At The Azenberg Group's [A] List Summit, vice president of strategy and client services Steve Fowler took some time to chat with me about his days at Microsoft. Serving as lead product manager from 2000 to 2003, Fowler was responsible for the brand management of numerous action games, including a little title called Halo. The word on the street was that Fowler was largely responsible for the game's tagline, "Combat Evolved". When asked about its origins, he told me:
"Back in the original days of the Halo brand, before it was anything, we did a lot of consumer research. We went across the world, talking to consumers in Europe, Asia, and North America. We were concerned with gamers that weren't aware of what Halo was and we needed to be concerned with them because if this was going to be a franchise title then we couldn't just rely on core gamers or people that were following it since the MacWorld announcement. The new customers were going to be the ones that would make or break the Xbox, so we need Halo to go bigger than that.
The emotional response to the word halo was not exactly what we were looking for. [laughs] It seems trivial now because it's such an established brand and it's synonymous now with unbelievable sci-fi action. Back in the day, halo was seen as a feminine word and had religious connotations to it, so we felt like we needed a definer. 'Combat Evolved' was what ended up being that definer. [laughs]
There was a lot of back and forth between Bungie, the internal Microsoft marketing team, and the outsourced creative agency. There was a lot of debate, a lot of nail biting, a lot of screaming at each other [laughs], and lots of compromise. It was the single piece of content that defined the Xbox. At that time it was the next-gen system, so we were evolving combat. First-person shooters on consoles were never really that popular outside of GoldenEye 007, so Halo was a big risk. It was a bold statement that said, 'Hey, this is a shooter that was meant to be played best on a console with a gamepad in your hand.'"
When I asked Fowler if he was the one that coined the phrase, he shared credit with his team. He also told me that a lot of people at Microsoft weren't keen on Master Chief representing the Xbox and would have preferred a certain Oddworld Inhabitant.
"Well, I think I had the most responsibility for the phrase, but it certainly wasn't done in a vacuum. There was a lot riding on Halo back then. There were a bunch of naysayers that didn't believe in leading with a first-person shooter as basically your mascot for a console launch. It had never been done before. There were people internally at Microsoft that felt that Oddworld should have gotten the bigger budget and should have gotten the bigger push, because Munch would have made a better console-launch mascot. They asked, 'How can this big green guy with no face and no voice represent our box?' In retrospect, it was perfect [laughs]. Microsoft is this giant green machine that doesn't talk to anybody, so it made exact sense!"
Can you imagine how different the Xbox would have been if Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee was its leading title? I'm not the biggest Halo fan around, but it's easy to see that it's an enormously successful franchise that really helped define the Xbox and Xbox 360. I understand why Munch would have been the choice for traditionalists that wanted the Xbox to have its Mario or Sonic and it's easy to say this looking through a retroscope, but I can't imagine Halo not leading the Xbox. Combat evolved indeed!
What do you think of the origins of the phrase "Combat Evolved"? Do you think the Xbox would have been as successful if it was led by Munch instead of Master Chief?