Full Spectrum Firefight
Firefight in Reach has the potential to create a wide array of experiences for different audiences, but that potential has yet to be fully exploited in the matchmaking playlists to date. The two current playlists are insufficient to span the variety of gametypes and difficulties that the player base has been asking for. Firefight Arcade is aimed at two very different, and incompatible, audiences, while Firefight Limited has pleased neither its target audience of ODST Firefight fans, nor players who seek a more down to earth game of Firefight and find a level of difficulty they are unprepared for. Idlers and griefers find themselves enabled and rewarded. Meanwhile Score Attack, a single player mode bursting at the seams with potential, sits idle, the same progression of one enemy type at a time for just one Round since launch. The Firefight playlists are in need of an overhaul.
As a big fan of Firefight, it’s painful to see – and experience – the enormous potential of the deep custom options built into Reach left unrealized. There are a variety of ways to clean up the playlists and make them more appealing to the range of players that play Firefight, but it will require some focused attention and resources from the Bungie or 343i teams. In an effort to point to a number of possible ways forward, I’ll start with how things got to where they are now.
In the Beginning, There Was One Firefight Playlist, and It Was Not Good
Unlike the single, non-customizable version of Firefight that was born in ODST, the deep suite of customization options in Reach’s iteration of Firefight has created a wide range of game type possibilities, from the wacky and explosive to the serious and challenging. Players can be fast, invincible and armed with an FRG with a bottomless clip. Or, they can be vulnerable, with few to no lives left, huddled in the safe room quivering with fear at the four pack of Elite Ultras that just dropped in to say ‘hi’. To put this spectrum in visual form, Firefight in Reach presents a tantalizing span ranging from what I’ll call Totally Bananas to Murderously Evil.
When Reach first launched, the lone Firefight playlist attempted to split the difference between the two by including game types such as Rocketfight alongside the standard Firefight entry. Fans of Firefight in ODST (such as myself) were dismayed, because we were conditioned to expect a challenging, long game of survival, rather than the quick burst of anarchy and death without consequence. We quickly discovered that the single Firefight playlist had two big problems. The first was the Rocketfighters far outweigh the Firefighters, meaning normal games of Firefight became increasingly rare. The second was when they did take place, there was a complete dearth of challenge thanks to the unlimited lives and the short game span, which meant that only a few of the difficulty multiplying skulls were toggled on.
It was a long, long way from ODST’s Firefight, and yet the settings were available to craft an ODST-like experience. The game types on offer fell about here – with ODST placed for reference.
Fortunately, Lars Bakken (Firefight lead designer) and team recognized this problem, and after a few long months, a solution began to fall into place. The Rocketfighters would be given their own playlist, and be handed FRGs, Plasma Launchers and all manner of unlimited heavy ordnance to boot. Meanwhile, the fans of the classic ODST survival game would get to hole up in Firefight Limited, with limited (shared) lives, enemy vehicles and drop pods, and a full Set with a half hour to work through. When these initially temporary playlists were announced, I thought it was a perfect split between the two poles of the Firefight spectrum.
And then Firefight Arcade was released, and the first signs of trouble emerged. The concept of Firefight Arcade is built around the idea of game types defined by the starting weapons. And so Sniperfight was a game all about sniping, while Fistfight had speedier players zipping around smashing aliens with giant hammers. Rocket and FRGfight were about joyfully blowing things up. The problem was, weapon pick ups were enabled. And if there was one lesson from the single Firefight playlist, it’s that the Reach player base really likes to blow stuff up. And those Grunts sure do like to drop FRGs…
This is how nearly every game of Firefight Arcade degenerated into FRGfight. Me, I like to run around and smash things now and then, or to sit back and work on sniping. These are hard things to do in a playlist where everyone else is raining green death down from the skies. The Optimatch forum on Bungie.net was filled with folks – including yours truly – lamenting how every game turned into an FRG spam-fest.
In March, in response to community feedback and to preserve the sanctity of the weapon-based game types, the playlist update featured the removal of weapon pick ups in Firefight Arcade. The result was an outcry in Optimatch and across the Internet from players who wanted to be able to use “a variety” of weapons in Arcade, in every game type, once again proving the axiom that you cannot please everyone all the time.
Meanwhile, all was not well in Firefight Limited. The playlist is configured to run for just one Set, or half an hour (whichever comes first), a far cry from the hours long, multi-Set marathons that defined ODST’s Firefight. There are a host of reasons that Firefight in Reach is much easier than in ODST, but the two largest and easiest to configure are the skull progression, and the ammo rack. With just three rounds to work through, the full scope of the skulls that change how Firefight plays are never enabled (Tilt, Black Eye and Mythic make cameos only in the bonus round). And with unlimited refill on starting weapons such as the DMR and Grenade Launcher, players are far more potently equipped than with the limited racks of Magnums and SMGs in ODST. With a good team, the one Set game of Firefight in Limited is very easy.
