A life-size Master Chief statue is on display in the entryway of 343 Industries' headquarters. (Daniel Berman/FTWP)
Inside ‘Halo’s’ universal aspirations
REDMOND, Wash. — Inside an annex just beyond the entrance to Microsoft’s 343 Industries there is a shrine. Glass display cases brim with figurines, knickknacks and all manner of promotional merchandise bearing the likeness of the Halo game franchise’s green-armored super soldier, Master Chief. There’s a Halo laser tag kit, salt and pepper shakers and a metal, fan-made 100-pound-plus gravity hammer that members of the Seattle Seahawks once used for an impromptu test of strength during a visit. A Swarovski crystal shaped to the likeness of Master Chief’s iconic helmet gleams under a spotlight like the Hope Diamond. Hulking, life-size statues of aliens and stoic, faceless Spartan soldiers stand vigil over the treasures, highlighted by a true-to-lore, 7-foot-2 recreation of the Chief himself.
The roughly 600 square foot room known as the Halo museum serves as a time capsule for the 20-years of games, novels, films and fan passion projects that have arisen since the 2001 debut of “Halo: Combat Evolved” for the original Xbox. Over that time, Halo’s sci-fi universe has expanded in correlation with the games’ resonance. The developers at 343, which took over the franchise after original developer Bungie left Microsoft in 2007, have become Halo’s stewards, shepherding and innovating on one of the biggest IPs under Microsoft’s banner.
Frank O’Connor, franchise creative director for Halo, said he and his team have likely evaluated tens of thousands of proposals from a plethora of companies asking to work with the Halo IP. The potential partners range from promotional opportunities to novels to screen plays. With so many people clamoring for a piece of the Chief, how do they decide what new ideas are okay as 343 tries to grow — but also protect — the Halo IP?
“It’s kind of like porn,” O’Connor said of identifying the opportunities that ultimately make sense for Halo. “You know it when you see it.”
Halo is currently engaged in its most ambitious expansion yet, a major multiplatform push the studio hopes will both broaden the game’s player base and introduce newcomers to the celebrated space odyssey. In late November of 2021, 343 released the highly anticipated game “Halo Infinite,” the latest chapter in the revered series and one designed to fully evolve Halo from a collection of one-off titles to an ongoing live-service property along the lines of “Destiny 2″ or “Fortnite,” allowing players to linger in Halo’s world and enjoy a continuous stream of new content.
On March 24 this year, in tandem with Showtime, the studio also debuted a new live-action series on the streaming platform Paramount+. It is the culmination of efforts to adapt the story for films and TV that began more than 15 years ago and, at various points, has involved names like Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg.
Given the widespread appeal of Master Chief and the Halo universe over the last 20 years, and in an entertainment world that revolves more and more around “universes” like Star Wars and Marvel, it’s intriguing to wonder if Halo’s new efforts can help it ascend to similar heights when viewers aren’t holding a controller. With these major new releases, this is the moment for Halo — which has already smashed records for entertainment revenue, such as when “Halo 3″ grossed $300 million in the week of its 2007 release and sold more than 14.5 million copies overall — to test its future worth both in gaming and beyond.
“I think it’s a huge opportunity for us being able to go off console and think about a broader audience,” said Bonnie Ross, general manager of Microsoft’s 343 Studios, who pointed to Marvel’s approach as an example of how Halo hopes to position itself for multiple platforms: feature a uniform aesthetic but allow differences between the games and shows or films. “And I think both with the Halo TV series bringing in a broader audience, with free to play bringing in a broader audience, and then for us, I think it really is learning about how to be an ongoing service and having an ongoing dialogue with fans and getting the infrastructure right.”
But as Ross notes, even as 343 shoots for the stars of a “universe,” it has to reckon with several factors that threaten to keep it grounded, including those aforementioned fans. Even after a rousing reception for “Halo Infinite” when it released in November, players have voiced frustrations at a lack of updates and promised new content. Meanwhile, reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic have found the Halo TV series lackluster in its early episodes, with scores around 60 the day of its public release.
