Bungie dev comes full circle on Halo

GDC Online 2010: Writer-design director Joseph Staten on what he has learned from 10 years in the sci-fi shooter universe, how the studio walked away, and what he wants to accomplish with the upcoming Bungie-Activision project.


Who was there: Bungie writer and design director Joseph Staten gave the Game Narrative Summit keynote address titled "Writing the Whirlwind: Lessons from a Decade of Halo Storytelling."

Reach has fallen, but Bungie fights on.
Reach has fallen, but Bungie fights on.

What they talked about: With Halo: Reach on shelves, the time is rapidly approaching for Bungie to stop talking about its past games and start talking about the new intellectual property it will be working on with Activision for the next 10 years. But before that big reveal, Staten made the trip to Austin, Texas, to talk about what he has learned from the last 10 years.

Staten began his presentation by explaining that his lessons aren't for creating a game, or even a trilogy of games. They're for creating a universe. It's one of the most challenging things a writer will ever do, he said, but also one of the most rewarding.

When Bungie made the first Halo, Staten said the studio met with success because it treated the game as if it were going to be the only one. One of the most important things he learned during the development of the game was that place is more important than plot. The story and the path players take through the world will change as development progresses, but the world will always be there, so it better be good. As Staten put it, "It's the terrain, not the roads." For Halo, the environment itself carried connotations of mystery, adventure, and an infinite horizon.

The second big lesson from Halo was how to create a protagonist. Master Chief was iconic and simple, and there wasn't a lot to dislike about him. Staten said he looked for things to strip away from the character and the story to make things as simple as possible. The second aspect about Master Chief that worked was that he was a "perfect reflection of power projection." Master Chief could do anything, from taking on hordes single-handedly and driving the Warthog, to using alien weaponry.

"Halo wasn't great because of the story," Staten said. "Halo was great because it's fun to play."

The downside of the team's laserlike focus on the first Halo was that it didn't have much planned for Halo 2. He said the game was a classic sophomore slump, with design and technical overreach. Staten said he had a tremendous final act for the game, but nobody ever saw it because of the controversial cliff-hanger ending.

The biggest lesson of Halo 2 for Staten was that making big promises and writing big checks is easy, but cashing them is hard. Now he tries to keep things simple and relies on the rest of the talented team members to bring their own expertise to the project and fill in the details. There might be one writer, but everyone on the team is a storyteller. As he said, the writer's most important words aren't for the end users; they're for the rest of the team.

As Halo has grown, so has the Halo canon. Staten said that when a project gets that big, the fans become collaborators, and dealing with the canon becomes unwieldy and tough. To remedy this, Staten said writers can make safe pockets in which other writers can take the narrative where they want. He pointed to Halo Wars and the I Love Bees promotion as such safe zones that Bungie had little to do with. Then there are the pockets they never realized were being made, like the Red vs. Blue Web series.

Staten then touched on Bungie's connection with Hollywood. He said there were positives that came from it, but they weren't the ones he expected. He said Bungie came really close to getting a game and movie made with Peter Jackson, but it didn't come together. Instead, he considered the time a master class in writing for film. He pointed to ODST and Reach as examples of how much better the writing in Halo got as a result of the collaboration with Peter Jackson.

Another lesson from the failed Halo film was that writers shouldn't be offended if Hollywood wants their world but not their words. On the other hand, writers shouldn't compromise or give up all control, as Hollywood needs writers as much as the writers need Hollywood. He points out that Bungie's current headquarters used to be a theater that went under, and in 10 years, the balance of power may tip further in game writers' favor.

Now Bungie is independent again and free to succeed or fail. It's going to be either a great party or a great explosion, Staten said, so stay tuned. Staten said instead of having the plug pulled on their game or working on a universe until they burn out, they had the privilege of being able to plan their exit from the Halo series.

"I think a big part of building a successful universe is knowing when and how to walk away," Staten said.

In walking away, the team members once again turned to the idea of making pockets for themselves. Staten said Halo 3: ODST was an example of that, a game that took risks to get out of a rut of stories about Master Chief, Cortana, and Halo rings (though he noted that wasn't a bad rut to be in).

ODST was on a really tight schedule, and he wrote the entire game--rough draft to final--in about a month. The game story was also built with a structure that could flex. If they ran out of development time, they could cut a flashback scene. If they had extra time, they could add another one. That was a big contrast to Halo 2, Staten said, where the structure was very rigid and the third act had to be scrapped.

