Retrospective: 14 years of Halo
Where did it come from? How did you begin? What inspired you to help make the universe of Halo? These are a few of the most common questions asked of me, one of the very few grizzled ancients who helped begin the creation of Halo, 14 years ago. Honestly, there are no simple answers, but there are a number of reasons why I believe we hit on a success.
As a creative, my imagination was fueled by years of books, movies, life experiences and educational pursuits and I had always wanted to create a fictional world inhabited with all sorts of interesting characters and fun “toys” with which they interact. I know this is no different than a billion people out there who all have the same desire. But when I joined Bungie and was seated down next to Jason Jones and Robt McLees and we began this strange journey of creating a universe, I knew very early on that we were making something special – mostly because we all had such passion for making this world together. As the team grew a little larger, we hired only people who we could count on and the vision for the Halo universe expanded and became more real with every passing day.
Back in 98, the team was still small and agile, able to try out ideas on the fly. We started with the old Myth: The Fallen Lords engine as our base, prototyping ideas of heavily armored super-soldiers (pushing the bleeding edge of tech at 400 polys each – wow!), surrounded by an equally advanced arsenal of military weapons and vehicles, not to mention a whole host of strange alien craft. Before long, the generic super-soldier became our primary focus and developed into what we soon called the Master Chief. What we produced was an experience that felt unique to us, especially compared to all the other games out there at that time. The ideas we had were so simple. Good humans vs. bad aliens fighting each other with big guns on a strange world in the not so distant future – with humanity’s fate solely in your hands. Looking back, it seems almost sophomoric in approach, but it was the simplicity that I believe made Halo so pure and easy to access. More important, it was exactly what we wanted in a video game. Now, to be fair, the strange world became the foundation for the Forerunner mystery which added just the right amount of complexity and depth to the universe. These
were the simple atoms for our story, a cast of characters, and a world which contained the thing that is so difficult to plan for – a heart and soul.
At the same time, another part of our team was focused on honing the core combat model for the game. We didn’t know it at the time, but this work would form the basis of the multiplayer experience, an experience that would become as core to Halo as anything we did throughout the series. It acted as a catalyst for the social gaming experiences that we know today.
If any of these components had been lesser than the other, I believe Halo would not have become so embedded within pop culture. Even so – and I’ve said this many times before – we had no idea just how popular Halo would become. It was truly born in a perfect storm: a well-crafted game on a brand new console and a market hungry for a console shooter. It was a success that took us all by total surprise, and presented our studio with some unforeseen challenges.
Halos 2 and 3 were both tests for our studio. We came close to the edge a few times during this period, as we struggled with the fallout of success, the increased pressure and expectations, as well as diverging ideas over where our games should go. On top of that it was a constant battle to keep our culture intact as we continued to grow at an ever-increasing rate and simultaneously began the fight to become independent once again. As we dealt with the internal pressures, we also needed to stop and remind ourselves that our growing fan base expected more from us. Each successive Halo needed to be better than the last. But sustaining that quality bar was always difficult. Balancing the need to one-up ourselves and catch the eye of the media against staying true to the game and delivering quality for our fans became such a difficult beast to wrestle. On one hand we kept adding more complexity to the series with gameplay features, bigger stories, and grander settings. On the other hand we needed to constantly step back and critique ourselves to make sure we weren’t pushing it too far. But we never knew for sure just how it was going to be received until the game launched. It was only then that we’d hear the real feedback from our fans and the media, raw and unfiltered. While some of it stung, the one message that came through strong was that people wanted more, wanted to be immersed in the world of Halo and wanted us to continue making it.
At the end of Halo 3, I was pretty sure that I had had enough of Halo. I felt that we had exhausted all of the cool ideas and that our fans were getting tired of what had become an incredibly large and over-hyped franchise. The Halo I helped create was becoming something much bigger than I could fully grasp. The sheer breadth of the marketing efforts around Halo was amazing and somewhat overwhelming. Then there was the question of our independence and what it meant to us as a studio. Hanging on the line was a carrot. Make one more Halo game and you will be free.
This was a turning point for me personally. I could only agree to make another game in the Halo universe if I was 100% on board with the project. So we worked with MS and negotiated a plan that made us both happy. Internally we thought about how we could bring a part of the Halo universe to a complete close. From the beginning we were determined not to continue the Master Chief’s story, since any story surrounding the Chief would be too big and intertwined in past fiction to fit into one game. Instead we decided to go back to the beginning where it all began.
We took this opportunity to embrace everything we had done over the series. We gathered up all the success and cut away many mistakes. Then we decided to go back to the place where Spartans like the Master Chief began. Halo: Reach became our own personal swan song to a franchise that I helped create a decade earlier. I had fallen in love with the universe, grown a bit wary as it had become a mega success, and ultimately was ready to say good-bye. But I was given a chance to take one more look at it with fresh eyes.
To do this, we didn’t simply skin the Halo 3 engine with a new story and fancy art. That would have been easy (and probably would have made the powers above us much happier). Instead we decided to do it right and rebuild the game from the ground up – because it was the only way we could bring this final game to life and do it justice. We built Halo: Reach to be one of the most sophisticated and feature rich games the world had ever seen. It took everything we had, but when Reach finally launched out into the world we felt proud that it could stand up to the legacy of Halo created and built by Bungie.
Looking back on the last 14 years at Bungie, I recall so many moments of glory and joy as well as the tough moments that made me lose all my hair – hah! It’s awkward to reflect on some of these moments and remember just how much of a silly kid I was – full of passion and righteous opinions. But, I also look back and recognize how it has shaped me, toughened my skin, and taught me how people work together creatively to make wonderful things.
Bungie has become a new and powerful studio, full of incredible talent and ideas. I often sit back and gaze in wonder over how different we are now. I will always remember the struggles we had when we were just a few with a common goal to build something the world had never seen before. Thank you to Bungie for such an amazing ride. I look forward to the next very big games we will make together.