In-Depth: Halo: Reach's Beloved, 'Bittersweet' Launch In New York City

At Halo: Reach's launch event in Times Square, Gamasutra takes it in, meets the fans, and talks to Bungie and 343 Industries as they reflect on the past, present and future of one of gaming's biggest franchises.
[At Halo: Reach's launch event in Times Square, Gamasutra takes it in, meets the fans, and talks to Bungie and 343 Industries as they reflect on the past, present and future of one of gaming's biggest franchises.] "We wanted to make sure this was the biggest freaking thing we've ever made," says Bungie creative director Marcus Lehto, at the launch of Halo: Reach in Times Square, Manhattan's luminous, beating heart. "It's our sendoff from the Halo universe to our fans." Outside the Best Buy Theater, those fans were eager to receive it. The pall of poor weather obscured the New York City skyline, making the glamorous lights of one of its most vital blocks seem stark, quiet, as they winked through the mist of a steady-falling rain. The crosswalks were crowded with a dark palette of umbrellas, but fans seemed impervious -- a line that began on 44th Street had begun to wrap around 7th Avenue by 7:00 PM. They cheered as if they'd no idea they'd have hours more to wait. "Some of them have been here since last night," a Microsoft rep told me. Halo franchise fans are known for their fevered, near-religious devotion to the property and its elaborate universe. But those with the lens of distance haven't necessarily seen the fanbase's intensity as a net positive. The arrival of original Xbox driver Halo: Combat Evolved in 2001 and its lockstep with the evolution of the Xbox Live service changed multiplayer gaming forever, staging a virtual reinvention of not only the first-person shooter category, but of home console play. The unfortunate side effect was the rise of a new kind of gamer culture, one that perhaps existed previously only in the annals of the most hardcore PC FPS communities. A stereotype was born: The griefing 14-year old. The beer-swilling, fist-bumping frat-boy. The teabagging, sexist, homophobic and quintessentially juvenile "Halo Bro" stereotype. Ironic -- a common perception holds the revolution in multiplayer gaming was driven by the kind of people most folks didn't really want to play with. But seeing the people who were lining up in the heart of New York City to celebrate the launch of Reach, it was surprisingly hard to keep that stereotype in mind. To say it was a terribly spiritually diverse crew would be inaccurate, but their energy, cheer and pure love for the world of Halo filled the air outside the theater as if they could wick away the rain with sheer joy. They were possessed of a surprising sincerity -- as were the creators whose work they'd all gathered to celebrate. Giving Away The Bride The event could easily be viewed as the ultimate Bro-pilgrimage, yet Bungie's brass had the air not of ultimate Bro-Gods, but of something more akin to bridefathers at a wedding, giving their baby away. As the leads gave their final interviews as stewards of the nearly decade-old cultural phenomenon they birthed, it would have been unsurprising to see tears, such was the extent of the sincerity they evidenced. "It's the best game I think we've ever made as a studio," creative director Lehto, who has been with Bungie for nearly 14 years, tells me. "We're super excited, and super proud of what we've created... it's hard to say goodbye to the Halo universe." There's a certain adoration glimmering in his calm blue eyes as he talks of the last game Bungie has made as a child of Microsoft's; he says the team saw it as their chance to use all of the ideas and ambitions that hadn't made it into Halo games thus far. That the launch is something of a "final bow" for the newly-independent developers has been a theme that's underscored Reach's marketing message. So has the tacit correlation of the "sacrifice" of the game's doomed heroes with the global event that shares its approximate September anniversary and geographic location with this launch. Although it's never been stated, given the game's themes it would be quite hard to believe that the fact game reviewers were playing their embargoed copies of Reach on the weekend of 9-11's ninth anniversary was some mere thoughtless accident on Microsoft's part. This night, however, was all about the fans: "What's cool about [Halo], and what I think has made it into this crazy cultural phenomenon beyond what we ever imagined it being, is it connected with our fans, and our fans continued to make it grow outside of our own studio's walls," says Lehto. A Human Story For those skeptics who see the sentimentality of the launch as manufactured, Reach executive producer Joseph Tung says, "We absolutely knew when we started that it was the last Halo game for Bungie. I don't think that precipitated any themes, but at the same time we knew... we were done with the Master Chief