Recent reports paint a troubling picture of development but more ingrained issues still remain.
For as storied as the Halo franchise has been, it’s hard to believe that the first Halo game release in 2001. That means the series is less than two decades old. Compare this to the history that franchises like The Legend of Zelda, Mario, Metroid, Final Fantasy, Doom or even Sonic the Hedgehog, and it still seems relatively new. Nevertheless, Halo has gone from a relatively scrappy FPS with potential under Bungie to a multi-million dollar flagship Xbox franchise before being transferred to 343 Industries.
Throughout the years, I can’t help but wonder: What does 343 Industries want Halo to be? This sounds like a rhetorical question but after years of observing the studio, I’m genuinely curious. Does it want to do it’s own thing and break out from Bungie’s shadow? Does it want to tell a good Halo story that respects the lore? Does it want a fun multiplayer experience? Or does it want to break out from all story conventions, lore be damned? Does it want to make a games-as-a-service title, chasing the will-o’-the-wisp that is the “10 year plan”? Is it interested in competing with the very best games out there, innovating its own right, or is it simply content in skating by?
One thing that seems to be certain – the artists, programmers, QA testers, writers and level designers are people that love Halo. When 343 Industries was formed, it saw not only a few members of Bungie jumping over to join but the hiring of several community members. Even with the change in direction and the prospect of having to effectively start over with a series so rich in history, these people stuck with it because they love the IP. This especially applies to those who would join the company over the years.
However, when it comes to the leadership behind these games, I’m stuck wondering if they’re straddling a fine line between what’s best for business and what the fans, their own employees included, really want.
For those unaware, Halo Infinite‘s development is having problems. This is not some grand mystery to anyone who’s seen the campaign gameplay from the Xbox Games Showcase, much less heard about its delay into 2021. Even last year when creative director Tim Longo departed from 343 Industries, followed by his replacement, lead producer Mary Olsen, many believed there to be issues with development. A new report from Brad Sams on Thurrott has offered more insight, though there has been some rebuttals since then so keep that in mind.
In its earliest stages, development began back in 2015 with 343 Industries outlining what it referred to as Halo 6. The objective was to rebuild everything that made Halo what it was and 343 Industries went all out, developing the new Slipspace Engine and even planning for the release of the Xbox Series X. Keep in mind that the console wasn’t even announced back then. Suffice it to say that the studio already had its work cut out and after the backlash to Halo 5: Guardians, it had the monumental task of trying to do something new while returning to the spirit of Halo. Oh and they also need to conveniently wrap that whole Reclaimer Saga that began in Halo 4.
The problems apparently began in earnest before E3 2019 with the company outsourcing a “significant portion” of the game to third-party contractors. While this is a common trend in the industry, one source that spoke to Sams said that the outsourcing was “at a ratio higher than a typical studio undertakes during development” and had led to problems with cross-development collaboration. Several individuals are who are familiar with development at 343 Industries also described this collaboration as “challenging” and also mentioned “significant disagreements internally.” Soon enough, Tim Longo and then Mary Olsen would leave the studio later that year.
Another key factor that seems to be messing with development is the Halo TV series by ShowTime. Yes, the same Halo TV series with Steven Spielberg as executive producer that was announced as early as 2013 and who’s first season was ordered in 2018. Apparently, 343 management was prioritizing the TV series instead of focusing on Halo Infinite‘s development.
Let’s talk marketing. After the Halo Infinite demo was revealed, 343 Industries and Microsoft surged ahead with promoting the game. This included clarifying that this was indeed an older build and that the game is looking better every day. Throughout all this, we heard a myriad of things to describe the new Halo. “10 year plan,” “open world but not really,” “new experiences post-launch.” “Channeling old-school Halo” – all this and more, some worrying and others highlighting the game’s potential.
Shortly after the Xbox Games Showcase demo, a listing by Irish retailer Smyths Toys revealed that Halo Infinite‘s multiplayer would be free to play and run at 120 frames per second. Microsoft would confirm afterwards that Halo Infinite‘s multiplayer would indeed be free to play. When the game was delayed, Xbox boss Phil Spencer said there was a discussion to ship it in separate parts but that was nixed.
As it turns out, the discussion to ship the campaign and multiplayer separately started in late 2019 to early 2020, according to sources speaking with Sams. So while the final decision may have been made recently, this apparently issue came up a lot sooner. Slightly before this, Sams had reported on the multiplayer potentially being launched after the campaign, which 343 Industries denied before Spencer’s statement.
Regarding the announcement of multiplayer being free to play, the game’s marketing team was seemingly pushing ahead to keep hyping up the game, despite the engineering team asking for delays. In fact, the whole announcement of free to play multiplayer was made despite the engineering team knowing that a delay was inevitable. The news went out, fans got excited and then, of course, the game was delayed. Perhaps the most worrying part about the report is how Microsoft has invested “hundreds of millions of dollars into Halo Infinite” and looked for it to “elevate the Xbox Series X at launch.” Leave aside the fact that it will be missing out on a huge influx of sales when the next-gen consoles hit – the fact that so much has been reportedly invested into any title over a long period of development, whether the results are amazing or passable, is always a red flag.
Since the publishing of Sams’ report, community director Brian Jarrard commented on it, stating on Reddit that the report from July about multiplayer being delayed was “unsubstantiated” and “100 percent false” and that “no such plan or discussion had ever happened. Campaign was never going to ship without multiplayer, period.”
