Halo TV: Spartan Ops, Transmedia and Episodic Content

Curator's Note

Halo has always had a long tail thanks to its popular multiplayer modes that keep players engaged for years after release, but Halo 4 hopes to increase player engagement through a new feature called Spartan Ops. As a series of narrative episodes launched weekly, Spartan Ops continues the story of the Halo 4 campaign; however, rather than just a viewable experience, each episode of Spartan Ops comes with five short, playable story missions. At a time when publishers and developers are searching for strategies to combat the used game market, multiplayer modes alone are not enough. New strategies include required online passes, date-specific in-game achievements, extended downloadable content schedules, and the transition to digital sales. Yet nobody has attempted quite what Microsoft and 343 Industries are with Spartan Ops.

Like a Halo TV series you can play, Spartan Ops offers a content distribution strategy similar to TV series, a strategy so far only used successfully in the gaming industry by developer Telltale Games. The essential hook of the mode is that after viewing the new episode, players will be able to play the rest of the narrative with friends. The first season of Spartan Ops will have 50 missions released over a 10-week period. Hence, the new mode acts as an extended marketing campaign with the goal of drawing new players into the Halo 4 experience throughout the holiday season and into the New Year. Although the first season is free, 343 Industries indicates a second paid season is a possibility.

Combined with the pre-launch, live-action UNSC web series and the launch of Karen Traviss’ book Halo: The Thursday War, Spartan Ops cements a transmedia marketing strategy but also extends this strategy into next year and beyond. Yet how unique is Halo 4’s marketing blitz in today’s climate? How are today’s game developers leveraging new distribution models to promote their games before and after launch? How are modern franchises, like Halo, utilizing new digital technologies to tell trans-narrative stories that link novels, animated and live-action televisual texts, and digital games? 


Thanks for a great start to this week, John. I, too, think Spartan Ops is fascinating in a lot of ways including the TV model influence (more on this later), but I wanted to mention here some of the production and economic obstacles to this type of model for most game developers. There's a number of reasons why other companies haven't tried putting out this type of regular, free content before on the Xbox, but a lot of it comes back to the fact that Microsoft charges an exorbitant fee for title updates, patches, and post-release content additions. Two quick prominent examples are the recent Fez patch debacle, in which the small independent studio Polytron decided not to fix a game-breaking bug because it was going to cost them a rumored $40,000 to do so (http://penny-arcade.com/report/editorial-article/the-40000-patch-fez-won...), despite the game being published by Microsoft! The other example would be Valve's Team Fortress 2, a game that on the PC has evolved into a vastly different experience from it's original release because of hundreds of free updates. On the Xbox 360, however, this would not be cost effective, as each update would be charged a separate fee. Valve had a similar problem with DLC for Left 4 Dead, which was free on PC, but cost money on the Xbox 360 at Microsoft's insistence. Related to this, Microsoft requires that these updates be subjected to certification, which again costs money and takes time. Moreover, they have historically (though this has been shifting) had limits on the actual file size of title updates and DLC, and controlled the number of free updates versus paid updates for games. Sony has been relatively more open, particularly in their dealings with Valve to incorporate Steamworks functionality and their engagement with new monetization models and service-based MMOs (e.g. Dust 514), but they still run into some of these same issues. Basically what I'm getting at is that one of the reasons 343 is able to be forward thinking here is that they are a wholly-owned first-party studio that doesn't have to worry about the rules set by the platform holder. While they surely still need to deal with certification for their content (though this would likely be fast-tracked), the fees are a non-issue. To me, this kind of preferential treatment is no surprise, but troubling in that it gives platform holders a lot of power in determining how the shift towards games-as-services ends up playing out. It also favors larger developers/publishers with deeper coffers that can afford these fees, yet who may be inclined to be more risk averse and slower to innovate.

