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.

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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."

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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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