Jarrard further added that, “More recently, as it became clear that the project needed more time, part of that assessment did entail trying to see if perhaps just multiplayer could launch as planned but was deemed a non-starter. So even if that would’ve been the outcome, it’s the opposite of what was reported in late July. People can, and will, make up whatever stories they want but I have to draw the line at being personally implicated as being dishonest with the community. I may not always be allowed to say what I want to say (for example I’m probably not allowed to really get into a point by point response to this article), but I will always speak the truth.”
A representative for 343 Industries then refuted the part about management giving too much priority to the Halo TV series rather than Halo Infinite’s development. It stated to IGN that, “343 Industries has a devoted transmedia team that is working with Showtime on the creation and production of the Halo TV show. This group is separate from the Halo Infinite development team. These are two completely independent projects with dedicated teams and leadership that do not impact one another.” Ryan McCaffrey further added on Twitter that this made sense since as far as he knew, “Kiki [Wolfkill] is the only person really dealing with that at 343 (probably Frank too on the story side).”
You’re free to take Sams’ report with a grain of salt, though he leaked details for the Xbox Series X back when it was called Scarlett and even discussed a second, cheaper version of the console (that would later emerge as the Xbox Series S). He even reported on the next Halo game being called Halo Infinity before it’s official announcement at E3 2018. Some portions of the report could be wrong; others, like the heavy reliance on outsourcing and troubles with leadership remain unrefuted.
However, there’s one thing that’s undeniable – for as long as 343 Industries has been around, it’s seemingly floundered with what it wants Halo to. Halo 4 was a good but ultimately safe new start who’s multiplayer had a mixed reception. Halo 5: Guardians was hotly anticipated and launched with a story that the many Halo fans simply hated. Multiplayer was also more geared towards competitive arena gameplay, lacking features like Forge and even modes like Oddball and Firefight at launch. Instead, Warzone and its REQ Packs that could be purchased with real money were the name of the game. Halo 5: Guardians would see significant support in the multiplayer department but it never reached the heights of previous games. Let’s not forget about about Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which was utterly broken at launch and took several years to get to a working state.
This reports alludes to, among other things, a problem in vision. Even if that vision is the very best that 343 Industries can manage, it’s reportedly having trouble committing to it alone, as the over-reliance on outsourcing to third-party contractors indicates. Of course, there’s also the rumor, as told to Alanah Pearce by an unnamed source at 343 Industries, about the game being reworked and delayed due to the poor reception towards Halo 5: Guardians. If this delay hadn’t happened, then the story would continue as normal. That would help to explain Halo Infinite’s current state as part-spiritual successor, part-continuation to Halo 5 (but also serving as the platform for the launch of new stories).
Seeing these reports reminds me a bit of the issues that plagued BioWare’s Anthem. For years, the studio lacked a coherent vision for the game and only really committed to its looter shooter approach – not to mention actually began developing the current game – after the E3 2017 trailer. BioWare would also refute the extensive expose on the game’s flawed development, though I don’t think Halo Infinite’s development situation is nearly as bad (even if Sams’ report is taken on blind faith).
There will always be challenges that arise due to collaborating between so many different developers and contractors because lest we forget, Skybox Labs and Sperasoft are also helping in development. The impact of COVID-19 can’t be underestimated either – some studios have managed to adapt to working at home better while others have seen their games delayed by a significant margin.
However, even in the best of times, no amount of money, or new engine work, or hitting the reset button on story-telling, can make up for lacking a coherent vision. It’s what elevated great titles like Ghost of Tsushima and God of War – even if the former saw significant downgrades to its graphics, the vision remained intact and executed well. Even a game like Cyberpunk 2077, which has also had an extensive development cycle and several delays, looks better and better as time goes on, not only due to the work that CD Projekt RED’s employees have been putting in but because management’s vision for the game is clear.
At this point, 343 Industries would be trying to make this the best game possible. However, it’s also probably looking to get the job done, ensuring that Halo Infinite at least meets minimum viable product standards while improving it with more content down the line. Then there will be the challenges of releasing new single-player content while having to balance for a separate free to play multiplayer mode, which will doubtless require monetization and free updates along with maintenance and anti-cheat systems. And don’t discount battle royale being added to the game, despite the developer’s insistence that it’s not happening. Getting the game out the door is only the first step, for better or worse.
In the end, will the Xbox Series X be elevated? Will the Halo name still mean a damn, whether it’s to new players or longtime fans? Will the game even be fun to play? Was there anyone truly asking for Halo to be have a 10 year plan or open world elements? Multiplayer is a crap-shoot since part of the community wants it to evolve and embrace modern trends while the other part wants the classic Halo gameplay. You’re not going to satisfy everyone in that exchange. But story-wise, it seems the majority can agree on wanting a single-player campaign with a more conventionally-narrated story that doesn’t absolutely butcher years of established lore.
There are too many unknowns for a sequel of this magnitude, especially given everything we’ve seen thus far, and one can’t help but ask if that’s even normal. Then again, as hardcore fans who have endured with the series since the very beginning, development challenges, delays and tight deadlines are nothing new and neither is disappointment in what 343 Industries has ultimately churned out.
It’s hard to say how Halo Infinite will ultimately pan out. But one thing is for sure – the pressure is on, both publicly and behind the scenes, and thus far the developer has yet to impress with the results. A year’s worth of development time may be just what it needs for the long-term health of the series. It could also be an excuse to salvage what works and create a patchwork game that garners some return on Microsoft’s investment. Whatever the case may be, 343 Industries’ toughest trials are still to come.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.