First-person memories of 'Halo' as a fledgling franchise

Mike Snider
USA TODAY
A screen shot from 'Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary' in the 'Halo: Master Chief Collection' video game release.

With the entirety of the sci-fi video game saga Halo arriving on the Halo: Master Chief Collection, released last week, some of power players behind the franchise took time to reminisce about the early days of popular Xbox series.

In 2000, Microsoft acquired the studio Bungie when it was developing the game and made Halo: Combat Evolved, one of the launch titles for the original Xbox in November 2001.

Current Halo franchise developer at 343 Industries, Frank O'Connor, who at the time was a video game journalist, recalls the 1999 unveiling of the game.

"I was like everyone else when I watched the reveal at Macworld with Steve Jobs and thought, 'Wow, that's an amazing trophy for Apple to get," O'Connor says. "The game is storied obviously as a successful franchise, but it has a lot of political and dramatic resonance as well. It was a trophy for Steve Jobs that Bill Gates eventually got."

Bungie's 1994 Mac shooter game Marathon put the game developer on O'Connor's radar. "When I got the game it had this really quirky and charismatic storytelling and it was doing for the time what we would consider nowadays sophisticated design things," he said. "It wasn't a straightforward shooter. There was a lot of adventure and puzzle-solving and mystery and wonder. Those were the qualities when they showed up in Halo that really attracted me to the universe.

In this June 10, 2013 file photo, Phil Spencer of Microsoft Game Studios speaks at the Microsoft Xbox E3 media briefing in Los Angeles.

Microsoft's head of Xbox Phil Spencer was part of Microsoft Games Studio when the software giant acquired Bungie. A fan of PC first-person shooters, Spencer was drawn in by Halo's story. "This was the first time the story itself and character and the setting and the music compelled me to continue playing the game," he said. "I think that has always been a strength of the Halo franchise."

Also at Microsoft Game Studios at the time, 343 Industries head Bonnie Ross was working on the PC game Zoo Tycoon. "Before I played the game, I read the book (The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund). So Master Chief, John, has always been a very different character if you just played the game without reading the book. For me, starting Halo as sort of a transmedia experience definitely colored how I think about Halo because I definitely think about it as a very unified universe."

Another Microsoft Games Studio staffer who got Nylund's book was Kiki Wolfkill, then an art director on Project Gotham Racing, who is now the studio head of the Halo Interactive Entertainment and Channel. "I played the game before I actually read the books, but the books sort of cemented it for me," she said. "I was always a gamer, but I think the thing that drew me was this amazing sense of adventure and it was such an approachable sci-fi experience. I literally fell in love with it immediately."

(L-R) Actors Alex Baht and Christian Contreras, executive producer at 343 Industries Studio Kiki Wolfkill, and actors Steve Waddington, Christina Chong, Mike Colter, and Sarah Armstrong walk the Green Carpet at HaloFest at the Avalon Theatre on Monday, Nov. 10, 2014 in Los Angeles to celebrate the launch of 'Halo: The Master Chief Collection” on Xbox One.

Dan Ayoub, who is now 343's studio head for Halo external development, was at Ubisoft when Halo came out. "I was probably one of the biggest skeptics about it because I had been a PC first-shooter fan," he said. "I started playing Halo and was like, 'Wow, this actually feels great. That was it. I got sucked into the story. All the cool things that Bungie was doing with that title that hadn't been done before. It was just magical. I was hooked."

Dan Ayoub, Studio Head, “Halo” External Development

The ability to connect Xbox systems together for Halo players to compete with up to 16 players simultaneously accelerated the interest in multiplayer gaming, O'Connor says. "You suddenly had college students and regular high school kids and people, dads even, carrying consoles across town and setting up LAN parties and blowing circuit breakers in their basement because of all the drawn power from those old CRT TVs," he said.

"It is argued that if Halo hadn't come to a console, it just wouldn't have innovated and reinvented a lot of the tropes and techniques we now take for granted in console games," O'Connor said. "I would argue the console space would be radically different without it. That's not to say it invented all of these things, but it did a really good job of refining them and making them functional and comfortable on the console."

Then Halo 2, released in 2004, had online multiplayer capability on Xbox Live. "(Bungie designer) Max Hoberman said, "Let's try and recreate the experience and feeling of being on a couch, right there with your friends.'"

Adds Ayoub, with Halo 2, "now all of a sudden I can play multiplayer with my friends without this complicated system of networking things together."

As Halo evolved over the years, Wolfkill says, "I started to understand more about the universe and the story, I really got pulled into what a big story it was while at the same time I always felt personally connected to the characters. I think that is a pretty unique experience."

She is shepherding new Halo projects including the current Halo: Nightfall live-action series and the Steven Spielberg-produced series due next year. "I love telling stories in this universe," she said, "and I am so intrigued with the idea of telling them different ways and exposing the universe to different types of people and players."

Corporate Vice President
Head of 343 Industries, Halo Franchise

And Ross, who oversees the franchise, agrees. "Because of how I started playing Halo, I felt it was incredibly important that to be the right steward for the franchise we really need to think about it not just for the next game, but for the next 10 to 20 years and think of it kind of more like Star Wars. ... For me it is about creating an amazing universe worthy of devotion in which we can tell hundreds of stories for the next decades."