The Making of Halo: How Combat Evolved from Blam!— Part 1

Part 1: From back room curiosity to public sensation (1997 — 1999)

The beginning of the level The Silent Cartographer from Halo: Combat Evolved. Captured from The Master Chief Collection on an Xbox One.

Jason Jones was nervous. For the head and founder of a game development house known for focusing on the often overlooked Apple Macintosh market, the keynote at MacWorld was as big as it got. He was standing just off stage at the Javits Convention Center, waiting for his cue to walk out and present the project he’d been working on in secret for 2 years. It was an open world third person shooter with graphics that surpassed just about everything else at the time. As Steve Jobs told the rapt audience how excited he was to be introducing the game, Jones made his way out to introduce Halo to the world.


In 1997, Bungie was a company in full bloom. They were coming off the blockbuster success (at least for the Mac) of their first person shooter series Marathon. They’d just opened a second studio, in San Jose, California, to work on a third person anime-inspired action game called Oni. The main studio in Chicago was working on another new IP: a medieval real time strategy game named Myth: The Fallen Lords. And, tucked away in a back room, with a small team of just three people (Jason Jones, Robt McClees, and Marcus Lehto) was the beginnings of a project from studio co-founder Jason Jones.

Early concept art from Marcus Lehto. Clockwise from top left: two ambient life studies, Covenant experiments, Elite experiments, early Forerunner tanks, and the first doodles of the Master Chief.

It was given the initial code name of “Armor, ” but this was quickly changed to avoid the game actually shipping with that title. Marathon and Myth had both been working titles that Bungie ran out of time to change before release. This new project thus got a working title that would have to be changed before release: “Munkey Nutz.” Not wanting to have to tell his mother he was working on something called “Munkey Nutz,” Jones changed it to a favorite word of Bungie employees: Blam! [1] It would be the first game in Bungie’s history to start development on the PC instead of the Mac.

In its earliest incarnation, it was just a test bed; a next generation terrain engine for Myth or another RTS game. There was some hilly terrain punctuated with a handful of buildings, a bunch of Marines, and a couple vehicles. Even at this early stage the game featured fun, bouncy vehicle physics, though at this point mostly for tanks. Curious how it would play, one day Charlie Gough, a programmer on the project, hooked up controls to a single unit. Controlling it was surprisingly fun. This, combined with the progress being made on third person action title Oni, would spur the first major change in the game, from RTS to 3rd person action game [2].

Screenshots from early RTS builds of Armor/Blam! Left to right is early to later.

A tone hadn’t yet been nailed down for the project, so the team churned through a multitude of ideas. A helicopter was tried at one point, as was a boat. Multiple kinds of tanks. A truckload of weapons including a machete. The halo had a chunk taken out of it at one point, revealing a frame that looked like train tracks. An earlier build than that didn’t even appear to be set on a halo. There was fauna on the structure, and the player could even ride some of it. Bits of story and lore would start to be attached to it. It’s at this point that it began to become recognizably Halo.

Discarded ideas, from left to right: a helicopter, a watercraft, and a broken halo.
A video showcasing the evolution of Halo, made by Bungie for their Fan Fest at E3 2002.

As 1999 dawned, Blam! became Bungie East’s main project. Myth II had just released and some of that team splintered off to work on the never released and still mysterious Phoenix project. The rest were assimilated into the Blam! team. The game was still in an early state, but a story was beginning to take shape. Bungie hadn’t yet revealed the game to the world, but in February they began teasing it to fans. On the 15th, marathon.bungie.org, a popular fan site for Bungie’s previous sci-fi series Marathon, received a mysterious letter from “Cortana@bungie.com.” It was a cryptic poem that recalled the ramblings of the artificial intelligences from the Marathon series. It would be the first of five correspondences to the site from Cortana in the lead up to the public reveal. In September, A 6th letter would be hidden on the disc for an updated version of Myth: The Fallen Lords.

By the middle of 1999, there was enough progress on Blam! that Bungie was ready to announce it publicly. But first, it was time to prime the pump with journalists. In mid May at E3, Bungie showed off Blam! for journalists behind closed doors. Despite NDAs, word leaked out to the public that Bungie had shown off a new game code named Blam!, and buzz began spreading through the press about the amazing demonstration. Bungie also teased their fans with a Blam! mention popping up on their webcam. In a strange twist, on May 20th a Myth II fan site that had seemingly closed its doors nearly a month before was suddenly updated with what would be Blam’s final name: Halo.

A Myth II fan site, strangely enough, would reveal the game’s final name in May 1999.

While Halo was the final name, it was not the only one considered. Bungie had settled on the religious tinged name after going though a litany of other possible titles: The Crystal Palace, Hard Vacuum, Solipsis (the original name of the planet the ring orbited), Age of Aquarius, and even The Santa Machine. All that was left was a public reveal.

Executive Vice President Peter Tamte, who had just joined the company after a stint working under Steve Jobs at Apple, helped get a prime spot for the public reveal: the keynote address at Apple’s MacWorld New York event, a fitting venue for a company known for their Mac games. There was just one problem: the game didn’t really run on the Mac yet, and MacWorld was only two weeks away. In fact, the first time Jobs saw the game, it was still running on a PC. Bungie hadn’t yet gotten the game working on the Mac’s OpenGL framework.

By the Friday before showtime it had become clear that they weren’t going to have sound working on the Mac, so composer Martin O’Donnell was tasked with coming up with a soundtrack that could be played simultaneously from a CD. His only instructions came from writer Joe Staten: “Ancient. Epic. Mysterious.” On his way home from work that day he began brainstorming melodies. He clued in on Gregorian chant for the “ancient” part and called his composing partner Michael Salvatori when he got home to discuss the piece. They composed a 3 minute track and recorded it with an orchestra on Monday the 19th. The music was burned on to a CD and flown to New York, where some one promptly stepped on and broke the CD. Thankfully Marty was on hand with a spare.

