Defying the Odds, time and time again: The story of Bungie and Halo

Halo. Even uttering it brings up nostalgia of the golden age of video games. Whether you played the first Halo, tapping Grunts and Elites alike with your overpowered Pistol, or you came around the end, sprinting, and soaring into the air with jetpacks in Halo Reach, the series has brought memories to many a child as they grew up.

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Halo 4 and 5 often go unmentioned when it comes to the ‘reminiscing’, partly due to their relatively new release dates, but mostly because they were made by different studios. Bungie, original creators of the Halo series, left Microsoft, and Halo behind with their final game, Halo: Reach in 2010. Since then, the franchise has been left in the hands of a Microsoft created company, 343 industries. While the new franchise has shown a great deal of promise, there’s been some criticism of the recent titles, citing that they haven’t stuck to their roots. Nonetheless, a new title, Halo Infinite was announced in E3 2018. Bungie’s relationship with Halo is complicated nowadays. Their baby is all grown up, with a different publisher, and a vastly different style from the way they’d originally conceived in the original Halo. They watched Halo explode into the mass consciousness, and watched as spin-offs, like Nicole-451 in Dead or Alive, or completely different genres, like books, anime, and live-action tv series. The release of Halo 3 was so intense, that Bill Gates (doesn’t need much introduction) sold the first official copy. However, the first Halo certainly never started off with that much hype. The Halo series started off somewhere different.

 

Marathon

 

Halo’s story started with a game called Marathon. Bungie had developed games before then, like Gnop! (Clone of Pong), Pathways into Darkness, and Minotaur: Labyrinths of Crete. However, Marathon was their first foray into a futuristic Sci-Fi shooter. Released on the Macintosh system in 1994, Marathon was revolutionary due to their use of free look, allowing the player to control where they wanted to look with the mouse. It was one of the earliest games to ever employ this feature, and it’s since become a staple in almost every game since. The story was heavily intertwined with the player character working with artificial intelligence (AI), to defend the ship they are on against alien invaders. Marathon was a success, spawning two sequels, Marathon 2: Durandal, and Marathon Infinity. After the release of Infinity, Bungie moved towards creating games in other genres, with a popular Real-time strategy (RTS) game, Myth: The Fallen Lords, and another title, Oni. During development of Myth, a small group had conceived of a side project. A futuristic title, with focus on realistic physics, and 3D terrain. This was the beginning of Halo: Combat Evolved.

 

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Ringworld

 

The original concept for Halo: Combat Evolved was not an FPS, but was an RTS game, released for the Mac operating system. In fact, the first public unveiling of Halo was at the Macworld expo in 1999, held by none other than Steve Jobs. However, Microsoft had other ideas. By June 19th, 2000, a year after Halo was unveiled, Microsoft announced that they’d acquired Bungie studios, and that Halo would now be an FPS title. Microsoft’s new gaming platform, the Xbox would include Halo as a launch title, along with titles like Project Gotham Racing, and Dead or Alive 3. During development, online multiplayer, originally a key element had to be dropped, as Xbox Live was still unfinished. During a playable demo of the game mid-2001, critics had some mixed reactions, citing some FPS issues, and not enough gameplay to tide them over until release. Nonetheless, Halo: Combat Evolved dropped with the Xbox on November 15, 2001.

 

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It was spectacular. Critics and audiences alike raved about the game, and how it pushed the boundaries of gaming by miles. A review from Edge praised the game, stating it was “the most important launch game for any console, ever.” Critics praised the weapon balance, enemies and vehicles most of all, while the story also received credit for it’s great cinematics. The Flood received acclaim from audiences as well, due to their terrifying design and AI. The only criticism levied at Bungie was their level design, as some believed that their levels ended up being very confusing, and “paint-by-numbers”.

Regardless, the game broke sales records, selling millions of copies and becoming one of the most famous video games in history. Halo’s legacy can still be felt in 2018. Several gamers based in Austin, Texas decided to make a web series that centred around Halo, called Red Vs. Blue. This series is still being produced now and is famous for attracting massive attention towards a new genre of filmmaking, machinima and web-series.

Furthermore, Halo’s success transferred to literary success as well. Halo: The Fall of Reach was set as a prequel to the original Halo game, and while initial sales were slow, the book eventually became a bestseller, spawning multiple other books based on the Halo series over the years.

