An open letter to Microsoft/Bungie on the state of Halo 2 for PC
II. You Break It, We Buy It
III. Live Free or Die
IV. If It Ain't Broke...
V. Well Enough Alone
VI. Do Not Resuscitate
Almost two years ago, Halo 2 was announced for Windows Vista. For many Halo players of the PC community, this marked a chance to get what we had always dreamed of - a chance for those who never owned the original Xbox version to experience what made one of the top selling games of all time. Community websites started up as havens for the members to take the game to its full potential and push it to the bleeding edge.
When the first screenshots were released to the public, the community was ecstatic. What was once a dream was finally shown to be a reality. Seeing the game running on a PC with enhanced visuals put trust in us and gave us hope for what supposedly lied on the road ahead. As the months progressed, we began to find ourselves more and more left in the dark. It wasn't before long that we were left completely update-less. Any updates we were getting were not exactly "updates" at all, but rather news hype just to raise awareness about the game being in development. When release drew closer and closer, it was then that the development news poured out. Unfortunately, it was this news which turned the game sour and lost the faith of many community members who once had great expectations for the game.
It is now almost half a year since the game's release. The community is in a stalemate. Bugs infest the game to the point where it becomes unplayable. Difficulties are arising with many of the game's inner-workings. Critical features are missing which, without, will lead to the utmost failure of this title. What was once a dream had become a nightmare - one which we cannot wake up from.
II. YOU BREAK IT, WE BUY IT
It is obvious to all of us that you will be oblivious to the problems the game has; you wouldn’t have released it in this state otherwise. Immediately, gameplay issues such as the now infamous ‘button combinations’ and ‘super bounces’ that plagued Halo 2 on the Xbox platform and now, surprisingly, on Vista come to mind. We’ll put that thought aside for now, however, and take a look at one of the most fundamental aspects of the game, which conveniently happens to be one of the most flawed aspects of the game. We are talking, of course, about the game’s engine. In this case, the engine, something which is usually at the back of the gamer’s mind, takes the foreground due to the sheer number of problems. What may appear to you on the surface as a sparkling, clean product is, to us, a completely different story.
With today's games constantly getting more advanced, the demand on the system's resources becomes increasingly greater. Halo 2 for Windows Vista is one game which has more demand and yet offers LESS than any other newer games being released today. What the problem here is the poorly done job of optimizing the game to work with the system it is running on. There is absolutely no reason in the world the game should require over a gigabyte of RAM to get decent loading times. There is no reason the game should be causing a CPU bottleneck and using over 1 GB of RAM (average) in some of the least system-intensive situations. Many of the settings have little to no effect on the game's performance; not because the system cannot increase the performance, but because the game cannot provide the circumstances under which the system would need to perform on.
Whenever experiencing performance issues, the very first thing anyone will go, regardless of their computer knowledge, is to the game's settings. Typically, games will offer the customization of settings to the end user's content. Unfortunately, with H2V, one of the most important settings categories is lacking severely - video. Not only is there no external configuration file to allow the manual editing of settings, but there's nothing to be set. Aside from the detail settings and video resolution, there is virtually no control over what the game displays. Even with these few settings, they too are lacking. The built-in video resolutions offer only limited widescreen support at 1280x720 and 1920x1080 for 16:9, and 1680x1050 and 1920x1200 for 16:10. Some of the most common widescreen resolutions of 1280x768, 1440x900, and 2560x1600 are not supported, not to mention the lack of the ability to set a custom resolution from the game's shortcut. It is also important to note that the video detail setting does not affect the game's overall performance much at all. More advanced video options are desperately needed to let us customize our gaming experience to the way we see fit.
Aside the video settings are the audio settings. While they might not be as frequently visited, it should not play a role in determining the significance of these settings. What we are given is just ONE setting, the game volume, which isn't anything to boast or brag about the slightest bit. There is no ability to actually "set" anything whatsoever. The game volume control needs to be broken down into several more controls: master volume (all), sound effects (gunshots, voices, etc.), and music. Different people have different likings of volume levels, and some just like to listen to their own music while playing games. There is also the need of more advanced audio hardware configuration. The ability to choose the sound hardware is missing in addition to the ability to enable or disable EAX (that is, if it is even implemented into the game).
