Halo changed forever last month with the release of the Defiant Map Pack, a collection of new battlefields for the latest entry in the sci-fi videogame series. In most respects, the virtual killing fields — which give millions of Halo: Reach players new terrain upon which to splatter each other’s corpses — seem identical to the downloadable expansion packs Microsoft released for previous editions of the landmark Xbox game.
This was far more significant than your average expansion, though: It’s the first set of Halo levels produced without the input of Bungie Studios, the series’ creator.
Defiant was developed by 343 Industries, a new Microsoft unit tasked with continuing the franchise, and the expansion was seen as a litmus test: Can the Xbox maker craft something that feels like Halo without the incredibly talented studio that birthed the series?
“Fans were definitely nervous at first,” said Claude Errera, founder of Halo fan site halo.bungie.org, who is constantly tuned in to the community of gamers that’s sprung up around the series.
“It’s been pretty interesting to watch the shift in attitudes over the past few months” as gamers explored the Defiant expansion and found it comparable to Bungie’s previous offerings, he said in an e-mail to Wired.com.
“It feels like Halo,” he said. “The maps have similar flow, similar aesthetic touches — even similar weaknesses to Bungie’s creations.”
Defiant proved 343’s ability to ape Bungie’s stellar work, effectively updating 2010’s Reach with a sense of surprise and novelty. But what happens when 343 is called upon to create not just a few multiplayer maps but a whole new Halo game?
That’s the challenge faced by Microsoft’s rapidly expanding group of game designers: Keep creativity pulsing within the corporate ecosystem of the world’s largest software maker, while crafting the next chapter in a game series that’s garnered one of the world’s most rabid fan communities.
And to do it all without anybody noticing the change.
The Cult of Halo
Xbox’s killer app began its life as a Macintosh game in 1999, back when tiny Bungie was one of the best-regarded developers on the platform. Microsoft, on the verge of breaking into the videogame-console business but without any significant internal game development groups, bought Bungie in 2000, and Halo became an Xbox exclusive.
Microsoft’s first Xbox had a handful of other decent games, but nothing like Halo, a multimillion seller that single-handedly justified the purchase of the $300 console (and three extra $50 controllers).
Halo’s single-player campaign was nothing to write home to Earth about. But Bungie hit the sweet spot with the game’s multiplayer mode, tweaking the competitive and team-based cooperative modes to create a lithe, fast-paced formula that never got old. First-person shooters on the PC were one thing, but Halo brought the action to the couch — it was high-fives, screamed cuss words and all-night Dew and Doritos.
For serious aficionados of the first-person shooter looking for a next-gen upgrade to Goldeneye, the space battles in Halo — which pit Master Chief and his Spartan comrades against aliens known as the Covenant — proved irresistible.
Over the years, Microsoft built a cult around the game, keeping players living the Halo lifestyle between releases with novels, animation, alternate-reality games like “I Love Bees” — the works.
And Bungie was the goose that laid the golden egg, working exclusively on Halo sequels for the next 10 years. After Microsoft agreed to spin off Bungie into an independent studio, the transfer of 10 years’ worth of Halo documentation and lore from Bungie to 343 began. It’s “a long, careful analog process” that is still ongoing, said Frank O’Connor, a Bungie mainstay who is now director of franchise development at 343.
“Most people are pretty oblivious” as to where Halo comes from, O’Connor said in a February interview. “Half the people say that ‘Xbox’ makes the games.” But O’Connor knows that the vocal, hard-core, knowledgeable superfans who make up the core of Halo fandom need to be kept happy.
Before 343 Industries, a fully formed division within Microsoft supported Halo behind the scenes, said Bungie community manager Eric Osborne.