The Halo games that weren’t
Ever since Halo debuted at Macworld in 1999, the franchise has been a staple of the game industry. Master Chief has become an iconic hero, carrying the series on his shoulders for 20 years.
In that time, we’ve heard of quite a few Halo projects that never saw the light of day. That’s far from unique in the game industry, and we wouldn’t be surprised if there were even more attempts that never became public knowledge. To celebrate Halovember, we decided to look back on those we know. From an attempt to see Master Chief on a handheld console to collaborations with director Peter Jackson, the history of Halo projects cut short is vast and fascinating.
Years before the 2009 release of Ensemble Studios’ real-time strategy title Halo Wars, there was a bigger idea in the works at Ensemble. The team, known the Age of Empires and Age of Mythology series, had been iterating on several potential projects. Most never left the rough prototype stage. Half of the team was focused on finding the next big hit.
Microsoft had acquired Ensemble in 2001, and getting these ideas greenlit was a difficult task. The studio’s founder, Tony Goodman, considered the publisher “pretty risk averse.” All of this led to the RTS concept that became Halo Wars in-mid 2006. But Halo Wars wasn’t the only game in the mix.
Around 2004, Ensemble began development of a PC MMO codenamed Titan. According to the book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, the project started as an original concept before adopting the Halo name and universe — and even then, Microsoft was aware of the project, but hadn’t given formal approval yet. According to ex-Ensemble Studios’ senior software engineer Dusty Monk, Titan had a $90 million budget.
Titan was supposed to be a large-scale MMO set in the Halo universe. It wasn’t part of the Halo timeline that players knew; it was set 100,000 years before the Halos had been set off. The game was in production for several years and presented mechanics that were ahead of their time. One was similar to the cover system in Star Wars: The Old Republic, while another involved public quests where players could join as long as they were in a designated area. Aside from concept art and mockups, most of the team’s progress on the game hasn’t been shown publicly.
Over time, Microsoft kicked off preparations to move the team to a new office that would support the game’s development and maintenance post-release. But the success of the Xbox 360 resulted in a lack of interest on the PC as a viable platform for Microsoft; so Titan was a hard sell.
To the studio, the Halo MMO was going to be a competitor to World of Warcraft. In an interview from IncGamers (now PC Invasion) , Monk attributed that sentiment to the fact that Ensemble’s lineup rivaled Blizzard Entertainment’s RTS franchises Warcraft and StarCraft. But, he said while Blizzard always had a prominent presence on PC, Microsoft had its eyes set elsewhere.
“Microsoft, from its gaming division, was really changing directions,” Monk said to IncGamers/PC Invasion in 2010. “They were looking really hard at the Nintendo Wii and they were really excited by the numbers that the Wii was turning. This was about the time that Microsoft decided that its Xbox platform and XBLA really needed to go more in the direction of appealing to a more casual, broader audience.”
Remember the canceled Halo film? The one to be directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson? The ax came down in 2006, but that wasn’t the only Halo project Peter Jackson was involved in.
Announced at Microsoft’s XO trade show in 2006, Halo Chronicles was pitched as a narrative-driven episodic video game developed by Bungie and Jackson’s new development studio, Wingnut Interactive. It was canceled in 2009 without a trace, nor any footage of what it could have been.
As reported in a 2017 Vice feature, Halo Chronicles would have been quite different from your usual Master Chief adventure. Firstly, it featured a focus on melee combat, as well as two non-lethal weapons. The main character would eventually learn air abilities, starting with long distance dashes and ending up with turning into a missile of sorts that could strike Covenant ships. This was all related to the main story arc where the protagonist would gradually turn into a Promethean, altering their body in the process.
But during development, these ideas weren’t mixing together as planned. A similar problem arose with the movie. Over time, cinematics director Joe Staten came to terms with the fact that he and Jackson, alongside the team of writers involved, couldn’t land a script with a satisfactory result. After several iterations, the project was abandoned, though some of the ideas from that phase seemed to end up in future projects. Halo 4 prominently showcased the Prometheans, for instance, while the script of Blomkamp’s film District 9 shared similarities with the Halo movie script. Some of the props used in District 9 even ended up being altered versions of the props built for the Halo movie — the battle rifle is the same, only painted white, and the alien arm also made the cut.
From before the days of Microsoft selling games like Minecraft on Nintendo hardware, we get an unusual, failed attempt to adapt Halo for the handheld Nintendo DS.
Fittingly called Halo DS, this portable Halo experience was first disclosed to the world by IGN co-founder Matt Casamassina. He shared the news back in 2007 in an IGN blog post that has since gone offline. In the blog, he not only mentioned the project, he said he had played it.
“This was a fairly regular occurrence,” Casamassina told Polygon. “You’d go over to a development studio to see Game X and after they showed you that, they’d sometimes also show you their top secret Game Y. It’s been a minute but I seem to remember that’s how the version of Halo DS we previewed first came up.”
Back then, the thought of seeing a Microsoft exclusive as big as Halo on a Nintendo platform stirred outrage within IGN’s community. After readers called him a liar, Casamassina uploaded a video to IGN’s YouTube channel showcasing a live demo alongside former IGN associate editor Mark Bozon.
In the video, Casamassina played a build of Halo DS on Nintendo’s handheld, hosting a local multiplayer match against Bozon. The top screen showed a fairly close depiction of the usual Halo experience, while the bottom screen allowed stylus camera control and displayed information such as health and ammunition.
