Halo: The Master Chief Collection had a very rocky launch in November 2014. An ambitious game that packages together four Halo games and their multiplayer modes, the game struggled mightily out of the gate, with matchmaking times proving extremely lengthy and in some cases not working at all. Microsoft was quick to address the issues and the experience has improved dramatically. Still, Microsoft sees the issues as a “black eye” for the franchise. Last week, developer 343 announced yet another way it’s making it up to fans and sticking with the game. The Master Chief Collection will receive significant updates and improvements over the next year or longer, including an Xbox One X update and a wider update that will “help bring it forward and modernize many of the game’s systems to take advantage of Xbox platform advancements since its original launch.” It’s nice to see Microsoft’s commitment to the game, but why did things go so badly at the start? Halo franchise director Frank O’Connor recently addressed that in a lengthy and thorough blog post on Halo Waypoint (via Polygon).
Starting off by saying he’s no engineer and is making no excuses for what happened, O’Connor said, “in terms of chicken/egg scenarios, fixing the existing ‘vanilla’ Xbox One MCC was the Chicken that laid the Xbox One X enhanced version egg.” O’Connor suggested that it wasn’t always Microsoft’s plan to revisit The Master Chief Collection, but there have been a “series of changes to the Xbox architecture,” including the OS and back-end networking systems, that have “cracked open an opportunity we’ve wanted to seize for many, many months now.”
O’Connor said the launch of The Master Chief Collection was “one of my lowest ebbs, professionally.” He added: “Every angry mail I received, I took to heart. I felt like I had personally let our fans down. I have not spent a single day since the night the game fell down in matchmaking where I didn’t think about it.”
O’Connor added that one piece of resounding feedback was, “How could you not know that matchmaking was going to break?” The director explained that Microsoft tested the game’s matchmaking systems “incorrectly and with some (as we discovered later) faulty assumptions.” He added that the testing processes for the game differed from the norm because the games in the package were already tested for balance. Additionally, O’Connor acknowledged that 343 “we made mistakes in some of the scenarios we asked for.”
“We had, with the best intentions, created a massive and ambitious project that almost read like a Halo fan’s wishlist. As a player, I was incredibly excited. And as an employee, I was proud of the work and effort the team had poured into making this thing so big,” O’Connor said.
He added that The Master Chief Collection began as an idea to make Halo 2 HD, and leave it at that, but the idea came later to expand the scope to include the entire Master Chief saga in one package. “And so the project ballooned in scope and scale and ambition. We threw a ton of resources behind it internally and worked with some trusted partners,” O’Connor said.
But at launch, the game’s matchmaking systems struggled significantly. O’Connor acknowledged that its own multiplayer testing sessions “never got to the kind of scale” that could reflect a live environment.
“So we genuinely didn’t know until the day it released, how bad the matchmaking in particular was going to get,” he said. “I’m not going to ignore the other bugs, they were real, and important, but the way the UI and matchmaking protocols interacted with each other exacerbated many of the smaller items and amplified a couple of them in unpredictable ways.
“The short version was that for Xbox One we built some of the underlying systems to work on a brand-new platform, which was fundamentally, quite different to both the original consoles the games were designed for. We also had some very new (and frankly these have evolved since then and are now much better) online systems on a new console and made some educated, but (with hindsight) ultimately faulty, assumptions we made during development and testing.”
He also offered up an easy-to-understand metaphor for why the matchmaking struggled.
“Each potential player was assigned a kind of ‘ticket’ which would then grant them entry into a match or session–picture a virtual waiting room at a train station–when the train arrives (a match)–everyone has to board–or the train can’t leave,” he said. “Issues arose when folks left sessions before games had started that would cause the initial ticket distributions to fail, and that sometimes meant very long wait times for matches as tickets were issued and reissued–especially in countries with lower populations.”
O’Connor added that Microsoft made assumptions about how things would work. This was a mistake, and he said Microsoft wants to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“Frankly, we don’t assume anything anymore. While we had some valid reasons to believe the game would function properly in the retail environment, we’ve shifted our development philosophy to basically assume nothing anymore,” he said.
Part of this effort going forward is the previously discussed “flighting” program, which is 343’s way of enlisting the community to help test updates in a live environment before they are rolled out to everyone. In addition to this, 343’s own testing will get “much more rigid.”
O’Connor added that he wants people to know how committed 343 has been and continues to be in the area of listening to and responding to feedback.
“Everyone here puts their heart and soul and sweat and tears into building our games,” he said. “I can tell you without hesitation that I have never heard someone here dismiss or ignore or belittle complaints. We always take them to heart. It’s the internet of course, so sometimes folks take it too far, with threats or other inappropriate reactions, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand the anger or disappointment those came from.”
You can read O’Connor’s full blog post here. If it doesn’t answer all of your questions, O’Connor said he plans to write another post in 2018 that will cover an “even more detailed technical breakdown” of what happened, why, and how 343 addressed it. “That’s what we owe you–that and a game we can both finally be satisfied with,” he said.