Cutting the Cord: Halo without Bungie

We speak to 343 Industries head Bonnie Ross and Halo 4 executive producer Kiki Wolfkill about the challenges of taking on one of the industry's biggest franchises.

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Bonnie Ross is a forward-thinker. As the head of Microsoft's 343 Industries, she's the woman in charge of protecting the future of Halo and guiding a legion of loyal fans through the next ten years of the franchise. It's a daunting prospect any way you look at it, but Ross is confident that her team is right for the job. On November 6, the day of Halo 4's release, she hopes that the world will prove her right.

343 Industries was first established in 2007 to support Microsoft's Halo business, following the publisher's split from original franchise creator Bungie. While Bungie would go on to develop two more Halo titles for Microsoft--2009's Halo 3: ODST and 2010's Halo: Reach--the establishment of 343 confirmed the publisher's intentions to keep the three billion-dollar franchise going long after Bungie had left the building.

Ross was chosen to lead the 343 team after a long career as a producer on Microsoft sports titles and key franchises including Gears of War and Mass Effect. She's not the nervous type--her 18 years industry experience has seen to that--but she's not shy to admit the prospect of taking over one of the biggest gaming franchises of all time was initially intimidating.

"My biggest fear was that I was going to be the person that ruined Halo," she says. "I wanted to spend as much time as possible making sure 343 had the right foundations of the franchise so that we could be the right guardians of the Halo universe."

Bungie's decision to stay onboard for two more Halo titles allowed 343 to spend its first 18 months as a studio doing just that. The studio worked in collaboration with the original Halo creators to learn about the franchise, its history, and the various elements that made up its vast universe. The first thing that was immediately clear to Ross was how differently the two studios worked. In Bungie's case, the team presided over development of the Halo games but left the fiction and consumer products side of the business to another branch within Microsoft, which Ross says led to misunderstandings between Bungie and the Microsoft over the future of the franchise. Her solution was to bring everything under one roof. As a result, 343 now looks after the entire Halo franchise including software, consumer products, toys, apparel, and fiction.

The next thing Ross wanted to focus on was building a studio culture. Microsoft's financial backing allowed her to hire developers who she believed fit her idea of what she wanted 343 to be: a highly creative and collaborative environment where employees could feel comfortable in speaking up and sharing their opinion across various departments. Her first stop was Kiki Wolfkill, the former Microsoft Studios art director whose 17-year industry career has spanned franchises including Forza and Gears of War.

"It was an interesting time at Microsoft," Wolfkill says. "We had decided to take on a challenge as big and ambitious as you can possibly get. Not that we didn't understand what we were getting into. We're not scaredy-cats. There's an underdog mentality at 343 that I think is pushing us to great things."

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343 began work on Halo 4 in 2009 after getting the all-clear from Microsoft Studios head Phil Spencer, who was heavily involved in the decision to push ahead with the new series. (Spencer once joked at E3 2012 that he wouldn't be ready to call 343 a proper studio until after they shipped Halo 4.)

The first problem was working out what to keep of the old Halo and what to throw out. When Wolfkill and Ross identified what aspects of the canon needed to be reinforced before any additions could be made, the pair found themselves coming back to the same constant: the Chief.

"It was clear when I joined 343 that Bonnie's vision for Halo centered around the game's universe," Wolfkill says. "When we started to map out what we wanted to do with Halo 4 there was no question about it not being focused on Master Chief."

Wolfkill and Ross both know the Halo universe contains a great deal of untold stories, but they couldn't imagine Halo 4 without the hero at the centre of this universe. They decided the new Halo would be a personal story, one that gave Master Chief more dimension, more humanity.

"Heroes are made through trials and tribulations," Wolfkill says. "We wanted to turn Master Chief into a character that players connect to."

That's where Cortana comes in. Wolfkill says the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana plays an important role in this regard. Players will learn to view both characters in a new light, and come to a new understanding about the importance of their bond.

This is also partly the reason why 343 Industries refers to the new Halo series as a "saga". In exploring the Halo universe to uncover new stories, the team found more than they'd bargained for: enough to feel that they didn't want to be restricted with how they develop the franchise in the future. The story arc developed by 343 spans across a number of games, but that's all Wolfkill and Ross will say on that subject for now.

