[In this interview, 343 Industries franchise development director Frank O'Connor explains the path forward for Microsoft's platform-defining mega-franchise Halo, including its organic growth into a transmedia powerhouse and what the passing of the torch from Bungie really means.]
The Halo franchise can quite literally be thanked for growing the Xbox platform into what it is today. While plenty of right moves have been made by Microsoft, the earliest and most crucial one -- that one that made the system relevant to its original core supporters -- was signing Bungie's shooter franchise as an exclusive for the console.
When the original Xbox released in 2001, Halo: Combat Evolved was there to provide a justification for its existence in a way no other game in the first party lineup could manage.
Since then, Frank O'Connor, franchise development director for Microsoft's internal Halo studio, 343 Industries says, the series has organically grown into a transmedia powerhouse.
When it comes to outgrowths of the franchise -- books, toys, animation, and the Halo: Waypoint community hub -- "Everything has answered a question," says O'Connor.
"We're considered transmedia experts," he tells Gamasutra. But he says the solution is simply to have a quality franchise that organically grows in the directions its fans push it.
What I'm interested in is the the passing of the torch. Is Bungie completely not involved in Halo anymore?
Frank O'Connor: No, they're still involved in it. There's no literal cutoff date to where they're not going to be involved.
They're our friends, literally and allegorically. One of my best friends is Lars Bakken at Bungie, and I still hang out with all the Bungie guys. They're really committed to their fans, and their community, in the same way we are. And so when the baton is passed, and we take over stats, or we take over some business aspect, or whatever, that should just be invisible to the fans.
And I think it's going to be a gradual analog process, and eventually the endgame for Bungie is that they might still answer a question about Halo on their forums, but otherwise they'll just look fondly back at a great period of their history. And we, of course, get the luxury of looking forward to a great future for ourselves.
You guys have been pretty quiet about what your plans for the actual game franchise are from this point forward. I imagine you're putting a lot of very careful thought into that stuff.
FO: We're definitely putting a lot of very careful thought into future game projects. We're building a very large, very talented team, and we're doing an awful lot of planning. But other than that, really our focus, and this is literally true, is making sure that Reach is well-tended, and cultivated, and taken care of. Because these games have a long life, right? And the multiplayer equal system is a vital part of that, and so that's our main technical task for this year.
And I think that our main high-level task this year is to celebrate ten years of Halo with our fans, and we're going to be doing a lot of things to celebrate that, and there's going to be a lot of cool surprises in this year, and we just want to have a celebratory atmosphere. Even as that baton is passed, and that torch is passed, we want to make sure it's a happy year, and there's still a lot to talk about.
With Halo Waypoint, you guys have made a real effort in moving beyond just discreet game releases and turning it into not just a universe, but a community.
FO: Yeah, I mean, I'm franchise development director, so my job is pretty broad, and it's pretty horizontal. So I deal with everything from our novels all the way to our community stuff. So [Halo] has always historically had a really strong community, and some of that comes from, kind of, accidents.
If you think about Halo, it has a lot of cool accidents that ended up with really exciting eventualities. [For example,] if it hadn't been on Xbox, and it was mouselook, it wouldn't have [come up with a solution] for joystick controls, right? And that wouldn't be a big part of what Halo is. And if it hadn't been on Xbox, it wouldn't have solved for Xbox Live and then matchmaking wouldn't have been invented -- it would probably have been server lists, right? So there's a lot of cool things that. You know, they say "necessity is the mother of invention", and Halo is an awesome example of that kind of problem solving space.
But to go back to the community, the fact that it was only system link on Xbox 1, and yet the system link experience was so good, meant we all had that experience of piling an Xbox and a TV in our car and driving it to a friend's basement and setting up a LAN party. I hadn't done that before, and I haven't done it since, and Halo was the only game that got me energized enough to go and do that, and deal with that, and it was such an amazing social experience.
I mean, that's part of why the community gelled together so well; because they were generally interacting with real flesh-and-blood human beings, and getting together, and making friends, and meeting people through that experience. So it was unique, I think, in recent game history. Certainly a lot of board gamers can tell you a lot of similar stories, but in video games, it hasn't been repeated, I don't think.
You're talking about the foundations that were laid, and now you're trying to basically build upon those with your efforts that are more directed, I suppose, to the franchise as it is now.
FO: Yeah, and that goes to every aspect -- not just the game itself, or the community, but the fiction. We're building on that and instead of going broader, we're going deeper.
The Greg Bear novel just came out, and it was a big risk for us, because it was originally an enigma and a mystery, and we're exploding that mystery and that enigma somewhat, but it paid off.
It's on the New York Times bestseller list... and it's actually climbing back up again, so fans are loving it. We love it. We knew it was risky, but we also knew that there was a weird clamor for it.
We get a lot of mail like, "You shouldn't explore the Forerunner mystery. The mystery is what makes it awesome." But it's like it does, but we're not going to eradicate or eliminate the sense of mystery -- or the actual mystery. We're just going to explore it, and it's been a fun exploration.
The bigger something gets the more diverse your group of fans is, so how has it been for you in terms of interacting with different levels of engagement?
FO: Certainly the scale got bigger as we went through Halo 2, but that hasn't really changed. Fans split themselves pretty rapidly into affiliations, and likes and dislikes, and we have some people who will only play Team SWAT on one map over and over again, all the way to people who have never picked up a Halo game and only read the books -- and that's pretty common.
When you have a big universe and when you have a big franchise like this, that separation of your fan base is to be expected, and rather than try to corral them all into one place, you should just embrace that, and we make sure that every aspect of Halo talks to every other aspect.
