All of this work and community growth is taking place in a rarefied no-man’s-land that looks a lot like a gray area to me. Halo Online is owned by Microsoft as a free-to-play game, and the work of its developers and artists is meant to be supported by microtransactions from Russian customers. Worldwide customers were never supposed to be part of the market, but now that they are, there’s no doubt that they’re enjoying a lot of hard work without the mechanisms in place to pay for it. Though removing microtransactions and the in-game cash store wasn’t the main goal of the Eldorito mod, it’s an unavoidable consequence of severing the game files from the host servers.
The project has been brought offline by a DMCA request from Microsoft once already. The modders screwed up: they accidentally pushed the actual Halo Online executable, which indisputably belongs to Microsoft, to their Eldorito Github. Since then, they’ve gotten more savvy. The Github still stores all of the team’s files and source code, but that is all original programming work that belongs to the modders. It just so happens, wink wink, that the modders’ original work exists solely to crack open the Halo Online executable that you’ll have to find elsewhere, nudge nudge.
Still, even the Halo Online executable isn’t really a product of piracy. Since Halo Online is a free-to-play game, Microsoft is happy for the executable to be hosted and downloaded freely—after all, a wide install base connected to the Russian game servers should mean more in-game purchases for Microsoft. Except, in this instance, it doesn’t. The creation of a Russia-only game, in effect, created its own worldwide gray market for that same game.
Microsoft, for its part, is aware that the huge, pent-up desire for a Halo game on PC is driving efforts like Eldorito. When reached for comment about this project, a Microsoft spokesperson praised the “excitement and dedication” of the Eldorito modders, but refused to budge off of the company line: “Right now our focus is on learning as much as we can from the closed beta period in Russia. Theoretically, any expansion outside of Russia would have to go through region-specific changes to address player expectations.”
Player expectations, in this case, could mean Western players expect an overhauled graphics engine, or dramatically different F2P economics than those designed for the piracy-heavy Russian market. Either could mean big changes to Halo Online, and big changes take time and money.
When asked if releasing a mainline Halo game on PC would hurt Xbox One sales, the same source issued a non-answer. “It’s about delivering on the right Halo experience to meet expectations for PC gamers. We’re excited to be bringing Halo Wars 2 [a sequel to Halo Wars, the 2009 RTS] to both Windows 10 and consoles in fall of 2016. Additionally, PC gamers will also be able to stream gameplay from Halo 5: Guardians on Xbox One to their PC using Windows 10.”
Basically: PC gamers are welcome to play Halo on PC, as long as they purchase an Xbox first. That seems to suggest that, at least in Microsoft’s eyes, Halo on PC really would have an impact on Xbox sales.
All of this is background detail for the Eldorito team, which feels confident that they’re not doing anything illegal, and they don’t want to be seen as trying to take any cash that should belong to Microsoft. “We are trying to distance ourselves from official Halo Online because we don't want to appear as pirates,” Fish says. They don’t want to crack Halo Online, they want Halo 3—and the fastest path to Halo 3 is straight through the heart of Halo Online. “We are just working with what we have.”
What they have, for now, is an almost-ready, almost-stable version of Halo 3 that is almost completely cracked open. There’s definitely a beggars-can’t-be-choosers mentality at work in the small community. Would they rather have Halo 5 with full modding tools released on PC? Of course they would.
But they don’t have that, they have this. And for them, until Microsoft decides to stop protecting their console interests with the mother of all exclusives, this will have to do.