The original Halo: Combat Evolved was a classic example of the "change one thing" rule of video game innovation. The "change one thing" rule is as follows:
Change one thing: you're a genius.
Change two things: you're a mad genius.
Change three things: it's never going to work.
The one thing that Halo changed back in 2001 was that it created a compelling console-native First-person Shooter experience. In doing so, it became Xbox's first killer app. Before Halo, GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 was the "Shooters really can work on consoles" game, but GoldenEye didn't convert the entire Shooter genre to the console ecosystem the way Halo did. After Halo, PCs were no longer the natural home of "Doom Clones." Now, FPS games were "Halo Clones," and Shooters with linked with the Xbox in popular consciousness.
Halo's 2004 sequel, Halo 2, showed both the best and the worst of the video game industry at the time. I still consider Halo 2 to be the best of the Halo games. It had just enough weapons which were (mostly) well balanced, and also balanced a decent single player campaign and different types of multiplayer and co-op play. There was no core Halo 2 experience. Every type of play felt natural and complete... except for the ending of the campaign. This was the "worst of times" element that Halo 2 displayed. Halo was a big IP by the time the sequel came out, and Microsoft had determined it was more important to ship a game by a certain date than to ship the best game possible. But despite the criticized cliffhanger ending, Halo 2 had the best character arc of the series... only that arc belonged to the Arbiter, not series star Master Chief. Halo 2 sold gangbusters despite its flaws, and this began a period of Halo games that focused on "good enough" as opposed to making the best game possible.
This was not strange. There were big, innovative launches like World of Warcraft, but the industry was dominated by sequels. Half-Life 2, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Doom 3, The Sims 2, and Knights of the Old Republic 2 continued stories, but didn't change gameplay features in meaningful ways. Other than WoW, the big innovator was Fable, which showed that fantasy RPGs could work on consoles, although Fable wasn't robust enough as an IP to endure for long.
However, by the time Halo 3 released, the Halo franchise was a juggernaut. Dude-bro gaming culture was in full swing, and only the most elite, respected critics like Jeff Gerstmann could criticize a Halo game without being the subject of vicious online attacks... or if he got them, he just didn't care. Bungie's efforts were focused on multiplayer, not single player story, and all across the industry companies had discovered that multiplayer was a way to hold players and keep them loyal to a console ecosystem.
Many players didn't even play the Halo 3 campaign. They jumped right into multiplayer because the mechanics were familiar. Getting to the top of the leaderboard was more important than experiencing a story, and console video games swung back to a paradigm more like competitive sports and less like an interactive narrative. This wasn't inherently a bad thing, but the "multiplayer or bust" phase of video game history did alienate a portion of the market that would come roaring back as the indie game "social justice warriors" that are currently a thorn in the side of triple-A gaming. An ongoing theme in the history of gaming is that alienated groups tend to return as disruptive forces to the status quo.
The video game industry has a bad habit of abandoning entire sections of the player base to try to increase market share with another, and this has always created a culture shock down the road. Gaming is currently repeating that mistake by trying to cater to the outraged factions alienated during the FPS narrative wasteland era. In doing so, they're equally alienating the Shooter gamers who were used to being catered to up until very recently. Gaming keeps making the "New Coke" mistake, and Halo has been a bellweather for those swings throughout its history, even more so than Call of Duty. CoD is an annual title, and therefore exists in its own ecosystem. Halo is a semi-annual title, so every truly new game brings with it big expectations.
For instance, Halo 3 was right on the pulse of the concept of games as user-generated content ecosystems, with the Forge allowing limited map editing capabilities. It was the beginning of a paradigm in consoles that games were less pre-set gauntlets a player ran through, and more tools that allowed a player to show off their skills to some form of audience. This once again stole fire from the PC Master Race and kept consoles viable in the mod community age.
In 2009, Halo Wars was an attempt to do for real time strategy what the original Halo had done for Shooters. Unfortunately it was really only half a game, and though it sold well for a real time strategy game at the time, it didn't sell well for a Halo game. Worse, it failed to make consoles the default platform for RTS games. RTS was still tied to keyboard and mouse configuration. It was the first major stumble connected to the Halo brand, and it showed that no IP in gaming is bullet proof. Still, this offshoot IP is apparently getting a sequel, proving the strength of the Halo brand even when the product is mediocre.
Halo 3: ODST was the next instalment a few months later, and was representative of the FPS over-saturation malaise that had settled into console gaming by 2009. Both the Halo and Call of Duty franchises had settled into ruts that looked like mountains due to the sheer amount of marketing hype that surrounded these IPs. By focusing on multiplayer innovations and skimping on the length of the campaigns, these FPS franchises were increasingly narrowing what sort of player would enjoy these games. The appeal of these games was that they were instantly familiar to anyone who had played any previous game in the series, but the fun involved was increasingly what players could do with the game, not what the game itself did. Players looking for a story didn't have much to keep drawing them in. It was the community that was driving interest. And sales.
It's not that ODST was bad, per se. The game just didn't break new ground. ODST was the point when Halo stopped setting trends and started chasing them, which perhaps could be expected from the fifth game in the franchise. Halo had reached maturation, and it's difficult to truly innovate when the health of an entire console depends on the sales of one franchise. While Gears of War had started to assume some of the heavy lifting, Halo was still synonymous with Xbox, and the franchise was beginning to feel the weight of that responsibility. This was true of many classic franchises that were beginning to falter during that period -- titans of previous gaming eras like Tomb Raider and Mortal Kombat were similarly struggling. What Halo had going for it was that it was the standard bearer of a particular gamer identity -- the console warrior. While the PC Master Race represented the hardest of gaming hardcores, Halo gamers won the numbers war. Halo didn't have to be good. It just had to be consistent, much like the rest of the console gaming industry during that period of FPS dominance.