So there's things that happen in the Greg Bear novel that will actually make sense in DLC maps, if you play close enough attention; but by the same token you don't need all that stuff to enjoy those discreet experiences. And having a little corner of the Halo universe that you like, and that's all you're interested in -- that works just fine, as well. But of course we have our encyclopedic completist nuts who embrace and consume everything.
When we're talking about franchises that have this kind of budget and this kind of reach, is it crucial to have a strategy like this, that reaches across all media?
FO: I think it is. I think you can do a lot. There are different approaches to this. There's a lot to be said for making stuff up as you go along, but it depends on what it is. If you're trying to make a place that feels convincing and compelling, and characters with real history, you can't afford to do that. It's not just, "Oh, you got a date wrong here," or a weird Comic-Con question. It's, "Do you believe it?"
Your best experiences in movies and literature are always grounded in a suspension of disbelief, and that's easier to do when the environment that you're describing, and the universe that you're describing is convincing, and feels true or real. And that works. I mean, Lord of the Rings is just magical fantasy, but it feels real, because it's so well described and so well thought out. And one day we might get there. We're not there yet, but that's the level of detail and the level of belief that we want to have in this universe.
This is sort of the place where the line between marketing and creative gets really fuzzy, and I'm interested in that. I'm not talking about the novels; I'm not talking about the games either. I'm talking about the community engagement, and getting people involved, and I'm interested in how that interface works at a Microsoft level.
FO: The funny thing is, I know exactly what you mean, in that, are you turning into a franchise machine in a sort of GI Joe fashion? And the true answer is "no." Our marketing people at Microsoft actually only market our games. Our marketing people don't work on books, or the novels, or the comics. Every single one of those products, what you might call "ancillary products", was designed to answer a specific need. Fans wanted this; fans wanted to know this story.
When we started, they were really small projects, right? And marketing could care less. They were like, "Sure, whatever you want to do," you know? But now it's a big business -- but it got to be a big business without being a part of the product cycle, and rather being almost a literally a community effort.
Where it's like, "I want a Master Chief action figure," and we went and made that happen. And, "I want to know more about this angle of the universe" or "this back story in the universe," and we just went and made it happen. Everything has answered a question.
We're literally looking at making a grunt plushie this year, and not because -- well it'll probably sell a lot and make a lot of money -- but because it's the single most-demanded item that we haven't fulfilled in the franchise history. "I want a grunt plushie!" But the weird thing is, it's the hardest core fans that want that.
So yeah, I'm not worried about that. Certainly not yet, because, bluntly speaking, 343 Industries, and the franchise, and the licensing team within our studio, handles all that stuff -- so we own it, and we own the messaging, and we own the branding, and we own the clarity of that product, and it's something we take very, very seriously.
And we've had some misses in the past -- like we had some T-shirts people hate, and that kind of thing happens. But we learn from it -- but again, we're always trying to satisfy a demand. And it's just trying to make sure that you reach a state where 100 percent of that demand is met successfully. So yeah, I don't worry about saturation, or overexposure, because all of these things are what our fans want, one way or another.
There's guys there who hate the books. "Why are you making books? Why don't you make more DLC?" You get all that. You get that in any big universe, or any big franchise, but we know why we're doing that, and we're going to stay true to that.
It's interesting to hear you say that it all meets a need. That's the big question, because obviously you see the trend towards bigger franchises becoming not just a sixty dollar SKU; there's all kinds of stuff surrounding it. You see people making deliberate efforts to make it happen in a not-organic way. You have to know the benefit in it happening organically, but it seems like your roadmap is still to try and do it as organically as possible.
FO: I've been at transmedia conferences -- because we're considered transmedia experts -- and people say, "How do you take an item and turn in a big glorious far-reaching franchise with tendrils on the New York Times bestseller list and blah blah blah blah blah?" And they're like "You guys have nailed it! How do you do it?" And the answer is, "Have an awesome thing," right? And I hate saying that, but that's the truth.
We could have had a crappy thing, and not had this franchise. Or we could have had an awesome thing and not done this organic growth that we have done, and not had it. There wasn't a master plan from the get-go. And in fact, what I just described -- which is meeting community wants and needs, and taking weird little risks here and there -- is not really a plan. But it's not exactly reactive either. We think through everything.
We try our absolute hardest to make everything work well, but there's no secret recipe. I think Avatar is a good example to me, because Avatar was a massive success, and it was a beautiful-looking movie. And for some reason, the toys, and the ancillary spinoff stuff, it just didn't take root, and you can't say why. Avatar was bigger than us, eventually, but it just didn't become a franchise. It was a one-off, and I don't know what the answer to that is.
The other thing to be concerned with is that people feel very passionately about Halo, and you have to keep the stink of crassness away from it.
It could be fragile, because we all know how people who put their passion in something can real feel betrayed really easily.
FO: Yeah. We have hardcore fans who -- the weirdest thing is, they're, in some ways, their own worst enemies. Where the logical endgame for that level of fan rabidness, is that we never had faster-than-light travel, because of the limits of C that Einstein laid down. And it's reductive; there's a kind of reductive rabid fan that just wants answers to questions where there are no really good answers.
We have our science fiction answers, but sometimes they want a science answer. And you're like, "This is a beautiful, wonderful imaginary universe, and don't ruin it by trying to make it a clinical, dead space."
But those guys are few and far between, and even those guys can be reasoned with. You have this conversation with them and they're like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah I get it. I just want a new layer of depth. I want more and more and more." And it's because they're committed to it, because they believe it, right? And so, that's good. We should take that as a compliment.