The first Halo title was a resounding success, and Bungie wasn’t stopping there. While they never intended Halo to be a trilogy, the massive outpouring of success, both from critics and the audience all but guaranteed that Bungie would attempt to make a sequel. Halo 2 was coming, and people across the world were ready to continue the story of Master Chief.

 

The Great Journey

 

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Microsoft, buoyed by Bungie’s success game them full support for a sequel. This gave Bungie the confidence to attempt for more ambitious ideas. Their first thought was about multiplayer. Originally conceived for Combat Evolved, they wanted to bring multiplayer online, and try and bring it to everybody. The story was envisioned out of the elements that could not be brought into the original, either due to technical issues or time constraints. There were many additions and iterations that were made to improve on Combat Evolved, like the addition of dual-wielding, new enemy types, hi-jacking vehicles, all done to ensure that Halo 2 continued to trudge on new ground. A gameplay demo was shown at E3 2004, where the crowd went crazy. The demo introduced turrets, a new rifle, a large skybox, and overall the demo brought chills to everyone who watched it.

 

  If you’d like to see the demo, check it out  Here .

If you’d like to see the demo, check it out Here.

 

However, there were many hiccups during development. They had a release date that couldn’t be altered, forcing their original grandiose designs to be pared down. The demo that had captivated audiences at E3 wasn’t ever part of the release game. The graphics engine had to be completely discarded, and they had to completely restructure the game engine for Halo 2. Several assets, environments, and enemies that were originally planned for the game had to scrapped, or not even prototyped.

 

  The Flood Juggernaut,  a cut Flood form that reached some fame when Halo 2 Modders found it in files

The Flood Juggernaut, a cut Flood form that reached some fame when Halo 2 Modders found it in files

 

People at Bungie had to go into what they described as the “mother of all crunch-time” in the final year leading to release to try and polish Halo 2 before release. Their campaign, originally a lot longer had to be cut to the point where on release, the ending of Halo 2 was a cliff-hanger. Several vehicles and weapons were cut from the game, like a Mongoose (later released in Halo 3), and a Halo 2 era flamethrower. Sprinting, a concept that never made it to the Bungie Halo series until Halo: Reach, was also cut from Halo 2.

The marketing campaign for Halo 2 was much more expansive. "I Love Bees," a viral marketing  ARG (Alternate Reality Game) was so popular that it actually drew attention away from the 2004 presidential elections. Standard promotions like commercials and product placements were also included. The hype for Halo 2 was reaching a fever point, and millions of people were reading to get their hands on Microsoft’s golden child. Anticipation was massive in the weeks leading to release, with a then record-breaking 1.5 million copies pre-ordered for the game. Of course, nothing compared to the excitement once the game officially dropped on November 9th, 2004.

A resounding success, Halo 2 sold 2.4 million copies on release, at the time making it the highest grossing release in entertainment history. Critics praised the multiplayer and gameplay, explaining that they kept to the original formula yet innovated within the original. The music was highly lauded as well, due to it’s vivid touches and inclusions of popular musicians among the likes of Steve Vai, Incubus, Breaking Benjamin, and in secret, John Mayer (He plays the guitar on the epilogue track).

They weren’t completely infallible, however, as the campaign received criticism for being too short. There was also confusion during the campaign due to the introduction of another character playable during the campaign, an Elite (Sangheili). The Arbiter’s introduction to the game was welcomed, but some critics, Gamespot among them felt that it distracted players from the main point of the game.  Halo 2’s multiplayer however, was ground-breaking in, and is often heralded as one of the turning points in the gaming industry. Halo 2 takes credit for bringing online multiplayer to the console masses. Bungie was present for another famous part of multiplayer history when competitions online started to sprout up. Esports was growing, and Halo 2 was immortalized in yet another aspect of game history.

 

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It’s difficult to expound just how influential Halo 2 was in terms of its gameplay, but several inclusions in their games have found themselves staples in multiplayer games now. Regenerating health bars, throwing grenades without swapping weapons, online matchmaking, system link multiplayer. All these little quirks of Halo became important aspects of various other shooter games. It just felt right. It’s no surprise that even now, when someone mentions Halo 2, people will perk up, and reminisce about an amazing moment they had, either in Single-Player, or Multi-player. Bungie had lived up to the hype and delivered a game that blew everyone away. However, while some at Bungie continued to support Halo 2 with more maps, updates, and fixes, a small group had quietly begun work on a new project. This was Halo 3.

