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Halo: A brief history of how it changed gaming

Welcome back, Chief (Image by Microsoft)
Welcome back, Chief (Image by Microsoft)

It’s not easy to articulate every emotion the name Halo invokes among gamers. Launched in 2001, Bungie’s then-latest venture into the world of first-person shooter games turned a lot of heads their way.

Heralding a new age for gaming as a whole, Halo: Combat Evolved went on to become a bestseller, a trendsetter, and a standard-bearer for upcoming games. While Halo pushed Bungie into the realm of immortality in video games history, it also shaped the future of Microsoft.

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The great journey of Halo

For a game that changed history, Halo’s development cycle was one of the weirdest and most hilariously chaotic. Halo's development started around 1995 when Bungie came off the release of Marathon 2: Durandal. Originally envisioned to be a thematic successor to Marathon, Halo spent time on the drawing board as a third-person shooter and then as a real-time strategy, being called Monkey Nuts at one point.

It took an audience with Steve Jobs, who was impressed by the concept, to announce the game at Macworld 1999, and set in motion the future of console gaming in a way. Despite the full head of steam in their engine, a freak glitch in Myth II copies caused Bungie to recall over 200,000 copies and cost them close to a million-dollar putting them and Halo’s future in financial jeopardy.

Halo is back on the menu, boys (Image by Microsoft)
Halo is back on the menu, boys (Image by Microsoft)

On the other side of the aisle, Microsoft Game Studios was looking for ways to break the walls down of console gaming. For almost a whole decade leading up to 2000, Japanese companies such as Nintendo, Sega, and Sony dominated the home video game console market. In 1999, when Sony announced its flagship PlayStation 2 console, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates saw it as a threat to the home computer system that the PS2 was poised to replace.

In response, Gates greenlit the idea of a proprietary home console that would utilize Microsoft’s DirectX technology. With the combined efforts of the DirectX team, Microsoft’s Windows Software Architect, and Silicon Valley’s WebTV, came the DirectX Box, which was shortened to Xbox.

Yet, Xbox lacked a signature game that could sell it to the crowds. As luck would have it, Microsoft's Game Division was looking to expand, and Bungie was firmly in its sights. On the ninth anniversary of Bungie, Microsoft announced that it had acquired the studio and the publishing rights for Halo.

Packs a mean punch for that size (Image by Microsoft)
Packs a mean punch for that size (Image by Microsoft)

Overnight, Halo became a Microsoft title to be released on the newly announced Xbox. Releasing on November 15, 2001, both Xbox and Halo: Combat Evolved went on to set a record amount of sales. Throughout its lifespan, Microsoft sold over 24 million units of Xbox across the world, while Halo: Combat Evolved sold over 4 million copies, raking in 170 million dollars over the years.


Forward unto dawn

Inspired by the critically acclaimed success of Halo: Combat Evolved, Bungie went to work on a sequel, Halo 2. Launching on the Xbox, Halo 2 broke all previous records. With an impressive 1.5 million pre-orders in place, Halo 2 launched on November 9, 2004, amongst high anticipation and substantial media coverage.

The game sold 2.4 million copies within the first 24 hours, raking in 125 million dollars and becoming the fastest-selling US media at the time. To this day, Halo 2 is the best-selling first-generation console game, with over 8.46 million copies sold worldwide.

This beach is now vintage (Image by Microsoft)
This beach is now vintage (Image by Microsoft)

Following the success of Halo 2, Bungie decided to up the ante with the sequel Halo 3. Microsoft also had a crack at the next generation of video game consoles, not wanting to be left behind. From the forges of Microsoft came the Xbox 360. Boasting upgraded hardware and firmware, the Xbox 360 was significantly better than the original Xbox.

Their ace up the sleeve was a live-service feature called Xbox Live. Xbox Live allowed players to chat, connect, and play together seamlessly, and Xbox 360’s stellar lineup of multiplayer games took full advantage of such features, Halo 3 being the top pick.

