How do you think an MMO in the Halo universe would have played out? Would it just be like a really large multiplayer deathmatch? Would it work like the open-world single-player portion of Halo Infinite at scale? Or would it just be another Destiny 2? We don’t necessarily need to wonder, as game designer Sandy Petersen, who has worked on iconic titles like Doom, Quake, Age of Empires, and Halo Wars, recounted one such project and its ultimate death on the grapevine.
The scoop comes from the Bored with Nelly podcast, which had Petersen on the show to talk about his work. The conversation moved to his time with Ensemble Studios and its plans to design what was described as “a giant Halo-based MMO” where players could choose to be humans or Covenant that would play out like a traditional third-person MMORPG like WoW. According to Petersen, Microsoft initially appeared to be on board with the project, as even the company’s own analysts “using the most critical, negative calculations they can make” projected this new game idea could “probably earn over a billion dollars.”
So what happened? Microsoft had hired Don Mattrick, a former EA employee whose contracted purpose at the time was to make Microsoft Games profitable in three years, while the development of the Halo MMO would take a projected three and a half years. Because of this, Mattrick and Microsoft had plans to shutter Ensemble Studios after Halo Wars’ release — by Petersen’s own admission, Ensemble Studios was an expensive studio to keep running but had also made extremely profitable games that made the cost worth it according to him.
Furthermore, Petersen reports that this plan wasn’t even shared with the bosses at Ensemble and was discovered only when those bosses asked Microsoft about moving to a larger studio space. In addition, when this news was revealed to Ensemble’s leadership, they were given a choice:
“So they went to them and took our bosses aside and said ‘I tell you what: If you don’t tell your workers, then we’ll let you guys stay on at Microsoft.’ Every single one of our boss team resigned on the spot.”
This mass resignation threat resulted in a severance package deal between Microsoft and Ensemble Studios employees to get Halo Wars released, which it ultimately did. However, it also had the side effect of killing what might have been a promising game at the time before it even could take shape. The full podcast is below, set to a time when the conversation about the project begins.