In most online games, the server browser is the gateway to the player's multiplayer experience. In Halo 2 for Windows Vista, it is undoubtedly the most frequently visited menu out of them all. It was believed that extra care and thought would have gone into the browser, especially being that there are no third party services which can hook into the network such as Xfire, at least as of yet. What happened is the complete opposite of what was expected. Yes, it carries out its ultimate goal of listing the servers, but there is so much more that could bring it up to par with other server browsers in use today. One of the greatest things missing from the browser is the ability to apply filters to the list. As the game grows, there will be more servers. Not all servers will be occupied at once which creates a mess of servers the player has to sift through each and every time they want to join a game. Organizational elements of sorting the servers (favorites, players, etc.) should be remembered even after leaving the menu. With less than 50 servers currently running, the list takes a few seconds to load, and can sometimes even freeze the game for a few seconds. Sometimes the server list doesn't even load at all. Sometimes the server list loads, but the server info is not displayed. Sometimes a server may show 15/16 players, but when attempting to join, the player is rejected. With the inability to refresh individual servers without reloading the entire server list, a hassle is created about joining a simple game. What would be preferred is a system is something similar to Halo PC where clicking on a server would update its statistics instantly. Furthermore, the ability for a player to indefinitely delay a game is one issue which cannot be overlooked. With the inability to set a game delay limit and to see who is delaying it, kicking the player out of the game is out of the picture.
We are aware of the reasons why Halo 2 includes a strong influence of auto-aim and reticle magnetism; it's because with a controller it is much harder to move, aim, and fire with precision. What we don't understand is exactly why that feature is still covered over to the PC port. First person shooter gamers are critical with their games when it comes to aiming, especially when the game does it for you. The question is, who would want to play in a game where some players have a handicap while others don't, and the only reason those players that do have a handicap is because they are using controllers? What is even worse is the constant possibility of an "aimbot" using nothing more than what we are provided. It has already been proven possible to trick the game into to believing you are using a controller when you are, in fact, using a mouse and keyboard. Using nothing more but a roll of scotch tape found in households across the world, the mouse has aim assistance without ANY alterations to the game, violations of the End User License Agreement, or violations of the LIVE Terms of Service.
Vehicle handling has almost become a more of a hassle than it is actually worth. The look speed while controlling a vehicle is unbearably sluggish, even on the highest mouse sensitivity settings. Controlling a vehicle with the mouse requires the constant lifting of the device to keep it from running off of the mouse pad. A task as simple as turning 90 degrees becomes almost impossible at higher vehicle speeds due to this configuration of the turning speed being so low. The challenge presented with even turning 180 degrees around is even more cumbersome.
It is rather sad to sit back and think about how the new feature of Tray & Play is not getting its popularity through the positive things it has to offer, but rather the problems with it. Many, many users have noticed a problem they had with getting to a certain point in the game before being asked to re-insert the disk, although it is already in. Players are able to play up to the level "Quarantine Zone". However, once they complete the level, they are asked to insert the original disk, then they are returned to the main menu. Sometimes the next level is unlocked, sometimes it has to be played over again, and sometimes they are thrown back to the level "Delta Halo". Tray & Play also creates an issue with the multiplayer experience. Sometimes there is a player in the lobby whose map will not load and the game will not proceed until they are forced to quit.
Two drawbacks to the multiplayer experience lie with the HUD. While they are rather minor annoyances, it does not change the overall importance of these issues. The first issue to make note of is that after a player's shields are drained, whether partially or completely, they do not recharge properly. The shields will charge while making the shield depletion noise, as if the player is being shot. The shield meter also does not deplete properly, as the entire meter turns white, rather than just the amount the shields had been depleted by. The second issue has to deal with the HUD text. On the Xbox, it is perfectly fine to have large "kill text" on the screen. Fortunately, with the viewing distance on PCs being reduced to a few feet rather than across the room, the need for large text is lost. It not only clutters up the screen, but sometimes it will not even register a kill. If, by chance, it does register a kill, usually the text will disappear too soon for the player to even see who they killed, or who they were killed by. If all of the multiplayer game information was condensed into the infrequently used text chat, very much like how Halo PC handled it, these would no longer be issues.
