For once, a seemingly ridiculous video game rumor turned out to be true: Halo Infinite’s multiplayer released nearly one month early. Leaks indicated that the surprise could happen, but it still seemed too good to be true. But the fact is that players are enjoying Halo Infinite’s first season much sooner than anticipated.
In an age where video game release dates only get moved back, not forward, the news came as a straight-up shock. Shooter fans were just sitting down with Call of Duty: Vanguard and waiting for Battlefield 2042’s full release. Xbox Game Pass subscribers had just begun digging into the recently released Forza Horizon 5. If you had a strict plan for tackling all the games launching this holiday season, go ahead and toss it in the fire.
The decision to drop Halo Infinite early isn’t just a sweet “thank you” to fans for their support. It’s the sneakiest power play a video game company has pulled since Sony’s infamous “$299” mic drop at E3 1995.
Before the surprise drop, Microsoft was in something of an awkward position. Halo Infinite was set to be its big holiday game, but its planned December 8 release date wasn’t ideal. A December date meant that the game wouldn’t be out in time for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, when many people buy holiday gifts or hunt for discounted games. Battlefield 2042 and Call of Duty: Vanguard would headline sales events, putting those shooters in the spotlight heading into the holidays. Even if Halo Infinite got positive buzz at launch, it would be late to the party.
Getting good word of mouth was going to be a challenge, too. December releases also tend to miss the Game of the Year season as many sites publish their lists by the end of November. While Digital Trends planned to hold our GOTY decision until we played Halo, others likely would have left it out of contention and saved it for their 2022 lists. Similarly, the game would be ineligible for The Game Awards this year and would be considered for the following year’s show instead, much like what happened to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate when it dropped in mid-December 2018. Any critical acclaim would come late, making it hard for Microsoft to capitalize heading into the holidays.
By dropping the multiplayer mode early, Microsoft has rewritten the rules. While the game isn’t fully out (single-player is still coming in December), the conversation around it is now in full swing. Players will start posting clips all over social media, it’ll dominate Twitch charts, and media will start kicking out impressions way earlier than planned (ourselves included). And all of that will happen before people start putting together their holiday wish lists.
It’s a bombshell move and one that might tick the competition off. Battlefield 2042 was supposed to be the most high-profile game launching this month (especially after tepid Call of Duty: Vanguard reviews), but Halo Infinite just crashed a Warthog full of banana peels on its clear runway. Now it’ll have to share the spotlight with the biggest shooter of the year — one that’s totally free to play and has the element of surprise behind it.
Halo Infinite is no longer at risk of getting lost in the mix; it’s the competition who should be worrying.
The sneakiest part of the whole early launch is the clever use of a “beta” label. Fans aren’t experiencing the final version of Halo Infinite right now. Microsoft is strategically calling the multiplayer mode a “beta.” That gives the company a fair bit of flexibility. Players are more likely to forgive any technical issues when they know they’re playing a non-final version of a game. EA won’t get the same good will when Battlefield 2042 launches in full later this week. In fact, the game is already getting “review bombed” by early access players who are bumping into stability issues in a game they paid $60 or more for.
What remains to be seen is whether or not the multiplayer mode actually leaves beta once the game’s release date rolls around. There’s a good chance that Microsoft will just leave the label on — an admission that the long-delayed game still wasn’t ready for launch. Had Microsoft fully released the multiplayer on December 8 as a beta, fans would have been outraged. The company would be under scrutiny for releasing an unfinished game (it will already lack campaign co-op and Forge mode at launch, which has drawn criticism from fans). Instead, fans are simply delighted they’re getting to play it weeks early.
Messaging is everything in video games and Microsoft seems acutely aware of that. By positioning the launch as a “gift,” players are going to approach the game much differently than they would have in December. Microsoft now looks like a good guy kindly giving fans a surprise, rather than a giant company rushing out a game to pump up its fourth quarter financial earnings at any cost. It’s a devilishly clever move that could change the way companies roll out their games moving forward.
I’m not sure if that’s good for players in the long term, but that’s unimportant at the moment. Microsoft has delivered a rare shock in an industry that’s usually predictable. Rule-breaking power plays like this are scarce, but they tend to be turning points for the industry. Don’t be surprised if the Xbox Series X suddenly usurps PS5 as this holiday’s hottest console as a result.
Halo Infinite’s multiplayer is now free to download and play on PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S. The full game, including its single-player mode, launches on December 8.
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