If you give them content, they will come, or so goes the theory. It seems Microsoft just learned that putting it into practice is a little bit trickier. Halo 4, the kickoff game in a new trilogy for Microsoft’s signature first-person shooter franchise, moved 3.1 million units for a $220 million haul on its first day alone and holds a respectable 87% on Metacritic. Not a bad start, but developer 343 Industries had a plan to extend player engagement well past day one with a series of 10 weekly content drops collectively called Spartan Ops.
It was not a resounding success. In fact, player engagement with Halo 4 among Raptr’s 17-million members fell much more quickly than for Halo: Reach. Five months into their respective lifecycles, Reach’s weekly playtime hours were high than Halo 4’s — despite higher sales for Halo 4 and a 92% larger userbase on Raptr at launch (Raptr’s overall membership grew significantly during this time).
In an attempt to maintain player engagement post-launch, Halo 4 developer 343 Industries rolled out a series of weekly Spartan Ops episodes — free to anyone with a Halo 4 disc and an Xbox Live Gold account — containing five new missions to play solo, with friends, or with strangers. Structurally speaking, “Season 1″ operated much like Call of Duty’s popular Spec Ops missions stretched out over months and featuring a cut-scene-supported narrative that extended Halo 4’s storyline well past the campaign. The goal was to keep players dialed in and waiting for each new episode…and, not coincidentally, front and center when paid content (in the form of DLC map packs) hit.
Only it didn’t pan out quite as well as you might think. Whether it released too close to launch or fell short in terms of quality, Spartan Ops didn’t keep players engaged. Raptr’s numbers show a drop off in players and playtime in the first three weeks after Halo 4’s November 6 release that’s steeper than its predecessor, Halo: Reach. During this time, the first three Spartan Ops episodes didn’t seem to significantly impact the level of player engagement. We do see minor one-day spikes as new episodes went live, but the overall drop-off continues at an expected pace without any net gains in returning players or usage.
Spartan Ops’ secondary goal — to help buoy user interest between DLC map pack releases — also met with mixed results. Microsoft scheduled the Crimson Map Pack to go live on December 10, one week after Spartan Ops went on an extended winter hiatus right at the Episode Five midpoint (ending, appropriately enough, on a cliffhanger). The numbers show both total players and playtime dropping at a slightly greater rate after December 3 despite the map pack release. The week-to-week content drop did not seem to carry players over to the paid content as hoped.
Despite some early excitement over Spartan Ops, it quickly lost favor with critics and fans. Common complaints included the frequent recycling of maps — 343 only created a handful of environments for the first five episodes — and same-old, same-old missions.
After the first five episodes of Spartan Ops and the Crimson Map Pack, aside from a Christmas bounce, Halo 4’s engagement dropped by about half. However, the numbers stabilized and began to rebound with the return of Spartan Ops’s weekly schedule, resuming on January 21. It’s likely that by the new year, many players had finished the campaign and their interest may have plateaued with multiplayer, leaving them eager for new content.
When the series returned with Episode 6, it brought a number of new maps and improved mission structures with it. Critics came back on board. While it never came close to pre-Christmas numbers both in terms of number of players and hours played, Halo 4 stayed fairly consistent for the entire second half of Spartan Ops’ run. And this extended past its February 18 finale and into the February 25 release of its second DLC, the Majestic Map Pack. Microsoft hasn’t announced sales figures for any Halo 4 DLC. However, immediately following Majestic’s release, the numbers sharply fell again.
By the April 8 release of the Castle Map Pack, Halo 4’s engagement numbers reached all-time lows, though still slightly above Halo: Reach’s performance at that same point of its life cycle. More than anything, it looks as though Spartan Ops had trouble hanging on to new players at the outset, possibly due to its lack of variety, though it did bring some players back to the game when it returned with truly fresh content. That second round also maintained user engagement clear through to the next DLC release.
But on a week-to-week basis, Spartan Ops never really provided the consistency in gameplay hours or player numbers one might expect from free content dropping on a regular basis. Neither, for that matter, did the DLC packs.
Microsoft has yet to announce whether Spartan Ops will get a Season 2.