With Reach, Staten said the plan was to make a graceful exit. He wanted to close a few big story circles and judiciously cut loose strings in the plot, but not attempt to wrap up every last thing in the universe. And, of course, he wanted to go out with a bang every time out.

"Always imagine this is the last thing in this universe that you're ever going to create," Staten said, "because you never know when it's going to be over. Do your best every time out."

After his presentation, Staten took questions from the audience, doling out answers on a variety of topics. While he wouldn't talk in detail about Bungie's next game, he did answer one question about what the team was trying to accomplish with it "in the broadest terms possible."

"I think it's a shame that we spent so much time working on this world called Halo and then we only let people spend six or eight or 10 hours in it," Staten said. "Wouldn't it be great if we could make a world that was always there for you, with lots of stories to tell, like a big, infinite storytelling horizon? Man, that would be great."

Quote: "Hey, what's that symbol? Who knows?"--Staten, referencing a triangular logo with three diagonal marks that served as his laptop wallpaper, teasing iconography from Bungie's next game.

"It's about shooting stuff. Shooting aliens is frickin' relaxing. Halo is a game. Story is a small part of this game that we've created. That's why it's so important to make everyone responsible for the story."--Staten, when asked what Halo is about.

Takeaway: Game writers need to keep it simple. There's a temptation for self-indulgence on the writer's part with too much story, too much detail, and too much control. But less is more, restraint can pay off in spades, and great gameplay is going to stomp all over a beautiful story anyway.

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Avatar image for han117

joseph staten is talking about the "last thing in this universe that you're ever going to create" but really he just majorly screwed up the story behind Halo which was originally written in the books... Spartan III's were never on Reach it was only Spartan II's and the Spartan III's were on Onyx???? They could have definitely written it better and i have to admit i was slightly disappointed with the ending, i at least expected Master Chief (not noble 6) with Cortana to be zooming over to the Pillar of Autumn but no... whatever fine... that's cool... aside from that Halo Reach is epic :) but yeah just screwed the story line a bit.

Avatar image for Silvis121

I gather from this article that they may be hinting at the fact that they are going to make some type of MMO based off of the Halo series or something similar. Maybe something that they can continually add things to. I don't know, but I am saying that if it was as in depth as the Halo's story, it will be epic indeed.

Avatar image for weapon_d00d816

It seems so odd that he says Halo isn't about the story when Halo's rich universe is the best thing about it. I've never found another game with such a detailed and interesting universe.

Avatar image for BonEcho

What I want to know is why did they walk away from Halo. They seemed so passionate. Like they had fun with it. Plus they could have milked that cow until retirement.

Avatar image for senorbusyman

Ktfreak4Jesus2 your wrong newbie!! Activision's COD game is ONLY BETTER if Infinity Ward is the Development Team! Treyarch sucks! COD 3, WaW, and Black Ops will burn in hell

Avatar image for KTfreak4Jesus2

@kobyjordan7- actualy is EA that sucks not activision. Activision make the treyarch COD games. Much better than EA's infinity wards lagy, not so much fun modern warefare 1-2 and DICE's battlefield series

Avatar image for KTfreak4Jesus2

i thought ODST was a failed last game. sad thing is that bungie will now be going to the PS3ins. Sad day for loyal xbox members

Avatar image for Trogeton

And just a few years ago I thought Halo3 was the last halo game ROFL man was a wrong

Avatar image for pattyp77

Bungie and Activisions BIG REVEAL - ITS NEW IP, NEW STORY, NEW GAME PLAY... MALO: Action Involved The first installment in an epic and original Sci Fi Shooter Fantasy set in a distant galaxy... Follows the events of several hardened space marines in a battle to stop an evil alien invasion. SOUNDS AMAZING - Can't wait to see what its like...

Avatar image for chillphillyphil

Kobyjordan7 - thats the most retarded thing I've heard anyone say today.

Avatar image for kobyjordan7

Bungie's new games will suck because Activision sucks =(

Avatar image for StArDr1fTeR

I have to say, pretty smart guy. Knew not to take advantage of his project and knew when to call quits. I wonder what the next game is?

Avatar image for zakkess

bungie will be the 3rd or 4th studio to do the CoD franchise, this way activision can release 2 CoD's each year!

Avatar image for Sgthombre

I salute Bungie for moving on from Halo and making something new. I wish them luck.

