Microsoft and 343 Industries have a leadership problem.
Roughly 500,000 players logged onto Halo Infinite in January 2023.
Fans consistently give feedback on how to improve the game and legacy features.
Spartans never die; they’re just missing in action.
343 Industries, Microsft’s internal studio created to make Halo games including Halo Infinite, issued an official statement on January 23, 2023. It was 31 words: “Halo and Master Chief are here to stay. 343 Industries will continue to develop Halo now and in the future including epic stories, multiplayer, and more of what makes Halo great.” The only thing else featured on the graphic is the name of Pierre Hintze who is the current studio head. Whether these words cause you joy or dread likely depends on which side of the millennium you were born.
There’s no point in lying to you. Halo Infinite’s lifespan has been a tough pill to swallow, which might even be a generous way to characterize it. Halo as an IP always endures, but 343 Industries’ and Microsoft’s approach has proven detrimental to its mainstream appeal. Canceling split-screen co-op after promising it for literal years wasn’t a way to restore that confidence.
Still doubtful? Nothing wrong with liking what you like. But the truth is that Infinite has had its hands tied behind its back for a long while now, and there isn’t much indication of what the plan is next.
Buckle up, this is gonna be a read.
Oh, So That’s How It Is
Two days after the news broke out about mass layoffs at Microsoft, 343 finally issued the statement above. Microsoft put 10,000 people out of work affecting the video game teams at Bethesda, set to launch Starfield later this year, and the team at 343. Microsoft reportedly let go at least 60 employees including devs who stem back to the Bungie days over a decade ago.
What really kicked the hornet’s nest in this latest online frenzy was news that Joe Staten, Creative Director, is leaving the studio. Jason Schreier, a reporter for Bloomberg, first broke the story. Staten remains a fan-favorite for the franchise for his writing and community credits on the original Halo trilogy, the Arbiter’s faith crisis in Halo2, and the noirish splendor of Halo 3: ODST. As of this writing, no official timeline or denial has been given for his exit.
Staten was brought back on to the franchise from Xbox Publishing in late 2020 to help 343 Industries get the game released in a semi-stable state. He is highly regarded through gaming by players and devs alike for his wit, his warmth, and most of all, his leadership.
Leadership is a quality that’s a bit foreign to 343 Industries. The studio’s goal with Infinite seems to be to merely get by. The studio already made controversial decisions that saw a player base hemorrhage and migrate to other games with Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians. The Infinite team scrapped and restarted the project several times over a six-year development cycle. Reportedly, developers at one point divided into “fiefdoms” and were developing “four or five games simultaneously.”
Infinite’s identity problem didn’t start there but with its upper management. 343’s founder, Bonnie Ross, oversaw every middling release over a decade and finally resigned in September 2022. 343 just plain struggles with handling Halo, and Infinite losing two creative directors — three, if you’re counting Staten’s departure — is another straw on the proverbial camel’s back.
Take Chris Lee, former 343 Industries director and studio head. Lee started as a developer and producer under Microsoft during the later Bungie years. He was a point of contact between the companies on Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach.
He eventually grew into 343 studio leadership and took over as project lead on Halo Infinite for two years. Under his watch, Infinite saw delay after delay, mediocre demos, and remains a point of contention for where Infinite went wrong. Lee’s leadership also saw a prototype build for an ill-advised Halo hero-shooter in a style akin to Overwatch and Valorant. He is no longer with the studio and has quietly moved on from Microsoft to Amazon Web Services.
This is a story on repeat in one eternal round. Top contributors exited before the launch and are still exiting as 343 attempts to achieve consistent seasonal content. Even when Microsoft isn’t outright firing them, Infinite simply cannot retain talent. What talent does remain seems meandering, rudderless, and frustrated but sometimes brilliantly shines through despite a culture loosely described as a bureaucratic nightmare.
The latest batch of criticism also stems from recently departed developers. It’s going about as well as you’d expect.
Patrick Wren, a Senior Multiplayer Designer on Infinite, now with Respawn, tweeted:
“The layoffs at 343 shouldn’t have happened and Halo Infinite should be in a better state. The reason for both of those things is incompetent leadership up top during Halo Infinite development causing massive stress on those working hard to make Halo the best it can be.
“The people I worked every day with were passionate about Halo and wanted to make something great for the fans,” he added. “They helped push for a better Halo and got laid off for it. Devs still there are working hard on that dream. Look at Forge. Be kind to them during this awful time.”
“As a Halo fan I’m really tired of Microsoft business practices & policies slowly killing the thing I love,” tweeted Tyler Owens, former Halo 5 developerwho is also now at Respawn. “Between the contracting policies they abuse for tax incentives & layoffs in the face of gigantic profits/executive bonuses… they set Halo up for failure.”
Microsoft’s overreliance on independent contractors deserves scrutiny. The Slipspace engine has been reportedly challenging to learn already, but then you bring in contractors with little investment to do good work over six-to-eighteen-month agreements with no chance of staying in a permanent role.
