Microsoft needed a guardian angel when it decided to enter the console wars with the Xbox. Instead it got a Halo.
Robbie Bach was in charge of Microsoft’s gaming division in 2000 when the company first acquired the Halo franchise. In this video, as well as a new book, he retells how his team harnessed creativity and perseverance to make the new console a rousing success. Much of that can be attributed to the success of Halo, a title that revolutionized what video games could be and do.
Robbie Bach: So the Halo franchise originated for us back in 2000. We had decided to do the Xbox project and we were out looking for games that Microsoft could publish on Xbox, because as the creator of the console, we had to have our own games. And there was this group called Bungie that had this game called Halo that was in development. It started on the Macintosh, ironically. Got moved to the PC and so when we saw them, it was a PC game. And the guy who found it on the team was a guy named Ed Fries, who ran our first-party game studio. And Ed came to me and said, "Hey, we have this acquisition. I think this game is a winner and it’s not a small acquisition, but it’s not a large acquisition. Let’s do it." So we looked at it and we did. So I didn’t play a big role in doing that. But now we own it and now we have to house the Bungie team and they’re a creative team and they’re not going to work in offices. They’re going to work in an open space and we have to restructure the building to enable them to get their work done. And then we get to that first E3 in 2001, which was just cataclysmic for us and Halo looked awful. And it played awful. And Ed did something very smart and the Bungie team did something very smart. They pulled back and said nobody gets to touch Halo. We’re not going to let people play it. The team is going into hibernation, you know. Close the door; we’re going to make this a great game. And three months later it was amazing.
And so what really happened in that three-month period is that they narrowed it — they had a great game concept. They had a great gameplay dynamic, but they narrowed in on optimizing how the hardware and the game worked together to produce a great experience. And because they weren’t spending time doing demos and doing press meetings and trying to convince people it was a great game, they could really focus on it and make it happen. And they created a unique dynamic in that period.
I think one of the things that made Halo resonate — well there’s really two things. The first is it was a great story. By itself, it was a great story and, in fact, there’s been books. There’s a whole series of Halo books. And I’ve read three of them and they’re actually quite good. And video game books generally as a genre is not the most powerful literary area. These are good books. They’re interesting. They’re challenging. And so the story was great. So as a single-player game, people enjoyed it. It was a fascinating story.
The second thing is it was a community game. It was a game that was about playing with others. And in the console world, that just didn’t exist. There were multiplayer games, sure. But Halo started this whole idea of hey we’re going to get eight people together then we’re going to have a Halo fest at night. And in the original — people forget that the original version of Xbox, Xbox Live didn’t exist for the first year. And, in fact, the first version of Halo never supported Xbox Live. And so you had to wire your Xboxes together so literally people would bring four Xboxes to a house. They’d go in four different rooms in the house, lay Ethernet cable in the house and play Halo all night because it was so much fun to play against each other and to play with other people. So the idea of being a great single-player story and a great multiplayer game was a winning strategy. And when that product came out, it saved Xbox. Without Halo and Xbox Live, Xbox doesn’t survive. And I think it gets lots of credit as being a great game franchise and not enough credit as being one of the two reasons why Xbox was successful.