Avatar image for SirMordredX

I suppose the story of Halo isn't all that complex - yet as he has stated it's the way it's presented with the rich universe, compelling memorable characters, locations and histories that add so much to the ultimate end product etc. This individual is a true god among men. Long live Bungie. @pleasurengineer If you read the books, it really adds to the experience in my opinion - characters gain much more history.

Avatar image for Valkarie3

343 studios is owned by Microsoft and is the group that makes the commercials, and oversaw alot of 'Halo Legends' and other shorts. Who knows if they'll make more games, but when your looking for something more compelling and story driven, then look no further than the several novels set in the universe. Some more serious than others. I'd love to see more halo Novels come out, expecially by Eric Nylund who I believe has done the best out of the authors out so far.

Avatar image for plm3d_basic

The big question is who will continue to develop the Halo games and storyline?

Avatar image for pleasurengineer

I think Staten makes excellent points. However, I do wish the story were more compelling and the protagonists more fleshed out. I always find myself playing the multiplayer component and then maybe 1 year after release I'll tackle the campaign just because I should get my money's worth.

Avatar image for mrhagane

i'm sure that bobby kotick is smile grin right now (hey! i can see his teeth!! its full of sh*t lol)

Avatar image for Ozzie234

activision = 100 % scam

Avatar image for Ozzie234

Their games will be crap for the next ten years. Period.

Avatar image for cruzerramos

I wonder if there's a chance bungie could partner with infinty ward... I think I just blew my mind...

Avatar image for ebonyflame

Thank you Joseph Staten for such an AMAZING story. The fall of Reach was particularly my favorite part of your story as it grabbed me more emotionally than all the other parts. I am happy you and your team at Bungie got to exit the Halo universe on your own conditions. I hope your next story is as epic as this one was.

Avatar image for jaymib

Reach was a good game, but could have been better, but well done on it, i did enjoy the story and its a good Prequels to Halo: CE. Now...lets see a Halo movie!!! (of course written and directed by someone good and someone who knows Halo well)

Avatar image for Castlevania

Awesome games..was a good time. Thanks Bungie til next time. Now 343 Studios...lets see what you got.

Avatar image for fillup0

@krelnn All master cheif is, is a space dude called John who has to save the world. Nothing special about him. He doesn't make Halo, Halo. The thing that makes Halo what it is, is the gameplay and the setting.

Avatar image for TheKungFool

@parhar67 - its truly sad that people like you must try to turn everything into some kind of systems war debate. Nobody mentioned the PS3, or anything about it, so why are you hating? Not everyone who owns a 360 or has played on the platform has to by definition, be a Halo fantatic. Some people just honestly might not like it much. You like Halo. Thats fine. Rock on. I'm just saying that I don't, so I'm curious to see what else Bungie can come up with.

Avatar image for Sirbobislost

@ sonicare there will be another 10 years of halo just not made by bungie so either microsoft will milk the udders off it or hopefully we will get 2-3 good quality sequels

Avatar image for kenmanius

I agree the gameplay and style of Halo CE was what immersed you in it's universe and propelled the story. The Halo 2 campaign seemed like they were grasping at straws to deliver the game and in the end it hurt any grandoise scheme they may have had in mind. I kinda thought Halo 2 would be more about earth's story and I felt a bit alienated by the whole Covenant Elite redemption thing. Maybe because they didn't have any decipherable language in Halo CE they came across as the immovable evil antagonists that you just pound into the dirt. Bungie did prop up a lot of hype during the wait for Halo 2 especially from the technical side, but I think those ambitions didn't become realized until the next generation and studios like Epic beat them to it with Gears of War.

Avatar image for blackace

With Bungie working with Activision, they may disband and run back to Microsoft before their first project is even complete. Look what happened to Infinity Ward. Halo will always be on XBox as Microsoft own the property. We'll see Halo 4 in 2012 I bet. It would be pretty funny if Microsoft bought out Activsion. Microsoft would be like, "Welcome home Bungie." lol!!

Avatar image for ghstbstr

I for one like Halo with or without Master Chief and that could be because I got into the Halo games somewhat late. My first Halo game was ODST which most people seem to not like at all, but I really liked it and because of that game I got interested in Halo. From ODST I bought and played Halo CE and Halo 2 and both of those were great games as well, and then I bought Halo 3 and I started it but after playing ODST and Halo 1 & 2 together one after the other I kinda got tired and I had to take a break. Then Halo Reach came out and I complete all of it on solo normal and half of it on solo lengendary, and with a friend I completed all of it on co-op lengendary. From here I will play Halo 3 but I am not sure when because after playing that much of the Halo Reach campaign I am tired again of Halo for alittle while. I will say that the Halo series is really great in story and the gameplay has been alot of fun. So I am glad that I had the chance to experience and to play most of the Halo games.

