For anyone who’s created a monster hit entertainment property, success comes with a built-in challenge--how do you follow yourself? For Microsoft, the challenge of upping the ante on the next installment of its mega-selling Halo franchise, Halo 4, (debuting November 6) came with an extra wrinkle. The company had to create a fantastic new game, sure. But with original developer Bungie gone, Microsoft, still the owner of the Halo franchise, had to build a new game developer from the ground up to create a new trilogy of games.
With Halo veterans and a team that includes long-time fans of the game, the new studio, 343 Industries, worked to ensure the soul of the game survived while reinventing it for a new generation of players. The team, led by Bonnie Ross and franchise development director Frank O’Connor, placed a huge emphasis on the game’s story and turned a fresh creative eye to everything from music and promotion to the transmedia components that give the game life beyond the console. "The biggest challenge is always going to be quality, being able to capture the heart of why Halo is fun--evolving it and not ruining it," says O’Connor.
Bungie was a small game developer with a niche following for making sci-fi shooters for the Mac platform when it was purchased by Microsoft in 2000. The original XBox launched in 2001 with Bungie’s Halo as its flagship title. That game brought the popularity of the first-person shooter back to the console space and in the years since, and over the lifetime of the Xbox and the Xbox 360, the Halo franchise has sold 43 million games and has had $3 billion in sales.
In 2007, it was announced that Bungie was splitting from Microsoft. Having finished the Halo trilogy starring superhuman soldier Master Chief and his assistant/companion/artificial intelligence being Cortana, Bungie announced it was making one last game for the franchise--Halo: Reach was a prequel that showed the events leading up to the first Halo, before the Master Chief was involved. It came out in 2010.
O’Connor was Bungie’s community manager, the person many fans and journalists thought of when they thought Halo. Now at Microsoft as franchise director, he was integral to the building of 343 and the long-term plans for Halo. "You want to get people who understand the game. You want to get people who like it. But you also want to hunt for people who have different perspectives, who can look at it objectively," says O’Connor. "Just about everyone who applied for a job either had a real significant passion for Halo or more academic interest, game development interest."
Chris Lee, Halo 4's lead producer, was one of those new players. He was a producer with Microsoft for some of the other Halo games, working with Bungie as the studio developed the title. Now he would be part of the actual team making the game. "When Bonnie Ross, our GM, came to me and said she was going to start a Halo studio and wanted me to be part of it. I said, 'Absolutely, I love Halo; I’m in,'" says Lee. "It’s been really incredible to see the team as we’ve built it. We set out to build a team of people that just really loved the franchise, loved the universe, and are some of the best and the brightest of the industry."
And thus another unique situation arose: Fans of the original Halo from a decade prior found themselves working on the franchise they loved. Lee says, "We built this team of people where everyone has their own story of Halo and how they first experienced Halo or which Halo game resonated with them." The lead designer of Halo 4's multiplayer offerings is Kevin Franklin. His perspective is similar. Franklin says, "Before I even considered working for Microsoft, I was a Halo fan. It was a natural transition to come here. Not just myself, almost the entire studio put their careers towards making this game."
So the team leads came to 343 Industries and 200 others followed--fans and newcomers to the franchise alike, building up the teams within the new studio to work on the distinct parts of the game. Those teams were faced with a real challenge in making Halo 4: How do you build upon Bungie’s work on the original Halo games? How do you create something that keeps fans happy, but provide something new that would take the game into the next era?
"It was a certainly a challenge. That was probably the most exciting thing upon coming on board," says Franklin. "We started breaking down multiplayer: How do you improve this? How do you identify what the fans are looking for? What the market is looking for? What you want out of a new experience? How do you fit it in with our reborn philosophy of Halo 4?"
Having a franchise to build on gives 343 an advantage as it releases its first game; it also brings the scrutiny of millions of discerning fans. "We have to earn the trust of that fanbase. It’s not taken for granted," says O’Connor. "They still have no evidence that we are going to do the right thing. Plenty of franchises in the past have been taken over by different movie directors or authors and had been ruined. So we had to work with that pressure and that scrutiny, that intense microscope that was placed on us. All of those factors are difficult, but pressure also works as a crucible and helps forge things."
