'We've come a long way from Space Invaders': 343 on the evolution of Halo

'We've come a long way from Space Invaders': 343 on the evolution of Halo
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

June 13th 2016 at 3:15PM

The studio's Frank O'Connor discusses the work that has gone into establishing's Microsoft flagship IP

For many, Halo is the closest video gaming has come to having its own Star Wars. Microsoft's flagship shooter has enough iconic aliens, vehicles and characters to warrant countless sequels, spin-offs and merchandise.

Why has the sci-fi shooter become so iconic? 343 Industries' franchise development director Frank O'Connor offered some thoughts as part of our How To Build A Universe feature.

Read on for the full interview, including the Halo team made something unique out of the the familiar, the timeless design of Master Chief's armour, and the IP's cyclical relationship with James Cameron.

How do you ensure your fictional universe stands out and is distinctive from other properties in the same genre?
I think most successful IPs start out with a distinctive personality in the first place, and develop or nurture it as the years, as projects and iterations evolve.

It’s hard to succeed initially without some central spark that resonates with players, and in the case of Halo, while the ingredients were beyond familiar – deadly alien alliance, ancient mystery and plucky human military – the sum was definitely greater than the parts. The first Halo dropped you directly into that world, literally in the middle of combat, and that instant immersion helped cement the feel of the universe for fans – you’d be hard pressed to find a Halo player who wasn’t then immediately converted when the game first touches down on the Halo ring itself.

So we were fortunate in that sense to have more hooks than a lot of games that went before, since it was one of the first console games to tie story, gameplay and sandbox elements so neatly together, along with (at the time) innovative controls and believable physics.

The lore was great, thanks to some of Bungie’s well-realised ideas, and strong support from Eric Nylund’s Fall of Reach origin novel, but I’d argue that much of its impact was derived from the holistic set of factors surrounding that lore. It made fans believe it and appreciate it, and you can’t brute force that into a single element like cinematics, or combat dialog.

The task then becomes reinforcing it, improving it, building upon it in meaningful ways, and staying current with the incredible leaps that storytelling tech and technique have made over the last 15 years. 

We’re guilty of occasionally giving players the idea that the backstory and extended fiction and easter eggs are all necessary to enjoy the story. They’re absolutely not.

Where do you start when creating a fictional universe? What’s the first step?
There are many approaches to this. It could be the story itself – “A man awakes alone in a room” – or it could be the gameplay design driving those decisions – “oh, we have a cool flying mechanic, so what can we do in story to support that?”. But I suspect that in most cases, as in Halo’s, it’s a combination of those and elements like them.

A dumbed-down version of Halo’s origin is that Bungie was building an RTS, wanted to apply a sci-fi universe to it – replacing the magic and monsters of the previous Myth and it evolved from there, gradually become an FPS in the process and inheriting themes from another old Bungie game: Marathon. This may sound artificial but Hollywood does it all the time – finds an excellent script and switches the setting or period wrapper. Even publishers do it with novels.

Speaking of which, another bit of providence helped Halo, which was an almost afterthought opportunity for Microsoft to create a novel to tell the backstory of Halo’s otherwise in flagrante game mythos, and allowed then-Microsoft writer Eric Nylund and Bungie to form some core principles and 'history' for the otherwise lightly sketched characters, and richly illustrated worlds.

How do you balance giving your world and its lore depth without bombarding the player with unnecessary details and back story? 
We’re guilty of occasionally giving players the idea that the backstory and extended fiction and easter eggs are all necessary to enjoy the story. They’re absolutely not.

We have a core mission to ensure that the story you get in each game episode makes sense, is compelling and builds upon what has come before. The other stuff is extra, and for a lot of our fans, helps cement their understanding of the universe. It also helps us create a rich palette of hues and history with which to color the games.

As I said, we’re guilty of stretching that, and sometimes need to pull back. Games like Halo Reach, and the upcoming Halo Wars 2, let us tell stories that are much more tightly focused, and honestly those can be just as satisfying for fans and the creators.

As our worlds look more and more real, the challenge gets harder and harder. Don’t hold their hand, just light the way.

Where do you start in giving your universe a unique look? What’s the first step in the design process?
That is a weird combination of technology and talent. While the Master Chief’s original armor may look a little clunky now, it was state of the art at the time. So as we get more triangles and shaders and pixels to use of the years, the challenge is making sure that the look of the universe is adapting naturally, like a blurry picture coming into focus, over the years of technological progress, rather than simply changing.

This, of course, is an exercise that requires hindsight and history, and we actually put it right in the games, since you can pick historical iterations of armor in multiplayer or, in the case of the Halo Anniversary games, you can actually switch graphic engines on the fly and see how we used to live.

What advice do you have for developers wanting to create a new series/fictional universe that is engaging and memorable?
Start with an idea, or a character that players can care about, and wrap that in love and effort and art. I realise that’s simplistic, but storytelling is about resonance. And if you can’t make your audience relate to the events and protagonists and ideas, then start again.

We’ve come a long way from Space Invaders, where players filled in the elements that technology of the time couldn’t support, but that exercise – offering the player the opportunity to commit his or her imagination into your story – is a fantastic way to engage.

Ironically, as our worlds look more and more real, that challenge gets harder and harder. Don’t hold their hand, just light the way, or like Good King Wenceslas, give them deep footsteps to follow.

Start with an idea, or a character that players can care about, and wrap that in love and effort and art. I realise that’s simplistic, but storytelling is about resonance.

How do they avoid cliches or unfavourable comparisons to stories/universes that have already been created?
I remember reading an interview with James Cameron, where the interviewer asked Cameron why his Avatar universe was so heavily inspired by Halo, and he rightly pointed out that actually, it was the other way around.

Our universe was inspired by Aliens – which, of course, leads to the rabbithole that Aliens in turn, was influenced by Blade Runner, Star Wars, Space 1999 and others, and so on. We’re all the sum of our parts, and the influences and ideas our creators bring with them, are inevitably poured into our games, but the real opportunity is to be inspired by those influences, rather than merely aping them, and so looking for the new and amplifying that is a great way to avoid redundancy and cliché.

Novels and movies are often accused of recycling ideas, but the gaming format has fewer limitations, I feel and story can come from experience, rather than narrative, and that’s where games shine.

You can read our How To Build A Universe feature here. More interviews will be uploaded throughout the week