But even with such a measure of success, there was trouble in paradise. Mere weeks after Halo 3’s launch, Bungie announced their split from Microsoft to become a private company, with the rights to Halo IP staying with Microsoft. Before leaving, Bungie would develop two more Halo games.

Reach fell before the Spartans did. (Image by Microsoft)
Reach fell before the Spartans did. (Image by Microsoft)

Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach, prequels to Halo 3 and Halo: Combat Evolved, respectively, are the last Halo titles Bungie worked on, which some fans consider as their best narrative work in the series. As Halo enters a new decade, Microsoft’s homegrown studio 343 Industries will become the custodian of the legendary franchise, a position they hold to this day.


Shaping the future

Since the first light in 2001, as a series, Halo has mesmerized players in ways no other game of its time managed to. Halo: Combat Evolved was the first game to seamlessly incorporate open-world spaces and closed-door dungeon-crawling gameplay. Halo: Combat Evolved introduces players to cooperative campaigns, actual vehicular physics, intelligent AI, and detailed level design, all under the same roof.

While the technical aspects of Halo: Combat Evolved were revolutionary, Bungie pulled no punches on the narrative. Players fell in love with the Master Chief throughout the trilogy, who has now become a mainstream legend. Halo: Combat Evolved was a game that changed the times in every sense.

In Halo, one doesn't simply snipe like that (Image by Microsoft)
In Halo, one doesn't simply snipe like that (Image by Microsoft)

Halo: Combat Evolved didn’t have a robust multiplayer for a game that put the Xbox on the map. The standard 16 player mode was limited to LAN parties, so the community devised their way to play online through technical trickery. Learning from this, Bungie’s efforts on Halo 2’s multiplayer was focused.

Sticking to the formula that made Halo: Combat Evolved tick, Halo 2’s multiplayer offered players near-unlimited combat potential and innovative ways to play. Mechanics such as grenade jumping, rocket jumping, and animation cancelling became the norm even among casual players. Halo became an esports phenomenon and part of the WCG and MLG events. Halo created communities, clans, and LAN parties. It was the coolest thing at the time.

In our final Canon Fodder for 2021, we take a look at launch-related lore for #HaloInfinite, give an overview of the campaign’s audio logs, some multiplayer map fiction, and more. Come and check it all out!♾️ aka.ms/LegendaryEndin… https://t.co/hgpBcujV8A

Lest we forget, the other piece of the puzzle, Microsoft or rather Xbox, was equally responsible for Halo’s success. The original Xbox controller’s ergonomic design would prove to be most crucial as it was perfectly suited for a fast-paced, first-person shooter. So successful that it stood the test of time and still exists today in their newer products. But most players remember Halo because of Xbox Live.

Microsoft’s earliest iteration of live-service gaming proved to be the most fruitful for Halo’s future. Xbox Live lifted the floor and raised the ceiling for the franchise, providing an unprecedented amount of online access to players. Back in the day, there weren’t many players who didn’t log in to their Xbox 360 to play Halo 3 with their friends and random people over the internet.

Halo forged friendships, broke some, made people fall in love with games, changed lives for some. Halo changed how everyone viewed games and consoles. Xbox became a household item, quite similar to a PC.


Epilogue

The game that changed the rules forever (Image by Microsoft)
The game that changed the rules forever (Image by Microsoft)

Halo enters a new decade with Halo Infinite. It is just as much the beginning of a new story arc for the beloved Master Chief as it is for the franchise. Under 343 Industries, Halo has struggled with Halo 4 and Halo 5 being criticized for misunderstanding the core emotion of the franchise. Halo Infinite will stand the test of the players and time itself before it can enter the halls of fame.

Regardless, Halo as a franchise has shaped the very industry it exists in. Halo has become an inspiration for future developers. It made Bungie into a name for reverence among players, something they still carry into their current space opera, Destiny 2.

Halo made Xbox into a household name and secured the future of console shooters. It has become a game that shaped millions of lives over two decades. Not bad for a game once called Monkey Nuts.

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Edited by Yasho Amonkar
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