III. LIVE FREE OR DIE
The LIVE service has shown to be a wonderful service on the Xbox and Xbox 360 platforms, bringing buddy lists, VOIP, messaging services, cheat detection, and all kinds of other handy applications to make online gaming on the console hassle-free and easy. It is a shame that the same cannot be said for the Windows LIVE service. In the attempt to copy the usefulness of the Xbox's LIVE service, the service has done the exact opposite and made playing the game or hosting a server more of a hassle and an expense than it should be. The obvious problem is that the benefits that a LIVE account has to offer already exist on the PC in forms of external applications like XFire, TeamSpeak, and Valve's proprietary Steam application.
Ever since Halo 2 for Windows Vista was announced, the question of whether or not the game would utilize LIVE's features like on the Xbox was entertained. When it was finally announced that the game would use Games for Windows LIVE, any doubt to the previous question was lost, but new questions arose - how LIVE was going to go about Gold and Silver memberships. Not long after, the community's questions were put to an end at last with the final confirmation that the user's experience of the game would be controlled by the amount they can afford to pay yearly to Microsoft. "Benefits" of Gold memberships as opposed to Silver were outlined which led to the fanbase being disgusted by this outrage.
How are we benefited by a Gold membership, exactly? When asking this question, the thought should be in relation to what other online games for the PC do NOT offer. H2V offers Quickmatch, which ironically doesn't even match players together half of the time. Achievements are also a nice benefit to Gold members, though many argue that they are too easy to earn and aren't really anything to achieve. The LIVE service is used to an extent with these features, but this is where the list ends. Every other Gold feature is offered not by LIVE, but by the individual players offering their services.
The ability for a player to create a locally hosted game is hampered by forcing them to pay for a Gold membership. Map makers cannot test their own maps with other players without upgrading their membership or setting up a dedicated server, which requires having the hardware to do so as well. As locally hosted games are not able to be joined by Silver members, anyone who is asked to test the map but does not have a Gold membership is kept out of the game. Who is inconvenienced by this? Everyone is. It is not really the Silver member who is being hurt, but the Gold member hosting the game who cannot have players test their map because they do not have the membership to allow them to join.
Map auto-downloading is yet another feature which is limited to use by Gold members only. Why is it right for Microsoft to charge the players to use another person's services? It should be up to the server operator to choose who they want to limit their bandwidth to, not Microsoft. Also, hosting a dedicated server for testing a map is a joke in itself due to auto-download. Anyone with a Gold membership can simply join up and download the unreleased map if the VIP privacy options are not set.
Apparently the development of Games for Windows LIVE made the developers unaware that in the process of "opening new doors to online gaming", the overwhelming majority of the previously open doors had been closed.
IV. IF IT AIN'T BROKE...
...then break it. Server administrators always want to be in control of what happens on their server, quite rightly. PC games over the last ten years have allowed administrators to have one hundred percent control over games and server configuration from both in the game and outside the game. Remote control, often abbreviated to ‘rcon’, is perhaps the most crucial feature for a dedicated server to have. Someone's being a jerk by killing team members in the game, while using offensive language? The administrator can ban them via rcon. The server needs to be restarted following a new gametype being added? The administrator can restart the server via rcon. The administrator is in the game, and wishes to change the map? The administrator can use the in-game rcon console that is present in so many PC games to do so. There are many, many more useful reasons for an rcon in-game console to exist, and it is now seen as a prerequisite in PC games. So why has it been omitted from Halo 2 for Windows Vista?
Inevitably, dedicated servers will not always have an administrator present. If there is ever a problem when the administrator is not there, they want to know who was involved, what was said, what happened, and how it happened. The Halo 2 for Windows Vista dedicated server offers no such way of taking a look at the past. Server logs are an essential feature to have. It is just like having security cameras on a building's premises, but in the game. While they are not used all the time, when a situation arises which is in dire need of attention, the logs are the first things to be examined. Turning a blind eye to everything that happens in your server shows incompetence and negligence, and that is exactly what being without logs makes administrators. We wholly recommend that a logging feature should be implemented in the game.