story, we didn't want to pick up the story arc that had ended in Halo 3, and we didn't want to start a new 'trilogy' so to speak, so [we wanted] a self-contained story that can stand on its own two feet." That aim "quickly led us to reach as the perfect setting of the game," he continues. "As every Halo fan knows, Reach falls, and that just made a perfect setting for a game that we wanted to make that was stand-alone." Tung says the intention was to "tell a story that is much more grounded than the sort of 'space opera' that Halos one, two and three were." But focus on building a human tragedy and creating a more sophisticated self-contained narrative than perhaps the franchise's rah-rah tone to date would suggest was not, the team says, a direct response to highbrow cultural criticisms of Halo, nor to stereotypes about the maturity of its audiences. "It just sort of dovetailed perfectly with our goals," says Lehto. "We wanted to introduce brand-new characters, the Noble Team... that we could really dig into and understand, that had far more depth than anything Master Chief could have been up to and through Halo 3. "What we did with the characters and this overall story of surrounding the planet Reach is create something that's far richer than any other story we could have created otherwise," Lehto adds. The Vision And The Tech Bungie credits much of that achievement to the pure design, tech and visual decisions inherent in the goal of surpassing one of the best-selling games of all time in Halo 3. "We went and rebuilt almost everything," says Lehto. That includes the graphics engine and the animation system -- the latter with a particular focus on the animation system and integrated motion capture, to create a greater player connection to the characters. An external facial capture solution was also key -- in a world visually identifiable by its faceless helmeted, armored warriors, that the characters show their human faces centrally in Reach could not be glossed over. The world of Reach is known to be doomed from the outset of the game; its end is not a surprise: "We wanted the opportunity to tell the story's beginning, the sacrifice and honor of the Spartans themselves," says Lehto. And yet the aim was to develop the sort of tragedy that has a backbone in hope: "That part of developing a story for characters, and really bringing that to life and doing a lot of things with our tech in order to achieve better character acting, to do things we've never done before... was just a fantastic experience for us," he continues. "It's certainly the most ambitious thing we've ever tried to tackle before." Tung agrees that a "human story" was the explicit aim. "Knowing that we wanted to take the helmets off of the Spartans for the first time... meant having really believable faces, and tech that allowed us to animate... it all just sort of led us there," he says. "As soon as we decided Reach [as setting], that meant a much darker tone; as soon as we set a darker tone and multiple Spartans, we wanted them to have real relationships, really meaningful, real performances... all of those things cascaded into a set of tech investments and creative investments." To inform a direction new to some of the team, Lehto and Tung say Bungie developers were informed by films like The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai, in terms of "how do you bring that many characters to screen and how you drive a few of them forward." When it comes to "how we wanted to get really personal with the Spartans in the trenches of battle," the team looked to Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down. "Our cinematic director Lee Wilson would show shots that really felt like there was a person behind the camera, and would talk about how we wanted to emulate that for reactions," says Tung. As Tung and Lehto spoke to Gamasutra in a quiet, private interview room within the the theater prior to the event, early-arriving fans were minutes away from admission. The sound of music pumping and the bustle of waitstaff preparing bar goods and food trays sounded from outside the door; Lehto and Tung had hours of B-roll footage shoots and interviews with other media ahead of them to do. "I'm super excited to see the fans," Tung told us, wearing an expression of genuine nostalgia that isn't commonly seen in these types of interviews. "That's awesome... it is very bittersweet. I personally love the Halo universe; I think it's really a little sad to let go. But we're very excited about what comes next; the team is already hard at work on what comes next, and we can't wait to be able to dig into it more." Passing The Baton Bungie's not saying much else about "what comes next"; part of its future, of course, involves a ten-year multiplatform deal with Activision for a project it's promised will be "even better and bigger" than Halo. And although the launch event very much had the air of a goodbye party, the reality is that