Challenges, Deconstructed

Meta-games are nothing new to the Halo series. From launching Warthogs on the beach of Silent Cartographer, to speed runs through each mission, rock slide mega battles and awe-inspiring SLASO runs, Halo’s freeform combat has had players experimenting with ways to play it from the day the first game released. As the series moved to the Xbox 360, Achievements were added to the mix, some of which began to nudge players toward accomplishing unique goals, none more so than Halo 3’s epic Annual. It is against that history that Reach’s Challenge system steps in, a fully realized system that spans game modes and gameplay systems to create a perpetual series of in-game goals.

Since Reach’s release, I’ve grown increasingly interested in the Challenge system. How it was constructed, the systems it draws upon, and how it’s being managed now that we’re a ways into Reach’s post-release life cycle. So, I began compiling them, with an eye toward analysis once it felt like we’d seen the scope they can offer. Now a good eight months after Reach has shipped, the daily and weekly Challenges have held few surprises, and it feels like the time is right to step back and evaluate the system as a whole.

I snagged the complete list of daily and weekly Challenges from the Halopedian Reach Challenges page from launch day on September 14 until May 1st (so as to grab full weeks) and applied a mix of manual and automated organization to categorize, slice, dice chop and shred them for evaluation. What I found was a Challenge structure that sits atop and draws from numerous other game systems in Reach across game modes, both vast in scope and limited in complexity. Before diving into the Challenges themselves, let’s begin by looking at how they are constructed. (I should note that while I am relying on Halopedian’s excellent archives, any errors in the analysis are mine and mine alone.)

One of the key aspects of the Challenge system is how fixed they are, whether they are pre-baked into the shipping game or can be dynamically updated over time. Grumbling about the quality of the Challenges on tap eventually led Urk check with Luke to address their flexibility in the Bungie Weekly Update from November 12.

Earlier in the week, he sat me down and showed off the full matrix of daily and weekly challenges we have at our disposal. I have to say that there’s some decidedly difficult stuff packed inside. SLASO runs? Ho, boy.

Before Luke showed off his adults only tool-set, I’d thought the challenges were mostly set in stone. Not the case. Over time, we’ll be able to roll out additional challenges and scale the payouts for the existing set to track with trending overall player progress.

Reading between the lines, there appears to be fixed set (or matrix) of Challenges baked into the game from which Luke and company can draw from, and that Bungie has ability to adjust the Challenges within certain parameters. Based off this note and others, it appears that Reach was designed with a set of templates built in to support the Challenges, and the changes Bungie can make are not the structure of the templates themselves, but to how they are used.

We got a glimpse into the template structure on December 3rd, when the “Single Wield” Challenge was initially published on with part of the template unpopulated in the description. It read:

Earn {requird_count} kills with small arms weapons in multiplayer Matchmaking.

The implication of the {requird_count}  is the text we’re reading as the Challenge description is really a translation of the Challenge template and it’s populated requirements, which provides a helpful mindset from which to think of them. The description can be broken down into a set of criteria to be met in order to complete the Challenge and receive the cR payout.

What we don’t know is how flexible the Challenge templates are. It’s possible that kill count is not the only variable that can be adjusted in this particular template. For instance, the weapon class (small arms, ordnance, automatic, and so on) might also be variables, or there may simply be a unique template for each combination.

Regardless, that brief (quickly corrected) snafu provides a window into understanding how Challenges are constructed. Every gameplay Challenge has at least parts:

  1. Game mode: Multiplayer, Firefight, Campaign, Any
  2. Objective: Kill enemies, earn assists, etc.
  3. Objective count: The number of times a task must be performed (say, 100 kills)

From there, additional criteria may be included such as requiring the kills to be with the small arms class of weapons, or within a single game.

I suspect these sort of templates are fixed in place with Reach, and it is the fields within the templates, their credit payouts, and the frequency with which they appear that Bungie can adjust now that Reach has been released. The only thing that gives me pause about this conclusion is Urk’s note, in which he said, “over time we’ll be able to roll out additional Challenges”. I take this to mean there are (probably more then than now) as yet unused Challenges, rather than new templates which can be created.

As the primary way Challenges are organized is by game mode, I’ll similarly structure this analysis around the game modes, beginning with the big picture. I’ll begin by looking at the daily Challenges for the gameplay modes individually, followed by weekly Challenges and credit pay outs, before circling back and seeing what conclusions we can draw from them in totality.

Challenges by Game Mode

Before diving into the individual game modes, let’s take a look at how the Challenges are distributed across them. While most of the Challenges in Reach are built around the game modes, (Campaign, Firefight and Multiplayer), there is a light sprinkling of two other types, what I call the Any and Other categories.