The biggest headache server administrators face lies with keeping the server a clean, friendly, fun environment that everyone can enjoy. Occasionally, there is a player who feels that the only way they can make themselves happy is by making everyone else miserable. It is the administrator's duty to get rid of any problems, and the way to do this has always been through a kick or a ban. Peculiarly, Halo 2 for Windows Vista's dedicated server does not properly handle player banning. The only way to ban a player is to do so directly from the server console with their Gamertag. IP bans are useless unless the administrator actually has the players' IP addresses. Because the only practical way to ban a player is by their Gamertag, the "banned" player can easily join with another Gamertag and extract their revenge upon the party until they get their way. LIVE has the ability to ban players by CD key hashes, however they leave that ability out of the hands of the ones who truly need it - the server administrators. Banning players by MAC addresses is possibly the best way to keep a player banned, but unfortunately, it is only useful if the MAC address is known and if the game is being hosted on a LAN since it does not work over LIVE. The only solution to this issue is to lock down servers to Gold members only, but then there would be so few players that there would not even be any point in running a server, due to the low uptake of Gold accounts.
Dedicated server ban-lists are usually stored in places easily accessible by administrators for management and backing up, typically in the form of a text file located in the server's directory, as in Halo 1 PC. Halo 2 for Windows Vista's dedicated server stores entries in the Windows registry. Manually editing the list becomes a risky task. The task of bulk adding players to a list is nearly impossible for novice users without any knowledge of .reg files. Backing up and restoring the list becomes a mess of registry values. Backing up the list from a remote machine is not possible unless Remote Desktop access is granted with administrative privileges. Multiple server instances cannot have multiple assigned banlists, which is a disadvantage to hosting companies as a new user account is needed for each list. This is, as you should be able to see, most impractical.
Another inconvenience for hosting companies is the need for each individual instance of the dedicated server application to have a Halo 2 CD key. This means that a hosting company would be forced to buy a new copy of Halo 2 for Windows Vista for each dedicated server they host. As a result, the already high costs of hosting a dedicated server are pushed up, unnecessarily. It was explained that this was implemented to allow Microsoft to ‘ban’ servers. This also worries us, and we would like to see the reasons for a server being banned disclosed, for reference.
The lack of a password protection feature also came as a surprise to us. This feature is very basic and, like all of the points made above, has been present in almost every multiplayer PC game over the last decade. Password protection is essential if you wish to play a game with your friends and your friends only, especially if some players can’t join straight away. It is also useful in a dedicated server situation if the administrator wishes to restrict his/her server to members of a particular clan or community, or if a clan match is happening. Currently, if a clan match was taking place, non-members would be able to join the game and interrupt it. Obviously, this is very inconvenient.
Password protection would also be an easy solution to another problem, map auto-download. Although auto-download is a useful feature when it has been implemented correctly, the main problem is that anyone can currently download any map being played on any server. If a map is in beta and being tested by its developers, a random player can come along and download that map, even though it is not ready to be seen by casual players yet. With a password required before being able to download the map, the administrator would be able to prevent this from inconvenient situation from occurring.
V. WELL ENOUGH ALONE
It was unfortunate that we had to wait until the game was in our hands before we knew it was so drastically inadequate in relation to our needs and wants. The Halo Custom Edition community had grown learning that there was always more to map-making than just the level. It's true; with the assets provided, we were able to accomplish amazing things, the likes of which KPaul mentions at the end of this section. We were able to take things right from our imagination and put them into the game. This was what kept Halo Custom Edition so alive despite its solitude; the editing kit at the time encouraged more from the community. This aided in the formation of many mod teams, because they are the symbol of the idea that map-making more about more than the level itself.
Saying that we have little to work with is an understatement. Gone are the opportunities for creating what we imagine. Parting the artist from their paint is a sin in this case. The community has so many gifted individuals who yearn to express themselves in the way they want. By narrowing down the possibilities behind the editing kit, the range of roles in the community is also being narrowed down. It was said that, "The focus has always been to gear the tools and associated examples and tutorials towards the average player," but the average is the key word. Not the entire community is composed of the average. In fact, the problem lies in gauging the editing kit towards the average player. It's not the average player that will end up using the editing kit - it's the average community developer who will. These two averages are vastly different. By tailoring the editing kit towards this pointless average, this means that previous skilled specialists are now either forced to learn new skills and adapt, or find a new engine to work with. In the case of the mod team Evolution, they have moved to a different engine to get the support they seek. With them, they take potential players away from Halo 2 for Windows Vista.