Cassamassina described the game as fun to play, yet the project was only a proof of concept. This wasn’t something where Bungie had been involved — instead, it was an unsolicited pitch from an unnamed “AAA publisher.” Asked about the project in an interview with Siliconera in 2007, Bungie’s Brian Jarrard and Frank O’Connor mentioned that they received “several” pitches for portable Halo games in those days.
Despite all of this, many still carried the idea that IGN had fabricated the video.
“We had a pretty good laugh when, after we showed off the game running on hardware and even demonstrated a multiplayer battle between two editors, some people chose to believe instead that IGN rendered everything as some sort of prank,” Casamassina says. “Or that we maybe took GoldenEye: Rogue Agent and modded it or something? Let me be clear all these years later: We obviously didn’t do those things. We wouldn’t have even known where to start. What you saw was a prototype of a game that a studio was likely using as a means to pitch the full-blown concept. This happens all the time and the difference is you usually don’t see those pitches.”
From his perspective, Casamassina thinks that the project didn’t advance not because it didn’t have potential, but because of the business and partnership agreement it would require. Casamassina sees this as the reason why the studio allowed IGN to expose it as “some sort of last-ditch effort” to stir public interest and help their pitch.
Asked if he thinks that a Halo game on Nintendo Switch would cause the same outrage today, Casamassina said it probably would not have the same impact.
“I think that was a moment in time,” he says. “For one, it was during a transformative period for Nintendo in which it sort of decided it wasn’t going to continue competing in the horsepower wars. That it had very different ideas around innovation in the space. As a result, Nintendo purists — at least to my recollection, and of course this isn’t everybody, but you felt a general sentiment on the message boards — seemed almost bitter. It was a super hardcore community of super fans, at least on IGN. And when something extraordinary came along — especially if that something felt competitive to Sony or Microsoft — Nintendo fans rallied behind it. I think that’s what happened a little bit with Halo DS and I’m not sure the ingredients exist today to replicate it.”
The Certain Affinity project
Another project mentioned in the 2017 Vice feature involved developer Certain Affinity. Between 2007 and 2009, 343 Industries reached out to Certain Affinity to produce a Halo game — it was supposed to be a title outside the mainline entries, and lots of ideas flew around at the time. But before the contract was set in place to begin development, according to Vice, Halo Waypoint — Halo’s official online portal — took priority over the potential project.
“We pitched a bunch of ideas,” said Max Hoberman in the Vice story. “We had some really cool ones — I still have one to this day that I’m dying to make — and we all locked onto one that we were super excited about. We got really close to putting a contract in place, and then the Halo Waypoint website came along and it had become a priority. So, the other stuff we were thinking about doing got canned, and we ended up going on to Waypoint. I won’t lie, I was pretty bummed. But it did rekindle this relationship with Microsoft, and then we got pulled on to work on a multiplayer map pack for Reach.”
Halo Mega Bloks
In early 2017, YouTube channel PtoPOnline shared a video of a project codenamed Haggar. This was the codename for Halo Mega Bloks, which reportedly began development back in 2013 for Xbox 360 at studio n-Space. As the name implies, the game mashed the worlds of Halo and Mega Bloks together, aiming for an experience targeted at audiences younger than ones Halo typically appealed to.
Similarly to TT Games’ Lego series, Halo Mega Bloks presented toy-like renditions of the series’ iconic vehicles and enemies. The player had to collect bricks to create structures, from bridges to turrets, and the project included a two player co-op mode.
Back then, the community responded to the footage with surprise, and wondered why it hadn’t come into fruition. 343 Studios’ Bonnie Ross posted about it on the Halo Waypoint forums.
“Over the past few days, footage has recently made the rounds of an exploratory Xbox 360 project we worked on several years ago, known as ‘Haggar,’” she wrote. “Since then, we’ve received a lot of great feedback from the community. Haggar was something we prototyped with our friends at Mega Bloks that focused on the elements of action, exploration and user creativity found within the Halo universe. Haggar had a lot of fun ideas and invention behind it, but ultimately didn’t progress beyond the early prototyping levels that are shown in the recent video. This is just one example of several similar projects we have evaluated throughout the years — a process that we continue exploring on an ongoing basis.”
One of the last games on our list was announced in March of 2015 as a PC exclusive for release in Russia. Halo Online was in development by Sabre Interactive alongside publisher ANOVA Systems, and was meant to feature microtransactions.
Built upon a modified version of Halo 3’s engine, the free-to-play game would feature multiple Halo 3 maps, as well as a few original ones. It was also supposed to take part of the franchise’s canon story, set after the events of Halo 3.
A closed beta test took place in early 2016, but that was as far as Halo Online went. The game was finally canceled after several delays, a period in which “Microsoft failed to make decisions on the future of the project,” according to a staffer known as Fogeyman in a post on the social media platform VK.
Curiously enough, the community kept the game alive for a couple of years afterwards. ElDewrito, the group responsible for creating a mod for Halo Online, maintained the project up until 2018. The accomplishment of reaching 12,000 concurrent players was bittersweet as Microsoft took notice and threatened with initial legal action, asking ElDewrito to pause the project. But this wasn’t the end for the group’s connection to Halo.
In the last post of ElDewrito’s developer blog, which can be accessed via archive, the group shared the news that 343 Industries began collaborating with them on the Master Chief Collection for PC, which released in late 2019.
We don’t know what the future holds for the Halo franchise after Infinite. But given the series’ track record, it won’t come as a surprise if yet another batch of similarly aborted projects come to light down the road.
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