 

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Finishing the Fight

 

Bungie had blown expectations away in Halo: Combat Evolved and had somehow lived up to the hype in Halo 2. Was it possible to do it a third time? Officially announced in E3 2006, Halo 3’s expectations were through the roof. The multiplayer had to be better, the campaign had to be better, everything had to just continue to advance and push the envelope just as its predecessors had.

For starters, Bungie improved on the audio. Halo 3 included 50,000 pieces of audio. To put it into perspective, Halo 2 had only 15,000. Marty O’Donnell, the composer for the two original Halo’s moved forward with the original score, composing the audio with a real 60-piece orchestra, and 24-piece choir. Graphics were improved as well, incorporating then-advanced technologies such as HDR (High dynamic range), global lighting, and Depth-of-field. The AI of the Covenant was modified as well, to incorporate the more “Pack mentality” of the new main enemies in Halo 3, the Brutes.

The marketing was also notable. Several live-action teasers were released, compiled now and called “Halo: Landfall”. Directed by Neil Blomkamp, the series was watched online by millions of people. Other videos like the famous “Starry Night”, or the “Believe” campaign were released to huge, and positive audience reactions.

 

 A screencap of the Halo teaser “Starry Night”. The full video can be found  here

A screencap of the Halo teaser “Starry Night”. The full video can be found here

 

In 2007, Bungie announced that a multiplayer beta would be available for certain players, as well as players who bought another title, Crackdown. While numbers weren’t truly proven, after Microsoft revealed that the beta was attached to the Crackdown title, pre-orders surged by 25 percent. People were clamoring for every little sliver of Halo. As the release day inched closer, Microsoft continued to aggressively market Halo 3. Massive launch parties were held worldwide, in preparation for a continuation of the massive phenomenon. Bungie employees were flown across the world to release the game. Bill Gates himself sold the first copy when it released on September 25th, 2007. The reviews had come in, and they were once again, incredible.

Yet again, Bungie had defied the odds and created an incredible game. It had lived up to the hype, and more. The IGN reviewer for Halo 3 praised it for being “The most complete game for consoles.” The introduction of new features like Forge, and Theater mode were especially praised for raising the bar for FPS games yet again.  Martin O’Donnell, who received great praise for his work on the original audio for Halo, and Halo 2 was lauded again for his musical score. The multiplayer was singled out, as many critics believed that Halo 3’s multiplayer was extremely well optimized, and fine-tuned. Unfortunately, criticism was levied again at the campaign, as to some it was short, and a bit too easy. More complaints focused on the AI of allies, as some of them were quite clunky. These criticisms however, did not detract for Halo 3’s sales.

Halo 3 once again set another record for sales, breaking 170 million in just 24 hours, and breaking 300 million in the first week. Even though it was only sold on one console, at one point, Halo 3 was the best-selling game of 2007. By 2008, Microsoft announced that the game had sold 8.1 million copies. Developers continued to support the game, adding various map packs, and updates for Halo 3. Halo 3 had succeeded.

While Halo 3 was succeeding, and Bungie was doing better and better, only a couple of days after Halo 3’s release, Microsoft and Bungie announced their split, with Bungie becoming independent. They amicably parted ways, as Bungie wanted to pursue different ideas and felt quite lost surrounded by the massive Microsoft game studios. While Microsoft would continue to partner with making Halo, the IP would belong to Microsoft. So, while Bungie would continue to make Halo games, it was the beginning of the end of the Bungie-led Halo series. This didn’t mean that Bungie stopped supporting halo however, as they continued to support Halo 3.

They also planned on a story based DLC. However, developers found that their DLC had grown larger and larger, and sooner or later, it was decided that a whole new game would be made. However, this game would be different. No longer would it be focused on a superpowered Spartan, or a holy Elite warrior. Instead they’d take a different perspective, a fan-favourite group of soldiers from the series. Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, or ODST’s had been in the game since Halo 2, and Bungie was ready to put them in the spotlight. Halo 3: ODST (Originally called Recon) was announced to the world about a year after Halo 3’s release.

