Developers spend a lot of time at E3 talking about blue sky scenarios for their products. Everyone wants their game to become a pop culture institution name-checked alongside Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. Almost none will. Halo is closer than many, and Bonnie Ross wants to tip it over.
Ross is the head of 343 Industries, the Washington-based transmedia studio that took over the Halo franchise from Bungie in 2011, and now produces and curates all things related to Microsoft’s multi-billion dollar sci-fi franchise, from games to t-shirts, TV series, books, and movies.
“The universe is the primary character,” says Ross, drawing comparisons between Halo, Harry Potter and Star Wars. “These are universes worthy of devotion.”
343 has been busy fleshing out that universe. In addition to working on Halo 5: Guardians for Xbox One, it’s working on The Master Chief Collection, a bundle which includes every numbered entry in the Halo series. 343 is even working Halo TV series with Ridley Scott called Nightfall.
“When we started out, we didn’t want just to think about what we wanted to do in Halo 4,” says Ross. “We wanted to think about the stories we were going to tell over the next two decades, and how do we make sure we lay that canvas?”
“For us, we were teeing [Master Chief] up in Halo 4, and dropping him off where we wanted him to begin on Xbox One.”
Xbox’s signature hero wasn’t the only piece being moved around the board in Halo 4. Ross hints that Halo 5: Guardians will go even deeper into the Forerunner mythology. In Halo 5: Guardians, Master Chief will no longer be a pawn of the UNSC military complex; 343 sees this as the true beginning of what it calls Master Chief’s hero journey.
To coincide with that, the studio is also investing heavily in new characters for the series. “We’ve also had a tendency to kill a lot of our characters, which then made telling additional stories hard,” says Ross of the Halo universe. “So we’ve added a bunch of new characters in so that we have more tools to play with.”
Nightfall will help with that, believes Ross, as it introduces Agent Locke, a character that will be pivotal to Halo 5: Guardians. 343 believes it can reach a much wider audience on television than it can through books, which were the primary, low-cost medium for expanding the Halo universe while Bungie was at the helm. “It’s nicer to have; it’s closer to the game,” explains Ross. “With [the Halo 4 live-action prequel series] Forward Unto Dawn we had about 59 million views. For us, it’s a better way for us to try and get more fiction out to our fans.”
343’s other goal is accessibility. The story of Halo spans three console generations, something that makes it inaccessible to many. That’s where The Master Chief Collection comes in, explains Ross.
“For the first time ever, we can bring his full story to one console. For many of our fans, or many of our hopeful fans, they weren’t even born when we released Halo – or they were about four.”
“For all our faithful fans that have played along, we want to actually play to that nostalgia and find news ways to play.”
Dan Ayoub, executive producer at 343 on The Master Chief Collection, sincerely insists that everyone remembers the first time they played a Halo game.
“It’s such a magical, powerful experience,” he says. Putting the entire Halo series on a single disc for Xbox One “was all about putting power into the fans’ hands to determine how they want to play this journey.”
The collection will come bundled with the high-definition anniversary edition of the original Halo, plus a new high-definition edition of Halo 2, meaning that every numerical game in the Halo series now has the level graphical fidelity achieved by Xbox 360.
The collection hinges on the interface, continues Ayoub. Players can play through the whole series from start to finish, but everything is also unlocked, meaning they can cherry-pick missions or run through singleplayer playlists, doing every Warthog or Flood mission in succession, for example.
When it comes to multiplayer, the Collection will include five engines and one hundred maps. Purists who decried the use of Halo: Reach’s multiplayer engine in Halo: Anniversary will be delighted to learn that the original multiplayer engine has been reinstated for the original game. This therefore marks the first time that the original Halo’s multiplayer will be playable over Xbox Live.
“It’s all about cross-title, bringing it all together,” explains Ayoub. “We really pivoted on game modes. The quickest way is to pick a game mode, like Slayer. You’ll be connected to a party, then you’ll get to the voting options, say one map from Halo 1, one from 2, and one from 3. An icon will also tell you what multiplayer engine you’re going to play in. If you launch Sand Trap, you’re going to play on the Halo 3 multiplayer engine, for example.”
Just as Halo Anniversary included “Terminals” that teased the story told in Halo 4, The anniversary edition of Halo 2 will contain new Terminals that examine the plot in Halo 5: Guardians. Without giving too much away, it looks as if the former Covenant Supreme Commander, The Arbiter, has a hidden past that the next major installment will explore.
“We’re laying breadcrumbs,” resumes Ross. The Master Chief Collection is the first milestone in a carefully laid out journey leading the release of Halo 5: Guardians. After the release of the collection comes the Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta, from December 27, 2014, to January 17, 2015. “It is deliberately a year ahead of our release because we actually do want feedback,” she explains. “There’ll be a bunch of ways that people who are playing will be able to give feedback and help to refine what we’re shipping for Halo 5: Guardians.”
Nightfall will follow. Shooting has finished in Ireland and the production has now moved to Iceland.
The goal, says Ross, “is to land the TV series very close to the game so that we can have a cohesive entertainment experience”.
Both the Halo universe and its real-world development are dense and storied. Some would argue that Bungie left the series up to its neck in a quagmire of science fiction, theology, and escalating, universe-redefining revelations. Success for 343 will be measured by how it cleans up that mess, and how successful it is at turning Halo into the first true transmedia franchise – one admired separately and equally as a game and as a TV series. It’s a truly monumental task, but the franchise has the legs and the audience, and in 343, it might have the right people, too.