Now one of the largest game design studios in the industry, Bungie began as a two-person operation. In 1991, college pals Alex Seropian and Jason Jones gathered in Jones' Chicago basement to create games for the Macintosh. Their first hit, in 1994, was a first- person shooter called Marathon. Most shoot-'em-ups of that time, like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, had little or no plot; finishing a mission was as simple as fighting your way to the end. But Seropian and Jones imbued their games with intricate story lines and vibrant characters. Marathon and its sequels also pioneered technical advances astonishing for the era. Two gamers could team up and play the game in cooperative mode, while up to eight players could spar against one another in virtual arenas, taunting opponents over AppleTalk.
With the Marathon franchise and another game called Myth, Bungie built a loyal cult following. In the late-'90s, the designers started planning a new strategy-based title in which players would control an entire army of space marines fighting a rival band of hyperactive, gibbering aliens. The action would involve moving entire military battalions around the battlefield at once, and players would engage in a sort of futuristic version of Risk. But as work on the project began, the team found itself drawn back to the first-person, kill-frenzy action of Marathon. Eventually they decided their new game would focus not on the whole army but on a single soldier — Master Chief — as he fought the Covenant, a race of aliens driven by a mysterious religious prophesy. Halo was born.
Early on, the Bungie crew came up with a mantra that would eventually guide all aspects of Halo gameplay: "30 seconds of fun." The idea was to have Halo repeatedly immerse players in hectic battles that would last for half a minute — just long enough to create heart-thumping chaos and the risk of death — before offering a respite. Meanwhile, each level would also include scripted cinematic scenes to push the story forward. It was a subtle but deeply pleasing balancing act: Halo neither bored people with overly long storytelling animations nor numbed them with pointless fighting.
When Bungie demo'd the game at Macworld Expo in 1999, fans were awestruck. So were Microsoft game executives. They were looking for a system seller for their forthcoming Xbox and for the Xbox Live online service they hoped to launch shortly thereafter. Microsoft bought Bungie in 2000 for a reported $50 million; a year later, Halo, recoded for Microsoft's console, became the must-have game of the year. It instantly transformed the Xbox from a dubious proposition to a credible alternative to the then-dominant PlayStation 2. Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer began pushing hard for a sequel.
The pressure to deliver nearly destroyed Bungie. When it began making the original Halo, the design team consisted of 10 people. They could all sit in a single room and communicate by yelling over their shoulders or peering at each other's cool creations onscreen. To make Halo 2, the company ballooned to more than 60. Separate teams formed to design each level of the game, but they didn't coordinate their efforts: When project leaders assembled the pieces for the first time, they discovered that the story was incomprehensible and the game whipsawed from too easy to nearly impossible.