There were the obvious upgrades to be made: improve the game’s software to make the graphics better; design new weapons and vehicles for the players to use; finesse the multiplayer functionality so that it keeps pace with the features of the other multiplayer first-person shooters. But what was most important to evolving the game? "The ability to put more resources into things like cinematics and storytelling," says O’Connor. "The storytelling had been the bonus aspect of the franchise that people loved. And it grew and started to take on a life of its own. And we were able to invest in that very heavily."
Continuing the saga of Master Chief is not only about this supersoldier taking on alien threats. It’s his relationship with his AI companion Cortana--an artificial intelligence that may unravel. O’Connor says, "In Halo 3, Cortana was starting to have some issues. You feel like you rescued her from those, but as soon as you start this game it’s going to become pretty apparent that it’s going to be a big deal for the entire game and one of the focuses of your journey. It gets pretty meaningful."
343 is also expanding the gameplay and storytelling beyond the original Halo games by adding a new online cooperative mode called "Spartan Ops." Players control marines performing missions together within the Halo universe, following an episodic storyline. O’Connor says, "It’s 10 weeks of episodes, one episode of fiction with five missions of gameplay. That’s a total of 50 missions. That’s a lot of extra content--and it’s free. If it’s successful, we can look at a season two."
O’Connor keeps a watchful eye on more than the latest Halo game. As franchise director, he has to manage the larger Halo universe. For years, there have been Halo novels, graphic novels, cartoons, toys, etc. "We were doing transmedia before it had a name," says O’Connor. "We just happen to do all these things. It’s a testament to the strength of the universe that there is that much interpretation in different media."
And with the transition to 343 and the birth of a new Halo trilogy came a new era of such content and a new challenge to top the Bungie era in that department as well. "We had these one-off pieces. It’s great to expand the universe, but it’s not satisfying that these are all disconnected," says O’Connor. "I just want to make sure that if we do something that it is big that the story means something. There should at least be a resonance of connection or meaning. Ideally, everything should actually matter."
The expanded Halo universe has always included live-action shorts and commercials. For Halo 4 the studio announced a series of webisodes called "Foward Until Dawn," that act as a prequel to the game. When it came time to create a teaser to show gameplay, they used a mix of live-action and CG that flowed right into the demo presented at the E3 video game conference. And for the first trailer, released only a few weeks ago, they looked to Hollywood to deliver.
Tim Miller is the special effects coordinator behind films like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World--a love letter to video games if there ever was one--as well as the opening effects of David Fincher’s The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. Miller came on to direct, with his collaborator Fincher producing. "There’s so much being done with this character and this property and this world that there’s a lot of stakeholders that have a lot to say," says Miller. "What attracted me was the psychology of exactly who the Master Chief is and what being turned into this superwarrior has done to him. I think it’s a really bold place and really honest place to take this character."
The Halo soundtrack represented another high creative bar for 343--the Halo series has one of the most recognizable musical scores of modern video games, a mix of heavy metal guitars, science fiction melody, and Gregorian chant. With a new team came the need for a new composer. Again the team looked to Hollywood, but also to the music industry, recruiting Neil Davidge, the producer and writer of much of the music of British band Massive Attack and composer of soundtracks for films such as Push and Clash of the Titans.
"I was a huge fan of the game. I remember the first time I put the game on and heard the droning monks and I was immediately intrigued," says Davidge. "The music had been a big part of the game, for me and for many other fans of the game. I felt a big responsibility to get it right, to do a good job and to be authentic with it."
He too had to consider the history of Halo, yet make his own space within the franchise to add his voice. "I wanted to stay within the scope of those past pieces of music, but at the same time, present something new and to move the story on. But not to completely to revolutionize it," says Davidge. "So that was a challenge, trying to find the right balance between taking things forward and evolving stuff, but keep making sure there is still a connection to the past. 343 had been very keen with that, not just with the music, but with everything. This game is a continuation of a story."
If early reviews are an indication, 343 and company have succeeded on many levels.
O’Connor says, "To stick that landing after four years, to have all those pieces fall into place--it’s something that I thought sounded cool four years ago and thought we wouldn’t be able to pull off half of that. Four years later and it’s all lined up and it’s all going to mean something."