Stu­dio Pro­file

The guardian of Halo is plan­ning a col­lab­o­ra­tive, mul­ti­me­dia-pow­ered fu­ture

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY ED­WARD SMITH

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

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