When Microsoft released its first Xbox console 20 years ago, executives did not think that Halo, a new game set in a 26th-century galactic war pitting humans against alien invaders, would become the face of the tech giant’s gaming aspirations.
But players fell in love with Halo and its story line, featuring a soldier in green armor, known as Master Chief. Halo became synonymous with the Xbox brand, and since then the franchise has made $6 billion, sold more than 81 million copies of games and spawned an array of spinoffs, comic books and movies.
In recent years, however, the franchise has lost some of its cachet. A series of sequels have made plenty of money, but other games, like Call of Duty, have largely eclipsed Halo as cultural touchstones.
On Monday, Microsoft began its latest attempt at a Halo revival, surprising fans by releasing a portion of its sixth Halo game several weeks earlier than scheduled — but also a year later than initially planned — in a bid to capture a broad segment of the estimated 2.3 billion people who play console and personal computer games.
Halo Infinite, the first new version of Halo in more than five years, could nudge people toward Xbox consoles and Microsoft’s Netflix-style game subscription service. But if the game flops, it could further cement the long-held belief that Microsoft lags behind other gaming giants like Sony and Nintendo in producing quality titles.
“When you take five or six years to build the next game, the pressure mounts to deliver,” said Geoff Keighley, a gaming awards show host.
Questions about the strength of the Halo brand remain, when gamers have many high-quality titles to choose from. This holiday season, Halo Infinite will have to compete with Activision Blizzard’s new Call of Duty game, Electronic Arts’ Battlefield 2042, and titles like a new Pokemon game and the popular Metroid Dread action game from Nintendo.
Microsoft has been under immense pressure, industry analysts said, to deliver a blockbuster that can blossom into a cultural phenomenon, like Sony’s The Last of Us Part II, a dark, dramatic zombie action-adventure game, or Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo’s lighthearted social game, where players explore and develop colorful islands.
That’s one reason, the analysts said, that Microsoft spent $7.5 billion last year to buy a host of gaming studios with well-regarded titles like Skyrim.
“Microsoft didn’t really have any product like that to engage the stay-at-home, Covid-fearful player that was out there,” said Adam Sessler, a longtime video game journalist and television host.
Halo Infinite, with its multiplayer game released on Monday and a single-player version expected on Dec. 8, is a key opportunity. Microsoft hopes to attract new gamers and recapture Halo fans who may have moved on to newer shooter games.
“We have a chance to earn a new, larger audience for this game,” said Joseph Staten, who works at 343 Industries, the Microsoft studio that creates the Halo games, as the head of creative for Halo Infinite.
Recent Halo games catered to longtime fans, he said, but this sixth iteration is meant to be accessible to all. That’s one reason it is not titled Halo 6. The new game has a free multiplayer mode for the first time, as well as more tutorials and practice opportunities.
Microsoft is releasing the game on personal computers, consoles, Xbox Game Pass — a $10-a-month subscription service — and its cloud gaming platform.
The game will return its focus solely on Master Chief and draw on the emotional connections that players have to the character, creators have said, as he tries to find his artificial intelligence companion turned enemy, Cortana. Mr. Staten said he thought Halo would resonate particularly well at the tail end of the pandemic, after a “dark couple of years,” because it’s “a bright and colorful game.”
“It’s humorous,” he added. “It’s not dark and brooding. It’s not filled with antiheroes.”
In August last year, Microsoft said it was delaying the release because of “multiple factors that have contributed to development challenges,” like the difficulty and stress of producing a game remotely. Less than a month earlier, fans had roundly criticized a preview of the game for having uninspiring graphics.
Without Halo, the release of the latest Xbox last year was handicapped against Sony’s new PlayStation consoles. But larger economic issues may have broken in Microsoft’s favor: Global supply chain problems caused by the pandemic made both companies’ new devices hard to come by.
The delay gave developers time to “get constructive feedback from the community and really get some signals on what was resonating or not,” said Kiki Wolfkill, a 343 Industries executive who is leading the Halo effort across media, including a live-action television series premiering next year.
Bonnie Wright, the head of 343, said in an email that reaction to the Halo preview had been one reason for the delay. “The team was understandably disappointed, but it gave us a chance to take a step back and take it as an opportunity to improve,” she said.
The turbulence at the studio, however, goes beyond the yearlong delay. The six-year gap since Halo’s fifth game was released is the longest between any two major titles in the franchise — even longer than when Bungie, Halo’s original studio, split from Microsoft in 2007 and passed ownership of the game to 343.
Halo Infinite has cycled through leaders, with its creative director, Tim Longo, and executive producer, Mary Olson, leaving in 2019. Weeks after last year’s delay, Chris Lee, the replacement director, ceded control to Mr. Staten and another executive.
“There’s always going to be turnover of leaders — it’s inevitable,” said Matt Booty, who heads Xbox’s slate of game studios. He added that sometimes, “the momentum of the project is going one way, and that person has a vision that’s going the other way.”
Industry observers suggested that the hundreds of people working on the game over the years had also struggled with the direction of the title and with using a new game engine — the software framework — called Slipspace, leading to rising costs. Mr. Booty declined to comment on how much the game had cost to produce.
Halo now faces the real test: how it will be received by gamers, who are notoriously picky.
“There is no world where this can be Cyberpunk 2077 — that cannot happen. It cannot,” said Rod Breslau, a video game consultant, referring to the disastrous, buggy launch of a highly anticipated sci-fi game by CD Projekt Red, a Polish studio, in December. He said such a debacle would “tarnish” Halo’s legacy, “and with the Halo franchise’s fragile position they may not be able to sustain it.”
Mr. Breslau and others are confident that Halo will be much more successful than that.
“There’s a certain really exciting energy that you can really feel right now,” said Andy Dudynsky, a former coach for professional Halo players who helped Microsoft develop the competitive Halo scene and is now an e-sports commentator. “The way that the game looks feels like a real return to form, and the best it’s felt in a very long time.”