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‘Halo Infinite’ progression complaints highlight gaming’s generational divide

(The Washington Post illustration; Microsoft/Xbox Game Studios, iStock)

For Halo fans who only care about multiplayer, “Halo Infinite” is a free-to-play game. But improbably, it’s messing up the free-to-play part.

This is the first time in its 20-year history that Halo has entered the free-to-play market, and a huge divide has formed between the game’s monetization scheme and what players, both old and new, expect of the franchise. “Halo” in 2001 revolutionized the console shooter genre. But since 2007′s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” multiplayer shooting games have adopted role-playing mechanics into the genre, tasking players with earning experience points to level up and win new gear — cosmetic and otherwise. “Fortnite” popularized the free-to-play season pass system, in which players pay to earn experience points, making their way through 100 levels to earn 100 rewards. Typically, players can also purchase virtual currency using real-world dollars to fast-track that process. But the Halo games were never really like that.

When the mainline Halo games first launched, players simply paid a flat retail fee of $50 to $60 to play. “Infinite,” by contrast, enters a much more competitive market for multiplayer shooters, with games like “Warzone” and “Fortnite” offering free, robust multiplayer offerings with additional content like cosmetic items (essentially fashion bragging rights in digital worlds) available for purchase or awarded through the season pass system.

Halo had only tried this system once before in “The Master Chief Collection,” which was not free to play. In that game, after paying the flat retail fee, all customization options are unlocked through free season passes that never expire. “Halo Infinite” almost mirrors this, but its progression system has been widely criticized for being too slow. You can only advance through the season pass and earn rewards by completing specific objectives for a few hundred experience points. Nothing else counts toward your progress besides a morsel of experience points earned just by playing a match, win or lose.

Many of these challenges distract from the objective of winning matches, like when players are asked to use certain weapons or vehicles to get a kill. And since the current playlist system means you can’t choose what game type you’ll play, oftentimes you’ll see people running around using less-than-viable guns instead of, say, capturing the flag in a game of Capture the Flag.

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Progression by itself is a tricky balancing act for developer 343 Industries, a studio that has never released a free-to-play game before. The issue is exacerbated by separating rewards out to be used only for specific armor sets. So for example, if you earn a blue color coasting for armor, it’s applicable to only one type of armor. Currently, there are samurai-themed items on sale in the digital shop, including a sword belt for $15. The value of the sword is significantly lowered once you realize it can only be used along with the armor set unlocked by playing the event. There’s a surprising lack of cosmetic interoperability: If you want to wear the sword belt on your Mark VII armor, you’re out of luck. “Infinite” restricts armor customization to specific “core” armor sets, like the Mark VII or Mark V. Anything samurai-related can only be attached to the samurai armor set.

If all of that sounds confusing, it is, and it’s one of the main reasons the game’s monetization needs a rethink. Regardless of your opinion on the value of cosmetic-only rewards, 343 Industries had years of industry research to fall back on to implement these features better, communicate them more clearly and understand how challenge-only progression might divide the player base between people who focus only on completing challenges and those who’d rather work toward the objectives of a match.

All this criticism comes with a big caveat: The core gameplay of “Halo Infinite” has received almost universal praise. The game is undeniably fun for almost anyone who touches it. But the fun turns to frustration if players don’t feel sufficiently rewarded for the experience.

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Therein lies the great divide in the Halo audience. Longtime Halo players like myself play the games because, well, they feel fun to play; “Halo Infinite” succeeds on those merits. But players who are accustomed to earning cosmetic rewards in free-to-play games feel cheated when those rewards don’t come fast enough. That’s just how multiplayer games work these days.

PlayerEssence OJ, a 34-year-old YouTube creator with over 80 thousand subscribers who has played the Halo series since day one, said the complaints stemming from “Halo Infinite” are rooted in a desire — familiar to “Fortnite” players — to look good in-game. But the idea of playing to grind for skins didn’t come naturally to him.

PlayerEssenceOJ reminisced about going to his friends’ houses to play Halo together in person. “We would play all night, 16 hours, until the sun came up,” he said. He also asked to be referred to by his creator name due to past incidents of harassments at his home address. “It’s wild to see how long we would play ‘Halo’ when there were no skins, no upgrades, no experience points to earn."

But PlayerEssence began to understand the desire in younger players to look good after talking to his YouTube following. His audience helped bridge that generational divide, and he at least now understands the appeal. And even as someone who normally wouldn’t care about season pass progression, it’s obvious to him that “Infinite’s” system needs to be tweaked.

“If the pricing or progress wasn’t bad, it’s probably [a] discussion we could ignore. But since it’s so terrible, everyone notices it," he said. "I don’t give a damn about the battle pass, but that’s where it starts, how bad it is.”

It’s important to point out that if this is the worst of issues plaguing “Halo Infinite," it’s in a much better place than other big-budget games released in 2021, many of which have been either plagued with bugs and technical issues or gameplay that feels stale and recycled. Halo is among the most influential first-person shooter series, but in recent years, there’s been a void of games that offer large-scale, physics-based battles that include fighter jets and rocket-equipped jeeps. “Halo Infinite” stands apart from the competition as a singularly unique experience.

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Still, many longtime Halo players on online forums bemoan the free-to-play model, wishing “Halo Infinite’s” progression system more closely matched “The Master Chief Collection,” or even “Halo 3” and “Halo: Reach.” But Halo is also returning to a market with a diminished mindshare, especially with a younger audience primed on “Fortnite” and Call of Duty, and it’s clear that moving to a free-to-play model could help the series once again command a large, modern audience. Being free helps Halo draw in curious players who may have never touched the series before.

The result is an audience, new and old, divided in their priorities as players, all unhappy and not feeling sufficiently rewarded for their efforts in the latest Halo game, one that is otherwise being celebrated as fun to play. “Halo Infinite” was very nearly a home run, but 343 Industries is struggling coming to grips with the free-to-play reality, and the audience is left confused and frustrated because of it.

None of the issues, including the lack of more custom and fun game modes, are unfixable. The solutions are there. It falls on 343 Industries to regain its footing to reach its stated desire to turn “Halo Infinite” into a years-long platform for Halo content.