These new opportunities for the franchise have brought with them new challenges. And as the Halo brand seeks to grow, 343 and Microsoft must grapple with how to get, and keep, its fans on board.
Ever since Microsoft acquired series creator Bungie in 2000, Halo has broken ground for the video game industry, with Master Chief quickly ascending to become the mascot for Microsoft’s gaming ambitions. Then a Mac-based game under development, “Halo: Combat Evolved” was repurposed to serve as the launch title for Microsoft’s new Xbox console. Its success helped shift the first-person shooter (FPS) genre onto consoles, and contributed to the Xbox selling a then-record breaking 1.5 million consoles before the end of 2001.
“When the Xbox launched, it wasn’t a guarantee it was going to be successful,” said Ross. “I would argue that ‘Halo’ and Xbox together created that success.”
The animation and flexibility of the first game’s multiplayer characters popularized a new genre of storytelling called machinima, using in-game engines and animations to tell new stories. (“South Park” would use tactic with the game “World of Warcraft” to win an Emmy Award.) “Halo 2” revolutionized networked console play, allowing friends to play the game together without sharing a sofa. “Halo 3” brought player-created arenas and spaces with its Forge mode. This preceded by years the player-led creative revolution that was “Minecraft,” now also owned by Microsoft. When “Halo 3” released in 2007 it became the most profitable entertainment launch in history, outgrossing “Spider-Man 3′s” box office receipts that year.
But for all of those industry advancements, it was the games’ details and stories that won over fans by the legion. The use of real-time graphics resonated with fans, but also with the game’s makers, particularly Joseph Staten, the longtime writer of Halo’s storyline who got his foot in the door ahead of the first game’s release.
Staten was helping out with his family’s wine business and bouncing between writing gigs in 1998 when two former classmates helped bring him to Bungie to write a few narrative lines and some marketing material. Because the team was so small, his role expanded to directing the cinematics of the game. His responsibilities included overseeing an aspect of video game storytelling that’s become commonplace today but was rare at the time.
“I was really excited about the world where all these cinematics are in real time. It’s a small thing but for us it was huge,” said Staten, now head of creative for Halo at 343.
“ ‘Oh my God,’ ” he remembered thinking then. “‘We can actually let the player enter the cinematic holding the same weapon that they were just using!’ It’ll make you feel like there’s no boundaries.”
As the games progressed, Staten also made effective use of environmental storytelling, crafting the look and feel of the Halo universe and making it memorable for players.
“Sure there’s cinematic content,” Staten said. “[But] the player is going to spend way more time in the world. How can we use all this great geometry that we’re creating? How can we use lighting and decals and set placement and audio just to create tone, and of course, mood?”
Both in game and beyond — such as with the live action Web series “Forward Unto Dawn,” used to promote the release of “Halo 4″ — Halo’s world began to grow to galactic proportions. But after the 2015 release of “Halo 5” came a lull for the mainline games. It would be three years before 343 announced “Halo Infinite” at the 2018 Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3. And two years later, at a similar event, 343 knew it had a big problem with “Infinite.”
The nearly nine-minute video hadn’t even ended when the criticism began. Those watching the gameplay reveal for “Halo Infinite’s” campaign were already filling the live chat with lament. They poked fun at the graphics. They questioned why this new game, set to launch side by side with Microsoft’s next-generation consoles, look so … last-gen. The days that followed brought more outcry, with YouTubers commenting on the game’s look with videos bearing ALL-CAPS titles like “Why does ‘Halo Infinite’ LOOK SO BAD?” and “The New ‘Halo Infinite’ Gameplay is Getting TONS of HATE!”
“We obviously fell down with our, sort of, virtual E3 at the time,” Ross said of the reveal during a July 2020 online showcase.
The fiery reception from fans reignited old narratives about 343′s handling of the series.
