans not to worry and not to read too far into the wording in the job advertisement. Job advertisements are not written to be read by players--they're intentionally written to contain language to attract a candidate with the relevant skills and experience. In that way, the terms "player psychology" and "microtransactions" are fitting and appropriate. But in the eye of public perception, they border on icky.
I would like to see 343 release a statement that discusses the developer's plans for microtransactions in Halo Infinite. The studio has already gone to great lengths in the area of transparency with its fans through things like its honest and frank words about Halo: The Master Chief Collection's struggles. 343's commitment to owning up to its mistakes and speaking frankly to fans has paid off; the four-year-old game remains popular today--it's easy to find a match in its numerous playlists--and it's likely growing bigger still now that it's in the Xbox Game Pass library. A formal statement from 343 about Halo Infinite's microtransactions would go a long way to help keep 343 in the good graces of its millions of fans the world over.
The statement does not need to contain specifics, and I wouldn’t expect it to, but it should offer language that lets fans know what 343's plans are at a high level to help assure them Halo Infinite won't be a pay to win experience. Microsoft has plenty of legitimate reasons to keep its specific plans secret for now--they might not be final, they don't want competitors to know--but speaking to and engaging with fans in a meaningful dialogue about an issue as important as extra monetization beyond the purchase price is critically important in terms of perception. Vague and unbinding quotes from studio heads on Twitter telling fans to "keep the faith" and trust 343 blindly is not enough when fans have many reasonable and understandable reasons to be concerned.
Perception is reality, so until 343 tells fans what to expect from Halo Infinite's microtransactions, the developer should expect fans to envision a worst-case scenario.
GameSpot contacted 343 Industries about Halo: Infinite's microtransactions. The company never responded.