October 8, 2007
I Want Serial with My $130 Milk

This is not a rant, although it could easily be mistaken as one. This post points out a small but nagging problem I'm having: being broke. No, this has nothing to do with my salary; I'm totally loaded being paid as a Research Assistant at the Convergence Culture Consortium.

This is about me being broke because of the savvy marketing/PR people working year after year to market games that are just updated versions of a past successful title with a few new features (on maybe a new system) for more of my money.

A year ago today, Sam Ford wrote a piece about the emerging storytelling more "serialized" narratives that were being seen in games. These episodic titles, being shorter in length, would be lower-priced.

I just paid $130 for the Legendary Edition of Halo3. It included an (unwearable) Spartan helmet case and two bonus disks. One of the disks has the jetsam and an audio-visual calibration tool designed to enhance my high-def., big screen, sound experience with, oh, that other thing for my money--the game.

The other disc that really hooked me in had completely remastered cinematic material from the first and second Halo as well as some other behind-the-scenes gamumentary material. Oh, and this is cool-machinima content.

Without getting into a discussion over whether or not gameplay was good (it was much better looking than lots of games). I want to concentrate on something important: my empty pockets and the lack of a sustaining narrative. Microsoft, where was it?

Maybe I missed it with the updated graphics. Game mechanics were better than previous versions of the game, (the game felt more realistic) but where was the complex narrative, innovative new features, or availability for play on the Wii for arguably more immersion?

But, really, this is about the fact that I just paid $130 for a video game. This is not a new, innovative game. It is sequel #3 of a video game. Sure, I could have paid $60 for just the game without the bonus features. I could have also paid $70 for the Limited Edition, which includes the bonus disk as well as Halo fiction and art book. But I'm totally a sucker. You got me good.

Maybe its just time game companies are starting to follow savvy product packaging techniques from Hollywood. In 2003, Disney added to the DVD "special edition" of its 1994 film The Lion King two hours of new material, including a second version of the film (only one minute longer than the original), an "all-new song," four animated games, deleted scenes, a director's commentary, and the music video "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," performed by Elton John. The DVD sold 11 million copies (and brought over $200 million in new revenue into Disney's clearinghouse.)

Disney and Microsoft are doing phenomenal jobs of packaging content. But for me, its Game Over until I hear about a game that gives me serial with my $130 milk. Until then, I'll be saying H-a-l-o to the money I'll be saving.



While I get what you're saying - that Halo 3 doesn't provide much of a plot for the amount that you paid for it - I'm not sure I grok the rest of your argument.

For one, it doesn't make sense to critique Halo for not being an innovative $130 video game -- at most, you can call it out for not being an innovative (enough) $60 game, since that's the retail price for the game without the extras. That you chose to pay an extra $70 for a Collector's Edition with assorted collectibles (which were well-advertised, so couldn't have been a surprise) seems to indicate, if anything, that you found the previous two games satisfying enough to make a greater-than-required investment in the third iteration.

Second, you ask:

"...the lack of a sustaining narrative. Microsoft, where was it? Maybe I missed it with the updated graphics. Game mechanics were better than previous versions of the game, (the game felt more realistic) but where was the complex narrative, innovative new features, or availability for play on the Wii for arguably more immersion?"

The point about the Wii is the easiest one to answer: just as Mario can't and doesn't show up on other platforms, neither can Master Chief, since Microsoft (until last week) owned Bungie, and last I heard, continues to hold the rights to the Halo franchise. Master Chief isn't available on Wii because HALO is almost unarguably *the* flagship must-have exclusive title for XBOX 360 -- so it's not hard to make sense of why it's not available there.

As for the absence of "complex narrative," I feel the need to call what seems like a bit of a bluff on this: were you expecting narrative complexity when you purchased this game? You've played the previous two, as you've said, so presumably it came as no surprise to you that the narrative is more about providing a pretense for a compelling action FPS experience than about engaging your emotions and telling you stories. (If you *are* looking for stories, you're better suited with games that have been gaining acclaim for that reason, such as the recent hit BIOSHOCK.) It seems like your argument here is that for $130, you should have gotten a compelling, complex narrative; my question to you is why you're making that assumption. (And the reason I ask is that I assume there *is* a reason -- I just can't follow what it is from the argument in your post.)