On July 21st, Steve Jobs took the stage at the in New York to kick off MacWorld. Or rather, Noah Wyle playing Steve Jobs, a nod to his role in the recent TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley. He’d hand off to the real Steve who would go on to demonstrate the newest advances in software for Macintosh computers. Near the end of the keynote, after promising greater game support for the Mac, Steve brought out Jason Jones to show off Halo. Jason rushed though his introduction then moved over to a Mac to start the demo. He looked visibly nervous, and for good reason: there was a bug that could crash the game right after he started it up. Thankfully it didn’t rear its head and the demo started.

The 1999 MacWorld reveal of Halo.

It was apparent that the game was something special from the first chanted note of the now iconic score. The demo began on an armored human soldier brandishing a pistol standing in large control room. A hologram of the titular halo towered over the soldier, the beige planet it orbited hung at eye level. He turned and began running down a hallway out of the room, quickly coming to a hangar with some alien vehicles and their pilots. After a quick wave to get the pilots’ attention, the player turned back down the hallway and headed outside. He ran into a couple buddies, one of whom opened fired on the aliens. The three of them then hopped into a jeep and took off across grassy hills, the structure of the halo arching into the sky behind them.

They ran across two more aliens who hopped into hovering vehicles to give chase. As the jeep bounced around on the terrain, the aliens failed to keep up and fell away. After the jeep came to a stop on a hill, the three humans got out and looked down on a pair of aliens standing guard next to another of the crafts from the hangar. One human jumped in the jeep and rode down the hill to distract the aliens, while another ran down and got an alien to surrender. The last human jumped in the craft and took off, the final alien firing after him. The demo would end with the human piloted craft soaring through the air past a human waving a Bungie flag.

Bungie issued a press release that same day officially announcing the game and giving the first story synopsis:

The player is a military recon unit of the human race’s fledgling planetary empire. Pursued by alien warships to a massive and ancient ring construct deep in the void, the player must single-handedly improvise a guerilla war over land, sea and air, using the arsenals and vehicles of three distinct cultures. Using everything from composite swords to orbital bombardment, driving everything from giant tanks to agile combat aircraft, players wage intense warfare over and under the surface of this world.
The single screenshot released after the MacWorld 1999 reveal.

Fans began buzzing immediately, but this being 1999, videos of the demo were hard to come by. Shakey cam versions of it would pop up over the next week or so but it would take awhile for direct feed versions to become widely available, from Apple’s web site and the CDs that came with several PC magazines. When fans finally got their hands on a video, they were wowed by what they saw. It was jaw-dropping graphically, especially impressive given that it transitioned seamlessly from an indoor environment to an outdoor one, a rare feat at the time. The player could hop in a jeep with realistic physics both for the vehicle and its passengers, or commandeer a flying alien craft.

A month after the reveal, it was announced that Bungie had made a deal with Take 2 Interactive for a part of the company. Take 2 would acquire 19.9% of Bungie in exchange for cash, which Bungie needed after they’d lost a significant amount of money recalling Myth II due to an installer bug. Bungie would handle all publishing duties for their games in North America (using Take 2’s distribution system) and the two companies would co-publish games in Asia and Europe. The agreement also included an interesting nugget: the possibility of console ports of Bungie’s projects, to be handled by Take 2 subsidiary Rockstar Games.

With the game now revealed to the public, Bungie was no longer toiling in secret. But they had a problem: the demo had shown practically everything they had working at the time. They began taking the demo and the vast amount of ideas they’d created and began trying to make it into a game. At this stage Bungie had ambitious plans. The game was to be level-less, with actions early in the campaign having effects later. The ring would be populated with animal life, have deformable terrain, and might even have dynamic weather. Gameplay would be deep and team based. Bungie liked giving the example of every group of friends having a designated driver, or teaming up by having one player paint a target with the laser designator that would be included on the pistol so another player could hit it with a rocket launcher.

Bungie publicly described their development as a three step process: first get the engine up and running. Second, refine the multiplayer experience. Finally, work on the single player. But even in these early days, the story sounds familiar. A human military ship crash lands on an abandoned ring construct orbiting near a gas giant. There they’d encounter the alien collective known as the Covenant. The player would take control of a member of the human’s cyborg contingent to fight the Covenant and discover the mysteries of the ring.

To kick off the second wave of publicity for the game, Bungie invited journalists from several gaming magazines to their Chicago offices in time for stories in their November and December issues. Bungie delighted in showing off the game’s physics engine and attention to detail. The features gushed about “inverse kinematics,” rocket contrails dissipating in the wind, and the pistol’s slide actually recoiling and expending the spent shell. Some magazines went the extra mile and compiled video features for the CDs that were regularly included in those days.

Video included with the December 1999 issue of Incite Magazine.

As the year, and the millennium, came to a close, the future looked bright for Halo. It was to be a showcase for the Mac (and PC), a level-less third person action game with genre defining, online multiplayer. The new year would bring big changes.


Miscellaneous Notes:

I’m not sure how many people know this, (I’m sure you probably do but just in case) the code name for the new game is Blam. I found out during the Myth2 beta and several of the bungie guys that were online had the order name “Blam Development” and said that they were working on the new project.

Sources:

[1] The Art of Halo — Trautmann, Eric S. The Art of Halo New York: Del Rey, 2004

[2] EGM Feb 2002 — “Afterthoughts — Halo.” Electronic Gaming Monthly February 2002, 52–54