Microsoft’s epic year of product launches continues next week with the Tuesday debut of “Halo 4,” a new version of the sci-fi action franchise on the Xbox console.
It’s a big test for Microsoft’s Kirkland-based game studio, 343 Industries. The 350-person team was formed to continue developing “Halo.”
The studio that originally created the game, Bungie, spun out of Microsoft in 2007 and went on to build different games. Microsoft kept Bungie’s space, a former hardware store in Kirkland that’s now home to 343.
There’s a big incentive to keep “Halo” going. Since it debuted with the first Xbox in 2001, the franchise has had sales of more than $3 billion. More than 43 million games have been sold and 3.3 billion hours have been spent playing it online on the Xbox Live service.
“Halo 4” begins with the return of the original Halo hero, the armored Master Chief. He’s back to defend mankind against hordes of aliens and help unravel the mysterious events that put the universe in such a predicament.
This time the game provides more human drama — including the chief’s personal story– told with hyper realistic, cinematic episodes. It will retail for $60, or $100 for a special “limited edition.”
Also new is a series of new missions called “Spartan Ops,” which can be played solo or with other players online. Microsoft will release new missions, with video episodes telling more of the Halo story, every week to keep players engaged.
It’s a massive undertaking that’s also facing lots of competition this holiday season, including new versions of action blockbusters “Assassin’s Creed” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” plus the debut of Nintendo’s new Wii U console and growing competition from games played on tablets, phones and social networks.
To find out more I spoke to Bonnie Ross, head of 343 Industries, and Frank O’Connor, franchise development director. Here’s an edited transcript of our chat:
Q: Did you set up 343 to be more autonomous than other Microsoft studios?
Ross: When I started the studio I felt it was incredibly important to think about the franchise for the next 10 to 20 years and as such the universe is our strongest character.
So being able to have all those components in one studio was really important, so that we could actually think about what the foundation of the universe is going forward, what stories we want to tell and that we have and own all the fiction, all the toys, everything, so the teams can have a lot of synergy.
Q: Do you think the franchise has 10 or 20 years of legs left?
O’Connor: In some ways there’s no doubt whatsoever. Obviously, technology and the landscape will change, but the need for those stories and those characters and that universe and those discrete game play experiences, I don’t see it going away anytime soon.
Ross: I’m being a bit presumptuous here but when you think about sci-fi universes or fantasy universes I think that — I hope and I believe — we have some of the same DNA you do with “Star Wars,” with “Lord of the Rings,” with “Harry Potter,” and that we have a universe in which you could tell hundreds of stories. It’s our job to make sure that each story is deliberate and good but I feel like there’s room – it’s a large universe; there are lots of stories to be told.
Q: How do you avoid overplaying it?
O’Connor: Bonnie just compared it to things like “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings.” The mainline activity for those things is the movies, right, and I think that the connected tissue – things like the books and comic books and spinout franchise elements of those universes don’t actually harm the core pillars as long as you keep making good movies and an appropriate number of those movies with a correct cadence. I think that franchise is then supporting that franchise as those things, even as those things support that franchise.
If we think about games as our mainline activity, we wouldn’t even have the capacity to overdo the number of games it would take to swamp our faithful users and players.
But you also have to make sure – just like those other franchises – you have to make sure that each of your big beats is successively better or more meaningful than the last. And if you can control that quality and if you can control that arc then I don’t think there’s much danger of saturation, especially when you have two or three years between big beats.
Q: How much of your audience now are “original” Halo players vs. new players? How much churn do you have?
Ross: I think the nice thing about “Halo” is we actually have a very large age range where due to the nature of our universe and the morals around the story we have a bunch of young kids. Then we have a bunch of older guys who started in their 20s or 30s and they’re now. …
O’Connor: Older than that.
Ross: I think what we’re seeing is sort of an intergenerational — where you’ve got fathers who grew up on “Halo” and they’re bringing their kids in who are in a much younger demographic.
O’Connor: With sequels it’s super important that you don’t assume that people are experiencing this in some sort of contiguous spectrum of experiences. There are some simple things we’ve done in the game in terms of how we tell the story, for example – it’s a completely self-explanatory, standalone story if you’re new to it. If you have followed the series for the entirety of the games it will feel really meaningfully connected but it’s also a great entry point.