The “Other” Challenges are linked to features outside of gameplay modes. The goal of these Challenges is to expose some of the ancillary features in Reach to players who might not otherwise spend time with them, similar to some of the goals baked into the Achievements.  Three have appeared a combined total of seven times, for uploading a film clip to File Share (encouraging players to use the Theater and File Share, respectively), link their gamer tag to (gain the extended benefits of file sharing and the player Service Record, and connect more directly to Bungie), and utilizing the Armory.

The “Any” category is notable for two reasons, the first being its flexibility. Challenges that fall under Any game mode can be completed by playing one or any combination of the game modes, and are part of a select few types of Challenges that Silver Xbox Live members can complete, because they can be completed in offline custom games (the others being Campaign Challenges). Silver members are in a pickle when it comes to earning credits in Reach: the Game Complete Bonus is throttled to that of the small token payouts that custom games are for Gold members, but they cannot  play matchmaking to earn Commendations or most Challenges. The Any category is a small lifeline for them to earn some credit payout which they are otherwise blocked from earning.

The other reason the Any category is notable is because there’s only one Challenge in it. Clearing out the template to read like the one from December, it reads,

Kill {requird_count} enemies in Any game mode today.

The required kills have ranged from 50 to 500, and in total has appeared 91 times, and there is no pattern to how frequently or how many kills are required – it’s appeared as seldom as once a week, or as often as five. But kills are the only requirement for any Challenge that crosses game modes. There are no other medals and kill methods that span modes, such as assists, headshots, multikills and killing sprees, so it is odd that while an Any category was conceived, it was left with just a single goal within it. Additional requirements would have helped the category be much more flexible and add variety to the Challenges.

All in all, the 920 daily Challenges in my review window break down across game modes this way:

Multiplayer is the most popular game mode after launch, and so it makes sense that it takes up the bulk of the Challenges. It is a bit surprising to see Firefight so high, given the population proportions displayed on, but as a fan of Firefight I won’t be complaining. As we’ll see when we get to the weekly Challenges, the mix there is quite different from the daily variety.

The mix of Challenges each week has held fairly constant each week, and the four Challenges each day usually cover two or more game modes, with two exceptions. Since launch, Thursday has been set aside as a Firefight day, while Friday is usually focused on Multiplayer, with only a couple of odd weeks breaking the pattern. Campaign is sprinkled around the rest of the week, with 1-2 Multiplayer or Firefight games in the mix.

As a Firefight enthusiast, I like the predictability of Thursday’s focus and have come to look forward to it every week. While there’s some excitement in not knowing what the mix will be on other days of the week, I’d like to see a more fixed cadence established throughout the week, one that maintained the current proportions. In particular, it would be good to see one day similarly carved out for Campaign.

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  1. May 27, 2011

    Brilliantly written. There were many points brought up I felt like you were reading my mind. I won’t spend a lot of time breaking down my personal wishes for the challenge system as you have touched on most and I agree that this is a system that Bungie will likely expand upon in future games and will be one of the main draws. I would like to comment on the cR payouts section as it is such a huge factor in motivation for players.

    As a more casual gamer, I love challenges and often check the dailies in the morning before work thinking how fun/difficult some of them will be when I attempt them later in the day… and that’s fun for me. Thinking about different strategies and ideas on how to complete them efficiently. As I’ve climbed the ranks and time has passed since launch, I can’t tell you how disappointing it is to see 4 daily challenges worth 1000 cR or so apiece. Like you mentioned, higher ranking players can earn well above the grand total here in a single match of matchmaking (depending on length). So, unless it’s something truly unique and fun, where is the motivation? Today’s dailies are a perfect example. Used to I wanted to nail em all… but now, I think “Why bother?”

    If you look what increased weekend cR payouts (and super jackpots) do to otherwise low numbered playlists, you can see how easily players are motivated by cR payouts. Team Arena went from a couple hundred to several thousand players in the playlist with the introduction of these super jackpots. Players are heavily motivated by cR so why not extend these to challenges? As you noted, we are seeing the opposite trend occur than you would expect at this point in the games lifespan. I understand Reach will still get some new players and you don’t want them jumping 3 ranks with one challenge completion, but to take challenges that once paid out 4000 cR and drop it to 1/4 of that now doesn’t seem sensible.

    I really hope Bungie (or 343i) takes note of what you’ve done here and has intentions of expanding on (and correcting) this system. It has huge potential as it is now even with it’s limitations.

    Excellent work.

  2. RC Master
    May 27, 2011

    Good stuff. I’ve been wanting to see an analysis like this for some time and have considered doing it myself at some points!

    How did you actually collate the data and made tables? In an excel file? Database or some other method? Would you be willing to share that file? I’d love to be able to just plug in some queries and get some stats back out.