When Bungie was spun off in 2007, Microsoft retained the Halo IP. Ross, then running production for all of Xbox’s games, urged company leadership to keep Halo as an internal property.
“I put a pitch together that kind of laid out the universe, the timeline, stories I thought we could tell, as well as noting that I really wanted to have all parts of Halo in one studio, because that’s not how we did it before,” Ross said. “I wanted it to be more like George Lucas [and Star Wars], where we basically owned everything, whether it be TV or movies or games. And for whatever reason, back then they gave me the keys.”
It was a new opportunity but a stressful one. Xbox gave the Halo franchise to 343, which had co-developed downloadable content for “Halo: Reach,” Bungie’s last Halo game. Though 343 also retained a handful of Bungie employees who had worked on Halo, fans voiced concerns that the franchise would suffer.
“At the time, it was like, ‘Microsoft has Halo. Microsoft’s going to mess up Halo,’ ” Ross recalled of the transition. “It’s like the press, the fans, everyone were like, ‘This is the end of Halo.’ … Building Halo and creating Halo is not easy, and stepping into those huge shoes was a really daunting experience.”
The “Infinite” reveal reaction provided another such challenge. Internally, the critical reception of the gameplay footage confirmed what some 343 developers and executives believed as early as January of 2020 — they were behind schedule. Delays, caused in part by the pandemic’s work-from-home conditions, had set them back and they would need time to catch up.
“They [343′s developers] were just basically saying, ‘This isn’t a game we’re going to be proud of,' ” Ross said.
Following the reveal, Staten — who left Bungie in 2013 — reached out to Ross to ask how he could help. He was readily welcomed him back to the fold.
Working with Sean Baron, 343′s director of franchise strategy and insights, Staten poured over audience research.
“What are those things that players really want to see in this game?” Staten said of the kinds of questions he wanted the research to answer. “What do they want to see us double down on, the things that are already good? What are the gaps that they see you’re missing that we really need to fill? And we use that user research effort, combined with our own design and artistic expertise, to formulate a plan for what we were going to invest in and importantly, how much time it was going to take to make good on those investments.”
Using the findings, Staten presented a plan for what they needed to properly deliver on the game’s promise: It called for delaying the game’s release by a year. Ross relayed the plan to Phil Spencer, then head of Xbox, and asked for additional funding. In August, 343 announced the 12-month delay.
The news sent shock waves through the industry. “Infinite” was supposed to be the so-called “killer app” for the forthcoming Xbox Series X, launching alongside a new console as it had 20 years earlier. During the previous console generation, Sony had distanced itself from Microsoft in console sales in part by releasing platform exclusive games like “God of War” and “Ghost of Tsushima” that showcased the PlayStation 4 as a must-buy for gamers. Now, with a delay that would take “Halo Infinite’s” release entirely out of play the first year the Series X was available, Microsoft was again missing that marquee game that could set it apart from Sony.
“It was so important to us as a team to actually bring Halo back to launch with the console, to kind of bring that whole moment back together,” Ross said. “And it was an incredibly painful decision [to delay] because it would’ve been great for the business to be there. It would’ve been great for Halo to be there, but it wasn’t the right thing for ‘Infinite’ and it wasn’t the right thing for the team.”
Meanwhile, Staten, Baron and the rest of 343 got to work, making the most of their newfound time. Utilizing user feedback and other metrics, they revisited the aspects of the game that testers identified as the most important to them. They made the campaign’s world livelier, allowing for more interaction between the player’s Master Chief character and marines he’d encounter around the map. They introduced the new grappling hook device, the grappleshot, earlier in the game, allowing players to feel more powerful. And they put ample polish on the game’s graphics.
“It was really refreshing to have a partner that was so passionate about the customer,” Baron said about working with Staten. “And getting that information from them and then using it to take those ingredients and say, ‘These are the five things that are the most valuable to that customer. Let’s take the next year to polish the heck out of those things.' ”
In mid-November last year, 343 made another surprise announcement: The multiplayer mode for “Infinite” would release ahead of the scheduled Dec. 6 release for the full game. And it would be free to play.
