On July 21st, 1999, Apple boss Steve Jobs took to the stage at the MacWorld Expo, to reveal the next stage in his turnaround of the company. The previous year he'd debuted the bubblegum-coloured iMac, this year he revealed its laptop sibling the iBook. He also revealed a game called Halo.
In the words of the first press release, it was a "third-person perspective sci-fi action epic that takes place indoors, outdoors, in the sky and beneath the surface of a world of astonishing realism," it featured both "epic single-player" and "role-based co-operative multiplayer... that is as much lived as played." It would release "simultaneously on PC and Mac."
It looked good, which was a relief to its creators, a small Chicago-based studio called Bungie which had spent ten years working its way to the top of the small Mac games market. "At that point Halo had no AI, very little gameplay, no sound effects and was barely running on the Mac." recalls Peter Tamte, a Bungie VP now at Atomic Games. "And we had a week to create the demo."
"Remarkably, not only did the team crank out a demo that week that was good enough to get the world raving about Halo, but in that same week Marty McDonnell composed the Halo theme that's still used today, recorded it with members of the Chicago Symphony, and integrated it into the game."
The score, it turned out, was one of the few things about that demo that would survive the game's journey to players.
The game that would be called Halo had begun two years earlier. "We were in the south side of Chicago in the fall of '97," says Bungie's Marcus Lehto, now Creative Director. "We were in an ancient old Catholic girl's school, on the South Side on Halstead. Not a great area of town in Chicago, but that's all we could afford and we had a cool little office. We had just finished up Myth: The Fallen Lords and another team had gone off to start building Myth II. Jason Jones and I, however, started working on what we wanted to. At that time it turned into a sci-fi real-time strategy game."
"The first thing we actually did was actually start taking the 2D Myth engine and break it into a complete 3D engine. That was really the genesis of it all. We started with this sci-fi skin tied to the RTS engine and at that very beginning moment we actually started with the super-soldier character that ultimately turned into Master Chief. Little else about the game was fixed. It was first called Solipsis, after the planet it was set on, then The Crystal Palace, Hard Vacuum, Star Maker, Star Shield and The Santa Machine.
The RTS elements faded out. "As the tech and art made things look cooler and cooler, it couldn't be helped but to put the camera closer and closer," says Alex Seropian, founder of Bungie and now vice president at Disney Interactive, "Until the strategy game became a third-person action game, [and that] became a first-person shooter." The planet changed to be a Dyson Sphere (built around a sun at its centre) and then a ringworld with a population that included sea monsters, dinosaurs and strange chicken-like creatures that could be captured and used for transport. The player faced this world with a ludicrous arsenal, with an initial loadout including not only pistols and rifles but machetes, flamethrowers and harpoon guns.
Much of it failed to make the cut, although the ringworld stuck and so did the central super-soldier - an early concept sketch by artist Shi Kai Wang introduced a design that's recognisably the first draft of Master Chief, albeit finished in pencil grey rather than green. Bungie was determined to make its game look spectacular, backing up its then-stunning graphics with the design nous picked up from its experience with Mac shooter Marathon (since released on Xbox Live Arcade).