Avatar image for krelnn

Without Master Chief it is not Halo......just another shooter......why was the original winning formula changed? There can be lots of adventures for Master Chief and Cortona....and by the way, the first game was also great because it was on the PC.....later games avoided the PC which is where the graphics and control really shined......and now for the future with NVIDIA 3D Halo could really be great!

Avatar image for parhar67

As for people talking about how halo sucks because it has no story....well today people the single player isnt getting much attention because its all about multi player and different game modes. Halo does stuff no other games have ever done. Like theater and forge mode. Fire fight is the best version of "Horde" there is in any shooter ever made. The multi player destroys anything else out their for shooters. So yeah its not only about the story because you play the story once thats it your done and you do what you get your moneys worth from which is the other game modes .

Avatar image for parhar67

TheKungFool Halo has been a decade of over hype? and disspointment? LOL yeah cuz MW 2 isnt disappointing at all with its broken online and camping. Killzone 2 was not dissapointing at all with its horrid controls and lack of game modes. That is why they had to shut down the original xbox live to get people to stop playing halo 2. That is why halo reach already has more online matches played in 1 week than killzone 2 has had in a year and a half. That is why halo 3 still has more players online than any ps3 exclusive shooter. You sound like a ps3 fanboy to me.

Avatar image for ScaredySquirrel

Bungies next game with Activision is not going to be a Halo MMO game. Bungies next game is going to be multiplatform. You are forgetting that Microsoft owns Halo 100% it's just that simple. They let Bungie go independent but they keep ownership of the Halo IP and all publishing rights. Case closed!

Avatar image for TheKungFool

@ Mike885 - its sad you can't realize other people may have opinions that are different than yours. Anyhow, sorry, but its just how I feel. I liked the first Halo pretty well for what it was at the time, and I've been dissapointed in each subsequent release. Its just an opinion, and I sincerely appologize if you're not mature enough to accept it. In any event, I'm curious to see what they do next.

Avatar image for JKnaperek

What's Halo?

Avatar image for King_Jeremy_77

Reach was a good game for Bungie to go out with.

Avatar image for TheKungFool

I really and truly hope they come up with something half decent for this next "big project" because Halo has been a decade of over-hype and pure dissapointment.

Avatar image for CyberCurse


Avatar image for Legolas22

@ wars45 - Microsoft is still likely to make another Halo game, as far as I know they have the rights to it. Do you honestly think that a company like microsoft would let a cash cow like Halo just dissapear? They'll probably ruin the Halo name but they'll still make money from it. And there are loads of people who have xbox's but dont play Halo, so your statement about what their selling point is now, is irrelevant. Both consoles are great anyway.

Avatar image for wars45

cool am glad its over and the next game will be on ps3 has well has xbox whot is xbox selling point going to be now haha they have lost a killer game u cant blame bungie they will make more money and has a result they will make better games

Avatar image for destroyerHHH

I read Joseph Stalin.

Avatar image for SicklySunStorm

"Wouldn't it be great if we could make a world that was always there for you, with lots of stories to tell, like a big, infinite storytelling horizon? Man, that would be great." I smell an MMO.... bah. I hate MMO's...... more decent single player experiences would be nice. I can't believe the next Star Wars Old Republic game went that route....

Avatar image for Ninja-Hippo

Have to say i completely disagree with him. Less is not more. Every Halo game since the original look set to promise something epic in the trailers, then the final game hits and its just another Halo game, shooting aliens with minimal story. Reach is an awesome game, but the epic tale of tragedy and heroism just isn't there. Once again they seem to forgo telling any kind of decent story at all in favor of having 20 second cutscenes between battling aliens.

Avatar image for aryanbrar

no bungie don't go with activision or something like what happened to infinity ward might happen to you :(

Avatar image for mrhagane

"working on with Activision for the next 10 years". Wow.. poor Bungie..

Avatar image for sambora113

FPS MMO any1?? :D

Avatar image for rykh

Any time i see the name Activision i cringe. Uggh. Makes M$ look like the peace corps.