What If: Microsoft Hadn’t Bought Bungie

Bungie Logo SuperWhile unpacking my Xbox 360 and it’s associated games after a recent relocation, I started to think: “Man Halo is pretty cool, but what if Microsoft didn’t own it?How would things have changed? Fortunately I could check! So I headed to TSA Towers, grabbed Gastos84 and headed for our microwave. Before I go any further I feel the question needs answering, what does the 84 in Gastos84 stand for? Well fear not reader, it’s very simple really! It in fact enumerates his number of problems in the style of Jay-Z. While Jay-Z may have 99 problems, our very own Gastos, fortunately, only has 84. I’ve never asked him what they are as this would further increase his number of problems, something he probably doesn’t need. Now where was I? Ah yes the microwave!

After tuning our coat hanger and flapping the tin foil in the required manner, we returned to June of 2000, just outside of the grounds of Microsoft HQ. Unfortunately some of our tin foil caught in the sun as we arrived, reflecting the light into the eyes of a courier carrying the signed papers from Bungie. After wincing as we witnessed his truck crash events moved quickly. The papers never made it to the Microsoft legal department. While under most circumstances it would be a simple matter to send the documents again, this was Microsoft and Bill Gates is the vengeful sort. Leaks from insiders quoted him as saying “If Bungie can’t get the paperwork through then f**k them, lets buy those BioWare guys instead.

So Microsoft didn’t own Bungie, so what? Well at first not a lot changed. Although the deal wasn’t final yet Bungie had already been preparing to the move to the Xbox from the game’s PC origins. They decided to keep the process going, obtained some Xbox development kits and became a second party developer for Microsoft’s system. While Bungie didn’t have the same kind of insider knowledge of the console and Live that first party studios received, this just pushed the team to work harder on the title and to integrate more features into the game. In light of this, and with the internal pressure from Microsoft removed, Bungie didn’t push to make the first Halo a launch title for the console. Instead they spent an extra year on the development and giving them a release for the debut of Xbox Live. They became one of the launch titles for Microsoft’s fledgling Live service and things really began to pickup. With the first Halo having full online multiplayer, rather than just LAN play, the game sold in even more incredible numbers.

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Although Microsoft’s big boss had previously scorned the company, the attitude changed quickly with the success of Halo. With the relationship between the two companies back on solid ground, and with Bungie pushing the release of Halo back a year, events seemed to take on a mind of their own. Bungie had a development cycle of 3 years in mind, something which fell roughly in line with Microsoft’s early stage planning for the release of their second console. After Microsoft held a preview event for developers in February of 2003 the stars aligned and Halo 2 quickly became a launch title with Microsoft Games Studios taking over the publishing rights from Bungie who had self-published the first game.

With Halo 2 added to an already strong launch line up, the 360 sales spike that we experienced with the release of Halo 3 got shunted to the start of the generation, leading to an increased and prolonged console shortage in a similar vein to the Wii’s release. With the extremely favourable press the game had received Microsoft were simply unable to compete with the additional demand created by the title. It was also a great stress test for Xbox Live on the new console. With the online multiplayer of the original Halo under their belt Bungie had managed to craft an experience improved on the strong offering of the first title. With record numbers of gamers taking to the online mode at release, Xbox Live’s first few days with the 360 seemed rocky with repeated service outages. Gamers everywhere were, of course, furious although industry press were a little more sympathetic towards Microsoft’s situation. While they’d underestimated demand for both their console and use of their service, there was little they could have done. Consoles were being put out at maximum speed and there was simply no way to stress test Xbox Live to the extent that the Halo 2 release had. However after the trouble with the service subsided and things stabilised it quickly became clear that Microsoft had pulled off a stellar launch.

With Halo 2 now behind them Bungie looked to the future. Again without Microsoft pushing them, and with Bungie retaining the rights to the Halo Intellectual Property, there didn’t seem to be as much urgency to bring about the third title in the series. Whilst Halo 2 had clearly left things open for a third title, Bungie had begun to grow weary of the series of shooters internally. The funds that the first two titles had gained them gave the studio the ability to do almost anything they felt like. While the development of the third Halo title continued, the development team was halved to give resources to a second project. Given the origins of the Halo series as an RTS this is where Bungie’s attention, perhaps obviously, turned. Giving a look into the way things could have been Halo Wars was announced as an RTS developed internally by Bungie, and set as a prequel to Halo: Combat Evolved. Sound familiar?

When Gastos and I saw the announcement of Halo Wars as a Bungie title we were surprised to see such a difference, but not as surprised as what came next. Halo Wars was to be a multi-platform title. While Bungie had until now been a second party studio, they decided to make the plunge to PS3 development exclusively for Halo Wars. While adding the PS3 to the development platforms for Halo 3 didn’t happen (they were mid-way through the story, it would have just been weird), Halo Wars was pushed to both consoles and rather successfully so. While not the same financial success that the main Halo series was, the game still sold well for an RTS and was a huge critical success. In particular it did well on the PS3, with gamers who hadn’t been able to try any part of the series relishing the opportunity. With parts of the universe’s back story now fleshed out and the studio feeling refreshed from their brief departure from FPS development their full attention turned to Halo 3.

With a fair chunk of the pre-production work for Halo 3 done during the development of Halo Wars, the studio was quick of the mark with the heavily anticipated title. With the experience of building two engines for the 360 at this point (the Halo 2 and Halo Wars engines) Halo 3 built on these, producing stunning immersive environments from the 360, now 5 years into its life-time. With the success of Halo Wars on the PS3 and inevitable Halo 3 bundle that appeared at release along with a price cut due to the later point in the console’s lifespan, Microsoft again saw a significant sales spike as new fans of the series purchased a 360 to go alongside their PS3. Microsoft moved into an even more commanding position in terms of sales figures, forcing Sony to… well that’s a story for another time. For now Gastos and I were due back in our timeline, and adjusting the microwave fresh with tales of an improved Halo franchise, and all because Microsoft hadn’t purchased Bungie.

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