A year’s worth of work later, the criticism gave way to applause. The game’s average user score topped 8.1 on Metacritic’s 10-point scale, the highest mark for any of 343′s Halo games to date.
“Ugly crying,” Baron said, when asked about his reaction to the game’s release. He was not alone.
“I cried. It was a very emotional,” multiplayer lead Tom French said. “I was just overly swept up with pride in my team and the game that we built.”
At a time when Halo’s competition in the first-person shooter world was taking a step back — sales of Activision’s “Call of Duty: Vanguard” were lower than expected in 2020 and fans assailed EA’s “Battlefield 2042” for releasing in a buggy, unfinished state — 343 and Microsoft were starting to reclaim the genre’s throne. But now, as 343 seeks to build on that success, its earlier gains may be receding.
Halo’s pivot to a live service model has come with some hiccups. The gripes from players began over a progression system that seemed overly long and laborious. More recently, players have groused about a lack of new content coming into the game and the delayed reintroduction of co-op modes and the game’s Forge feature. A March update announced neither would be ready for the beginning of May, as initially planned.
French is very — very — aware of the complaints. As someone who plays the game every night, he said, he shares them. However, at the moment his team is prioritizing lingering issues from a launch that required completely rebuilding the engine used in “Halo 5″ and expanding on to PCs.
“We always talk about it as like, putting it on the Hudson, right?” French said, referring to the 2009 emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River. “We landed safely. That’s good. Now we’ve got to kind of get momentum going again.”
French said he and his team spent the year following the 2020 delay announcement strengthening the game’s foundation, work that continues today.
“It’s improving our platform, building, strengthening the foundation, and that includes things like ranked [mode],” French said. “We know we can make it better. We wanted to make it better. We dreamed of it being better. Let’s push it in that direction. And, you know, with PC being a new thing for us, there’s issues we need to address there.
“There will be new maps, there’ll be new modes, there’ll be new experiences, there’ll be new features,” he added. “I’m very excited to actually see what the players think when we actually get to unleash it on them.”
The shadow falling from the sky grows larger as the armored soldier plunges toward the ground. With a forceful WHOOMPF he slams into the planet’s surface, crouched on one knee, knuckles digging into red dirt. The camera pulls back to show a gold-tinted visor as the soldier’s head snaps upward, ready for battle. A classic hero shot, made for TV.
This moment in the pilot episode of the new Paramount+ “Halo” series will serve as the first introduction to Master Chief for those unacquainted with the games. In the following 40 or so minutes, they’ll watch him and his fellow Spartans on Silver Team tussle with merciless Covenant aliens assaulting a human outpost in the galaxy’s outer reaches. They’ll also watch the Chief, also known as John 117, grapple with the shaky ethics guiding the mission objectives given to him by his superiors in the United Nations Space Command.
The latter is a departure from the chronology of the games, when Master Chief’s moral questioning comes much later in his military career. It’s one of a number of instances when the events of the TV show will deviate from the story Halo gamers likely know by heart.
“It’s hard because I think for some people, they can see it as something being taken away from them, which is understandable because you want the players to feel ownership over the character,” said Kiki Wolfkill, the studio head for Halo transmedia and entertainment at 343 Industries who has been supervising the show’s production. “And that’s why I’m really hoping to be able to express to the audience that this is a different experience. And I do want you to be able to step out of the suit and hopefully enjoy this other perspective.”
Reconciling those two audience segments — the die-hard devotees and the newcomers willing to watch a new sci-fi military series — presents a core challenge for the show and its makers.
“The massive challenge of taking on an IP like this is when you’re trying to cater to the fans and appease the fans, excite the fans and thrill the fans,” said “Halo” executive producer and pilot director Otto Bathurst during a video interview with The Post this week. “And then you’re also going to bring along this whole [new] audience up to speed … and you know, get them on board.”
