The Halo franchise needs a shot in the arm--and free-to-play could be it.
Confirming rumors and, in a big shakeup for the familiar formula, Microsoft recently announced that Halo Infinite's multiplayer will be entirely free. I think that's the smartest move Microsoft has made in the last decade for Halo, and one that could pay dividends to help the franchise grow.
Halo Is For Everyone
The Halo franchise is one of Xbox's most valuable assets. But, apart from the nostalgia-laden Halo: The Master Chief Collection--which itself is a fantastic entry in the series thanks to its ongoing updates--the core franchise has been away from the market for nearly five years, since Halo 5 in 2015. The Halo series has fallen out of the spotlight and is in dire need of a strong showing from Halo Infinite to put the franchise back on the right path.
With free-to-play games like Call of Duty: Warzone, Apex Legends, and Fortnite all dominating the FPS space currently, Halo Infinite multiplayer ran the risk of standing out like a sore thumb as a paid offering in 2020. Microsoft is already facing an uphill battle trying to make Halo relevant and interesting again with the mainstream--it didn't need any more hurdles to overcome.
Those other games have set a precedent that large-scale, highly polished multiplayer games can be free, and Microsoft is smart to follow suit. Making Halo Infinite's multiplayer free (there are rumors of the Xbox Live Gold requirement going away but nothing is confirmed yet) gives Microsoft the best chance to rekindle the flame and bring Halo back to its former glory. Making Halo Infinite multiplayer free allows the game to better appeal to lapsed fans, entirely new players, and players who were curious but never bought in before. I did not foresee Call of Duty and Halo--two of gaming's most lucrative properties--having free multiplayer offerings in 2020, but here we are, and it's an exciting proposition for a number of reasons.
A Bigger Pool
One of the many issues with Halo: MCC at launch was that it simply did not have enough players to accommodate the game's numerous playlists, in addition to the severe network issues that in some cases prevented people from connecting to the game at all. Things got better over time, but with Halo Infinite's multiplayer being free out of the gate, the game should have a giant player pool on launch day that only grows bigger over time. In theory, this will in turn help you find matches faster and have a better time in the game if the matchmaking algorithms work. The more people playing, the better the experience stands to be. Microsoft has shifted its focus in recent years toward creating ecosystems of players that can play together with minimal barriers, and making Halo Infinite's multiplayer free is a further step in that player-first direction. Not only that, but with Halo Infinite multiplayer going free, it stands to reason that gameplay videos will be plastered all over the place, and this could in turn drive a new level of excitement and engagement with the series.
If You Only Want Multiplayer
Microsoft's latest messaging has been all about giving people the choice to play their games however they want, wherever they want, and whenever they want. Splitting up campaign (paid) and multiplayer (free) is a reflection of this strategy of freedom of choice.
At long last, if you're only interested in Halo multiplayer, you can have it. The next time you log in to MCC, check the player pages for people you play against--I did this recently and noticed that a very good portion of players had either never touched any campaign or only played them minimally. This is anecdotal data, to be sure, and it could also be explained by how people already played the campaigns on their original platforms, but by making Halo Infinite multiplayer free, Microsoft is responding to the idea that campaign and multiplayer can have different audiences with varying interests. I recently checked my own stats, and I have more than 1,000 hours in MCC--I've barely touched the campaigns. I like that I have the option to play Halo's campaigns if I want to, but that option came at a cost. Soon, we'll all have a greater freedom to choose and the barrier to entry is much lower for those who want to experiment.
Offering multiplayer for free eases some of the friction that people might have had about the series if they were only interested in multiplayer, or at least those whose playtimes skewed heavily towards that. Halo Infinite's free multiplayer seemingly hasn't come at the cost of single-player, either, as Microsoft is cooking up a new, classic Halo-styled campaign mode that--assuming the graphical shortcomings can be overcome--looks to be on an encouraging path.
All About Engagement
These days, Microsoft seems to care less and less about unit sales of its consoles and games in favor of "engagement," and this has been driven in part by Xbox Game Pass. With every first-party Xbox game launching into Xbox Game Pass for no extra cost, unit sales of key titles are surely softened. I would expect this to continue for Halo Infinite. But engagement numbers may be reaching higher levels than ever before--and this is Microsoft's new bread and butter.
The Game Pass model is already working. Obsidian's new game, Grounded, is a relatively niche title on paper--the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-meets-Rust setup is not exactly a mass-market idea--but the game tallied an astonishing 1 million players in just 48 hours thanks in part to Game Pass. No Man's Sky, meanwhile, added 1 million new players after launching on Xbox Game Pass. With Halo Infinite's multiplayer releasing for free and on Xbox Game Pass, the franchise has the potential to reach a wider audience than ever before, and this is good as a means to elevate the Halo series to new heights and bring it back to prominence.