Bungie still has some work ahead of it on Microsoft's behalf, supporting Reach's ongoing multiplayer and DLC post-launch. Largely, however, the future of Halo now passes into the custody of 343 Industries, Microsoft's division to develop the franchise now that Bungie is its own creature. Of course Halo needs its own dedicated division at Microsoft: It's a $2 billion dollar franchise, and as such "needs a little more focus," as franchise development director Frank O'Connor tells us. But any of the fans Bungie loves so much who fear Halo slipping into the stewardship of a monetizing suit-stereotype need fear not: O'Connor's a big fan too. He's a former journalist with Official Xbox Magazine who joined Bungie out of appreciation for Halo, and says he loved the universe so much he chose to stay with the brand, not the colleagues with whom he's worked since Halo 2. In addition to the future story seating of the game's universe, he's responsible for evaluating transmedia strategy across Halo's numerous product-tie ins, like its series of novels. A gentle-seeming, quieter-spoken and eloquent man, O'Connor doesn't fit the "Halo Bro" stereotype by any stretch. "One of the interesting things about Halo fans is everybody gets something different out of it," he tells us. "We have people who only read the novels. It's a trifecta of a very compelling hard sci-fi story, it was full of questions -- who built these mysterious artifacts, this kind of enigma about it that attracted me to it in terms of storytelling." Secondly, O'Connor says the precision gunplay in which Halo has always aimed to specialize helped draw him from a PC-centric world where he focused on titles like Quake, Doom and Unreal Tournament. "It was the first FPS on a console that felt almost as fast and accurate as a PC shooter; they did a lot of really cool things to make people feel like they were playing a PC shooter," he reflects. For The Community The third component? Halo's community of devotees. "The first nights that we were playing Halo 2 on Xbox Live, there was a real sense of exploratory community," O'Connor says, fondly recalling the way that the games have, for him, helped recapture his days of handmade PC LAN parties. To hear the softly honest, confident sense of belonging in his tone, one might never imagine that the Halo community is the same one reviewers healthily fear whenever it comes time to evaluate an installment. "People tend to focus on the negative," suggests O'Connor. "If in one or two games in 10 you're talking to some rude teenager, you can mute them -- there are very quick tools so you can instantly mute someone," he says. Nonetheless, O'Connor points out that with Reach placed great focus on improving the sophistication of the matchmaking system: "Bungie is trying to replicate the feeling of a LAN, and trying to match you with people that you like," he says. Not only is there some depth to the skill-based matchmaking, he says, but players can now develop something of a psychological profile based on how and whether they like to talk while playing and be paired with others seeking something congruent from their multiplayer experience. It works because the player base is so large to begin with, he adds. "It's never going to be perfect, but I always think it's going to be better than a lot of games," he says. O'Connor is predictably mum on what's next for Halo, asserting instead a focus on the near-term: "We're absolutely still going to be with Bungie for quite some time on the sustain for Halo Reach," he says. "Bungie's going to be handling that for the short term and the mid-term, and and we still want to work with them on DLC." In the event's proper halls, groups of fans queued up as Xbox Live program manager Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb signed t-shirts with a patient, almost paternal sort of warmth. Many, too young to drink the complimentary beer, instead opted for Mountain Dew, the unsettlingly-nuclear color options of which bore uncanny likeness to the different-toned armors of the Spartans in the game being played on endless screens. They crowded onto a dance floor, awaiting a performance by Kid Cudi and clamoring for Spike TV host Geoff Keighley's attention as he awarded prizes and screen time to multiplayer contestants. Mostly, though, attendees were far more quiet indoors than they had been in their explosive, ecclesiastical choruses of sidewalk joy. Rather than chanting Reach, Reach, Reach, they no longer had much to say. Gathered around the play consoles, they were simply occupied in playing; delighted with a long-awaited experience, it's unlikely they're thinking of what will be next for Halo. "Eventually, the baton will be fully passed," says O'Connor. "The challenge isn't to try to do as good as Bungie. The challenge is to do better -- because Bungie would not have been content to be only as good as its last game."

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