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Giving Master Chief more depth was a relatively easy decision compared to the conversation regarding what Halo 4 should innovate on. Ross realized she had to be deliberately cautious in this regard: while a lot hangs in the balance if the game doesn't succeed--343's reputation, the future of the Halo franchise, and the personal sacrifices of over 300 developers who have given the last five years of their life to Halo 4--it was the thought of disappointing Halo fans that played most on her mind.

"Halo 4 is a work of art, but ultimately what we wanted to do was prove to Halo fans that we've stayed true to the franchise," she says. "The universe forms the foundation of the franchise and it means a lot to people. It's our first time taking the keys to the car and we don't want to mess it up."

It's true that Halo has acquired a passionate and dedicated fanbase since the release of Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001. The games are valued for their narrative-driven campaigns, polished multiplayer, and the overall canon itself, which has been explored through multiple bestselling novels. Not for the first time since starting work on Halo 4, 343 developers found themselves going back to the things that made Halo great to find inspiration.

Ross and Halo 4 development director Frank O'Connor wanted players to experience a new side to the Halo story, one that would explore the complexities of the Forerunners and their technology. Of course, you can't have a new playground without new companions. The introduction of a new enemy class in Halo 4--the Prometheans--is a huge change for the franchise, and something that 343 is confident will change the gameplay experience for the better.

"We wanted a new enemy class that would work together so that encounters could change dynamically," Wolfkill says. "This changes how players approach these encounters, and of course gives them some new weapons to play with."

The 343 team has also tweaked aspects of Halo's multiplayer. Players will be able to customize their own Spartan and make their through the different modes in the game as a career, earning Spartan Points (SP) to unlock weapons, armor, and upgrades and progressing through the ranks. The studio has also added a story-driven game mode, Spartan Ops, which aims to weave a narrative thread through Halo 4's multiplayer.

"We knew we were taking a leap of faith by introducing all these new elements, but we had to do it," Wolfkill says. "We wanted to develop our own voice while respecting an IP we all care about. We know we're making an investment, but we're certain it's the right one."

"We've had to make a lot of hard decisions on Halo 4," Ross continues. "I didn't agree with all of them, but I think that's okay. Halo 4 is an expression of a whole range of different voices. It's exactly what we wanted it to be."

Halo 4 will be released on November 6.

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Discussion

54 comments
aligatorhardt
aligatorhardt

What made Halo 1 a hit was the fact that it blew Mario back into cartoon land and gave the player an experience unmatched by any platformer or adventure title. It gave the player control over combat, with melee and the ability to pick up weapons from slain enemies. It had unique and well rendered alien landscapes and vehicles. The value was in the experience and control.

Now games are becoming movies that play out by taking control away from the player, with cut scenes overpowering the gameplay, where the player is pushed off into the audience and if active at all, is reduced to spastically slamming a button when ordered to do so, but not in control of the approach, the weapons, or the execution. The player becomes an outside observer who occasionally gets some control. This not only eliminates the thrill of strategy. but the one way only success formula eliminates any surprises. Once a game has been played all the surprise is gone, and there is no value in playing more than a few times, so the game sits on the shelf gathering dust.

 

No doubt greedy development companies love to build in obsolescence, and eliminate replayability, so they can sell more games. But as a consumer I absolutely hate the button prompting  cinematic sequences that are used to replace gameplay, and I could not care less about over developed character personalities, trite Hollywood stereotypes, and consumer madness over truckloads of crappy guns and fancy clothes. A real soldier has drab clothes in order to avoid being sighted, not to appear as the flashiest pimp on the street.

 

Halo, and now Far cry, have turned great FPS titles into a consumer frenzy and a one size fits all alphabet soup of the worse video game stereotypes. Let me know when a studio is ready to make a good FPS title again.

KD35RW0JH13
KD35RW0JH13

Got some rare things on sale stranger!

thequickshooter
thequickshooter

well i'll guess we have to find out 

*puts halo 4 into tray*

S_Pac_316
S_Pac_316

I like that they are changing things up and taking this risk. They are not just regurgitating the same game into a new package( like CoD! ).

I'm sure the game will be fun in it's own right and still feel like Halo!

Nexrad
Nexrad

I am surprised at how well 343 has handled this game. Much respect for this studio for attempting to change up the old Halo formula.

 

Some will say its a copy of CoD and those people are obviously misguided or stupid. I love how they take some things other games have used but kept their own spin on it to make it unique. it seems like the so called perks they have are balanced and not extremely overpowered like CoD perks are and there's also not a million different ones so the 10 they have seem useful cuz lets face it most in CoD are worthless anyway.

