Halo 3 Rocks

One rock isn't enough. We need a diverse array of rock assets; that's what players demand, or so we're told...

Halo 3 Rocks

In today's bitter landscape of botched game releases and lifeless remasters, a relic of level design has been uncovered and revealed a forgotten lesson. The revelation from @RejectedShotgun about Halo 3's level constructed from a singular rock model isn't just nerd trivia; it's presents the case for a stinging indictment of the bloat and mismanagement that plagues modern game studios.

Here was a level artfully peppered with variations of one rock, each iteration so cleverly placed that for over a decade, players remained blissfully unaware of the simplicity of the game's assets. This wasn't just smart design—it was a masterclass in resourcefulness. The problem, however, is that studios don't seem to value this skill as much as they have in the past.

We find ourselves wading through a swamp of game releases that increasingly tend towards the leviathan – digital monstrosities stuffed with assets as redundant as they are unnecessary. Bloated game development studios, mistaking quantity for quality, churn out uninspired meshes, textures, and stories. This work is commonly outsourced to ESG-compliant companies like Sweet Baby, Inc to cut corners. They pile on asset after asset, inflating development cycles and adding torturous load times, all the while losing sight of what makes people want to play their games.

What makes a game resonate with someone? What is the alchemy that keeps players returning to worlds constructed from polygons and shaders? It certainly isn't the number of rock models a game boasts. The success of Halo 3's design philosophy lays bare the truth: games enchant with gameplay, not gigabytes. In a fast-paced, competitive, first-person shooter, players are more interested in the gunplay, strategy, and matchmaking than the complexity and variation of the rocks and stones used as cover from enemy fire. The philosophy of "less is more" has been abandoned, in favor of a compulsion towards numbers and quantities.

This shift in power away from a team's skill to the profitability of its projects has killed creativity. The effects of reducing studios to the whims of the shareholder has another consequence. Game development companies must now comply with regulatory commitees which demand diverse development teams who seem to be motivated by perceived social injustices and a pervasive liberal culture, rather than making truly exceptional experiences. We've all seen photos comparing the teams at various game studios, before and after GamerGate. Below are two galleries of various Bungie development teams. I'll leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Ignoring the obvious ideological shift, the teams have grown much larger. The scope and scale of today's games has also expanded. Players have been introduced to massive, interactive worlds like the sprawling wilderness in Read Dead Redemption 2 and the treacherous caprice of Elden Ring. In some cases, these experiences are extremely polished and meet the expectations of the player. However, the large majority of recent releases seem to be underwhelming. It's not uncommon for publishers to rush their games out to meet unrealistic deadlines, serving up half-baked products that are only improved through later patches and updates. Other times, a game remains largely unfinished after release and only becomes (partially) complete through DLC and in-game purchases.

Let's not forget the trend towards unnecessary and overwhelming moderation of in-game communications and community discussions. Players can be banned from games they have purchased for "misgendering" other players or using slurs. Gamers have been discouraged from engaging in so-called toxic behavior, making cooperating or competing with other random players feel more like walking on egg shells. If you can lose access to a product you've purchased after being reported for abusive communication, with little to no room for appeal, why risk talking online at all? Doesn't the gaming industry have more important things to do than punish its own customers? The speculators driving the direction of the major publishers seem unbothered by the idea of alienating their former audience.

Not so long ago, game developers were simply nerds and geeks who organically leveraged their expertise in coding, designing, and animating towards making new games for others to enjoy. That disposition towards working with what you've got to make something great has disappeared. It's not hard to see the industry has changed, competency has been sidelined for diversity. One rock isn't enough – we need a diverse array of rock assets – that's what players demand, or so we're told.

This fixation on the outlier and the prioritization of everything except the underlying game loop itself has led to broken and forgettable games. Not every team needs a female to "balance the culture". Not every environment needs thousands of unique assets to make the world believable. Let players use their imagination and give them room to inhabit the worlds created for them. Let them express themselves and have truly human experiences with one another online. Critics like journalists aren't paid to appreciate the sublime. Speculators and shareholders are only concerned about next quarter's earnings. Games will continue to suffer until the gaming audiences are free of these external forces. Let the art speak for itself.