The problem is, good teams are hard to come by in matchmaking. The Firefight Limited population is usually around 10% the size of Firefight Arcade, but it is truly the Mos Eisley of Reach’s playlists. While the playlist was crafted with more hardcore players in mind, that description does not match the playlist population. A solid 90% of the players are either idling, actively griefing, or doing their best but falling far short of the skill level needed to survive with limited lives. The result is a nightly session of frustration as a mixture of malice and cluelessness wreak game after game. It got to the point where I tried to express the Firefight Limited experience in one simple image (click to read).
To top it off, the playlist has a host of settings that are in desperate need of adjustment. For example, friendly fire is turned off, but that does not disable players ability to betray others with vehicles, either by destroying occupied ones, or splattering players like this. And yet, betrayal booting is turned off. This leads to a massive amount of vehicle-based griefing, as those who want to prey on other players can do so without worry of getting ejected.
One of the more difficult issues has to do with players who idle in Firefight Limited. Every Firefight map has at least one place where players who want to just idle away to earn Game Complete and Slot Machine credits can do so. Due to an unfortunate technical limitation, Firefight maps cannot be configured post-ship by Bungie at all, and so they cannot add soft kill barriers to fix them. Due to the nature of the Last Man Standing rules in Firefight, if that idling player is all that’s left, the game will run until the clock winds down. Needless to say, this presents the primary obstacle when considering the implementation of longer Firefight games.
And the players who aren’t idling or griefing are generally just not up to the difficulty curve that Limited throws down. It’s not uncommon for one or two players to drain the entire shared life pool. In fact, it’s the norm.
Setting aside the problems with implementation, as designed Firefight Arcade and Limited fall about here on the Firefight spectrum.
Firefight Arcade is pretty close to the Totally Bananas end of the spectrum, while Firefight Limited lands much closer to the center on the Murderously Evil side of things. But there is a wide gulf in the middle that is begging to be filled in. The players in Firefight Arcade have been calling for it to be filled when they ask for weapon pick ups to be enabled. The players in Firefight Limited are crying for a middle ground as they jetpack to their demise over a pack of bloodthirsty Elites, again and again. The abundance of poor players and the way griefers and idlers are enabled in Limited only pushes players who enjoy the playlist concept away from it.
The just-released April playlist update has attempted to span this difference with a game type called Arcadefight, featuring weapon pick ups enabled and ‘normal’ load outs. But both its implementation and the very nature of it demonstrate why it is not a full solution to the problems posed by the current playlists. First, the load outs are not the standard ones from Firefight Limited or Score Attack, but rather taken from Team Slayer on the Multiplayer side of the house: AR and Magnum starts only. It’s wildly inappropriate for Firefight to have Team Slayer load outs – a competitive game type in a casual Firefight playlist.
But more importantly, players who wanted this kind of experience wanted it in part so they could use a wider array of weapons – including the DMR, Grenade Launcher and Shotgun – as well as combating and using Covenant vehicles. Arcadefight does not do this. And those seeking a normal game of Firefight won’t find it, with modified damage and shield properties that are the norm – and entirely fitting – in the Arcade playlist.
While in concept Arcadefight is an admirable attempt to split the difference between Arcade and Limited, the result is that it brings together the two audiences that were mingling when the initial Firefight playlist was created. Because Arcadefight is set to be the first and thus default option in Firefight Arcade, which as past experience has shown, is not what a lot of Firefight Arcade players want. And the folks who Arcadefight is aimed at are not fully catered to, and also have to hope that their preferred game type is voted in.
As it stands, no one is happy. Players such as myself that want a longer, more challenging game of Firefight in matchmaking have nothing, but are forced to mingle with players who don’t have the skill level to endure limited lives, yet have no where else to go. Players who want to just blow stuff up now have to deal with the Arcadefight playlist and population it was intended to draw in. That leaves players who want to play a ‘normal’ game of Firefight have to choose between the more difficult Limited playlist, or rolling in Arcade where they will often not get the mode of their choice (Arcadefight). And even when they do, it does not feature the weapon set or use of vehicles they are looking for; on days when one of the Challenges is to kill vehicles in Firefight, Limited is their best option. Motivating a broad array of players to enter a more hardcore playlist just results in a frustrating experience for everyone.
The question is, what can be done? There are a number of possible solutions, and I will present four. But any solution should try to address all of the problems the current playlists feature.
