It seems almost quaint to me, now, the idea that I played hundreds of hours of Halo 2 with my friends over a decade ago simply because we enjoyed it. Sure, we were climbing the ranks online, but there was no expectation that if we played enough, we’d unlock a new color of paint or gun charm for our Spartans. Playing Halo: Infinite today, I’m struck by how absurd the idea of a game like this without any kind of progression mechanic would seem today. And that’s a shame, because I can’t help but feel that battle passes and the RPGification of multiplayer games have transformed them from play into work.
What is the purpose of implementing grinding in games like Halo? To keep you playing. Games like Fortnite have mastered the slow drip of unlocks via continual play, carefully calibrating their reward frequencies for maximum investment by players. And hey — if you don’t want to sink hundreds of hours into unlocking a new glider or gun skin, you can buy it for cash in the shop.
Some players grudgingly accept these kinds of microtransactions as a way for developers to bring in funds they can use to develop other aspects of the game. But at this point, many — myself included — expect them. If Halo: Infinite had launched with no promise of unlocking accessories to dress up your little man, no cash shop to buy them, it would have been a shock to many.
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At their best, battle passes can provide a sense of advancement to players who might otherwise feel discouraged by losses, or provide a reward to skilled players for wins. But the introduction of extrinsic rewards often saps the intrinsic value of play. We become motivated less by the enjoyment of the game itself, and more by the pleasure of watching a bar fill up after each match. In the worst case scenario, play becomes a kind of work in itself, a daily grind to complete our little in-game chores and reap the rewards. Unscrupulous developers prop up shoddy game design with carefully-crafted experience-based systems that hook into the parts of our brains that simple want to make numbers get bigger.
Now, I don’t think Halo: Infinite is one of those cases. The game feels great, and offers the same kind of hilarious and exciting interactions that past entries in the series have. I also realize that battle passes and progression mechanics are now firmly entrenched in games and have been for some time. But I think it’s important to recognize that these mechanics aren’t here because they’re “good” design or because they’re necessarily more fun — they caught on because they’re an easy way to keep players playing, and because they make money.
For now, I’m going to try to ignore the battle pass in Halo: Infinite and focus on enjoying the game. Yes, I want to dress up my Spartan, but when I find myself playing one more game simply for the purpose of getting a new shoulder pad in Halo or any other title, I have to ask myself if it’s worth it. If I’m honest with myself, it seldom is.