Whenever a new console is launched, there is always the question of how much staying power it will have. Companies like Nintendo, Sega, and Sony have weathered many storms and for years had successful consoles, but even they are not immune to mishaps or poor choices. It often takes a special something for a console to endure, and this usually stems from having a trademark series under its wing, a killer app that elevates the console to greatness.
In November of 2001, Microsoft entered the fray by releasing the Xbox, the first American-Made console since Atari’s last attempt with the Jaguar in 1993. The Xbox was a powerful machine, offering highly detailed graphical capabilities that would be on par with low end PC machines at the time, and was in direct competition with both Sony, Sega, and Nintendo for console dominance at the time. While Sega would fizzle out and Nintendo and Sony would hold steady, the Xbox became a surprise smash that year, and much of the success has been attributed to one title in particular: Halo.
Much like Super Mario Bros., Halo: Combat Evolved became a household name almost overnight for a new generation of game players. Word of mouth of the first-person shooter spread quickly, and soon Halo would skyrocket to the must-have game for the Microsoft console. But unlike Super Mario Bros., it was more than just a hunger for something new or clever marketing on the parts of Microsoft itself; although that certainly played a part. Halo would encompass something else by giving to the masses something missing from a bygone era: a PC-experience on the console.
To understand Halo’s appeal, it should be noted the pedigree of the company creating the title. Bungie was a small PC game maker that started back in the early 1990’s, creating titles for Mac computers, of all things. The first few games were self-funded by Bungie’s co-founders, Jason Jones and Alex Seropian, until 1994 when they struck gold with their first major franchise, Marathon.
The Marathon Trilogy would be developed and released on Mac’s from 1994-1996, with a Windows 95 version of Marathon 2: Duradel, being the only cross-over. The game’s are widely praised for being among the best FPS titles on PC systems, even surpassing favorites like System Shock, Doom, and Wolfenstein in terms of popularity. Technical marvels in their day, Marathon was one of the first FPS titles to offer a backstory to the players through computer terminals, and to have a robust multiplayer mode beyond deathmatch modes seen in Doom II, including team variants like king of the hill and capture the flag.
Many have cited Halo as the spiritual successor to Marathon, but Halo was never intended to be a first-person shooter, let alone be released on the Xbox. In 1999, Halo was first announced to the world, but behind closed doors many compared it to another game in Bungie’s stable, the Myth series. The Myth games were real-time tactical unit based games, where you as the player controlled a finite number of units against hordes of enemies. The original design specs for Halo credited to a high end version of Myth, trading swords for shotguns and using a space-themed aesthetics, and was originally planned to be released on the PC and the Mac simultaneously. This all changed when Microsoft stepped in, buying out Bungie to produce titles exclusively for Microsoft. Bungie would then reinvent Halo, and under their new contract decided to re-design the game for console release.
The first screenshots of Halo generated considerate buzz for the title, but the honeymoon quickly wore off by the year 2000. Former Microsoft VP of Publishing, Ed Fries, discussed this with Gamasutra back in 2009.
In truth, the gaming press did have positive reactions to Halo before the acquisition from Microsoft. Halo actually changed its gameplay style twice; first from the real-time tactics game mentioned previously, to a third-person shooter. After Bungie was purchased in July of 2000, the focus again was shifted to a first-person perspective. Many in the gaming press lamented this aspect, in particular the E3 2001 demo that showed off the changes and the final touches of the title for the first time. Of particular note, the gaming media focused on the change in perspective and the graphics engine being a huge gamble on the part of Microsoft to deliver a good title. This caused cautious optimism regarding the direction of Halo, with the press enthusiastic about the promise of the game, but doubting the ability to deliver. Fortunately, its release as one of the launch titles for the original Xbox cemented its fate as that killer app for Microsoft.
Upon release, Halo was the best game in the console launch lineup, with excellent graphical capabilities and frantic gameplay that allowed players to experience a first-person shooter unlike any other at the time. Before Halo, games like Medal of Honor and Goldeneye set the standards for first-person shooters in terms of graphics, controls, and even multiplayer for consoles. Halo brought a PC sensibility to the console market that allowed the title to not only thrive, but simultaneously influence the direction of the FPS genre. As Fries remembers it, “Whether console players would want to play a hardcore, PC-style shooter was ‘a real question.’ Obviously, once we launched Xbox, the game started selling like crazy and became iconic for the platform. But all that happened after the fact, after a lot of naysayers said it wouldn’t, or couldn’t.”
It is also important to note that Halo launched without Xbox Live implemented on the console, meaning there was no online multiplayer available for the game, which would become a primary selling point for future iterations of the series. Instead, a 16-player multiplayer match was only achievable through a LAN party with four Xboxs, another unique feature of the title at the time. The overall fun of the multiplayer mode however allowed Halo to make itself distinct from other shooters on the console market.
In truth, Halo’s success fell upon the willingness of Bungie to tailor-make the game without conforming to console standards. Bungie simply took what they learned from creating Mac-based PC games and brought that attention to detail for a console system. This paved the way for what we have today, simultaneous releases for PC and consoles, often the same game either merely ported or barely altered to now encompass both console and PC users. Halo was one of the first titles to showcase that crossover appeal, especially after the PC release of Halo in 2003.
This is perhaps the most important part of Halo’s own long-lasting legacy on the gaming industry. As consoles grew more sophisticated, the ability to mimic PC-styled games became a hallmark for the early 2000’s. Microsoft was the forerunner for this, and the system later became famous thanks to innovations such as Xbox Live and the PC ports of popular franchises like The Elder Scrolls series catapulted the Xbox into the limelight. We would see the emphasis for console development become more prominent for both PC game makers and to a degree many PC players, as cross-over appeal became more of a reality. Through this, Halo was just the first sign of the current state of consoles today, online functionality, multiplayer modes, and connectivity like a personal computer, all set up to your television.
Halo would become that killer app for Microsoft in more ways than one, becoming both the flagship franchise for Microsoft and the blueprint for future FPS titles. This sort of recognition let its sequel, Halo 2, become the best selling Xbox game of all time, with over 8 million units sold by 2006. But for Halo 2 to reach that milestone, Halo needed to pave the way for its success, achieving what few games can claim: longevity through innovation.
And that is Game Changers this week. Sorry for the lateness for this one, it was tough to write to be honest. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or email me at Robert@blisteredthumbs.net. You can also contact me via twitter @LinksOcarina. See you next time.