Why Halo 3 Needs a Custom Games Browser

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I like Halo 3. The game’s been out for two weeks, so I think it’s safe to say that I’m truly liking the game, and I’m not just riding the hype train. That said, there’s a serious problem with it, and to be honest, I don’t understand why Bungie would let this happen.

I’m talking about the lack of a custom games server list – or custom games browser, as some call it. Maybe you’ve heard about the fabled “XBL Public,” maybe not. Xbox Live Public is the name of a feature Bungie at one time had hoped to include in its final Halo game. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the cut. The only reason we know of its previous existence is because of an interview 1UP did with Bungie, in which the site asked the developer about the so-called “XBL Public” feature they saw on the title screen when gaming mag EGM played a preview build of the game about a year ago.

Not a whole lot is known about XBL Public, because it was never officially announced. Speaking to 1UP, Bungie user interface designer Colm Nelson described the mode as a customizable version of matchmaking. It’s believed that you could specify the kind of gametype you want to look for, and then XBL Public would search for a “public” party playing a game with those settings. So, theoretically, if you wanted to play Sentinel Beams-only on Vahalla for some awful reason, you could tell the game that, and it’d find some poor souls engaged in that gametype.

You can probably guess already why XBL Public never made it into Halo 3. It was too difficult from a development standpoint – at least that’s what Xbox Community Manager for Microsoft Tom Eberspecher told me when he was kind enough to comment on a news story we ran about the missing feature last week. What would happen if you searched for a gametype with 400% health, Rocket Launcher start, Magnum secondary, 200%-increased movement speed, Warthogs-only and no power-ups? Because Halo 3 allows that kind of customization in custom games, XBL Public was going to allow users to search for whatever they wanted. And, according to Tom’s explanation as to why XBL didn’t make it in, it’s because Bungie was worried that if you specified game settings for something as unusual as what I just described, you could end up sitting in XBL Public matchmaking for days, while the system tried to find a game for you.

Halo PC had a way to join other player’s custom games. Why doesn’t Halo 3?
But, uh, what about having the game simply have a prompt that appears after about two minutes or so of unsuccessful searching? Isn’t that common sense? If the game can’t find an available party that meets your criteria in two minutes, one probably doesn’t exist. Right? So why not have the game automatically tell players that? What’s the big deal?

Better yet, why not allow players to simply browse through a list of currently open games? Halo PC had this feature four years ago, and it worked just fine. StarCraft, a ten-year-old RTS on PC, has the feature. And so does every WarCraft game ever made. Numerous first-generation Xbox Live games – on the original Xbox – allowed you to do it, too. Rainbow Six 3. Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. Crimson Skies. Mechassault. Project Gotham Racing 2. Do I need to continue? Why doesn’t Halo 3?

Sure, there’s matchmaking – a phenomenal system that searches and pairs-up players according to the playlist they specified. But there’s a problem. If you want to play Team Slayer, Team Objective, Team Doubles or any other playlist Bungie’s prepared, you’re set. But what happens if you want to play a gametype that Bungie hasn’t included in its official playlists? You’re out of luck. That is, unless, of course, you have 100 people on your friends list ready to go at any given time of day to play whatever it is you want. I don’t know about you, but at any given time, I have about 20 people signed onto my 100-person friends list, and it’s not exactly easy to poll those 20 people as to who’s interested in some CTF on The Pit with Battle Rifle start. Anybody who’s tried to get a 4 vs. 4 custom game going can tell you that it’s not easy – and certainly not convenient.

Matchmaking’s faster, so that’s what people play. Fine. But maybe I don’t want to do Shotty Snipers on Narrows? What are my options? Veto it? Hopefully, the majority of players will follow suit. Otherwise, we’re all playing Narrows. I could, of course, play a different playlist, but what happens if I – or anybody for that matter – wants to play a gametype that Bungie hasn’t included in its playlists? Maybe you enjoy Bungie’s playlists, but I don’t. If you love them, good for you. I’m glad you can enjoy them – but what about people that want to play a gametype Bungie hasn’t endorsed? If they can’t find enough people on their friends list to play, they’re out of luck.

Some might argue Bungie should just include more playlists, but it’s impossible for any developer to provide enough variety to please everybody – even for a studio that single-handedly justified the original Xbox.

I didn’t quit playing Halo 2 because it was mechanically flawed (it was). I quit playing Halo 2 because I didn’t have a choice.

That’s why custom games are needed. It’s why they exist. The amount of options available when setting up a custom game in Halo 3 is mind-blowing– I couldn’t ask for more (except for being able to add the damn Fuel Rod Canon, Bungie. What gives?). However, as it stands, the experience is ruined by the inability to easily join custom games. It’s been a problem since Halo 2 in 2004. And it’s truly baffling, because Halo 3 ushers in The Forge, which allows you to fully (almost) customize maps to your liking, but there’s no way to join people’s Forge games. It doesn’t make sense. The Forge itself is great, but its full potential can’t be realized due to a lack of a custom games browser.

Why doesn’t Halo 3 feature a custom games server list – Halo PC-style? Perhaps it’s because of matchmaking. If such a feature was available to Halo 3 players, the number of people using matchmaking would decrease. But wouldn’t that be because gamers would be able to do what they want? And, if so, doesn’t that mean they’re only playing matchmaking because that’s their only option if they want to get their Halo 3 on? Isn’t that a bad thing?

Maybe people would continue playing matchmaking – perhaps I’m wrong in my assertion. Maybe it’s the custom games browser that nobody would use. I doubt it, but it could happen. Anything can happen.

More likely, the userbase would become divided. Those that want to use matchmaking would continue to do so. They could earn their levels, ranks, whatever. Meanwhile, those that clamor for a method of joining other people’s custom games would use the custom games browser.

The Halo franchise is my favorite console first-person shooter series. Anybody that knows me will tell you that – and I’m sure a few of my close friends and co-workers are nodding at this truth as they read this. But, currently, I feel Halo 3 has missed a huge opportunity to satisfy gamers, like myself, that want to play custom games – that enjoy a variety of always-changing gametypes, ones that Bungie ignores in its own playlists for whatever reason. I didn’t quit playing Halo 2 because it was mechanically flawed (it was). I quit playing Halo 2 because I didn’t have a choice. The constant standbying and cheating in matchmaking, coupled with infuriating playlists, turned me away from the shooter. Is the same thing destined to happen with Halo 3? I certainly hope not, but I can’t help but fear the possibility.

History loves to repeat itself. The sad part is I just want to play Halo 3 my way. Why doesn’t Bungie want me to?