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Often Eclipsed But Never Extinguished on Game and Player

Often Eclipsed But Never Extinguished

Michael Ubaldi  //  April 22, 2010


On Xbox Live, Halo 2, technology and loss.

A

stoic young Englishman named Ryan played Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory into the early hours of last Friday morning, documenting the knell of Xbox Live servers for Microsoft's first console as if he were an ECG on a dying man.

The network's declension was gradual but steady. "One of my friends is unable to get onto Chaos Theory," he posted on Twitter. Then half an hour later, "The number of servers . . . seems smaller than it was a few minutes ago. People are going and not coming back." Moments after that: "The sign-in servers have been pulled." A shrinking number of players hung on and continued to play until, two hours later, Ryan spent "[m]inutes of refreshing, but to no avail."

He reflected on the end — "What an honor; I may officially be the last person in the world to play Spies vs. Mercs" — and then that illumination was followed by the great, electronic void. "Your Xbox cannot connect to Xbox Live. Press 'A' to start the troubleshooter or 'B' to cancel."

Halo 2's merit is defined by multiplayer, and so with Xbox Live support goes the game. Microsoft has ample rationale for severing an obsolete product and its library from the online networking and multiplayer service. "That community," says product director Aaron Greenberg, "has largely transitioned off and onto the Xbox 360," and "[h]aving that new flexibility will allow us to bring more features to the Xbox Live Community on [the] Xbox 360." From the consumer's vantage, the company enjoys an edge over its Japanese competitors. Sony's PlayStation Network is still epigonic, aping what Live can do, to some degree of success; while Nintendo remains agnostic over the existence of the internet. Why squander such a lead?

Still, eulogies were forthcoming for one game in particular — Halo 2, sequel to the title that sold me, and the multitude, an Xbox. Submitting a single-player campaign derided as too short and inferior to the original's, Halo 2 instead established a paradigm in online multiplayer with its automated, fast-working Matchmaking system. Whereas, say, Chromehounds, a 360 import whose third-party servers went black in three years, after extant players of the imbalanced and uncorrected game couldn't fill a lecture hall, Halo developer Bungie replaced its Burma Shave-like load-screen messages last week with sentiments like "Thanks for playing. Seriously? More than five years after launch? You're awesome."

What no one has missed is that as Halo 2 redefined multiplayer, its merit is defined by multiplayer, and so with Xbox Live support goes the game.

This contravenes networking technology's loose guarantee of comprehensive preservation — the internet as unitary archive. Just 15 years ago, if you wanted to find an old or limited-print book, tape, or video game, you scoured rare-item storefronts — maybe, if you had dialup, you knew a helpful BBS. Limited range (who arranges a cross-country tour of libraries, warehouses and bargain bins?) and contacts (buffs aren't oracles) meant your search was, despite a few more tools, still mostly guided by providence.

Thanks to search engines from Altavista to Google to Bing, which gather a titanic assortment of data and then dispense it all through a single point, today's web embodies those infinite monkeys and typewriters. When even Average Joe can build a website, of several million Average Joes, one probably spent an afternoon between now and 1995 uploading information about that book or video game you came across so many years ago. Now another Average Joe operates through Amazon or eBay, and sells what you were looking for.

While technology has solved the problem of abandonware, its remedies don't yet secure the fate of a game like Halo 2.Ever-developing systems have allowed dedicated services — centripetal concentrations — to flourish, and the ease of translating meta-data made video games the natural first candidate for preservation on archival websites. The term "abandonware" describes the obscurity into which titles have rapidly fallen when novelty dates them, and their native mediums — operating systems or consoles — are superseded. Retailers no longer sell them; publishers cease to promote them or, as discovered in the late 1990s, actively defend them as intellectual property.

But in fact to classify a game abandonware is to acknowledge it and, often, to make a compressed file of its entirety available for download. Or, in the case of 8-bit arcade classics, actual play. Web libraries come and go — the biggest archive, Home of the Underdogs, went dark for a while — but come back again suffering mild attrition, the internet's information-focusing effect also a regenerative one. Somebody has a copy and that somebody will contact somebody else to put it back online.

So while technology has solved one problem it introduced, its remedies don't yet secure the fate of a game like Halo 2. Microsoft's guard over what part of the franchise it owns is tenacious, and technology does not quite match the requirements of privately resurrecting the Matchmaking system. Though six years old, the title may be a little too fresh for the translation of game-to-downloadable-content in retro-commerce; or too complicated, given that Halo: Combat Evolved, as DLC for the 360, consists only of the single-player campaign.

Possibly, the powers that be clearly recognize that value increases with loss. The uncertainty after last week leaves us, those who played games like Halo 2 with friends every weekend for three years, wistful but romantic. We picture the old console's Xbox Live as a kind of Pompeii, iconic and colorful and now mysterious, having been disconnected from the living world and entombed; and for the time at least, consigned to awed memories.




James Day // April 23, 2010 // 10:46 AM

But you can still play the Vista version of Halo 2... Not that anyone bought that one.


Michael Ubaldi // April 25, 2010 // 2:01 PM

You're right, James — so forgettable that I was reminded of it while researching then thought nothing more of it. That affects a literal sense of loss (provided one has the equally dissatisfying Vista), though for all practical purposes the game we know is still gone.


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