 

The armor abilities are tweaked and they took out armor lock so people can stop whining about that one. Most of them seem perfect and the newer ones seem like they could be pretty useful making me want to try multiple ones instead of only using the same one every time.

 

And the ordinance drops look much better than i though because i was worried but its different you have 3 options to choose from so its not like CoD where you get one thing and it gives you likr 5-10 guaranteed kills by doing nothing.

 

Finally i love all the new weapons they have. They did what i wanted for a long time and thats really changing up the weapons and adding a lot of new ones for once. Sure people will still spam the BR sometimes but there are a lot more useful looking weapons you can use and the AR doesnt seem completely useless.

 

Great job 343!

 

Minishdriveby
Minishdriveby

"In Bungie's case, the team presided over development of the Halo games but left the fiction and consumer products side of the business to another branch within Microsoft, which Ross says led to misunderstandings between Bungie and the Microsoft over the future of the franchise. Her solution was to bring everything under one roof. As a result, 343 now looks after the entire Halo franchise including software, consumer products, toys, apparel, and fiction."

 

This seems like an odd thing for Bungie to do, and it almost seems as if they didn't care about the story. It makes 343 much more appealing to me. After looking at what they've done with the franchise, I'm actually excited, for the first time, for a Halo game.

GreySeven
GreySeven

Cut the cord?  More like genetic splicing with Call of Duty while still in the Bungie womb.

l777l
l777l

"The next thing Ross wanted to focus on was building a studio culture. Microsoft's financial backing allowed her to hire developers who she believed fit her idea of what she wanted 343 to be: a highly creative and collaborative environment where employees could feel comfortable in speaking up and sharing their opinion across various departments. Her first stop was Kiki Wolfkill, the former Microsoft Studios art director whose 17-year industry career has spanned franchises including Forza and Gears of War."

That's sexist, right? Feminists?

SteveOwl
SteveOwl

I'm looking forward to it...I get the feeling that 343 have been given a huge mountain to climb, to fulfill the desires of everyone who's played since the beginning...and from what I've seen they're giving it their best shot...I'll applaud their efforts but from everything I've seen so far I get the feeling that they might exceed our expectations, and I look forward to playing it next Tuesday....Kudos to 343....

PAcreeper
PAcreeper

I trust 343, they know their Halo, and I can't wait to see them advance the series in new and exciting ways. :D

Scorchstar
Scorchstar

Yeah, yeah, where's Bungie's secret title? I wanna hear about that. But, they signed with freakin' Activision... I would rather sign with Microsoft than Activision, in fact, Bungle, please go Indie.

kingcole225
kingcole225

What is Halo like without Bungie?

 

Easy answer: Call of Duty

Fernin-Ker
Fernin-Ker

I wasn't too sure at first when this studio was formed, but the more I see and read about from them, the more comfortable I am in feeling the Halo universe is in good hands.

 

People who feel M$ is milking the franchise, good for you, that's your opinion. However I, and millions of other Halo fans will be only too happy to return to this game universe. New franchises are good and all, but there's no reason to abandon a sci fi universe as excellent as Halo's. So while I will certainly be happy to see new exciting game series come to life,I will be just as happy and looking forward to my next trip into a universe I've loved for more than a decade. I believe Star Wars and Star Trek fans will be familiar with the feeling.

Caboose5565
Caboose5565

well i am excited. I think the game will be good because they knew that it had to be good....it makes sense 

OmegaFlare18
OmegaFlare18

Wolfkill....be an awesome last name to have. It's like "bitch read my business card, then try to mess with me

billlabowski
billlabowski

Bungie's problem is that they went from rags to riches overnight. They didn't know what they had and they were forced to come up with more game plans. They dropped the ball with Halo 2. The campaign was full of bugs, plot holes and the ending was extremely abrupt and it was cut short because of the time spent on E3 2003's demo (confirmed by Staten himself). The only good thing about Halo games have been the multiplayer, whatever information on canon you wanted you'd have to get from books. Halo became a game which people wanted an equal amount of multiplayer (which they got) and an equal amount of Halo canon from the single player, which they did not get. I can honestly say that Halo is better off without Bungie. It's ran by a company that doesn't hold grudges against Microsoft and it's run by people that genuinely love Halo. I think we're all better off this way and honestly I won't be looking at anything else Bungie has to offer. I honestly think they just got lucky with the Halo franchise, thanks to Jason Jones.

bjvill
bjvill

It always is a gamble to add to an established universe/character (look at Metroid Other M, or the Star Wars Universe when Lucas added episodes 1-3 as examples). So I do hope that most (can't please em all) Halo fans like where 343 takes the Halo world.

