In July 2020, Microsoft Corp. showed a nine-minute trailer of Halo Infinite, the latest installment from its blockbuster gaming franchise, which has sold more than 81 million copies and brought in almost $6 billion. Halo fans had been waiting to get a taste of the game since the company first told them about it two years earlier, and Microsoft was counting on their enthusiasm to propel sales of its newest Xbox, which it planned to release in the fall. The trailer showed an expanded playing field and new weapons, but gamers immediately fixated on the graphics, which were so blocky that cynical fans began to joke that Xbox must have mixed up its Halo and Minecraft franchises.
Even within Microsoft, there was wide acknowledgment that releasing a half-baked demo was a big mistake. “We should have known before and just been honest with ourselves,” Phil Spencer, Xbox’s head, said in a recent interview with British GQ magazine. “We were there not out of deception, but more out of ... hope. And I don’t think hope is a great development strategy.”
Microsoft reluctantly decided to push back the release date. It then tapped Joseph Staten, the lead writer for the first three Halo games in the early 2000s, to get things back on track. Staten had stepped away from the franchise in 2009 and was serving as a senior creative director for Microsoft, where he worked on other big games, including State of Decay and Crackdown. A month after the debacle with the demo, Staten rejoined 343 Industries, the Microsoft-owned gaming studio that makes Halo, as its creative director. One of the first things he did was remind the studio’s demoralized staff that the franchise’s long-running success had actually been marked by several bumpy introductions, including a disastrous demonstration of the very first Halo game in 2001 that almost doomed the series before it even got started. “We’ve had some rough demos over the years,” he says.
Staten also persuaded Microsoft’s leadership to give 343 as much time as it needed to fix things. Microsoft saw Halo as critical to influencing gamers to buy the new console, but releasing a buggy version could have soured players on the game.
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