By Kevin Kelly
Kiki Wolfkill, who has one of the coolest names in the video game industry, and Frank O’Connor from 343 Industries took the stage at D.I.C.E. to talk about the challenges of building a brand-new studio, and taking over the massive "Halo" franchise.
O’Connor began by explaining the daunting challenges of building that new studio. The first challenge was to build the studio itself, while the second was to take over a beloved franchise that a lot of people had developed a deep love and appreciation for. That brings a tremendous amount of pressure to a team and a product, when you are expected to create something that the wants to be great right out of the box.
Communicating to the wide "Halo" audience was a new challenge for the company, which really began to stretch its legs when they released the "Halo: The Fall" of Reach novel back in 2001. According to O’Connor, that was pure opportunism on their part, but it opened up the transmedia options for the franchise as a strategy for communicating the nature of the universe and the backstory to the audience. All but two of their novels have been New York Times bestsellers, which has expanded the property beyond just the people who play the game.
This created new challenges for the series, as now the stories from the novels and the events from the game needed to intersect and branch out, which caused them to sit down and map out a 10-year plan for the series, which involves things like novels, web series, television commercials, the games, and more. “People often talk about the Halo Story Bible, as if it’s a dusty tome that we keep,” O’Connor said, but went on to explain that it is actually just a set of different things, most of which are available to people at home.
Case in point is the Didact from "Halo 4," which many players come in seeing as a bad guy that they have to face. But if you’ve read the Greg Bear Forerunner novels, it means something entirely different to you. All of their storytelling or marketing eventually pays off in the games, thanks to what O’Connor refers to as a massive wiki that they work off of. Which is a challenge to maintain and communicate to the creators, as things like motion comics, more novels and video series keep being created.
Wolfkill pointed out that Thomas Lasky was introduced as a young cadet in the Forward Unto Dawn series, which allowed them to spend more time exploring his character in the series than you normally would want to in a game, in the interest of time. O’Connor added that he sort of brings the player up to speed on the Halo universe in "Halo 4," and actually introduces the gamer to Master Chief. Being able to introduce him before the game was an added facet for the people who go beyond the game, which is something the company wants to continue to do.
Bungie had a great relationship with their community, and 343 has had to take that baton and run with it. A team of twelve initially had to begin working on the game, while maintaining and engaging that community. “This is a constant, ongoing thing that you have to nurture,” O’Connor said, noting that this new community had no reason to trust them when they brought the franchise to 343. Wolfkill noted that they brought the community into the equation early, as they started building the studio. “Getting them onboard with us was hypercritical. We really wanted the community to hopefully be a part of our success, and building our success.”
O’Connor said that communication is best when it works as a two-way system, and that both sides benefit from this process, whether it’s between the studio and the team, or the studio and the community. He noted that they haven’t done everything perfectly, as illustrated by a herp derp Cortana, but that they are completely open about their missteps and their successes, which strengthens the result for everyone.