Sound messy to you? Of course it does because it has created a culture of apathy and stress. These are the ingredients for a bittersweet cocktail of highs and lows that Halo Infinite finds itself drunk on in 2023.
The Truth and Reconciliation
Complicated alcohol metaphors aside, to say that Halo Infinite is dead isn’t exactly the truth.
The player base has dropped at least 80 percent if factoring in both Steam charts for PC players and Xbox’s most-played games list. But with that in mind, roughly 500,000 people logged on in January 2023. Microsoft is the one that has the only official numbers, but that isn’t small even for a game like Halo. Infinite shouldn’t have struggled as it has, but despite everything, 500k people still are checking in to see how it’s going.
Infinite’s team still has major work cut out for it. After a year of disappointment, many features and updates can be grouped together for some goodwill. Rewarding Halo’s diehard fans is the path to long-term success for any title going forward. Here’s a list of commonly mentioned fix and update directions for Infinite.
Open Up Armor Customization
Infinite’s pivot to a free-to-play model and monetization strategy is a major source of frustration and criticism for players. Halo Infinite’s multiplayer remains free-to-play, but the pricing on cosmetics has discouraged both new and long-time fans from playing because of little free, earnable armor. Spartan armor is a source of joy for these players, and several things must be done.
A proposed change is the full implementation of cross-core customization: canon, non-canon armors, attachments, and armor coatings. If 343 wants people to buy things in the shop, they should allow players to purchase cosmetics that pair with everything. A playable Elite “armor core” would be a great way to celebrate fans’ favorite dinos. Elites have yet to be playable in a 343 game, and it’s high time for a triumphant return from what is undoubtedly 343’s best title.
Bungie’s built their games on sociability. Optional chat lobbies before, during, and after games allowed you to chat with other players whether that was shit-talking, telling jokes, or strategizing to play the objective. Free-for-all modes used to besearchable while in a party.
Who doesn’t want to punch their friend in the face while wearing a helmet with cat ears?
Social features help players make friends, and friends made by playing games mean you’re likely to keep playing that same game. Something as simple as adding basic map vote and veto features would increase enjoyment and revenue — no one wants to play on Launch Site, guaranteed.
Core basic features are still MIA for Halo Infinite. Split-screen co-op is canned, and it is foolish to anticipate it but best believe it’s wrong to cancel it. Developers haven’t mentioned or discussed popular game modes like Infection, VIP, Juggernaut, and Assault. Fan-made modes in Forge only do so much. Player versus enemy or environment experiences beyond the campaign are needed like Firefight. The absence of a basic career progression system is negligent this far into a game’s lifecycle.
How about something out of left field? More experimental modes in their own dedicated playlist are a good way for developers to try things out. Something like Purple Reign — needlers, grappleshots, low gravity — fits perfectly here. Hell, even throwing in a dual-wielding mode for a limited time would get thousands of people back to play the game. And while discussing it, lift the composer feature from The Master Chief Collection and decide to search any combination of playlists simultaneously. Call of Duty and even Splitgate have this feature.
The most important thing on this list — a change in leadership style — is far past needed for this series. Bonnie Ross’ role has split into three roles. It’s too early to say if it will go one way or another. Hintze’s tweet two days after layoffs began isn’t a great start.
A player-first mentality has felt absent for a long time. Infinite’s gameplay is fun. Because of that, even frustrated players have still sunk hundreds of hours into it. Imagine if this game actively prioritized its players’ satisfaction more than selling $20 helmets that only pair with a select few armors. 343 and Microsoft must make good on their promises including delivering split-screen. The players deserve that.
One Final Effort
Halo Infinite needs some major wins in major ways in record time. It might be too late for this title to experience a comeback.
Video gaming is different than it used to be. Gone are the days of games releasing feature-full and complete. Launch issues are far too common and too commonly accepted.
A “we’ll finish it later” mentality has left far too many titles feeling barren and frustrating to interact with. Hotfixes and patches are regularly needed to keep application-breaking bugs from plaguing the experience. Monetization has overtaken the social and memory-making hilarity that brought people back again and again.
There is a wound at 343 that has not healed. Something has festered for over a decade poisoning each successive release and preventing each from reaching its full potential. Something is holding this team back from creating something that lives up to the standards set by Bungie.
When a tree continues to bear bad fruit, you yank it up by the roots, change the soil, and plant again. If these layoffs are meant to help 343 get this ship back on course, it has not been communicated, but in the past words alone have not inspired confidence.
The Sun Will Rise Again
Halo’s true believers are a special type of insane. As Cortana would say, “Lucky for you, I like crazy.” It’s honorable to continue to love something even when it has lost its way. A decade off-course sounds like an eternity, but an optimistic — and admittedly, perhaps naive — reading of that is if time is a ring, the sun will inevitably rise again.
This series can see its glory days again. Halo Infinite is the closest it has gotten, but Microsoft must believe in it. It needs a confident vision with accountable leadership and backing which prioritizes its players. It can be done whether it’s this team or someone new entirely. Choose to believe that.
Spartans never die. They’re just missing in action.
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