This year's DICE theme is worldbuilding, but Thursday offered a session dedicated to worldmaintaining, with 343 Industries head Bonnie Ross talking about being a steward of a sci-fi universe like Halo.
Ross began by examining what qualities give a world staying power. What makes Harry Potter, Star Wars, or the Lord of the Rings so special that people keep wanting to come back for more?
She thought back to seeing Star Wars for the first time when she was in the third grade, and how it changed the way she thought about space from a dry, academic topic to a more adventurous, inspirational subject.
"George Lucas created a world we didn't even know existed," Ross said. "And now that we knew it existed, we wanted to escape into it."
"The foundation is the universe, and I really do look at the universe as the most important character"
That's something video games are uniquely well suited for, Ross said, as interactive entertainment can provide not just escapism, but empowerment and control. And similar to Star Wars, it changed the way people thought about things. It didn't just redefine first-person shooters for the consoles, but it also created an epic, expansive world full of mystery that wasn't common in games at the time.
So when original Halo developer Bungie and Microsoft split after the release of Halo 3, the franchise needed a new home. Ross started 343 to give it that home, but faced the daunting task of carrying on a hugely successful universe with deeply invested fans.
"When the world you own isn't originally your own, I think the word stewardship is of paramount importance," Ross said.
In the Halo timeline, the events of the original trilogy of games spanned just a few months in the year 2552. That left a lot of potential for Ross and her team to expand on the universe, but they needed some guidelines for how much to expand, and where.
"In taking over the mantle, the first thing was to protect the foundation," Ross said. "The foundation is the universe, and I really do look at the universe as the most important character."
A critical part of that has been the series' transmedia offerings, the books, novels, comics, and so on that flesh out the universe. It's even more critical for a series like Halo because as Ross noted, "you can only tell so much story in a first-person shooter." That was something Microsoft and Bungie apparently understood from the beginning, as Ross noted with Eric Nylund's novel "Halo: The Fall of Reach," which released shortly before the original Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001.
"The game is amazing without the book, but with the book, the world is bigger," Ross said. "I care about Master Chief and know him as John, as well. And it makes the world bigger."
Because those transmedia offerings were so crucial, Ross insisted that 343 have control over every aspect of the brand, not just the games but the books, TV, animation, pajamas, and whatever else. She said it's an increasingly common approach these days, and one shared by the studios behind Microsoft's other big brands, Gears of War and Minecraft.
"If you change the rules or the mythology, even with the best intent, users object because they've invested their time in this universe"
Another key part of protecting the universe is making sure that the story and experience are consistent across all those different permutations.
"If you change the rules or the mythology, even with the best intent, users object because they've invested their time in this universe," Ross cautioned.
Developers would also be wise to treat those users as co-owners of the brand in a way that creators in other media don't necessarily need to, she said. Games are interactive in the first place, but developers also frequently give players the tools to add on to the worlds they build, whether it's through mods, custom game modes, or machinima-enabling tools.
"There is a delicate, fine balance with when you listen to the community and when as creators, you make decisions the community might not react to well. It's a fine balance, but it's a good, healthy balance."
Ross stressed the need to evolve the franchise, to continue taking risks with it even if some of them don't pan out. Halo 4's competitive multiplayer prompted a wealth of negative feedback, so they incorporated the users more into the development of that part of Halo 5. Unfortunately, another decision on Halo 5--scrapping the same-screen multiplayer features from previous games--prompted backlash of its own. (Ross said 343 will always have split-screen in the games going forward.) It's a continual learning process.
"It's always important to honor the core of what is the universe and what is the gameplay, but we also need to evolve that," Ross said.