On Tuesday, Microsoft’s Halo development studio 343 Industries posted about a fan-made modification to a PC version of the series—and the studio said that Microsoft would “protect its Halo intellectual property.” This, for all intents and purposes, sounded like yet another story of a fan-made game-tribute project facing a swift, legal smackdown.
But the story of the ElDewrito patch, designed for 2015’s Russia-only game Halo Online, appears to be a little more nuanced, if not complicated. The ElDewrito version of Halo Online is still online and functioning, with thousands of players matchmaking in its wholly free online multiplayer lobbies as of press time. Its Github repository is still online, which means the open source patch can still be downloaded. And the patch builders’ official blog says the team did not receive a formal cease-and-desist order from either Microsoft or 343 Industries.
The result is fascinating: a solid, Windows-compatible version of classic Halo 3 combat is in the wild. Now Microsoft’s required legal action is being announced alongside an apparent intent to do what the modders were already doing—to finally get more classic Halo games working for PC gamers.
In Russia, Dewrito eats you
When it comes to fan-made versions of existing video games, the stories usually don’t end well. Lawyers inevitably show up to protect their IP in spite of these games often being run by devoted, not-for-profit community groups. Everyone typically leaves with a sour cease-and-desist taste in their mouths.
This fate actually befell one Halo-related project in 2015 called ElDewrito, which aimed to fix up the weirdest Halo game ever made: Halo Online, a Russia-only, free-to-play hybrid of Halo 3 and Halo 4 for Windows PCs. The closed beta files for that Russian game leaked to the wider world, and soon after, devoted Halo fans and modders grouped together under the ElDewrito moniker (a play on its “ElDorado” filename) to collaborate on getting the game to work for players outside of Russia.
The project began life as an open source patch with conversations and collaboration taking place on sites like Reddit and Github. Ars wrote about the DMCA takedown request filed by Microsoft that same year, which took ElDewrito off Github temporarily. Yet the project found its way back onto Github shortly after our report was filed, and the reason was simple. Github was merely complying with Microsoft’s request to remove protected code from the repository, as “somebody uploaded ElDorado.exe [the game’s original, unaltered EXE] by mistake.”
With that EXE removed in a relisting, the project was no longer running afoul. The ElDewrito team continued sharing files that were in the legal free-and-clear, because they were worthless in isolation. (They simply required users to find Microsoft’s associated EXE on their own.) After Halo Online‘s closed Russian beta formally shut down in 2016, ElDewrito continued its work in earnest—aiming to build a true Halo 3 experience on that beta’s bones. ElDewrito wanted its project to include Forge modding support, peer-to-peer networking, Halo 3-specific features (like dual wielding in combat), and bug fixes.
“More Halo on PC”
Last week, the patch’s latest, biggest version (0.6) rolled out in a few ways: as a Github download, as an automatic update from within the existing ElDewrito fileset, and as a convenient, already-patched version of Microsoft’s copyrighted EXE. The latter was uploaded to various file-sharing sites, and those download links were shared at the Halo Online Reddit community.
That fact, and a groundswell of anticipation for the feature-rich patch, arguably drove rapid-fire adoption. A spike in Halo Online play on video-streaming site Twitch soon followed, and within days of that spike, the Halo powers that be responded. An update at Halo Waypoint, operated by 343 Industries, pointed to how other fan-made projects, like the video series Red Vs. Blue and the Halo Custom Edition patch, abide by “established content usage guidelines.” ElDewrito, on the other hand, appears to cross a line, according to the post:
While we are humbled and inspired to see the amount of passion poured into this project, the fact remains that it’s built upon Microsoft-owned assets that were never lawfully released or authorized for this purpose. As this project reverberated across the community, our team took a step back to assess the materials and explore possible avenues, while Microsoft, like any company, has a responsibility to protect its IP, code and trademarks. It’s not optional in other words.
343 then clarifies that Halo Online is not “abandonware” and that “many elements of that underlying code and content are still actively being used today and will continue to be in the future.” But Microsoft didn’t send anybody from ElDewrito a formal cease-and-desist. Those legal notices are apparently being aimed elsewhere: at video-streaming sites, and at anybody linking to Microsoft-owned files like ElDorado.exe. (As of press time, those EXE links have disappeared from the Halo Online Reddit community.) El Dewrito confirms that its Github repository isn’t going anywhere: “Since ElDewrito itself is simply an open source mod and not a Microsoft asset, the mod itself will not be taken down.”
“You can resume playing 0.6 as normal.”
343’s blog post says that the company told the ElDewrito team to “press pause,” which lines up with the mod team’s own confirmation. ElDewrito has acknowledged it was asked by Microsoft to “temporarily halt development until more information is available.” What’s more, 343 offered a lengthy, vague statement to admit that it sees the can of worms opened by ElDewrito:
One thing remains clear—the community really wants more Halo on PC. As we look ahead, we’re very excited about the prospects of an official classic Halo experience making its way to PC and we hope to be able to partner with the ElDewrito team and broader mod and content creation community to help inform the types of experiences and features our fans desire. While we have nothing to announce today, please know that the PC community is very important to us and top of mind as we work towards the future.
Adding those statements up leaves wiggle room for interpretations. “Partner with” and “inform experiences” could mean sending fans a survey, inviting them to test the ongoing Master Chief Collection update tests, or even outright hiring mod makers and incorporating their work into a formal Halo Online launch.
Meanwhile, those promises about increased PC support for classic Halo games will likely read as stale to fans who have been loudly begging for such a release for years. But Tuesday’s announcement could be taken as a read-between-the-lines statement of intent. Xbox chief Phil Spencer added credence to that idea by disseminating the blog post via a tweet that selectively quotes parts about PC support for Microsoft. And 343 didn’t need to write a lengthy response about ElDewrito—that post even goes so far as to list its version number, as if to slyly help clueless Googlers find the files themselves.
This will only draw more attention to the fan-made project, which the ElDewrito team has asked fans to continue legally playing: “Play the hell out of it. Create more incredible forge creations. You can resume playing 0.6 as normal.” Again, thanks to the patch’s decentralized, peer-to-peer networking base existing outside of the ElDorado codebase, Microsoft may not be able to strike that part down even if it wanted to. (We’ve been playing the patched game for the past day and can confirm it is up to Halo-freak snuff; it looks as good in 4K as the above gallery suggests.)
Thus, let me float one theory. Big companies are likely to ignore tweets and forum posts and favor hard player count numbers to prove fan interest in something like a PC version of a beloved series. ElDewrito 0.6’s playercounts might be the win-win that modders, fans, and eager 343 developers all want to move Microsoft’s bottom line as we continue to wait for news about MCC, or other beloved Halo titles, finally reaching the Windows platform.