In an interesting discussion between Halo franchise director Frank O'Connor and executive producer Kiki Wolfkill at DICE today, the stewards of everything Master Chief talked about the huge challenge of taking over a franchise as beloved as Halo from the talented folks at Bungie. Wolfkill said that there were two major components of this - one was building a studio (343) and the other was evolving a franchise that many, many people have huge expectations for.
"When we started 343 and this journey of where we wanted Halo to go, it was a 10-year plan in which Halo 4 was the first step," she noted. "We didn't have a relationship with the audience; they had a relationship with the IP."
"We had to evolve the game in ways that mapped to our studio's talents and beliefs, and sometimes you can't give the community everything it asks for"
So communication was vital for 343, to gain fans' trust and to build credibility. Wolfkill described two big primary audiences that they needed to win over: the wider Halo audience who enjoy the books and comics and so on, and the die-hard Halo gaming community.
O'Connor said that the ultimate way Halo has always been communicated has been through transmedia. "You can communicate a lot of things through transmedia experiences. It's not just a commerce opportunity, but the most important aspect is the storytelling vehicles," he said, pointing out that the novels have always been huge for Halo, even before the first Halo with The Fall of Reach. "It helped plant a seed for using transmedia and how we communicate more about our universe," he said.
Going forward with the Halo franchise and the overall universe, 343 has looked at what it feels is the binding theme among everything Halo. "We did a lot of work to understand what Halo meant. We distilled it down into the Halo beliefs," Wolfkill said. These four beliefs or pillars must be a part of everything created in the Halo universe. The first is Heroism and the idea that heroes are important; everyone has potential to be a hero. It's at the heart of a lot of our Halo stories, Wolfkill noted. The second belief is Humanity - that humanity is worth saving, and it's the sense of connecting the audience to something bigger. The third belief is Mystery, or providing a sense of fear and wonder in the Halo universe. And the last belief is Creativity. Wolfkill said that 343 doesn't own the Halo universe - everyone does, and the audience can contribute to it.
O'Connor added that 343 made the decision about four years ago that every single story they tell in the Halo universe has to matter to the player, to the reader and to fit into the plan for the next 10 years. Each piece must stand on its own as well. "So if you've read a Halo novel you'll have a better understanding in the game, but we can't expect someone playing the game to need to read the novels," he said. The audience has to feel delighted and satisfied by the investment they made in the games, books or anything else. Even in the marketing, the storytelling has to mean something and gives players glimpses into the universe.
Wolfkill also noted that as storytellers it's an amazing creative opportunity, because the linear pieces of entertainment in the Halo universe allow 343 to fully explore more of the characters that you might not be able to in the games.
Ultimately, Wolfkill and O'Connor agreed that the biggest ongoing challenge is striking a careful balance between the Halo community and the larger, overall audience. The die-hard Halo community is much more vocal and it's important to listen to their feedback and engage them in conversation but you still need to satisfy the wider audience, O'Connor said.
"Bungie started this as they always had a great relationship with the community. We had to take the baton which was red hot when it was handed to us, and we had to run with it," O'Connor said. "We still have to earn their trust and nurture the Halo community." He pointed out that, paradoxically, one thing the community demands is evolution but they also don't like things being changed. "We had to evolve the game in ways that mapped to our studio's talents and beliefs, and sometimes you can't give the community everything it asks for," he concluded.
Wolfkill added that "we've only started to scratch the surface of what we want to do at the studio."