Could this be the halo game pc gamers have been waiting for? Or is it simply a pay-to-win cash-grab?
Microsoft and 343 Industries have recently announced Halo: Online, a free-to-play version of Halo mutliplayer for the PC…exclusive to Russia. The game is set to enter a closed invite-only beta shortly. Halo: Online runs on a heavily modified version of the Halo 3 engine and features no single-player campaign or story, instead it offers a mash-up of classic Halo multiplayer, a perfect blend of what appears to be Halo 3 and Halo 4. But Why Russia? And what does this mean for PC gamers worldwide that have been waiting for a new Halo title on the PC?
The announcement trailer teases some pretty cool stuff. You can see some classic Halo 3 maps as well as some new maps that appear to be made exclusively for the online title. Players can customise their Spartan with a variety of different armour types and it appears weapons will see some unique customisation too. The gameplay looks surprisingly smooth and polished. It’s a blend of classic Halo and the more modern approach 343i have taken to the series, with the addition of sprinting and some new weapon types. Simply put, it looks awesome.
But the trailer also shows some troubling features, which you may have noticed already. Like a lot of online free-to-play titles, Halo: Online also has a cash store. In the trailer we see two currencies the player can use, one gold, one silver. At least one of these will have to be bought with real money in order to turn a profit. We can see the player also has the option to ‘rent’ different guns with in-game currency, and it would be a safe bet to assume different customisation options would be locked behind a pay-wall too.
This isn’t too surprising though when you compare Halo: Online to Borderlands Online and Call of Duty: Online. Haven’t heard of those games? That’s because they’re not launching in the west either. It seems in countries like Russia and China, the gaming market works a little differently than it does here. Free-to-play games are king and piracy is rampart, especially in Russia.
To combat this, some developers and publishers have specifically tailored some of their biggest IPs for the overseas market by using a different business model, one that turns a great profit while simultaneously making piracy impossible. And it works, gamers in these countries absolutely love to spend their hard-earned money on virtual currencies and cosmetic items, very much like that friend of yours that spends real money on mobile games simply to keep playing them, only much, much worse.
So does that mean Halo: Online isn’t releasing worldwide? That’s a good question, one that 343i addresses in the game’s FAQ.
Q: Will gamers in other regions like North America and Europe be able to play Halo Online?
A: Right now our focus is on learning as much as we can from the closed beta period in Russia. Theoretically, any expansion outside of Russia would have to go through region-specific changes to address player expectations.
While 343i don’t completely deny that the game could expand outside the region, they don’t exactly confirm it either. They do however address the game’s business model in relation to a western audience’s expectations. They know that in its current form, Halo: Online would be absolutely trashed by critics and Halo fans alike if it were to launch here with a pay-to-win business model determined to squeeze as much money from you as possible. So it’s a good thing they are willing to admit that foremost, even if it’s unlikely we will ever actually see a localised version of the game.
Here’s the thing though, Microsoft and 343i are sitting on an absolute goldmine. PC gamers have been crying out for more of the Halo series ever since Microsoft ported a botched version of Halo 2 exclusively to Windows Vista, which went about as well as you would expect. To this day, the original Halo: CE is still enjoyed by many PC gamers and several petitions have been started asking Microsoft to bring the original Halo trilogy to the PC. Several years ago, entries for several Halo games also appeared in the Steam database, generating massive hype between PC Halo fans (myself included) believing that Microsoft was finally ready to embrace the PC community. Sadly nothing has been heard since and the disastrous launch of Halo: The Master Chief Collection saw no love for the PC crowd either.
Fan reaction to Halo: Online has been mixed. On one hand PC gamers want to play this title desperately, to the point where the leaked game client is already being modified by communities from 4chan and Reddit in order to make it playable locally. On the other hand, players aren’t interested in paying to ‘rent’ weapons or any other type of micro-transactions that give players an advantage over others by spending real money. Gamers clearly want what Halo: Online has to offer, just not the way Microsoft are offering it. So what’s the solution?
If Microsoft and 343i don’t want to be so short-sighted, they would listen to the feedback from western audiences and recognise the huge potential Halo: Online would have here. Many online first-person shooter games such as Team Fortress 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive are already hugely successful here and follow a sensible business model that is not only profitable, but embraced by the communities that play them. Halo: Online can be made to work here if handled correctly. We know players are still happy to fork out small amounts of money for cosmetic changes and features, as long as they’re not fundamental parts of the gameplay. There is no doubt in my mind that Halo: Online with a business model similar to that of DOTA 2 would do well on the PC market. Slap on a small initial fee ($10) to cover further development and this could (almost) be the Halo game PC gamers have been dreaming of. Throw in a map editor, continued support in the form of content updates and maybe even some e-sport tournaments and Halo: Online would absolutely explode in the competitive scene too. By making it available to Russian gamers only, most of which aren’t even familiar with Halo anyway, they are only limiting both the game’s success and profit. We know Halo is a driving-force behind sales of the Xbox One, which is why Microsoft is hesitant to fully bring the franchise to the PC. However it’s clear Halo: Online is its own separate entity, it can easily flourish on the PC market while keeping the core Halo franchise exclusive to the Xbox One.
It’s a win-win for both Microsoft and the PC gamers alike, but sadly it’s unlikely to ever happen. Another bizarre decision from Microsoft and 343i who simply don’t seem interested in listening to the audience that has made Halo the juggernaut it is today. After the poor reception of Halo 4‘s multiplayer and the embarrassing launch of Halo: The Master Chief Collection (a game still completely broken to this day), a worldwide release of a reworked Halo: Online could be exactly what the series needs. I only pray that Microsoft and 343 Industries can see this too.