- The gap between Arcade and Limited needs to be filled in such a way that players who want the middle ground are not dropped into either playlist.
- These players need to be able to find a way to use normal weapons of their own preference, for Commendations and for Challenges, in a non-punishing game of Firefight.
- Players need a way to combat vehicles outside of Firefight Limited.
- The space to the right of Limited on the spectrum needs to also be filled so that players who want a more ODST-like experience can have one; that means a longer and more challenging game of Firefight.
- The playlists need to be configured in such a way that the credit payouts are aligned to properly motivate the desired player behavior.
- The exploitable idling locations need to be addressed by all means possible.
- Regardless of solution, Score Attack needs to be reworked so that it has something for each audience.
With the success criteria laid out, let’s look at four possible solutions.
Part of the Solution
The solution for players who want an experience which falls between Arcade and Limited is easy. Much harder is the solution for players who want a more ODST-style experience because the limited lives and the safe idling locations. If the Last Man Standing is going to be invulnerable and idle, then the game will run for the duration of the time remaining on the game clock. Given that Bungie cannot update the Firefight maps with new soft kill zones, alternate measures need to be considered, namely preventing access to the exploitable idling spots, and demotivating players from wanting to try.
Most of the safe places to idle are accessed exclusively with the jetpack. So the solution for any playlist with limited lives is simple: remove the jetpack. Hardcore players who want to play for multiple Sets will not be using the jetpack to begin with, and even if they want to, the cost to the playlist in terms of griefing is too dear. This kind of action is not without precedent. In Halo 3, the Radar Jammer and Flare pieces of equipment were found to enable a small exploit: players could jump, toss the equipment and then do a double jump. Now, I personally never saw this, but it was enough of a potential issue that Bungie pulled those pieces from matchmaking. In Firefight, the jetpack is causing an actual issue with the exploitable idle locations, and so it should likewise be pulled. Doing so would fix all but one or two of the maps in one fell swoop.
The second piece is to demotivate players from wanting to idle in the hardcore Firefight playlist in the first place. The reason they do so is to accrue the generous Game Complete payouts without suffering deaths. This motivation can be addressed by changing the nature of the credit payout for extended duration Firefight games. The Game Complete should be set to accrue very slowly, while the Performance Bonus – awarded to all Firefight players – should make up the bulk of the automatic payout for games. That way anyone who idles in those playlists to the end get a small token payout, and ultimately waste their time. They’d make much more credits idling in Arcade, where they can’t spoil the game.
Will that prevent determined griefers? Nope. But it will help, and the removal of jetpack (any maps with non-jetpack exploits could also be removed) will help. With those ground rules laid out for the limited lives playlists, here are a number of possible configurations, and the pros and cons I see for each.
While I have listed game types for each playlist, those are primarily intended to illustrate the kind of experiences each playlist is intended to house, rather than to advocate for their specific creation. I have called out the key settings that distinguish the playlists and game types from one another.
Playlist Proposal #1: Three Playlists
This first set up is one that is also the simplest. It plugs the gap between Limited and Arcade with a new playlist, and then pushes the limited lives experience further to the right on the spectrum to where ODST resided.
Intended audience | Players who don’t want a normal game of Firefight, but rather focused modes based on sniping, smashing and blowing things up.
Defining features | Current weapon starts; no weapon pick ups; drop ships enabled on the Initial and Boss Waves (to add some vehicles to Arcade); removal of Arcadefight.
Game Types | Rocketfight, FRGfight, Sniperfight, Plasmafight, Nadefight, Fiestafight.
Duration | One Set, or 20 minutes. (The time needs to be extended to allow for enough for larger maps to complete the Set, and for the added time the two drop ship waves will take.)
Target Audience | Players who seek a less punishing experience than Limited, but more more down to earth than Arcade.
Defining Features | Based on the current Firefight Limited playlist; unlimited lives; normal load outs; hazards and drop ships enabled (to supply vehicles).
Game Types | Firefight, Crash Site, Generator Defense
Duration | One Set, or 30 minutes.
Target Audience | Players who want a longer and more challenging Firefight experience.
Defining Features | Sprint & Evade load outs only; hazards and drop ships enabled; much lower Game Complete and much higher Performance Bonus credit payouts; steeper and more complete skull progression.
Firefight Survival | DMR start load outs, with varied secondary (Magnum, AR, Shotgun, Grenade Launcher)
Firefight Classic | The Survival Game type but with ammo crates removed.
Classic Legendary | The Classic game type but on Legendary. (Buckle up, folks.)
Duration | Three sets, or 90 minutes.
