Report: Microsoft's 343i to switch Halo to Unreal Engine, focus on multiplayer
Moving forward, Xbox's flagship franchise is getting some serious reorganization.
What you need to know
- A new report has detailed how 343 Industries is restructuring the Halo franchise following recent Microsoft layoffs. Reportedly, at least 95 developers were affected by the cuts.
- Notably, Halo is moving to Epic Games' Unreal Engine. Sources familiar with Halo Infinite's development have reported that its engine, Slipspace, caused many issues for developers due to its aging code. This includes the delay of multiplayer modes like Extraction and Assault.
- The first project built on Unreal will be "Project Tatanka," a codenamed game being developed by both 343 and Certain Affinity. Originally, Tatanka was believed to be a battle royale mode for Halo Infinite.
- 343 has also paused the active development of campaign-style story content for the time being. Developers were prototyping and pitching new Unreal-based Halo projects, but many of those developers have been cut.
Microsoft recently revealed its plans to layoff over 10,000 employees earlier this month amid turbulent economic conditions, and amongst those affected the most were the developers at 343 Industries. At least 95 people have been cut from the Halo development studio, leaving many concerned about the future of both the flagship Xbox franchise and the company itself. Not long ago, Studio Head Pierre Hintze attempted to assuage fears by confidently asserting that Halo is "here to stay" at 343 Industries.
However, a new report has revealed that while the Halo series will remain in 343's hands, both the franchise and its developer are currently undergoing a massive reorganization. The most significant part of this process is a shift to a new game engine — an array of tools necessary to create games like Halo. 343's in-house Slipspace Engine is described as "buggy and difficult to use," owing to the fact that it's founded on code from the 1990s and 2000s era. Sources familiar with the creation of Halo Infinite, the latest Halo title, have said that issues with the Slipspace Engine have caused several development problems, including the delay of multiplayer modes like Extraction and Assault.
As a result of the Slipspace woes, 343 is moving to the popular Unreal Engine instead. Published by Epic Games Inc., the Unreal Engine is used by countless game developers around the world, and is expected to be a significantly less difficult tool for Halo's stewards to work with. Reportedly, the decision to switch to the new engine wasn't made until 343's previous Studio Head Bonnie Ross and Engine Lead David Berger left the company and Pierre Hintze took the reigns. 343's first release with Unreal will be a game codenamed Project Tatanka, a project originally believed to be a Halo Infinite battle royale mode that the studio is co-developing with Certain Affinity. Tatanka may still be a battle royale-type experience, though it may also "evolve in different directions."
Windows Central is able to corroborate the report about the move to Unreal, as sources familiar with the situation have been in contact. Internally, there was a fierce tug-of-war over the change, with one camp of developers desiring the switch and another arguing that Halo should remain on Slipspace. Often, different development teams were bound by entirely separate non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), preventing active communication and collaboration. Notably, we've heard unconfirmed reports that Microsoft has a prototype of Halo Infinite's popular Forge Mode mapmaking tool running in Unreal. We've also heard that the Slipspace build of Project Tatanka hasn't been updated since early December, which lends weight to the notion that it's moving to Unreal. Ultimately, though, it will be difficult to get full confirmation until 343 communicates this news officially.
343 has also paused all development of future Halo story content, according to the report. Many developers were working on pitches and Unreal Engine prototypes for new Halo games rather than Halo Infinite missions, but many of them were cut in Microsoft's ongoing layoffs. As a result, 343 isn't actively working on new campaign-style projects. It appears that Halo will focus on multiplayer experiences moving forward, at least for now. Windows Central can confirm that there are no plans to "kill" Halo Infinite between now and the release of Project Tatanka, and that Halo Infinite will continue with new planned releases such as the upcoming Season 3: Echoes Within on March 7.
Former 343 developers claimed that Microsoft "set Halo up for failure" in scathing reactions to the recent layoffs, citing poor management and leadership. "The layoffs at 343 shouldn't have happened and Halo Infinite should be in a better state. The reason for both of those things is incompetent leadership up top during Halo Infinite development causing massive stress on those working hard to make Halo the best it can be," said Respawn's Patrick Wren, who previously worked at 343 Industries on Halo Infinite as Senior Multiplayer Designer. "The people I worked every day with were passionate about Halo and wanted to make something great for the fans. They helped push for a better Halo and got laid off for it."
Recently, Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer said that "the heart and soul of Halo is with 343," and that both Halo and 343 "will remain critical to what Xbox is doing." According to the aforementioned report, Hintze wrote in an email to staff that moving forward, 343 will build “a robust live offering” for Halo Infinite, with plans to support its "new tech stack” for future titles while “bringing Halo to more players through more platforms than ever before.”
Windows Central's take
As a hardcore fan of Halo's campaign content, the news that we likely won't get any more of it for a long, long time is extremely disheartening. While I understand that 343 needs to prioritize what keeps the lights on amid volatile economic conditions and devastating layoffs, the gameplay, story, and lore of its campaigns is what initially drew me into this wonderful sci-fi universe. Halo Infinite's campaign was phenomenal — easily one of the best shooter experiences in recent years — and the game's exceptional reception at launch proves that I'm not the only player that thought so. How long will it be until it gets the follow-up it deserves? Will we even see the Master Chief and other beloved characters before 2030?
As for the overall situation, all fans like myself can do is hope that things will eventually get better with new leadership and a more intuitive development engine. Based on what Windows Central has heard from people familiar with development processes, the image of 343 under Bonnie Ross appeared to be one of chaos and rivalries, with various teams united only by their love and passion for the Halo franchise. It seems that the studio lacked a unifying voice and cohesive singular direction that only came with Halo veteran Joseph Staten. Reportedly, though, Staten has returned to Xbox Publishing, leaving the future of both Halo and 343 itself uncertain.
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Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.
- Jez CordenCo-Managing Editor