In a recent review in Slate, Chris Suellentrope makes two critical points about Halo 3:

First, that "The artistry on display is expressed through the rule-making and level design, not from the development of characters or storyline."

So I'd be curious to know your opinion from this perspective: in your post, you intentionally avoided getting into a discussion of whether gameplay was good or not, and while I understand your reasons for doing so, I think it ends up weakening your assessment some. In your mind, do all of your claims about the low value of Halo 3 remain accurate once you factor in the game design itself?

Second, and more important, is his agreement with an online discussion poster who pointed out that "[N]o one cares about the darn campaign unlese... you are a n00b to halo." As most of the reviews will readily concede, the active pleasures of Halo III -- quite intentionally -- are derived less from the single-player campaign mode than the infinitely replayable multiplayer competitive modes. Have you had a chance to play in that mode yet? And if so, does that alter your opinions at all about the relative value of the title?

It's a tricky thing to assess games "in total" at this point, and especially tricky to assess multi-mode games like Halo 3. But I think that in order to be fair, it's important to acknowledge that narrative complexity isn't the only source of value in games, nor does it appeal to all players. To call out Halo 3 and say that the lack of innovative narrative is a failure seems a bit like criticizing a perfect steak because it didn't taste enough like salad.


I can't understand why someone who obviously doesn't care much for the gameplay put $130 into Halo. If you're playing HALO for the story you should have already learned, from HALO 2, that the developers are not making it for the story.

HALO 3 is many things. Among those, it is a slightly improved version of the same gameplay that was so popular the first 2 times around. The multiplayer features are still the best on any console game, and for multiplayer games you really need the latest and greatest, since they have the largest base of players.

And how about that Theatre mode? That alone is worth the price of admission. It is notable that you mention machinma, since the theatre mode is custom made so that you can easily make HALO 3 machinma that will blow the pants of anything people were able to coax out of HALO 2.

On October 11, 2007 at 4:51 PM, lauren silberman said:

Thanks for the responses to my post about my Halo 3 experience. As some of you have pointed out, one of the strengths of Halo is the multiplayer experience.

This is regularly and probably fairly touted as a principal driver of the success of the Halo franchise and was one thing regularly discussed and dissected in the lead up to the launch. Certainly, the game does deliver on this experience.

Halo is not Unreal Tournament, however, and while the multiplayer aspect is definitely significant, the Halo campaign has also been a significant part of the Halo experience. The advertising campaign for Halo 3 emphasizes the Halo franchises' narrative as epic, and the game has been promoted with the line "finish the fight." So I think it is fair to expect a lot, and to critical of the shortcomings, of the Halo narrative.

I do realize, however, that I may have confused my desire for an epic, complex narrative with what was ultimately a branded experience. I stand by my opinion that I didn't receive the $130 narrative experience I was expecting, but I do realize that perhaps I shouldn't have expected to find that in a $60 video game sold in a special box.

So what did I get for my $130? In some ways my $130 bought me extra Halo-branded stuff. In others, it bought me the objects to provide for a larger branded experience. What the special edition didn't give me, however, were any objects that meaningfully extend the narrative of Halo to make good on the epic promise of the advertising campaign. Sure, with the emphasis on the multiplayer aspects perhaps this compelling narrative wasn't to be found in the game itself. But surely it could be extended in the products sold alongside the game in the top-of-the line package? That could be a way to overcome the limitations of the narrative packaged within the game itself.

I did write this post before I played in multiplayer, and yes, that does change the entire Halo experience. But I'm still left to wonder whether Bungie and Microsoft missed an opportunity here, whether they satisfied one market at the expense of others. Or maybe I just set my expectations too high, got swept up in the promise made by the advertising, and blew $130.