Pros | Plugs the gaps on the spectrum, providing a range of experiences; one additional playlist will not split the population much.
Cons | Players wanting limited lives must make a long time commitment. Possible compromise: two sets instead of three, with a steeper skull progression.
Playlist Proposal #2: Four Playlists
This solution would add two playlists to the current set up, plugging the gap between Arcade and Limited with the Unlimited playlist described above, and then adding the Survival playlist on top of it. It would present the fullest spectrum of game types for players, from Rocketfight to Survival Classic Legendary, with two levels in between.
Pros | More options for players to find the right level of difficulty for them.
Cons | Four Firefight playlists risks splitting the player base too much and creating sub-optimal connections and long matchmaking times (though most of the split would just be between Limited and Survival)
Playlist Proposal #3: Four Playlists (Alternate)
This solution would be if the playlist managers at 343i or Bungie determined that including longer Firefight games, despite the removal of jetpacks, was simply not something they wanted to add to matchmaking. In this case, it uses the same set up as the previous four playlist configuration, but the Survival playlist would not perform matchmaking functions. Parties of 1, 2, 3 or 4 players would enter the lobby, and begin the game in the same manner as Score Attack.
Pros | Provides the same wide range of playlists for players to choose from.
Cons | Players who want the longer, more difficult experience would have to find parties of their own to play.
Playlist Proposal #4: Two Playlists
If for whatever reasons, the folks in charge of the playlists do not want to alter the structure of the current playlists, then the two current ones can be updated to better cater to the various sets of players.
Add drop ships to the initial and boss waves so players have vehicles to destroy. (But not to waves 2-4 to prevent the game from becoming too much of a turkey shoot.)
Add standard Firefight load outs to Arcadefight, rather than Slayer, to allow players to earn the the shotgun and grenade launcher Challenges, and to aid in the headshot ones (via the DMR).
Extend time limit to 20 minutes.
Enable betrayal booting.
Remove jetpacks from the load outs to thwart most idlers.
Adjust the credit payouts to tilt toward Performance and away from Game Complete, if possible.
Add a “Classic” game type with ammo boxes removed, to mimic the weapon rummaging that helped define ODST’s Firefight.
Enable Grunt Birthday Party on the Bonus Round (heck, why not?).
This kind of clean up and tweaking would be the easiest way to help the playlists have a stronger appeal, and is what I think is the bare-minimum that should be done to refine the Firefight playlists so that they can better cater to their intended audiences. Month after month passes with huge lists of tweaks and fixes made to Multiplayer, while problems in Firefight land have gone unattended. It is time to do some housekeeping, at the very least.
Finally, I want end with a note on Score Attack. The playlist is unique in the way it acknowledges Firefight as being a single-player game as well as multi. But the way it is currently envisioned is enormously limiting, with a single Round of the same enemy progression in every one (Grunts –> Jackals –> Brutes –> Skirmishers –> Elites), the boss wave of a handful of game types aside. Novel at first, it is now entirely stale and in need of a refresh.
The Score Attack playlist is a great opportunity to present the same range of game types on offer in the main Firefight playlists, across the spectrum. The outlines are already there, as we have 2X Score Attack in the same playlist as the utterly brutal Skirmageddon. What is missing is enemy variety, and variety of duration.
To the extent that mixing up the enemy types to throw combinations at the player could throw off the competitive leaderboard aspect of Score Attack, the solution is to simply set the order of them to fixed. That way, everyone will deal with the same progression. But since Hazards being enabled introduces a heavy element of random enemies and vehicles to each game, I think that is a secondary concern.
Also not a concern is player idling, as the Game Complete bonus is throttled to accrue at about 1/2 that of regular Firefight, which itself accrues at 1/2 the pace of Multiplayer (thanks to the richer Commendation payouts). With one player, there’s no risk of anyone ruining a longer game. A game that was configured to run for one, two or three Sets (the limit of the Firefight customization window) would be welcomed. There is literally no good reason not to let players participate in longer Score Attack games.
As a fan of both Halo and Firefight, experiencing the poor Firefight playlist configuration since Reach’s launch has been frustrating, as the tremendous variety of experiences Reach can offer have been largely excluded and the playlists on offer are not sufficiently polished for their intended audiences. The solutions are myriad – the four I have offered are but a few among many – and they range from simple to ambitious. It is my hope that someone who knows and loves Firefight is somehow in a position to help the matchmaking playlists realize the great potential they hold.
Note: the first version of this article had noted that Hazards should be disabled for Bonus Rounds. It has since been pointed out to me that Hazards are in fact a global game setting, rather than a per-Round setting. I’ve removed that suggestion accordingly, and should have done my homework before making the suggestion.