 

Feet First into Hell

 

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For the first time, Halo 3: ODST would not involve Master Chief. Instead, players took the role of Several ODST’s on Earth, struggling to protect the city during the events of Halo 2. They didn’t immediately decide on using the ODST’s, originally conceiving a story about a Covenant Elite strike force, but over time, decided to focus on human characters. Focusing on human characters meant that Bungie would have to change the formula that they’d honed over 3 games. While they could preserve the general gameplay, a human did not have the same abilities that Chief or the Arbiter possess. Bungie adapted to this change by re-introducing a health mechanic to ODST, with developer Joe Staten explaining that it would give players a bigger sense of vulnerability. They added silenced weapons, a first in the Halo series. The massive set-pieces and battles that were the case in the original trilogy were changed to small-scale firefights. The ODST’s were humans, and they had to scale down to adapt.

Production only lasted 14 months, which meant that ODST had to prioritize accordingly. Enemies and the core graphics stayed mostly the same but were improved where they could. The world was different, and it required a different strategy on how the Covenant would act. Firefight was a late addition to the game, provided as a less intense multiplayer experience. A side story was also conceived, produced by the people who’d originally created the I Love Bees game.

The score had to be completely overhauled as well, as Martin O’Donnell explained that in order to fit with the noir theme of the game, the score had to be changed accordingly. As a result, the signature chant of the Halo series, as well as any sign of Halo’s theme songs did not appear in ODST. O’Donnell took a jazz-influenced approach, adding saxophone and soft piano to the soundtrack to build a more human story. Famous actors, most notably the cast of TV series Firefly joined the acting crew, with Nathan Fillion and Tricia Helfer headlining two of the lead characters, Buck and Dare specifically.

 

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Marketing for Halo 3: ODST was similar to Halo 3. The most notable marketing campaign was a live-action trailer, titled “The Life”. Trucks drove across the United States, offering fans a chance to play ODST before release and win some prizes. Launch events, like Halo 3 were held across the United States. There was some controversy over the 60-dollar price tag, as some believed that ODST was simply an expansion. Bungie explained the price to the audience as the game growing vastly beyond an expansion, and hoping that audiences would understand when they played it.

Halo 3: ODST was released on September 22nd, 2009. Like the others, Halo 3: ODST was a mammoth success. A game that was originally conceived as a spin-off dominated the market, becoming the top-selling Xbox 360 game worldwide. By November, Microsoft reported that ODST had sold 3 million units worldwide. Reviews were once again positive, but the game was not as acclaimed as previous titles. While some praised ODST as proof that Bungie could play the Halo franchise in different tunes, yet still succeed well, others stated that it failed to raise the bar as previous titles had.

Critics remained divisive regarding the price as well. However, the visuals, atmosphere, and audio were heavily praised, some believing that the soundtrack was worth purchasing standalone, regardless of the game. Critics also appreciated the introduction of a new mode (firefight) into the Halo series. Thus, while the game wasn’t as well received by critics, it was still a game that many adored, and a departure from the Halo series that impressed many audiences and critics alike.

 

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However, while ODST was a side project, completed by a side team, the main team continued to work on their final Halo game, at least, the final Halo game produced by Bungie. It seemed like it was meant to be, as their final Halo game took the series back, even before Halo: Combat Evolved. Their final game brought fans to one of the most famous Halo conflicts in its history and was a culmination of all the ideas across the Halo series that they’d never implemented. Halo: Reach was Bungie’s last swan song for Halo, and they were determined to make it great.  

 

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From the Beginning, You Know the End

 

Reach told the story where audiences knew the ending. The fall of Reach was known by audiences since Halo: Combat Evolved. Reach, a massive human colony was Humanities bastion of defence. Reach was the center piece of humanity's military, with many headquarters based there. The Spartan-II program, which birthed John-117/Master Chief was there as well. Furthermore, orbiting Reach were twenty Orbital Defense Platforms, equipping massive Magnetic Accelerator Cannons. If Reach fell, humanity was all but guaranteed to be wiped out. Of course, that wasn’t the case, but the fall of Reach is famous among all who follow the Halo universe. Thus, when Bungie decided to make Halo: Reach their final game, Halo fans across the world were overjoyed. Announced in June 1, 2009, the trailer featured bone-chilling communications as Reach was slowly overrun. Bungie found that as this title was a prequel, the limitations of story that they had to deal with over the past couple of titles on longer constrained them, and they felt free to introduce new characters and stories. At this time, they decided on making the player-character customizable.