Personally haven't played anything other than Reach (which I did enjoy) so I am looking forward to Halo 4 either way. The Spartan Ops concept particularly sounds interesting.

brok
brok

It's high time Halo put multiplayer bots back into the genre it ripped them away from. Come on Halo, it's the least you can do.

Phoenix-Ho-Yoku
Phoenix-Ho-Yoku

M$ could spend those millions of dollars on new IP's instead milking the same 2-3  franchises for more than 10 years if u count halo from the last gen.

iboo01
iboo01

If it doesnt have ranked I ll be very disappointed 

TheMisterCheif
TheMisterCheif

All in total probably $500 Million spent, Maybe. Will be at midnight launch

gutsallover
gutsallover

I'm very excited for this. Initially when I heard Halo 4 was being made I was skeptical, dismissing it as Microsoft milking the cash cow. The more I read about what 343i was doing, though, the more interested I became. It was clear to me that they were putting a lot of time, effort, and passion into the game, and finding out that several former Bungie employees are working on the project as well as the fact that Bungie is wishing 343i the best gave me a lot of hope. Can't wait to see where this next installment in the Halo universe takes Master Chief and Cortana on November 6th. 

Nexrad
Nexrad

@GreySeven

 not really. You do realize plenty of games use variations of the so called "perks" in CoD. Expect in most good games they do it so its not ridiculously overpowered.

 

And the ordinance drops are really not even close to CoD. In CoD you pre determine what you get after so many kills so its the same all the time and overpowered. At least in this they add multiple choices to your drops and each one has a specific function and isnt just oh i get to camp in a chopper that marks enemies for me while i mow down for 10 easy kills.

 

A lot of games copy certain things off each other and this time it looks like its a fresh new take. 343 has been pretty bold in changing the forumla and i love they actually tried to do something different but also make it unique.

 

LightEffect
LightEffect

 @kingcole225 Until the moment where Master Chief can no longer jump 6 feet into the air, you will then, just maybe, be able to compare these two games, which play NOTHING like each other, besides the fact you have guns and kill each other. Anyone who really knows both these games KNOW they are too different to compare and call each other a clone. It makes no sense why we spend so much time complaining about one being like the other. 

GoaterSlayer
GoaterSlayer

 @kingcole225 Dont' be ridiculous, Halo Reach was Call of Duty, it had a platoon doing everything for you and sprinting. Bungie did a good thing by making Halo, but Halo 3 ODST and Reach would like a word with your logic.

fourclawrider
fourclawrider

 @Fernin-Ker I'd even say halo has yet to be milked  ( save maybe for ODST, Reach, HaloWars and all the merchandize)

 

H2 added many weapons and abilities, 3 added forge, ODST added firefight and reach expanded it all. Even from a story perspective: first 3 halo's ended the human covenant war but there's still forerunners, flood and whatnot (precursors?) out there, Story was long from over after H3.

 

It's not milking if new installments keep exploring,expanding and improving IMO. At any rate , i'm still very passionate about the franchise

jayjay444
jayjay444

 @Fernin-Ker speaking of star wars m8 i herd there making another 3 movies sounds good sorry for going of topic. 

MAJORWARPATH
MAJORWARPATH

 @Phoenix-Ho-Yoku You and charlesdao are not Halo fans to utter such nonsense. True fans would not want their series to end. So go play with your Wii's and leave the conversation to true Halo fans.

cronos809
cronos809

 @TheMisterCheif the most expensive games in history were grand theft auto 4 and red dead redemption at 100 mil and 120 mil. so i think 500 million is... like this game is legendary if that was the number

 

Sardinar
Sardinar

 @gutsallover So you're saying it's not Microsoft milking the cash cow? Let's hope this is not Resident Evil 6 despite all the successful marketing and beautiful presentation.

