Slightly more seriously, 343 Industries General Manager Bonnie Ross has confirmed in a post to Xbox Wire that the next major instalment in the Halo series, Microsoft’s best-selling first-party console franchise, will release in fall 2015, leaving space for one more cross-platform Halo release this holiday season. The Halo TV series, announced last year but subject to something of a news vacuum since, will also arrive on screens in 2015.
Halo 5: Guardians will enter a console race probably somewhat transformed from the current state, where Sony's PlayStation 4 is handily outselling the Xbox One with a lower price point and a marketing campaign focused more heavily on core gamers. The Xbox One will no longer ship with the Kinect 2.0 sensor as standard, and will in all probability be price-matched with the PS4. Halo 5, and the Halo TV series will, however, be a showcase for the media integration promised as a differentiator by Microsoft at the Xbox One’s launch, and also in all probability for the added value of Kinect, as first-party studios work to persuade a skeptical gaming audience of the benefits of gesture and voice control.
60 FPS, Xbox One exclusive, cloud front and center
Ross said of the new game, which was teased as an Xbox One exclusive at the E3 Microsoft in 2013:
“Halo” isn’t simply a perennial game franchise, it’s a part of the Xbox platform itself. In terms of innovation and ideation, it’s sometimes important to people who might not even play “Halo.” And of course it’s a passion and an essential experience for two generations of gamers. So we asked ourselves, how do we begin and where do we go with “Halo” on Xbox One?
In the past, “Halo” games have pushed the Xbox forward, showcasing the console and its ecosystem in entertaining and innovative ways. Making a “Halo” game that runs at 60 frames per second, on dedicated servers, with the scope, features and scale we’ve been dreaming of for more than a decade, is non-trivial. It’s a task that we, at 343 Industries, are taking very seriously to ensure we deliver the “Halo” game that fans deserve, and a game that is built from the ground up for Xbox One.
Put another way - Halo is Microsoft’s big gun, outstripping even Gears of War, and represents the company’s best hope of selling the Xbox One to enthusiast gamers. The removal of the compulsory Kinect, the removal of the always-online stipulation, the rethink on used games and the ongoing calibration of pricing are all “push” actions, in marketing speak – they are responding to feedback from consumers identifying reasons why they would not buy an Xbox One. Halo 5 is a pull – an positive enticement towards the product.
The freedom from the need to develop across generations will also allow for a dedicated next-gen engine, which should make Halo 5: Guardians a more visually compelling product than many of the titles produced for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 so far, where even platform-exclusive titles have been cautiously developed with limited access to final hardware.
Halo 5 will need to showcase not only the Xbox One’s virtues as a console, but also its unique virtues, which may be a challenge. The Halo games created by Bungie showcased new technologies – the Xbox with Halo: Combat Evolved, Xbox Live with Halo 2, the Xbox 360 with Halo 3. Halo 5: Guardians will no doubt be a “massive and exciting project”, as Ross says. However it will also be launching facing the third holiday season after the launch of the product, and on a product that is harder to differentiate than previous consoles – although architecturally different, the PS4 and Xbox One are both running on AMD Jaguar processors.
This also explains why, even in this initial announcement, Ross is careful to mention “dedicated servers”: Microsoft under Satya Nadella, is moving to be a cloud company, and the dedicated power of Microsoft’s Azure cloud solution will feature heavily in its product marketing, especially with the Kinect no longer a built-in differentiator.
The Halo TV series, with Steven Speilberg in the nebulous role of Executive Producer, will launch in fall 2015 alongside the game, with a clear cross-promotional intent.
Plans for 2014
After a bruising first holiday season, in which it was comfortably outsold by Sony’s rival PlayStation 4, Microsoft was never going to go into the holiday of 2014 without a Halo product. Ross finished her announcement by saying that the “journey” towards Halo 5 begins in 2014, with “a giant leap, rather than a small step”.
This probably refers to an anniversary edition of Halo 2, which was released in 2004, in line with the 2011 release of a tenth anniversary edition of Halo: Combat Evolved. This will probably be a cross-gen product – probably the last cross-gen Halo game of any note – with the option to switch between classic and updated graphics.
Although not surprising, this is an important announcement for Microsoft. Halo is by far their biggest gun when it comes to shifting hardware, and has been since 2001, when 50% of Xbox sales were accompanied by a copy of Bungie’s first game. Halo 4 demonstrated that 343 Industries, having taken over production duties from Bungie, could make a Halo game that sold – with 4 million copies shifted in its first month on sale. Now, however, they have to make a Halo that sells consoles.
There will be more detail on the upcoming Halo at E3 in June, but one thing is clear: the announcement of Halo 5 today, hard on the heels of the announcement of a Kinect-less Xbox One SKU, is part of a concerted ramp up for Microsoft to do what Sony did so successfully at last year’s E3, and make the case that the Xbox One is the product of choice “for the players”. Halo, traditionally a key part of this strategy, will be asked, along with Black Tusk’s new Gears of War, to do much of the heavy lifting on this marketing angle: unlike Gears of War, it will also be a part of Microsoft’s marketing to the living room.