Halo 4 offers lessons on how to hand off a brand, CEO says

November 7, 2012

Halo 4, the first major addition to the wildly popular video game franchise in five years, has been getting high marks from reviewers for deepening its storyline. Some are even calling it the best Halo title ever.

Those reviews must be music to the ears of Halo 4’s developers at 343 Industries, who took over the franchise from the series’ creator, Bungie. Handing off a big brand like Halo can be nerve-wracking, after all — particularly when you have a fan base as big and dedicated as Halo’s.

But giving Halo games a deeper and more cohesive storyline was exactly the right move for 343 to make, said Jeff Gomez, the chief executive of Starlight Runner Entertainment. Gomez and his team spent two years working with the Halo franchise, helping to expand the brand’s universe from the console and into novels, comic books and more.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Gomez said that 343, which is an in-house Microsoft developer, not only did a great job of navigating the handoff, its developers also took pains to show that they, too, are fans of the old brand.

“I think you’re really getting the best of all possible outcomes,” he said. “Here you have a group in 343 studios who clearly love the franchise, have worked very closely with Bungie for the duration of the original trilogy and made a commitment to continue to evolve not just the game and gameplay, but the story universe.”

Halo, as a game franchise, is not known for its narrative — though there are several Halo novels and other stories that have woven together a deeper world behind the games. To build out the story in this title, Gomez said, 343 tapped into some of that world to give it an extra something over the competition.

“Quite honestly, I think that vast majority of Halo players were only vaguely aware of the story world and the events continuity in the Halo universe,” Gomez said. “They were perfectly happy to play a game that was playable. But story, particularly in the video game space, is becoming a greater and greater distinguisher of intellectual property and gameplay.”

Several reviewers have mentioned that the most interesting part of the new title was 343’s decision to give a deeper backstory to game protagonist Master Chief and his artificial-intelligence companion, Cortana.

“One of the most important elements is story,” Gomez said. “They realized that they had a supremely iconic character in Master Chief, who was a character whose life and motivations and background was very little known by players of the game. And if you look at what happened to Cortana in Halo 4, well, it’s wonderful that they made her the heart and soul of the game.”

And while Halo 4 takes pains to sketch out the details of those two emblematic characters, Gomez said that making the Halo world richer opens up the franchise to more potential fans. Plus, it opens up 343’s options to focus on a world outside of the original trilogy’s main characters — in other games and on other platforms such as YouTube videos or apps that promote different parts of the game.

“It’s just making the story world more accessible, and that makes it more popular,” he said. “That’s the way of the future for these franchises.”

When companies make a major intellectual property investment like this, Gomez said, they have to understand that the brand has to be rich enough to work on multiple media platforms.

With Halo, for example, those who like science fiction or military fiction may get into the Halo world though its novels. First-person shooter gamers may leak over from a “Related videos” link on YouTube.

The way 343 handled the transition, Gomez said, is a good template for Disney,which recently acquired its own iconic brand with a rabid fan base — “Star Wars” maker Lucasfilm.

“Star Wars has done this almost accidentally for the past 30 years,” he said, referring to Star Wars, novels, games, comic books and the TV series “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.”

He advised, however, that Disney not worry too much about “navigating the opinions” of fans from the original movies — many of whom panned Star Wars creator George Lucas’ second trilogy of films.

Instead, he said, the company should focus on the “lost generation of potential ‘Star Wars’ fans” between the ages of 15 and 30 who know about the brand but don’t have the same loyalties as those older fans.

“Those Clone Wars kids are on your side; they’ll look at whatever you’ve got,” Gomez said.

He recommends marketing to the Avengers audience, “the audience that wants to see something that’s not been done before but will remain true to the essence of the ‘Star Wars’ brand. That will resonate.”

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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