November 30, 2004

Halo creators distract fellow Maroons from Plato

What ever happened to Mario and Luigi running across a four-inch screen chasing mushrooms? New video games with high-tech effects and intricate story lines have replaced the simple diversions of a generation ago. For some students at the University, these games have replaced conversation, sleep and studies.

Halo 2, Microsoft's most recent online-based video game invention for the Xbox console, has been the talk of the town among gamers since the arrival of the original Halo more than three years ago.

Leading up to the release of Halo 2 earlier in November, an estimated 1.5 million copies of the game had been pre-ordered by eager fans. On the day of the game's debut, toy and video stores were flooded with anxious adults and teenagers, some of whom had camped out for over 15 hours hoping to be first to invade the stores before a sell-out. Microsoft estimates that Halo 2's first day sales topped $125 million, grossing $140 million in its opening weekend—a sum that surpassed the sales of the most recent Hollywood movies by millions of dollars.

The game is lucrative for many reasons. Its innovative plot features an alien versus space marine theme, exquisite imagery, and the ability to accommodate multiple players. Because of these features, gamers consider it one of the most ingenious and impressive video games of all time. Gamers also appreciate the ability to customize each character, including weapon choice; characters can even hold two weapons at once.

Chicago students are clearly aware of these exciting features, and as one student anticipated with the release of Halo 2—and other popular games Half-Life 2 and Everquest 2—"GPA's will soon be dropping."

Last year, during Memorial Day weekend, the Shoreland Council officially sponsored a dorm-wide Halo tournament with cash prizes. Rumors of a Halo 2 tournament last weekend were also a-brew, and remnants of the tournament, including multiple game consoles with endless amounts of crisscrossed wires, could be found in the common room of Chamberlain House in Burton-Judson.

A small group of Chicago students has even engaged in a national tournament that features cash prizes of up to $20,000. Matthew Story, Benjamin Varnum, Benjamin Boye and Sean Schulte competed against teams from across the nation at a Halo tournament last year and fared "rather well," according to second-year in the College Sam Philipson. "They are most likely the best players at this school, and a rarity considering most Halo teams are a result of Internet connections rather than a shared dorm," he said.

But instead of feeling guilty about ignoring their homework and hygiene, the hours Halo enthusiasts spend glued to the tube may serve as good preparation for a real world career. The creators of Halo, Halo 2, and the entire Bungie series endured the cold winters and Core that defines the University. Alex Seropian and Jason Jones—as well as Cinematics Director Joe Staten—are former Chicago students. Seropian AB ‘91 and Jones AB ‘97 officially collaborated in 1991.

Seropian had just published the game "Operation: Desert Storm," a minor hit, when he asked Jones to work with him. Jones already had a nearly finished version of Minotaur, the first Bungie game.

The two had not been very close before Seropian's invitation to conglomerate. "I think he actually thought I was a dick because I had a fancy computer," said Jones of his partner Seropian, in an interview on

Any reluctance on the part of either partner was quelled as the two decided to pursue Jones' Minotaur, which was written to operate on the Mac platform. Out of familiarity with the Mac platform, Jones and Seropian continued to create Mac-compatible games despite the PC's larger market.

Though the choice had nothing to do with business foresight, it proved to be a wise decision. "The PC market was really cutthroat, but the Mac market was all friendly and lame. So it was easier to compete," Jones told

The pair's first game, Minotaur: The Labyrinths of Crete, was released in 1992, following Seropian's fourth year at Chicago. It inaugurated the currently lucrative, Bungie Software, whose name holds a secret significance for its creators. Minotaur was the first Mac-compatible game to act using networking: AppleTalk and a modem. The team's next game, Pathways Into Darkness, was released in 1993, and later found a place in Macworld magazine's Game Hall of Fame. The next release was Marathon in 1994, with Marathon 2 following suit in 1995. Marathon 2 was the first of the Bungie games to operate on the PC platform, rendering Bungie a multiplatform distributor, along with its Mac market. Later game series included Myth, Oni, and most recently, Halo.

Bungie's headquarters remained in Hyde Park through its first years of success. The profits of Bungie's second game, Pathway, allowed the team to move from Seropian's apartment to Pilsen, where they hired an eight-person team of programmers and artists.

Still, the situation was not ideal. The apartment in Pilsen was situated in front of a crack house, and lacking necessary amenities such as air conditioning. But the team made do with what was available. They named the server after the crack house, and tried to avoid tripping the breaker switches.

"The T1 line was actually hooked up in an abandoned boiler room covered in about forty years of corrosion," Jones told

In 1997, following the games' recent successes and incoming tides of cash, the company established a development office in San José, California in order to be closer to the Xbox team.

Seropian and Jones's army of eight is now a battalion of 65, and their battlefield no longer a dorm room but a corporate office. Although the team has expanded significantly, Bungie workers retain the easygoing attitude that brought them to their original success. With no dress code or enforced work hours, Seropian and Jones like to think that workers at Bungie Software are working not because they have to, but because they want to. Instead of reading off current sales rates or having a recap session, workers at Bungie Software begin each workday with a battle—at Halo. Seropian remains down-to-earth about the company's success: "We're still just a bunch of young people who want to create cool things," he told

Neither have Seropian and Jones forgotten their Chicago education. The sophisticated video-gamer can pick up on the religious iconography, classical mythology, and Epic of Gilgamesh allusions scattered throughout Bungie games. Halo may be one of the only video games to make reference to the Great Books. Such qualities mark Bungie games as unique, while these notably "U of C" details enable the program to transcend the border from just-another-video-game to a cult classic to a technological feat.