What Made Halo So Iconic?

The Halo franchise is one of the highest-grossing videogame franchises of all time, selling more than 65 million copies and bringing in over 3.4 billion dollars. It has had a huge impact on gaming culture and on culture in general. The original Halo: Combat Evolved was the flagship game of the original Xbox, and played an important part in putting the new console on the map, forever changing the console gaming ecosystem. 

Due to the game’s popularity, Halo has expanded to many other types of media. There are six spinoff games, an arcade game, action figures, MEGA Blocks sets, fifteen novels, comic books, short stories, a live-action movie and TV show, and several popular machinimas such as Roosterteeth’s Red vs. Blue. Another TV show produced by Showtime is scheduled to begin airing in 2021, and Halo: Infinite, the 6th entry in the game’s main series, is expected in 2020. Halo is widely regarded as one of the best videogame series ever, and it clearly has staying power – but what is it that makes Halo so iconic?

Game Design

Xbox Game Studios

Put simply, when Halo: Combat Evolved was released in 2001, it was the most well-designed console first-person shooter game ever. From a game design standpoint, some of Halo’s greatest strengths were:

  • Physics. Back in 2001, there weren’t third-party physics engines like Havok on the market. Every developer had to make their own, and the engine that Bungie developed was one of the best. As a result, the game felt heavy, visceral, and engaging.
  • Controls. Modern console shooters all use the same basic control setup – left analog stick for movement, right analog stick for aiming. In 2001, though, this wasn’t the industry standard. 1997’s Turok, not Halo, was the first game to implement this control scheme as the default, but Halo improved it. Subtle aim-assist was added to make up for the imprecision of the analog sticks compared to a mouse and keyboard, and the turning speed was calibrated almost perfectly.
  • Limited Arsenal. In many previous shooter games, the player could collect every weapon in the game and switch between them at will. In Halo, players could only carry two. This added an element of strategy to the game that many players enjoyed.
  • Shield. Master Chief’s rechargeable shield was another innovation that drastically altered gameplay for the better. If Master Chief took damage, he could hide behind a wall for a few seconds to recharge his shield. This changed the entire rhythm of gameplay and became another “phase” of combat that added some variation and complexity to a game that otherwise would have been as simple as aim and fire.
  • The Warthog. You might not think that one of the game’s vehicles would be a major part of its success, but Jaime Griesemer, one of Halo: CE’s developers, would disagree. The game was originally designed as a Mac-exclusive real-time strategy game, and without the Warthog, it might have stayed that way. Griesemer says, “I think the Warthog is the real reason Halo became an action game. In the old RTS-style game it was just so cool to watch a squad of jeeps driving across the terrain [that] we wanted to drive them ourselves. And then we wanted to get out and run around as an infantry guy – from there it snowballed into what we eventually shipped. In some ways, Halo is the story of the Warthog and the universe we built to drive it around in.”
  • Soundtrack. Personally, I was raised in a Nintendo and PC household, so I didn’t have the opportunity to play Halo until Halo: Reach in 2010. Even so, I got chills the first time I heard the game’s theme music. The soundtrack is amazing, and it was made even better by Halo’s dynamic audio playback engine. The music for Halo is arranged in short standalone suites, which the engine plays at different times so that the music is always complementary to the gameplay. 

Creative Marketing

Xbox Game Studios

Bungie came up with some interesting marketing ideas that turned out to be very effective. One of these was I Love Bees, an alternate-reality game that came out alongside the first trailer for Halo 2. The game played out like a scavenger hunt. During the trailer, a link to pops up for a split-second. Following that link took fans to a website that was designed to look like a beekeeping website that had been hacked. Players dug into details and found GPS coordinates and times. At those times, picking up the phone would allow the fan to hear mysterious messages, and messages embedded on ilovebees proved to be pieces of a story about an A.I. attempting to communicate with us. This whole event received plenty of press coverage, and helped drive sales of Halo 2. 11 years later, Halo 5 used a similar strategy, uploading audio logs about Master Chief’s backstory to SoundCloud, Tumblr, iTunes, and other platforms.

Timing & Power

Xbox Game Studios

Jaime Griesemer thinks that one factor behind Halo’s success may have been the timing. Halo was released in November 2001, barely two months after the September 11 attacks. Griesemer says, “I think the world wanted an epic, heroic story in the fall of 2001 – they wanted to see the world saved.” However, as an article on gamesradar points out, “Halo was hardly the first videogame to send its player off to save the world.”

Still, the way that Halo made players feel was important. You weren’t playing as a lowly, faceless peon in an army, one gun-wielding scrub out of a million others – you were Master Chief, a larger-than-life supersoldier, and you felt powerful. Halo’s story and lore span thousands of years and multiple galaxies. Even on that scale, with entire planets at stake, your actions as Master Chief feel like they matter.

Some Halo games have been better than others, but overall the series has been remarkably persistent. Some players say that once Bungie left Microsoft in 2007 to gain more creative freedom, the quality has gone downhill, but other players disagree. According to the sales figures, which have been consistently high, players still love the games. 

It’s easy to see why: Halo may have been released at an opportune time, and clever marketing tactics may have helped the continued success of later games in the series… but when it comes down to it, Halo succeeded because it was an incredibly well-designed game. A handful of brilliant innovations in terms of controls, physics, and gameplay combined with a compelling story and a gripping soundtrack made Halo into a juggernaut that changed the video game industry forever.

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