Next month, Microsoft will launch Halo Waypoint, a hub for all things Halo accessed through the Xbox 360 itself. During a phone interview this week about the project, I asked Jason Pace, creative director behind Halo Waypoint, to summarize why people should care:
"Waypoint is a place where we want Halo fans, when they're sitting at the console and actually interacting with their Xbox, to go and be able to have an experience that transcends each individual game and sort of wraps together everything at the entire Halo experience level," said Pace. "It's a single point of contact where you can go to establish your player identity across all of the different Halo games and feel like you have a single identity in that universe and then also experience all different kinds of content, from fiction to community content to interesting stuff -- like strategy guides -- that some of our partners put up. I would describe it as a central hub for the Halo experience."
But Halo Waypoint is a little more nuanced than that.
Halo Waypoint isn't mean to be a glorified Wikipedia page. As Pace explained the service, it will never replace the wealth of Halo-related information available on the Internet or the statistical data dump that is Bungie.net ("there's already a great thriving community on Bungie.net," he said). Halo Waypoint will be updated seven days a week with new content that's designed for a TV-based console experience. That means producing new video to present the Halo fiction or even collaborating with Bungie to rope together the community screen shots to share with the world.
Just because it's not meant to replace Bungie.net, however, doesn't mean it's not for the hardcore, though Pace expects Halo Waypoint may better appeal to the casual player a little more.
"I think that we will have more to offer the casual player or the player who is not necessarily hardcore multiplayer, although I hope that we're not excluding those folks," he said. "We always want to design experiences that are interesting to our hardcore fans, so I think the kinds of stuff that we're doing, for example the career system, it's really like allowing players -- and hopefully hardcore players, as well -- to establish a overarching Halo identity that transcends individual games and sort of follows them through their entire Halo experience."
Hardcore gamers might not immediately latch onto the career system because it's a meta-achievement system. In other words, there are no additional achievements coming to Halo 3, Halo Wars or Halo 3: ODST through Halo Waypoint, only additional Waypoint-specific achievements derived from achievements already built into those three games. Confused? Here's an example.
"We've got millions folks who love doing things with the Warthog, who love jacking vehicles," said Pace, "so if there's a way to recognize people and say 'hey, this person is just really awesome at doing vehicle things or doing sniper things or particular other kinds of activities, it'd be really great to pin that to your identity and say 'hey, I'm a really high level vehicle specialist and sniping specialist.' And that way, when you start talking to your friends, you can get a sense of their play styles."
Because Waypoint's meta-achievements are derived from pre-existing achievements, hardcore Halo players who have already unlocked all of the achievemetns in the previous games (a tall but possible feat) should have less interest in career because they'll already be top level. The solution to that problem won't come at launch, but Pace hopes to keep those players interested in coming back to Halo Waypoint through daily content refreshes...and some plans he can't talk about yet.
"If you're looking at a massively multiplayer online game, for example, almost everybody who puts in time and effort should be able to reach the level cap in that kind of system," he said. "And once you reach the level cap, there should be further things you can that differentiate yourself to show that you're uber, and that's what we're looking at now. For folks who do make it up to level 40 and figure that a lot of people will eventually get there, what do we do for them that makes it interesting and allows them to further differentiate themselves from other level 40s and from other lower-level players?"
As it stands, Halo Waypoint is a self-contained system. It's not included on the disc for Halo 3, Halo Wars or Halo 3: ODST and there are no plans to patch a menu option for Halo Waypoint into any of the currently available Halo games. You'll access Halo Waypoint through your Games Library, but that doesn't mean it won't become more deeply integrated into the Halo series moving forward.
"We have no commitments yet or any firm plans on how exactly the Waypoint integration is going to work in the future, but, absolutely, the goal is to continue to place Waypoint deeper and deeper into the actual game experience," said Pace. "We consider it [Waypoint] part of the Halo universe and it will become part of the Halo canon, depending on what part of Waypoint you're in. In that way, we view it as a game extension and because we view it as a game extension, we want the experience when you're playing a game when you're in Waypoint to become more seamless over time."
That's actually good news for gamers who might be interested in Halo Waypoint but have little interest in signing up for a subscription fee to become an Xbox Live Gold member. Halo Waypoint will become available for Silver users for a few weeks in November, but once that trial period passes, it becomes (yet another) Gold member exclusive. If Halo Waypoint becomes part of a future Halo title, however, there's hope for Silver members.
"Right now, we view Waypoint for Gold players in the same way that we view some of the premium multiplayer aspects of Gold membership," said Pace. "We look at Waypoint as sort of the premium Live experience. Moving forward, if we make elements of Waypoint integrated deeply into the game itself, then those pieces would likely be available to Silver members, as well."
Halo Waypoint launches November 5th. Xbox Live users who gain entry into the preview, which also adds support for Facebook and Twitter, can access it early.