Thanks for the post, John! As you know, I’ve also been fascinated with publishers’ strategies for combating the used game market and lengthening their properties’ commercial tails. But unlike previous titles that were marketed as having a “TV style” or an episodic structure (Alan Wake quickly comes to mind), the novelty of Halo 4 (if I understand it correctly) is that the narrative-oriented DLC doubles-up as single-player and multiplayer fare. This differs from most shooter DLC that generally takes the form of weapons, vehicles, or map packs for non-narrative multiplayer bouts (shameless plug: I touch on this point in my Wednesday Medal of Honor post). To one of your prompts: Yes, Halo seems to be ahead of its genre competitors with its episodic content. However, 343 is not alone in considering its shooter’s unrealized televisual elements. For example, Activision’s Black Ops 2 will feature a multipart zombie campaign mode and built-in shout-casting tools. This isn’t exactly what Halo is up to, but adding story components to Call of Duty’s popular zombie mode (à la Left 4 Dead?) or amateur broadcasting tools to the multiplayer spectator mode give players additional and – perhaps – distinctly televisual points of entry for picking up and staying with the franchise. Do you think that Microsoft would ever turn to its community to create episodic, narrative content (recall the fairly robust level creation and machinima-making tools in the previous installment of Halo: Reach). Or, does the need to control the story canon and/or do the economic and structural complexities of the studio-publisher-platform relationship that Steven discusses foreclose that possibility?

Matt - I'm sure we'll come back around to the questions you've raised in my post on Thursday as they're directly related. In terms of games that have looked to the community for post-release narrative content, it's definitely slim pickings. Off the top of my head, there are only a few, especially if focusing on the consoles. Infamous 2 had a system allowing players to create missions that would then seamlessly appear in the open world for other players. I think this is particularly noteworthy because unlike most other games that promote user-generated content, it doesn't rigidly segment or ghettoize the content made by users as opposed to that created by the developers. The other example I came up with is Left 4 Dead 2's Cold Stream DLC that was a community-created campaign released for free on PC but was paid on consoles (charging for user-generated content is extremely irregular). This campaign was led by a well-known mod maker, but Valve also enlisted the broader community to test and give feedback on the campaign prior to release (good description here http://www.l4d.com/blog/post.php?id=5019) which hearkens back to Nina's previous IMR post about game testing (http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2011/05/03/help-wanted-no-ex...). While this seems to fit into what you're describing, Valve does make very clear that this community campaign is non-canon and meant to not be story focused, so I think it's safe to say that up to this point, when it comes to defining canon and maintaining the legitimacy of a brand's narrative identity, game companies are keeping that under their own strict control. To return to the original post, I'd say that in terms of AAA games, the transmedia "marketing blitz" you describe, John, is definitely not unique to Microsoft, and something that we will surely see more of in the future. The fact that Halo 4 is made by 343 Industries who were set up not specifically as a game development studio, but more as "brand managers" in the wake of Bungie's departure indicates where Microsoft's priorities lie. I don't think we should undersell the importance of Halo Waypoint in all of this, as it is the transmedial base out of which 343's experience with the franchise emerges, and which will surely only evolve and expand as this new trilogy continues. There are already some other attempts at this type of transmedia hub (e.g. Call of Duty Elite), while nearly every triple-A title now comes out accompanied by a novelization, comic series, CGI film, etc. As far as using this transmedia approach for narrative effect, again I'd turn to Valve and what they have done with Team Fortress 2. There's a game that had no story to speak of when it was first released, but over several years of free content in a variety of media, they have fashioned a universe and narrative with content updates as key points for updates to both story and mechanics. The "Meet The..." videos flesh out the characters, while the official comic releases establish a reason for the convoluted multiplayer to be occurring while contextualizing gameplay changes within narrative bounds. Looping back around, many of the maps that have been included in these official releases have been community created, and the tools for creating maps, hats/weapons, and cinematics have all been released, but again, without touching narrative. I haven't seen this laid out anywhere, but there's an implied understanding that the actual narrative and universe are ultimately in the hands of the original developers, not the community.

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