The guardian of Halo is planning a collaborative, multimedia-powered future
Inside 343 Industries, the
Halo guardian planning a collaborative, multimedia future
On the main floor of 343 Industries’ office, in Redmond, Washington, sits the Halo Museum, a growing collection of replica sci-fi weapons, Master Chief costumes and statues of some of the
Halo series’ most notorious enemies. Constructed to mark the 15th anniversary of the original game, the museum today serves as both a showpiece for visiting press and an attraction for children from the Make A Wish foundation, who wish to see where and how their favourite videogame is made. Packed with items, the museum is also a reminder of why 343 was founded, the enormous responsibility it inherited, and the pressures that continue to hang over it. Taking over from Bungie, the original creator of
Halo, whose rapport with fans could hardly be overstated, 343 had to work hard to prove itself from the outset. With the well-received Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians both now under its belt, the studio has demonstrably earned the trust of
Halo’s committed fanbase. But as the protector of a series so revered that it has its own museum, what does the future hold for 343? Competition is becoming stronger, standards are getting higher, and triple-A games are becoming much more expensive to produce.
Perhaps once, 343 Industries was regarded, even by itself, as simply a safe pair of hands for continuing the work of Bungie. But today, as
Halo continues to expand beyond firstperson shooters, beyond videogames, reacting to an industry that is constantly demanding more, the studio is transforming, from a game developer to something closer to a corporate headquarters. Designated from its creation as the keeper of
Halo, 343 Industries is today facing up to the second part of its name.
Since the studio was founded in 2007, Bonnie Ross has been head of 343. In nine years, she’s seen the studio transition from a secondary developer on Bungie’s Halo: ODST and Halo Reach, to the fully fledged operator of
Halo it is today – practically a business in and of itself. Managing not just the production of Halo games, but also books, toys and live-action TV series is a far-reaching responsibility. However, Ross says that 343 is much more at ease now than it was in the early days.
“Coming in knowing it was our job both not to mess Halo up but also take it forward was very daunting,” she explains. “The fans were understandably upset that Bungie would no longer be making Halo, so our role, to begin with, was as a kind of guardian – no pun intended. We had to earn the right to take those reins. The whole studio understood that it was really an honour to take over this franchise and that we had to do right by it.
“We already had access to all Halo’s assets, but the first thing I did do was hire a company to interview a lot of the people at Bungie so we could get a kind of oral lore of Halo. We could hear first hand what it was we were taking over. Then I looked to where we were going to go. The first three Halo games took place over a few months. So I examined this huge canvas – the
Halo universe – and thought about where that story could go over its next few decades.”
Ross knew what was coming. A studio head with more than 15 years’ experience, she understood that the future for something as big and broad as Halo was not just in videogames, and that the role of 343 Industries would demand design and production work across multiple media channels. By the time Halo had been handed off formally to 343, Ross and her team were in the process of hiring not just a selection of the game industry’s best developers, but people from the film, book and TV businesses who could carry the studio, and the franchise that was at its core, into both the next decade and every form of entertainment.
“Some ex-Bungie people came over to 343,” Ross explains. “Frank O’Connor was a critical hire, because he was the face of the series. But over the first year or two we hired in people from almost 45 different studios. We looked at Hollywood and film studios because there just wasn’t the talent in our immediate area, in Seattle, so we had to find people from all over the world. With Halo, we had this huge fictional universe and our focus was on empowering 343 to find and tell all of these different stories, and asking how we would like them to be told. I’m not comparing us to Star Wars, but with Star Wars you can tell so many multiple stories within its universe. Like that, Halo can go anywhere.
“So, this wasn’t exactly the normal way to start a studio. We were a startup studio, sure, but we also had an established franchise, so we were playing these two very different roles – it was a little bit crazy. And at the same time as staffing up, we were revamping the Halo engine for the first project we’d be making independently. Getting to know that engine and making sure we could actually build Halo was not an easy task. But after Halo 4, we got a lot more confident. Nowadays, it’s like we’re no longer a startup. We’re a lot closer to the Halo community and have a much better understanding of how to make these games.”
Thus, 343’s current project, Halo Wars 2. In keeping with the studio’s goal of exploring dozens of different ideas – games, apps, multimedia – so long as they’re still part of the
Halo universe, Halo Wars 2 feels like something of a tangential move. Seven years have passed since the original game’s release, and the RTS genre doesn’t carry as much weight on Xbox One as it does on PC. Nevertheless, 343 Industries seems to have a clear plan of action.