This reality continued through the release of Halo Reach in 2010, the beginning of the trend annual Halo-related releases. Reach was an attempt to create Spartans with distinct personalities, which was right on trend regarding the evolutions taking place in the Shooter genre. But it also exposed clear weaknesses in Bungie's creative prowess: Bungie is great at creating worlds, but it's hit and miss at creating memorable characters.
Reach did something else that was subtle but significant, however, and it's another example of Bungie's ability to predict trends in the video game industry. Reach pivoted the critical character in the Halo universe from Master Chief to Cortana. It seems that Bungie realized that Cortana was the character people really cared about, both as an on-screen avatar of the Halo franchise, and a recognizable female video game character in a period of gaming history that had a distinct lack of enduring women.
On the whole, however, ODST and Reach bear all the markers of fulfilling contract obligations as opposed to Bungie creating true labours of love.
But Halo fans were, by this point, so uncritical that Bungie could have defecated on an Xbox and they would have proclaimed the result brilliant. Since video game criticism had not yet matured, most reviewers were swept up in the hype, and ODST and Reach received an inflated reception that was exposed when Bungie made it clear to their fan community that they'd essentially been phoning it in since Halo 3. One could almost say that Bungie trolled the entire video game community with ODST and Reach, making ridiculous amounts of money with games they didn't put their hearts into. Should Bungie be blamed for this? No. No one forced so-called critics to give these games high scores. The fact that reviewers drank the Halo kool-aid shows the power of the brand... or, more specifically, Bungie's canny grasp on community management -- a nascent element of the gaming community that Bungie jumped on before most game companies even realized it was a thing.
But at this point in Halo's story, the history of Halo and the history of Bungie diverge. Bungie went off to work on a new project, and 343 Industries began to assume Halo duties. This was a major shift in how Halo games were made and marketed, and the change was felt almost immediately. Bungie-developed Halo games had been marked by a distinct veil of secrecy. 343, on the other hand, shifted to an immediate open door policy that focused on marketing quality of concept as opposed to raw hype. Their first original game, Halo 4, attempted ambition with its Spartan Ops weekly content concept, but the spell on critics was broken and all of a sudden the faults that had existed in Halo games from the very beginning mattered: weak campaigns, convoluted stories that didn't entirely make sense, and so on... these had been marks of the Halo brand since Halo 2, and they'd finally come home to roost now the Bungie had flown the coop.
Why? Because game reviewers tend to defer to a strong alpha developer. 343's attempts at being more open meant that they were also open to criticism. Bungie's ivory tower strategy worked precisely because game reviewers are nerds like every other gamer, and they defer to authority figures without realizing it.
ODST and Reach received an inflated reception."
Bungie, meanwhile, was working on the first legitimate threat to Halo's dominance: Destiny. Destiny leverages all the semi-tangibles that made Halo so dominant, things like fantastic game sound and breathtaking backgrounds, and took the next logical step in what made gamers flocked to Halo games. Instead of equally-weighted gameplay modes for multiplayer, single player, and co-op, Destiny collapsed all these gameplay modes into a single experience that also combined the the best elements of Counterstrike and Mass Effect. The average player didn't care that the core plot of Destiny was cobbled-together garbage. What mattered was the same thing that mattered in the Bungie Halo days: what a player could be inside the game.
Meanwhile, 343 industries was working on Halo 5: Guardians, a massive shift in formula that many may not perceive as a shift at all. Halo 4 included a cynical story arc that involved the "death" of Cortana, a plot device that was quickly undermined by Microsoft naming their AI mobile assistant after the allegedly dead character. As a longtime Halo player, I never got past the denial and grief stages of mourning Cortana, and I didn't have to, because Halo previews showed that Cortana is very much not dead.
While Destiny is capitalizing on Bungie's understanding of gameplay and ease-of-use mechanics, Halo 5: Guardians is attempting to hit every diversity button possible. Guardians is a pivot to team-based combat with an African-American team leader in Spartan Locke. Locke's team, Fireteam Osiris, also includes a female Spartan named Olympia Vale who might as well be the second coming of Nintendo's Samus Aran. The only Osiris team member who doesn't score some sort of diversity point is Eddie Buck, who is played by Nathan Fillion and is therefore above all politically correct rules by honour of the nerd code.
And this diversity-by-force is once again totally in keeping with the trends in video games. The existence of Destiny might weaken Halo's brand somewhat, but it's far from a Halo killer. Halo's glory days as an undisputed king of console gaming may be behind it, but it's still a force, simply because it's so integral to the Xbox brand. Since Xbox is going to be playing catch up with the Destiny-anointed PlayStation 4 console for the foreseeable future, Halo's story is entering a very interesting phase. Xbox is the underdog again, just as it was when the original Halo: Combat Evolved launched. That underdog status was good for innovation on the Xbox then. Let's hope that the Halo legacy can repeat that spark of creativity, for the good of all gaming.
Images courtesy of Microsoft Studios, Bungie and 343 Industries.