Bright people sometimes do stupid things. Experienced people sometimes stumble into a noob mistake. Either of these instances are expressions of the fact that we’re all simply human, and therefore err…but I don’t think either of them explain why Microsoft decided to distribute their review copies of Halo: Reach digitally rather than via physical discs shipped overnight to the reviewers. I think, perhaps, that they simply just don’t care anymore.
Why should they? Even without the massive hype blitz that’s been assaulting us for months, we all know that Reach is going to be a spectacular blockbuster of a title. It’s Bungie’s last Halo game, a swansong to a decade of being Microsoft’s standard bearer in the console wars. That nostalgic appeal alone has to be good for a couple million copies’ worth of sales; and no matter what criticism any of us may levy at Bungie, they don’t make sub-par titles. If Bungie bothers to produce a game, it’s going to be polished, and pretty, and for the vast majority of us, a whole lot of fun. There’s your other eight or nine million sales, none of which are going to be truncated by early download thievery.
Microsoft says they are “aggressively investigating” the leak, but unless there’s some James Bond villainous organization-esque worldwide hacker ring that solving the mystery of the Halo: Reach theft is somehow going to expose, and therefore make the world a safer place for digital distribution, I don’t imagine that Microsoft will care for very long. Not once the accountants start calculating the profits after the game is released in September, anyway. There’s an arrogance, and a distinct sense of utter disregard, in putting the review copies of Halo: Reach on Xbox Live, neither of which really surprise me because I don’t think Microsoft had anything to lose.
It’s not as though the plot is going to be given away. Bungie has been telling us for how long that we already know how the game ends? Christ, gamers can actually participate in building a monument for all the main characters of the Halo: Reach campaign. Sometimes, with these AAA titles, it almost feels like actually purchasing the game and putting the disc into the drive for the first time is anti-climactic. Summer blockbusters work the same way: at some point we realize that their trailers take all the best bits and condense them down into a two minute reel, and we’ve pretty much seen everything the actual film has to offer us. Multiplayer has kits. There’s space combat in the campaign. We’re getting Firefight mode. The Forge toolkit has been improved. I find it hard to believe that there are any real surprises left for us.
Between E3, GamesCom, and the public multiplayer Beta, the only content that’s going to feel fresh to anyone who has been paying attention to the hype fest are the actual events of the story and the cutscenes (the first ten minutes of which are already online) and that’s something that a great many Halo fans don’t seem to really give a damn about one way or the other. Not many people complained about the lackluster, tacked-on storyline of Halo 3 which seemed to get the fiction out of the way of the multiplayer mode as quickly as possible; and the audio logs with accompanying stills buried within Halo: ODST didn’t get nearly as much critical praise as I think they deserved. It would be interesting to be able to generate statistics on how many Halo: Reach players eschew the campaign altogether, or for how long, as they dive straight into the multiplayer gaming which ultimately made Halo the rabid franchise that it is.
It’s difficult to feel bad even in the face of Halo: Reach hitting the bit torrent sites, not beyond a general condemnation of theft as a whole. Microsoft and Bungie are not going to suffer as a result of this leak. What I do feel bad about are all the explanations for why Microsoft might not give a damn, and the implications on the entire video game industry in terms of how major releases have been handled for a while. I miss the excitement of buying a new game and not knowing what I’m going to be jumping into. I had the same issue with Red Dead Redemption, when I felt like I’d played half of the game already before the title screen even loaded up, and as I progressed through the story kept hearing my wife chiming in with comments like “Hey, I remember that from one of the behind-the-scenes videos!”
The only other, reasonable explanation I can come up per why Microsoft put the review copies of Halo: Reach online was precisely because they felt the game was going to be leaked early one way or the other, and so they may as well try controlling the conditions, and the timing, in order to capitalize on the inevitable, additional hype for the game that the news stories about the leak would generate. That might be a plausible explanation if we hadn’t just established that Halo: Reach needs more hype the way Modern Warfare 2 needs more multiplayer bugs.