Along with its mobile games, Spartan Strike and Spartan Assault, and the long-rumoured
Halo TV series, set to be produced by Steven
“GETTING TO KNOW THAT ENGINE AND MAKING SURE WE COULD ACTUALLY BUILD HALO WAS NOT AN EASY TASK”
Spielberg, Halo Wars 2 is another front for expanding 343’s central property farther outward. Finding new stories inside a tried and trusted series is the studio’s focus, but now comprising 450 development staff ( Halo 3 was created by a team of around 70), the studio must also be mindful of becoming too big. Dan
Ayoub, 343’s head of external development, insists that the studio, despite its current size, is still intent on hand-picking only the best projects.
“Of course, there is a danger of spreading ourselves too thin,” Ayoub says. “But we’ve been very deliberate about the areas we go into and honest about what our strengths are. At the end of the day, 343 is a game development studio. That’s our bread and butter. That’s our DNA. That’s the core of our franchise and it always will be. We want to embrace other entertainment forms, but we have to get the games right.”
To maintain the quality of its many projects, 343 is collaborating with other developers outside of its walls, making use of as much external experience and knowledge as possible.
Halo Wars 2, for example, is being co-created by Creative Assembly, the UK-based studio behind Total War and Alien: Isolation. Both Ayoub and David Nicholson, Halo Wars 2’ s executive producer at Creative Assembly, agree that co-operating on big games in this way is how 343 will continue to prosper.
“One of the things we’ve been really good at as a studio is recognising that we don’t know everything,” Ayoub says. “We’re trying to get into all of these industries and we’re not experts in all of them, so we’re gleaning knowledge from other people and seeing different ways of working. But because Halo is so well known, it affords us the opportunity to grab the best people from inside other industries. So when starting our current project, Halo Wars 2, what came to my mind right away was Creative Assembly, which I think is the best strategy game developer in the world. We met for a couple of days, talked about our mutual goals, mutual ambitions and how we could partner. There was amazing chemistry between the teams and a lot of shared aspirations. The skillsets are so complementary.”
“Different perspectives coming together and riffing off each other like this allows Halo Wars 2 to become something that wouldn’t have worked had 343 – or Creative Assembly – been working independently,” Nicholson says. “Sharing the ideas and journeys each has taken to get to where they are today enriches the end product.”
But while it’s intent on partnering with different studios to make games, 343 continues to monitor its internal identity closely. Experimenting within the Halo universe is one thing, but confronted by the ever-increasing demands of mainstream consumers, 343 is determined to safeguard both its central product and its core fanbase. Almost every aspect of
Halo 5 was designed by bespoke, committed teams. Ross describes the hierarchy at 343 as “mostly conventional”, but sub-sections of designers and programmers are also permitted to form even smaller sub-sections to concentrate on specific design challenges. The team responsible for weapon and shooter mechanics, for example, has created a small coterie of developers tasked purely with balancing competitive multiplayer. 343’s community management group contains a mini-team that gets feedback from esports players on how to improve Halo 5’ s online modes. It’s branching into different game genres and other forms of media, but 343, patently a firstperson-shooter studio, is still sticking to its roots.
It’s perhaps appropriate, though, that Mojang, the Minecraft developer purchased by Microsoft in 2015, has just moved its Redmond team into the same building as 343. With toys, movies and countless other forms of merchandise now part of Mojang’s remit, Minecraft has become more of a business, a brand, than a simple videogame. And businesses exist to turn profit. Which begs the question: since it’s tied so entirely to a single money-making property, when
Halo ends, does 343 Industries end with it? Lionhead, also owned by Microsoft, was shut down once its Fable series was deemed to be commercially unviable. Almost immediately after the launch of the original Halo Wars, its developer, Ensemble, was closed, too.
“I think there will come a point when people are tired of the Master Chief,” Ross says, “and if we can’t come up with new stories that people find inspiring, then we definitely have challenges there. Some storylines, certainly, will have to end to give way to new things. We have permission, if we want, to do things outside of Halo. But our focus now is still on this rich fictional universe.”
“I’ve worked at and with a number of other studios in my career,” Ayoub says, “and I know games are hard work. Plus, 343 has so many different irons in the fire between toys and books and all that stuff. But everyone at the studio has the same passion: how to make Halo as good as it can be. What this studio has, that I haven’t seen elsewhere, is breadth. I’m humbled by the passion the people have here for all of these different parts of Halo. I can’t say for certain what the future holds, but 343 was founded for this game. We’re all in on Halo.”
“ONE OF THE THINGS WE’VE BEEN REALLY GOOD AT AS A STUDIO IS RECOGNISING THAT WE DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING”
Bonnie Ross, who’s been head of 343 Industries since its formation, and Dan Ayoub, head of external development
The Halo Museum, located within 343 Industries’ HQ, houses years’ worth of memorabilia, dating back to the original Halo’s release in 2001. Among the exhibits: a battered piece of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s car from a Kansas Speedway NASCAR event in 2015