"What if we miss?" - Bungie, 343 Industries, and Microsoft's Bad Habit

I don't intend to draw any conclusions about Halo 4 here. I've played it. I'm... not entirely sure how I feel about it. Not yet, anyway. Another run at the campaign and some more Spartan Ops are in order before I really settle my thoughts. Instead, let's talk about Microsoft. More specifically, let's talk about Bungie, and Microsoft's vat-grown Bungie replicant, 343 Industries.

"For a brick, he flew pretty good." I'll credit Redmond with some foresight - toward the end of the 1990s, they began making moves to save themselves financial hardship as the market began a tectonic shift away from desktop computing. This was, of course, some years from fruition; even now, desktop computing continues, though less pervasively. But Microsoft, anticipating the changing winds, began to diversify, slithering its tendrils into a variety of markets. They started their own ISP, they developed mobile operating systems, they even created a 24-hour cable news network.

Most relevant to us here at the 'squatch, they built the Xbox.

While not questioned with great scrutiny today, the Xbox represents a successful mistake, the literal "exception that proves the rule." Microsoft looked at the console gaming market, split between newcomer Sony, industry giant Nintendo, and the ailing Sega, and the brass1 made a decision: They would buy their way into the market. This is not something that typically happens in entrenched marketplaces, and especially not the console gaming industry; developing a fanbase, respected IP, and technology all take time. Redmond decided to jumpstart the process. They took existing PC hardware, as low-end as they could manage while still being viable for games, and cobbled it together into a large, awkward-looking box. Rather than setting out on the long, slow road to gain respect and fandom, they poured half a billion dollars into marketing, and sold their ungainly black boxes at a loss, to gain market share. They made their offering appealing to consumers by sheer force of will and advertisement - and part of this effort was the acquisition of Bungie.

"Time has taught me patience." Bungie were not a group of unknowns before Halo. Indeed, they were scions of Mac gaming, back when it was a stalwart and respected alternative to the PC. The Marathon series inspired envy from fans of Doom. The Myth series was a favorite of strategy gamers, gathering a fanbase that persists to this day. They expanded, opening a California branch that released the ambitious (but flawed) title Oni. Bungie had many awards to their name, a complex internal mythos, and were steeped with culture, humor, and savvy.2

Halo was a grand labor of Bungie’s, and it took a long, strange road to publishing. It started as a strategy game, a followup to Myth,3 and was announced at MacWorld 1999 as a third-person action game.4 Halo was decried as vaporware, lusted after, seen as a promise to bring new life to Mac gaming in the face of the burgeoning console market.

And then, in June of 2000, with its developers, Halo fell into the maw of Microsoft. It would see its way to the Mac; but, ultimately, not until it had been ported there by Gearbox two years after its release.

“Were you blinded by its majesty?” To characterize Halo as a success would be a grievous understatement; it was easily the platform’s first “killer app," and as a launch title for the Xbox, it was featured prominently in Microsoft’s media blitz.  In effect, Bungie, through Halo, were responsible for the success of the Xbox brand in its entirety - a brand that now stands among Microsoft’s most successful and recognizable.

To their credit, while they realized the magnitude of the success on their hands, Microsoft did not try to wring yearly blockbusters from the franchise.5 However, development of new Halo games became Bungie’s chief purpose.6 Four additional Halo titles would be developed by Bungie in the decade following Combat Evolved7, each to critical acclaim and record profits.

But in 2007, Microsoft and Bungie announced their mutual intent to part ways. The Halo franchise remained the property of Microsoft, but Bungie was finally free to pursue new IP. The 2010 release of Halo: Reach - Bungie’s final game in the franchise - saw them finally free of their obligations to Redmond. But who would take up the standard of the series anew, especially in the wake of the architects of the series?

“A monument to all your sins.” Microsoft’s answer was not to call upon any established game studio or development house already owned by the vast company. Instead, they created one, new and purpose-built, in the form of a subsidiary studio named 343 Industries. During its assembly, 343 was kept fairly quiet, being tasked with the creation of Halo Waypoint, the lore and stats-happy app for Xbox 360, and later, with the creation of map packs for Reach.

With Bungie’s departure, 343 Industries was tasked with the development of a new Halo trilogy. And here is where we see the successful folly of Microsoft come full circle. With the original Xbox, they bought their way into console gaming. With the acquisition of Bungie, they bought themselves into talented developers and an evergreen franchise that would propel the console into millions of homes. And now, they’ve bought themselves a new Bungie, a studio intended to be on-par with an amazingly successful industry veteran.

There’s cause for skepticism, and plenty of it. When the Xbox became a runaway success for Redmond, it seems they viewed the console as validation of their shotgun “throw industries against the wall and see what sticks” approach to finding a new revenue source. Amid the glare of their gleaming triumph, it becomes easy to forget the numerous other projects that did not pan out so well. They tried to buy a rival to the iPod, and one for iTunes. They’ve created a direct competitor to Flash, even as Adobe now distances themselves from the product. They’ve taken a stab at Google Drive, bought out the primary competitor to Google’s voice and video chat service, and even tried for a round against Google itself. Microsoft has gone head to head against Blackberry, iOS and Android - not once, not twice, but three times. They’re attempting to bludgeon their way into the tablet market, and user opinions are still up in the air. Microsoft has even given the ol’ double deuce to Facebook8, in the form of So.cl.

And that’s all just off the top of my head.

“Were it so easy...” Current reviews suggest that Microsoft might have succeeded, taking a gambit on 343 the way they have. Reviews of Halo 4 are largely quite positive. It’s a quality product by any evaluation, nearly on par with Bungie’s offerings - not bad for a first effort.

When one considers, however, the way these errant successes have emboldened Microsoft to try, ham-handedly, to capture other markets, it’s worthy of contemplation. Redmond makes good products, there’s no question.

Time will tell, however, if they survive the aftermath of their successes.

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1: When offered a prototype console by their Direct X team. 2: Let's be fair; Bungie still has all these things. 3: Not kidding about that. 4: Not kidding about that either. 5: Unlike other publishers and their noteworthy FPS franchises. 6: Occasionally to the chagrin of Bungie employees. 7: “At Microsoft, a Trilogy is 5 games.” 8: And Google+. Cue Nick mocking me.