In many ways, this latest phase of the Halo franchise — with both the show and the game — has been plotted by focusing on a North Star of reaching new audiences. It was a prime motivation behind making the game free-to-play, a decision reached in Fall 2017. It was likewise a reason the franchise returned to PCs after “Halo 2” through “Halo 5” were released as Xbox exclusives. The studio simply wants to widen the ways people can find and fall in love with Halo.
To truly broaden its reach and grow as an IP like other universes such as Star Wars or Marvel, it needed to expand to other mainstream platforms. Plans around a Halo movie or show have been brewing since the property still belonged to Bungie, which announced in 2006 that “The Lord of the Rings” producer Peter Jackson had signed on to work on a new game and movie. The project fizzled and Jackson announced in 2009 the plans had been canceled.
According to Wolfkill, the 343-backed push that resulted in the Paramount+ series began in the second half of 2012 after the making of the Web series “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.” Steven Spielberg — whom Wolfkill noted is a “true gamer” — became attached to the project in 2013 through his production company, Amblin Entertainment. He remained in the loop during the creation of the current series, which had been shopped to HBO and others before landing on a partnership with Showtime and Paramount+. The “Saving Private Ryan” director is listed as an executive producer on the series and “godfathered it” by helping with “every script, helping choose showrunners, writers, director, cast, production design, and visual effects,” according to Daryl Frank, another executive producer on the show.
The Paramount+ show began production in 2019, with a planned 2021 release. It too, was delayed by covid.
Once placed on the project, Bathurst — a self-described “Halo virgin” who previously directed the first three episodes of “Peaky Blinders” and the 2018 feature film “Robin Hood” — spent several days at the 343 studios running through what he and others working on the show called “Halo Bootcamp.”
“They took me through the whole history, the whole story of Halo. And they have this … massive, long timeline. And then the actual games sort of exist in like that much of the timeline,” Bathurst said, holding his index finger and thumb narrowly apart. “So there’s like thousands of years this way, thousands of years that way [on the timeline] that haven’t even appeared in anything but they’ve all been kind of thought out and laid out. It’s extraordinary. It’s mad. It’s mad.”
Wolfkill said she wanted Bathurst and those working on the show to understand Halo’s canon but also appreciate what it is that fans have embraced about the franchise over the years, so they could impart those qualities into the new series. That is balanced, she added, by a desire for fans to appreciate the TV series for its own approach, one that will differ notably from the games. For instance, viewers of the show will see Master Chief do something he’s never done in the history of the game franchise: remove his helmet and reveal his face.
“There was this conversation of like, at what stage do we take the helmet off?” Bathurst said. The decision was to do it in Episode 1 and it met with pushback from fans even before it aired.
“I have so much understanding and respect for people who feel that this is a violation. This is a violation of my character,” Wolfkill said, referring to the attachment players feel as they embody Master Chief in the games. “In order to tell this John-focused character story, we have to be able to see John. Because this isn’t just about the Master Chief. The story is more about John or as much about John as it is about the Master Chief. And so it just felt very important to be able to see him emotionally and to see what he’s going through and especially with an actor like Pablo [Schreiber, who plays the role in the series].
“My hope is, again, that once people are able to get into the story, if they are one of the people who don’t want the helmet to come off, they’re able to sort of separate from their game character and appreciate the story and appreciate the character in a different way.”
That appreciation from existing fans, and the ability to onboard new ones, figures to ultimately determine whether Halo can ascend to the grand — and lucrative — heights of a Star Wars, Marvel or Star Trek, another Paramount+ property. Given Halo’s 20 years of success in winning over gamers, and the boundless creative possibilities provided by its stories and lore, the potential is certainly present.
In the back of the Halo museum at 343, next to the hundred-pound hammer, stands a black curtain that effectively serves as the end of an exhibit that covers two decades. After all of Halo’s impact on the game industry and sci-fi fandom, it’s hard not to wonder what may eventually lay behind it — to wonder, with the new game and new show, how the Halo Universe will expand in the months and years ahead.