 

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Furthermore, they also redesigned the game engine, wanting to increase the fidelity of their characters, and make their last game beautiful. A common statistic from Reach is that the polygons contained within a Halo: Reach assault rifle has more than an entire Halo 3 Marine. They also used motion capture in order to find better animations for their characters. Another large aspect that wasn’t present in other games was the presence of an entire Spartan Team. Not once in the entire series had the player fought with any other Spartan. While he could play co-op, and the Arbiter was for most purposes completely the same as Chief, at no point were you playing with one other Spartan. That changed with the introduction of Noble team. 5 characters, with distinct personalities and armor were shown to the world, and you would fight alongside them as Reach would fall. You would play as a blank slate character, fully customizable as you played the campaign and multiplayer. The audio was once again changed. O’Donnell had to take a more somber tone when it came to Reach, as the game focused on a planet doomed to fall.

The core gameplay of Reach was quite different. Multiplayer, while keeping the core parts of Halo intact was given a fresh new coat of paint While Halo 3 had introduced equipment to the game, Reach added armor abilities. Sprinting, Jetpacks, Holograms, and more abilities appeared for the first time in the Halo franchise. A beta, open to owners of Halo 3: ODST was played by so many players that the servers were unable to handle the traffic. By the time the beta ended, over 16 million cumulative hours were spent playing.

 

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Leading up to release, Microsoft pushed to give Reach the largest marketing budget ever in the Halo series, even more than Halo 3, which had a budget of 6.5 million. The main marketing point for Reach was similar throughout the entire marketing campaign. “Remember Reach. Focus on the heroes, not the victims.” Live-action movies, like the ones originally filmed for Halo 3 and ODST were also shot for Reach. A playable demo released on May 24th, 2010 where players could try outreach before it’s actual release on September 14th, 2010.

Bungie’s final Halo title ended with a bang, receiving critical acclaim across critics and audiences alike. Reviewers noted that Reach added new gameplay mechanics without ruining the core game balance or learning curve, and told a brilliant story unlike the more generic shooter games of the previous Halo titles. Especially lauded were the multiplayer, due to its massive amount of customization and learning curve. Once again, the audio was praised for its more reserved departure from previous Halo scores. Bungie had done what seemed truly impossible. Every Halo title carried massive expectations behind them, yet Bungie had met, and in some cases surpassed them. Sales for Halo: Reach were also great, becoming the third bestselling game in 2010, behind only Black Ops and Madden NFL 11. When players reached the end of the campaign in Halo: Reach, they were met with a short message from Bungie studios. It reads as follows,

 

To all our faithful fans-
Thank you for playing Halo: Reach.
Over the past decade, we've shared some of our most memorable experiences together, inside the far reaching expanses of the Halo universe. It's been one hell of a ride. And we couldn't have done it without you.
As we continue marching toward our ultimate goal of World Domination, Bungie remains inspired and fueled by you, our passionate fan community. So Play. Forge. Film.
We'll see you starside.
Love,
Bungie

 

And that, was the end.

 

Spartans Never Die

 

That was the end of Bungie’s relationship with Halo. This would be Bungie’s last Halo title, as they moved on to a different IP, Destiny, and a different publisher, Activision. The Halo series would continue, albeit under a different production company with some ex-Bungie employees, 343 industries. Their titles, Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians, while receiving positive reviews, never received the same amount of praise or sales that the original series had made.

 

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Players weren’t happy that the Halo franchise had departed so far away from the original ideas, or art style. The new titles felt unfamiliar, and while they weren’t bad games in their own right, the fanbase of Halo had been used to a very high standard set by Bungie. People were upset that the story of Halo had been changed so greatly from the original franchises roots. However, things could be looking up for Halo once again. During E3 2018, another title was announced, and the trailer showed the original artstyle of Halo, perhaps signifying 343 going back to their roots.

 

 Halo: Infinite and it’s trailer were  dropped  during E3 2018 to a massive crowd reaction.

Halo: Infinite and it’s trailer were dropped during E3 2018 to a massive crowd reaction.

 

Only time will tell, however. Only one trailer has been released, and very little information about the game has been dropped, other than the title, Halo Infinite. Perhaps it’ll be a triumphant return to the Halo series, and bring the Halo-Killer phrase back into the public. Or it may be mediocre, and fall into the same issues and traps that 4 and Guardians suffered. No matter what happens, long-time fans of the Halo series watch with bated breath, praying that the latest title can live up to Bungie’s giants.

 

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