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Analysis: Is Microsoft Putting  Halo  At Risk?

Analysis: Is Microsoft Putting Halo At Risk?

September 24, 2010 | By Chris Morris

September 24, 2010 | By Chris Morris
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[What's the right balance between quality and release spacing for the Halo franchise, pre- and post-Bungie? Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris examines how other franchises have been affected by more regular iteration.]

Within four days of its release, fans spend the equivalent of over 2,300 man-years playing Halo: Reach. While Bungie’s sendoff to its most famous franchise is certainly a resounding success, though, the long-term fate of Halo is starting to become more questionable.

On Wednesday, Microsoft corporate VP Phil Spencer told IGN that the company is looking to increase the frequency of Halo releases.

While he stopped short of giving a timetable, he did note that Microsoft wasn’t thrilled with the current lag between games.

"There's no explicit strategy that says we're to ship a Halo game every year,” he said. “I will say I think one Halo game every three years - which was kind of our old cadence – is probably not frequent enough."

That’s the sort of statement that thrills investors and, initially, fans of the game. And there’s plenty of reason for that.

Halo is a cash cow and it has a deeply entrenched fan base, which is always craving more. Further, Activision has shown that annualizing franchises can work with Call of Duty.

But focusing solely on the success of the industry’s current sales leader ignores some of the once-great franchises that have lost their shine – and a big chunk of their fan base – by adopting a similar release pattern.

Guitar Hero. Tony Hawk. Need For Speed. Tomb Raider. All of these games were once at the top of the charts. Each new release from these series was an event players eagerly anticipated. Today, that excitement is gone. New installments are just another game in a crowded market – with some once-loyal fans not even bothering to give them a second look.

Sure, they’re still around, but they’ve lost their luster – and they’re hardly the mega-earners they once were. And while Call of Duty is setting sales records now, the franchise is in the midst of a turbulent evolution – one that could potentially affect its standing in the next couple of years.

Without Halo, the fate of the Xbox would have been questionable. And if it weren’t for Halo 2, Xbox Live would never have taken off as strongly as it did. This is, in no uncertain terms, the franchise that built the division.

The series is already facing a challenging next step, as whoever is tapped to fill Bungie’s boots will be held to an incredibly high standard by fans. Finding one team of developers whose work can stand up to Halo’s history is going to be hard enough. Finding multiple teams? Nearly impossible.

And let’s not overlook the fact that there have been four Halo releases in the past four years. Halo 3 and Reach were barn burners, but the others, while certainly successful, felt more like placeholders. Halo Wars sold over 1 million units, though it failed to strike a chord with the larger Halo fanbase. And Halo: ODST topped 3 million, in part because it was a Bungie game.

Games that move 1 million and 3 million units are nothing to scoff at, of course. And if Microsoft could pull in those numbers on an annual basis (with an additional bump for ‘major’ Halo titles) it would probably be overjoyed.

But annual releases risk overexposure. Part of the joy of Halo (and, for that matter, Half-Life and other legendary games) is the anticipation that comes with them. Titles like Halo: Reach and Call of Duty have a shelf life of over a year, thanks to their rich multiplayer elements and DLC. And by the time fans begin getting bored, their appetites are whetted by the announcement of a new, major game.

Screw up the timing of that, though, and Halo becomes something that’s less magical and more formulaic. And once the magic is lost, it’s damned hard to get back. Just ask Electronic Arts. Medal of Honor used to be one of its top franchises, but by churning out games at a rapid pace (each a little worse than the last), the company killed the golden goose. After putting the game on a multi-year hiatus, it’s hoping a reboot will restore some of that former glory.

Whether or not the game is a hit, though, the gaming community’s sense of excitement over the release isn’t what it was in the game’s prime.

It’d be a shame to see that happen to Halo.


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