There are still more hurdles. As users start to create their own levels, they will want to make it to the best of their ability. For the more advanced user, they will only be able to create it to the limits of the editing kit. However, there are issues in the editing kit that affect every user, no matter what their skill level is. We were promised a user-friendly editing kit. I'm guessing that doesn't include user-friendly documentation, tutorials, or resources. At various places throughout the tutorial, it references resources and locations that don't even exist. Among other mistakes, the biggest is allowing these to even reach the end-user in the first place; it's as if the tutorial wasn't even tested!
It is obvious that there is little to encourage a development community to grow, and thus little to keep the community and the end-users happy. It is this same disregard for the community that is seen in other aspects of the release. The unprofessionalism around this release is merely a reflection of the collective attitude towards the community and end-users.
"With Halo 2 Vista, the tools are available right out of the box. This means that they are both officially supported by Microsoft and will have gone through all the testing, localization, and usability scenarios that is required for a professional software release. As a result, not only will the tools be dramatically more user-friendly, they'll also be much more stable and polished."
So the preferred method of increasing stability and user-friendliness is though decreasing functionality? Is user-friendliness measured in how many confusing things you can remove? Are you still so sure about those "testing and usability scenarios?" Regarding removing features and functionality, there are far better ways to make it easier to use for the end-user. Take the Halo Custom Edition's Editing Kit for example; it was packed full of features and the tutorial (loaded with images!) was actually effective. The users with little experience could still follow the tutorial and create great maps without being confused by the available tag types. The more advanced users could come to the community for help, who had learned it themselves over time. It just takes a little more effort in that area.
"Once the custom community gets cracking we're sure we'll see some pretty awesome material. There'll be a bunch of maps that look beautiful but aren't too well-designed, there'll be maps that are well-designed but not very pretty and then there'll be the maps that strike the perfect balance and rise above the rest to become as much a staple of the Halo 2 Vista community as the maps that shipped with the game. With any luck." (KPaul)
It looks like our luck has run out. What was the purpose behind limited the functionality of the Map Editor? Did you want to limit map file size? Add a limit. Worried that the original maps would be outdone? That's just ridiculous. Worried it was too complicated for your "average user?" Most likely, but it ended up hurting the community more than it helped.
VI. DO NOT RESUSCITATE
Support is the number one thing that keeps any product alive, whether it be an operating system, a game, or a program. Without support, a product will eventually be left not purchased, collecting dust in store and distribution center stockrooms, because everyone hears about these problems that break functionality and can't be easily fixed. It's natural for support of a product to be dropped in due time, with newer versions of it obtained and used by a vast majority of people. Unfortunately, this is not the case for Halo 2 Vista. This game is in it's dawn of life, with many problems, bugs, and glitches that need to be addressed and repaired to keep it in working order. Nobody is purchasing it because they are hearing about problems with loading certain levels, shoddy performance, and the like. Many of these problems still exist, and yet word on the street is that continued support for this title will be dropped. Hearing this is reminiscent of when someone checks off the "Do Not Resuscitate" option on a hospital form when it seems keeping that person alive is too much trouble, even if a cure is very much possible.
Halo 2 has been a constant string of disappointment and problems since its Xbox release, and the Vista port answered the long-standing question of, "Could Halo 2 get any worse?" When it was announced by Bungie those many months ago, the thought of Halo 2 being all fixed up and shiny on the PC made the userbase giddy. However, that version of Halo 2 Vista never hit the store shelves; the only thing all the loyal fans were given was a botched port of a title they had beaten many, many times before on the Xbox. Lack of documentation and supplies, and the bugs of the Halo 2 Editing Kit made everyone who wanted to make a Halo 2 map cry. The incredibly cumbersome LIVE service made players and server administrators scratch their heads as doing tasks that are incredibly easy on any other game server are outrageously complicated and unnecessarily expensive in Halo 2. The true loyalists held strong, and waited patiently for fixes for these problems, since the fans were promised continuing support for the title. But, even these true fans would be let down severely...
Project Yelo Lead
Wave of Lag
Evolution Project Lead
Microsoft Game Studios Core Tester