GreySeven
GreySeven

 @Nexrad I do realize that, yeah, and a lot of game websites are noting the fact that Halo 4 has done it too with these loadouts, perks, drops, and whatever.  In fact, I was just playing CoD with a friend on the horde mode that they imitated from/was imitated by Gears of War, and I would have to say that the Halo 4 ordinance drop is just a 2.0 version of what CoD did, which is like taking cotton candy, putting syrup on it, and calling it a lollipop.  It's a big circle jerk.

LightEffect
LightEffect

 @CivilizedPsycho  @bjvill I think the Disney/Lucasfilm merge will do great things because it Disney and I have loved everything they have done. I also feel like Halo is going in a good direction, making things fresh and new enough for the new company to make their mark.

gutsallover
gutsallover

 @Sardinar I'm saying that it's more than that. Anyone who tries to argue that big-studio developers aren't making games for money is an idiot. However, some developers are more than happy to beat a franchise to death, never bothering to innovate or change things or attempt to create an interesting story. 

GreySeven
GreySeven

 @rem234  Sorry, but I still see it as a v2.0 idea.  The mechanic sounds like CoD Lite, just like Bud Lite or Coors Lite, Coke Zero or Pepsi One.  Sort of the same taste, less impact on your body.

rem234
rem234

 @GreySeven  @Nexrad I dont know if i would agree Grey.

 

Drops in CoD requires you to kill so many people in a row to get a drop. and these drops range from radar stuff to the many, many sorts of bombs that kill a lot of people.

The Perks in CoD are not just minor things but vastly game changing, from the last stand to dropping a grenade, not appearing on radar. They are things that will actually change an outcome,

Load-outs in CoD basically allow you if high enough level to basically put whatever weapons you want as you weapons of choice.

 

Halo uses these but in a drastically different fashion. Its very hard to compare them with the differences.

Drops in Halo 4 only really show up in a game mode or two of the list. They are dependent on points not kills and provide a choice between 3 things, usually a heavier weapon and a couple buff items. This is a significantly more balanced version.

Perks in Halo 4 only offer slight bonuses to what they affect, the biggest ones are the ones that allow you to get like an extra grenade, most of what you get is only going to affect the game in a small way

Load-outs in Halo 4 are really different, while you do unlock options as you level, you get to choose what you unlock and your options never really allow you access to heavy weapons and things like the sniper these are strictly in drops.

GoaterSlayer
GoaterSlayer

 @Nexrad  @GoaterSlayer  @kingcole225 A troll or a moron? People on the internet jump to conclusions and call names and labels way to fast. My comparisons have logic. jayjay444 you cannot spell, so I can see why you wouldn't understand anything, you sound like a kid yourself. Call of Duty, puts you into a series of very tight and linear levels with little or no real exploration, you have AI holding your hand  the whole time which makes it dumbed down. Halo Reach followed this formula. The levels in Reach are compressed, linear, (compared to Halo 1 and 3) and you have an invincible AI partner the whole time. By comparing it to Call of Duty, I'm saying it's following the design philosophy, it's just thrown together for mass appeal. Reach also started adding in load outs, which I was pretty sure CoD started in some form. By someone saying that Halo without Bungie is Call of Duty, is just wrong because Bungie made Halo Reach and it was much more CoDified than this new one, which seems to focus less on military drama and more on SciFi. People compare a lot of things to CoD, they aren't saying it IS, CoD, just the dumbing down and design. So many companies have taken queue from Infinity Ward and Treyarch and make these dumbed down mass appeal games and it's ruining video industry. Diablo 3, Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age and others have been either been dumbed down or rushed in order to sell more copies to morons who can't take a second to learn how to play a real game. A troll is someone who starts an argument for the sake of argument. I have a legitimate point and I'm voicing my opinion, my intentions aren't completely one dimensional. I hate how stupid and argumentative the internet gets sometimes, it's crazy.

rem234
rem234

 @Fernin-Ker  @MajinSquall  @jayjay444 not to ruin that train of thought but a lot of the movie work was already in progress when marvel started, but i do think having the Disney money to help make that probably sped things up.

Fernin-Ker
Fernin-Ker

 @MajinSquall  @jayjay444 

 

Considering Disney leadership has been behind the recent Marvel movies, this may not actually be a bad thing...

terminator127
terminator127

 @gutsallover  @Sardinar Developers like infinity ward and modern warfare series? I mean, MW3 was pretty boring. Halo 4 really seems to be setting the bar. And I am sorry for bringing COD crap into this, I know people love to hate it.