By Joe Donato

When does the word “free” stop being a bad word in the eyes of a corporate giant like Microsoft? The line is surely drawn differently throughout their zip code-sized campus. Today my attention is drawn to their games publishing arm, Microsoft Game Studios. Specifically, the effects free and paid content have on their games and what their choices spell for the community.

Xbox Live has blossomed into a full-fledged marketplace for downloadable games, expansion packs, movie rentals, TV show purchases and thousands of worthless jpegs. Much of this content is considered “premium” and has a cost attached to it in the form of Microsoft points. Anyone who has purchased content on Live knows that the dollar-to-points conversion scale is absurd, the purchasable quantities are deviously mismatched with typical costs of downloads, and much of the content feels unreasonably expensive. While these are all valid issues, none are as problematic as the content that started it all—the expansion packs available for most online games.

Since Xbox Live’s humble beginnings five years ago, downloadable maps (multiplayer arenas) have been a mainstay of the service. Most of them have come at a premium price—a price which has made a sharp increase as of late. It’s not something I have a problem with. Developers should get paid for their work and they’re free to price them however they want. The problem is that it’s never the developers who have any say.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Halo 3 community. With two map pack releases and the recent freebie Cold Storage (a remake of Halo 1’s Chill Out), developer Bungie has kept busy and vocal about the state of their content. Microsoft and Bungie have been making compromises on the price of their content since Halo 2. As the publisher of the game, it is ultimately Microsoft’s decision, but Bungie has stated they don’t want to charge for content. Microsoft’s stance is that offering free content devalues any similar content that isn’t free. In past releases they reached a compromise in which map packs would cost from five to ten dollars for three months and then become free for everyone. Microsoft made their money off of early adopters and Bungie’s community wasn’t indefinitely fractured between haves and have-nots. Ultimately, everyone was happy.

But what happens when the premium period for content never ends? In the case of Halo 3, where it’s convenient matchmaking system automatically finds opponents and selects a map for you, the premium content is rarely seen. In order for a map to be played, all players in the 2-16 player matches must have downloaded the map, and it must be selected by matchmaking amongst the full set of maps. In my experience, I have never played a premium map in these conditions. Once the maps are free, Bungie requires them for matchmaking, and they come up far more often. However, with the newest premium offering, the “Legendary Map Pack”, there are no plans to make it free.

This is Microsoft’s call—as stated in the recent Bungie podcast, MS wanted to experiment in offering the content at a discount rather than free. This puts Bungie in the difficult position of deciding if and when they’ll require the map pack for matchmaking. Further escalating the situation, Microsoft would not allow Bungie to release Cold Storage for free unless the latter agreed to require consumers to purchase the map pack before being allowed to play Cold Storage in matchmaking.

Through these methods, Microsoft is needlessly complicating things and splintering the Halo 3 community. They are creating ill will towards the brand, the Xbox 360, and the Xbox Live service. Worst of all, they are leaving Bungie to clean up the mess. Along with the release of the free map, Bungie also released a new video explaining the requirements to play the map online. Needless to say, they were nearly as confused as we are about the situation.

It’s clear that “free” is a word Microsoft Game Studios still fails to understand. Their business model calls for profit in nearly all aspects of the Xbox Live service. They charge a subscription fee, charge for content, charge developers to release content and more. On paper it’s an appealing model, but it’s clear they are shitting in the faces of their customers and the developers who toil for years on these games just to make a quick buck. The question is: how long will we let them get away with it?