    On the article, you made a lot of valid points that I agree with wholeheartedly, and a couple of points that I think weren’t stressed enough. Overall you could have been much more critical (I certainly am :P)

    Multiplayer has a much higher susceptibility for play to being skewed in a negative way by external rewards. The kill, assist and other challenges still do this. You’re playing slayer and theres a kill challenge on? Gung-ho!
    Playing flag? Screw the flag lets just dong on the enemy team!
    Playing Grifball? Spawn-camping multi-kills ftw!

    The inherent per-action credits for kills does this already but offering challenges on top of this doesn’t help.

    I find myself consciously reaching this conclusion when a ‘get X amount of kills in MM’ comes up: “Hmmm. Multi-Team or Grifball – ignore the objective and kill dudes!”

    Challenges (and the credit system in general) should take into account the specific requirements of each game mode. At the very basic level by having one requirement for slayer and a different one for objective (as a parrallel to how kills in COD:MW1/2 were worth half as much in non-deathmatch.

    The feeling of kills > all else is so pervasive in Reach that many people literally do not realise that you get 20% bonus of your game complete when you win!

    I think its safe to argue that while multiplayer has a fair amount of replayability in the opponents, campaign practically demands that you should try wildly different, new and obscure things within its set framework since the encounters and enemies will not change.

    As noted there are a couple of examples of good challenges like this but they are too few and far between.

    The notion that there shouldn’t or couldn’t be any weapon or medal specific challenges in campaign is plainly ridiculous when you consider how most kill challenges in the mode would be got: by grinding on the same enemy or few enemies.

    Perfect example:

    At the very least a challenge that was ‘assassinations’ or ‘super-combies’ would mix things up a bit.

    The point about challenge payouts failing to scale well is spot on and I love that I can point to that graphic now. If they’re not tracking the average population rank (mean, mode, median – something!!) they damn well should be. Or if they are I can’t believe that the population has ended up so static over the last several months!

    The no-death challenges for 5K are a good example : when that challenge first came up I could afford to spend a fair amount of time on it and still feel like it was a good reward. Now if I’m going to spend more than 20mins on it there is no point as I could either be earning more elsewhere or doing something that’s actually awesome for its own sake (like trying to land a no-death single segment or improve a speed run).

    Of course, possibly the best solution would be to simply scale all challenge rewards by a player’s current level. So they can at least retain the same relevance to all players even if the reward/difficulty is still wildly off.

    Finally, don’t be shy about posting stuff like this; I enjoyed reading it. You can count on at least one reader for any further articles like this. 🙂

    Woah, ok, thats pretty long now.

  3. May 27, 2011

    Thanks for the feedback guys, you both make great points.

    RC Master, you’re right about the MP Challenges. At one point I started to mention some of those issues – using Grifball or other game types to work on kills; Multi-Team King of the Hill on a day when there is Challenge for getting X kills in a single game is amazing. I pity the fools that actually wander into the hill. In the end I scaled back some of that stuff because it was turning into a list of complaints. I settled on using one or two examples to try and speak to the overall isues. But yeah, there are many more.

    For the analysis I copied the tables into Excel, and added some columns to tag them. From the website I got the Challenge date, name and description and cR payout. From there I tagged them by day of the week, game mode, and then objective (kill, assits, etc), three fields for secondary criteria (in one game, etc.). Then spent a lot of time playing with filters and pivot tables.

    I’ll see if I can put the file up into something like Google Docs so it’s available for all. I work in finance and play with spreadsheets all day, and probably get way too much enjoyment out of it.

  4. Lawnmower172
    May 27, 2011

    Wonderful article and analysis, thanks for taking the time to do this! I would like to slightly change topic and add on another aspect of the cr system. I love the campaign, it’s my favorite game mode. But since I’ve moved my commendations up to silver and beyond, I don’t earn jack squat for the time invested (currently around 260 cr per mission). This makes it almost impossible to rank up or buy anything in the armory through campaign.

    I understand there was a very good reason Bungie capped the commendation cr in campaign. But how about fixing the mission complete payout to reward players who continue to play campaign, instead of the occasional daily ‘mission complete’ or weekly LASO challenges? This would give players who want to immerse themselves in the campaign story more reward to doing so, rather than just rewarding them for the occasional challenge.

    P.S. Thanks to HBO for linking to this article!

  5. May 30, 2011

    Thank you for a well written article.

    I was new to Halo when I bought Reach, and the Challenge System made me want more!

    You’ve covered the points about game play, mode, count and type distribution very well. I feel that I will reference this article whenever I am asked about it to newer player who are seeing the light.

  6. Homeboyd903
    May 31, 2011

    Hey, I was just wondering… as sort of a ‘wish list’ can you touch a bit on how you would like to see this system expanded upon in future Halo (or any shooter) titles? I know you’ve explained in some detail about how you’d like to see the current system expanded upon (within it’s current limitations), but I just wondered if you had some things in your head that would be brand new to this type of system that you personally would like to see added. I know I’m asking a mouthful but you never know where these guys can draw their inspiration from.

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