No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Nothing is ever really free. With Halo Infinite's multiplayer adopting a free-to-play model, you can expect monetization to come in the form of things like cosmetics and a battle pass system, and who knows what else (but not paid loot boxes!). Halo Infinite's free multiplayer is great messaging for Microsoft--free Halo!--but Microsoft wins here, too. With every Xbox and PC user now a potential Halo player, the reach of the game could potentially grow to an unprecedented level of scale, making it a serious money-maker.
Microtransactions from the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone are estimated to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars every quarter. Even if Infinite makes only a portion of that--and it would likely be smaller, considering it's a platform exclusive--that would still be a very large chunk of change.
Whatever misgivings some portion of the audience may have about microtransactions, the Halo community has already proven to accept--or at least tolerate--microtransactions as a business model. Halo 5's microtransactions--Req Packs--brought in many millions of dollars over the years. And this was people spending extra money on a game they already paid for. With a free-to-play offering that relies on microtransactions, the ceiling is much higher--in essence, unending--for microtransaction spending in Halo Infinite. You and I don't need to care about the profitability of Halo Infinite's multiplayer--that's for the bean counters at Microsoft to be concerned about--but looking into the business model can be a constructive way of examining wider trends and strategies that Microsoft may employ for the game.
A job ad at 343 Industries mentioned a "AAA player investment" experience for Halo Infinite's microtransactions and that the team would use psychological tactics to drive microtransaction sales. The wording here does come across as nefarious-sounding, but we can't know for sure how it will all shake out until Microsoft clarifies and defines how microtransactions will actually work in Halo Infinite. It's fair to be skeptical and worrisome about how Halo Infinite will implement microtransactions--after all, there are many egregious examples of microtransactions in this industry. When they do finally reveal Halo Infinite's multiplayer, 343 ought to lay its cards on the table and clear things up or they run the risk of people assuming the worst.
A Platform For The Future
From the sound of the initial reports, 343 plans to treat Halo Infinite as a platform that grows and evolves over the next decade. Instead of Halo Infinite 2, it seems like 343 will treat Halo Infinite like a games-as-a-service title that is supported for the long term. Making multiplayer free helps ensure that the playerbase stays connected over the years, and it's exciting as a Halo fan to think about where the game could go over time without having to worry about buying a sequel every few years. I can envision a future where Halo Infinite adds new map packs, cosmetics, and lots more over time, and players can invest in whatever they like. It could also be possible that 343 adopts the Destiny model and brings in new content for Halo Infinite's campaign that also has an effect on multiplayer, thus creating a back-and-forth funnel that drives more of the elusive engagement.
A Democratic Model
Free-to-play is a powerful form of democracy in gaming. Anyone who tries Halo Infinite's multiplayer and doesn't like it has only lost time--not money. As former SOE boss John Smedley explained to GameSpot, free-to-play can keep developers on their toes because if they don't create a compelling experience, people will move on to something else. Moving Halo Infinite to a free-to-play model for multiplayer is a huge change for the series, and the players will ultimately decide if it works or if it doesn't. Microsoft can afford to take a monetary hit in the short-term--Xbox Game Pass doesn't make any money right now--but this won't last forever. 343 needs to deliver in the multiplayer department and make Halo Infinite something that fans are excited about returning to--and spending money on--on a regular basis.
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Like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Warzone before it, Halo Infinite's multiplayer going free could spell trouble, especially in the area of cheating. By casting such a wide net and dropping the entry free, cheaters may flock to Infinite. This is a reality for free-to-play online games, and 343 will need to make assurances to the playerbase that it is taking cheating seriously. I would hope to see things like player-reporting tools and transparency from 343 about its plans to weed out the bad actors and toxic players from Halo Infinite multiplayer. 343 has done a solid job of policing Halo: MCC's cheaters, and we can hope those learnings will apply to Infinite.
Microsoft has shown precisely zero multiplayer footage for Halo Infinite, and similarly, there is no word on how the business model will shake out for microtransactions. Free Halo! sounds really good on paper, but it's too soon to say if the multiplayer will shake things up in the way many are hoping to make it interesting and worthwhile in the first place. With the lacklustre reveal for the campaign mode in July, fans are right to be skeptical and hesitant, but I'm hoping these fears are unfounded. 343 has promised to show Halo Infinite's multiplayer "soon" and talk about its many innovations, and I can't wait to see it. It could be the beginning of a new era for Halo.