Ross: It’s been five years since “Halo 3.” So when you look at that in game years that’s a whole generation of gamers that maybe haven’t experienced master chief before.
Q: What about Bungie’s more recent games, “Halo: ODST” and “Halo: Reach”?
Ross: They’re there, just not Master Chief, right? So if you look at coming in the Halo door the first time with “ODST” or “Reach,” both good games, but I think very different. With Halo 4 we’re starting a new saga, and it is the Master Chief saga and he is our hero, and he’s been absent for five years.
O’Connor: “ODST” and “Reach” are both very successful products but they’re both very deliberately isolated from the larger story arc of the universe.
Q: Reach brought in new vehicles, things like flyable spacecraft. Will you continue that in “Halo 4”?
O’Connor: We did do some careful editing and we have removed a lot of things as well as retained a lot of things. But generally if you’ve learned a bunch of skills from playing ODST and Reach, those skills and some of those elements – things like the jetpack for example – are going to be present in Halo 4 so your investment in building your skills is still playing off.
Q: Did you feel extra pressure, releasing a game at the tail end of the console cycle — pressure to move the last consoles off the shelves?
O’Connor: One of the really exciting things for me, being in this business for 20 years, is seeing what they can get out of that hardware. Every single year you think we’ve tapped out and there’s always more you can get out of it.
Ross: We do look at this tail very differently than we looked at Xbox tail, largely because of what the box has evolved into. Also, with 343, we’re establishing a brand new team. We’re a startup team … with an established franchise. We need the two to come together.
It was my decision to make sure that we had something and something strong in 2012. Hopefully you can see it in what we have with this game – it’s leaps ahead of what we’ve done before. I think this box has more to offer, and I also needed this team to ship Halo- we need to put our stake in and move forward so we can continue to evolve and grow deeper as a team.
Q: You’re presumably working on the next version — “Halo 5” or whatever it’s going to be called will be the anchor tenant on the next version of the Xbox, right?
O’Connor: We’ve done as much prototyping and storytelling and the future arc of the universe as we have on technology. So we’re definitely working on the future but in some ways it’s technologically agnostic at this point.
Q: You’re building the muscles of the studio to continue, and the next version is probably going to be really critical for the next generation of the Xbox platform. They need a franchise like that.
O’Connor: We definitely have a lot of smart people inside the studio and outside the studio thinking about future technology and future development., for sure.
Q: Are there plans to ever release a PC version of “Halo 4”?
Ross: Not at this point, no.
Q: How will “Halo 4” fare against other big games coming out this holiday season?
O’Connor: The reality is that everyone on our team is a gamer so there’s this weird tension of like, oh no, these other big games are coming out the same time as ours. You’ve got “Assassin’s Creed” and “Call of Duty,” but those guys are gamers, too, and so they’re looking forward to these games.
It’s going to be a very good holiday for gamers in general. Everything is timed and appropriately thought out and measured and managed so we won’t have any real surprises out of that competition, but I think 2012 is turning out to be a big, banner year for triple A games, even as people worry about people moving off to mobile experiences and stuff. There’s no shortage of demand for those big-ticket experiences.
Q: One of the trademarks of the franchise was bits of irreverent, snarky humor that Bungie slipped in. Will that continue in the larger organization?
O’Connor: There’s plenty of snark in the game and some of it’s right in your face. There’s definitely some interesting dynamics in the Spartan Ops universe.
Ross: Spartan Ops … is going to be a pretty unique experience. To Frank’s point, the story doesn’t end with campaign, it continues on. It gives you something each week to think about for both game play and where the story is going.
Q: Will Spartan Ops drive higher engagement after launch than previous versions?
Ross: I think we hope that it drives different engagement and gives more options for different types of players to continue on after they’re done with campaign.
O’Connor: In some ways it’s an experiment. There isn’t anything exactly like it on the console right now. Airing it like a TV show and pairing that with good characters and fun and drama and excitement will hopefully keep bringing people in.