In the late 1990s, Bungie Studios was a relative unknown in the larger gaming world. Started by Alex Seropian and Jason Jones in 1991, Bungie was a big fish in the small Macintosh gaming pond, having created the immensely popular Marathon and Myth video game franchises (1). But Bungie’s next project promised to be even bigger.
What became Halo: Combat Evolved bears little similarity to the first-person shooter that launched a multibillion dollar franchise. It started out as a real-time strategy game, for all accounts very much like Myth, save with a science-fiction rather than fantasy setting.
One of the most impacting changes was the location of gameplay. Originally, the story of what would become Halo(first code-named Monkey Nuts and then Blam!) involved the survivors of a human ship that crash-landed on a massive, hollowed-out planet called “Solipsis”. Solipsis evolved from a planet to a Dyson Sphere (a theoretical construct that would surround a star and therefor capture almost all its energy), then morphed again into a ringworld. Ringworlds, essentially intermediates between the massive Dyson Spheres and planets, had been seen in science fiction before, specifically the works of Larry Niven (where the term “ringworld” came from), andIan Banks. Some developers felt that the change to a ringworld was “ripping off” Niven (2), although the rings inHalo bear more of a resemblance to Banks’ Orbitals (Niven’s ringworlds orbit a star, like a Dyson Sphere, but the structures in Halo are much smaller, and orbit gas giants in a star system.) Irregardless, these large ringworlds were the work of a mysterious ancient race, known as the Forerunner. The antagonists of the game would be a collective of alien races known as the Covenant.
A name still hadn’t been decided upon (the code name had only changed to Blam! because Jones couldn’t bring himself to tell his mother their next project was called Monkey Nuts). Titles such as The Crystal Palace, Hard Vacuum, Star Maker, Star Shield, and The Santa Machine were all suggested and considered to varying degrees. It was Bungie staffmember Paul Russell, an artist working on the Foreunner’s aesthetic and architectural design. who suggested “Halo” as the game’s name. Despite concerns that the name would misbrand the game (being too religious or too peaceful-sounding) the name stuck, and logically the name extended to the ring-shaped superstructure the game was set on (3).
Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs officially unveiled Halo on July 21, 1999, intended to be released simultaneously on the Mac and Windows personal computer platforms the next year. By this time, much of the game had crystalized, but much remained up in the air and much had changed already. The real-time strategy genre had been discarded in favor of a sleek third-person shooter. While only a single screenshot was released on its announcement, hype began building for Halo‘s reportedly jaw-dropping graphics. The next big look at the game was almost a year later at the 2000 Electronic Entertainment Expo. Here human soldiers fought the alien Covenant alongside huge dinosaur-like local fauna and Forerunner ruins (ultimately, the dinosaurs-including one, the “Blind Wolf”, that could be ridden-would never appear in the final game) (4). Halo looked to be a very hot thing.
Too hot for Apple competitor Microsoft to ignore, it would turn out. Microsoft was planning on challenging Sony’s PlayStation 2 with a game console of its own, the Xbox. Halo looked to be the launch title it had been looking for. Soon after E3 on June 19, 2000, Microsoft announced it had acquired Bungie and thus Halo. For some, it was tantamount to a betrayal one of the biggest Mac game developers had been bought by the Mac’s main rival, and with Halo becoming an Xbox exclusive the promised PlayStation and personal computer ports seemed highly unlikely. Now working on a completely different and unproven platform, Bungie had to heavily alter Halo. The planned multiplayer features were scrapped, as the Xbox’s multiplayer service, Xbox Live, would not be launching at the time of Halo’s release (5). Problems with aiming in third-person were among the reasons that Halo changed again to a first-person shooter.
The road to retail was a rocky one. While the E3 2000 footage had been highly impressive, the ugly fact was that none of the characters featured actual artificial intelligence-the entire demo was a highly scripted puppet show. At E3 2001, the game’s frame rate dropped to an exceedingly choppy 10-15fps, convincing many that Halo would not be as good as the hype predicted (6). Things like the visual design of the Forerunner were still coming together in the months before the game’s release.
In fact, while Microsoft had heavily promoted Halo as the Xbox’s flagship title (the game’s green-armored protagonist Master Chief happened to mesh well with the black-and-green Xbox exterior), that hadn’t been the intent. In fact, Halo was recieving some extremely negative press. Part of the problem was that it was a shooter for a console, whereas the PC had long been the exclusive domain for good shooter games (notable exceptions being Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64, years earlier) (7).
It surprised many, then, when Halo: Combat Evolved landed in stores in November 2001 and promptly became a runaway critical and commercial success. One million units were sold by April 2002, the fastest-selling game of the console generation at that point (8). Almost four years after release, it had sold 5 million units worldwide (9). Critical consensus was clear: Goldeneye, long the king of console shooters, had been replaced by a game with excellent controls, addictive action, and mesmerizing graphics.
Halo proved to be a successful game, but it became something unique: the starting product for a franchise that has now extended to four bestselling novels, in addition to short stories, anthologies, and graphic novels. Merchandise: from action figures to lounge pants. And of course, sequels-which have surpassed Halo‘s commercial success and turned the franchise into one of the biggest gaming properties of all time.
“Video Game History: Halo: Combat Evolved” References
* (1) Xbox World (2007) “The History of Halo”. GamesRadar. Accessed 2009-12-08.
* (2) Bungie (2008). “Bungie Podcast 08/21/08: With Paul Russel and Jerome Simpson”. Bungie. Accessed 2008-08-27.
* (3) McLaughlin, Rus (2007) “IGN Presents the History of Halo”. IGN. Accessed 2009-12-08.
* (4) Bungie (2002) “The Evolution of Halo”. Bungie.org. Accessed 2009-12-08.
* (5) Weir, Dale (2001) “Halo (Xbox) Preview”. GameCritics. Accessed 2009-11-30.
* (6) Gillen, Kieron (2007) “Planetary Objects in the Rear-View Mirror” in Halo Effect: An Unauthorized Look at the Most Successful Video Game of All Time. Benbella Books (ed. Glenn Yeffeth). (ISBN 1933771119).
* (7) Alexander, Leigh (2009) “Interview: Former Microsoft Exec Fries Talks Xbox’s Genesis”. Gamasutra. Accessed 2009-12-09.
* (8) Microsoft (2002) “Halo: Combat Evolved for Xbox Tops 1 Million in Record Time”. Microsoft. Accessed 2009-11-08.
* (9) O’Connor, Frank (2005) “Halo 2: One Year Later”. Bungie. Accessed 2009-11-09.
For more information, readers should consult the sources utilized at the Wikipedia articles for “Halo: Combat Evolved“, “Halo (series)” and “Bungie“; the authoritative Bungie/Halo fan site Halo.Bungie.Org also contained many resourced that I used for this story.
Other Halo-related info by David Fuchs on Associated Content: “Halo 3 Postmortem” / “In Focus: Halo Wars” / “Is ‘Halo’ Doomed?” / “The Halo Movie Adaptation”