‘Halo’ universe feeds fans on multiple platforms

Over 1,500 items help Microsoft, 343 keep franchise fresh

The Halo franchise is one of the biggest in the videogame world, but when series creator Bungie Studios walked away from the series after 2010’s “Halo: Reach,” it left Microsoft with a problem.

The series, of course, would continue — but keeping the loyal community fanbase satisfied wouldn’t be easy — and neither would managing a property that had quickly grown into a transmedia giant.

“We had to take the baton, which was literally red hot when it was handed to us,” said Frank O’Conner, franchise development director at 343 Industries, during a keynote speech at the D.I.C.E. Summit. “Players had zero reason to trust us. We still have to earn their trust.”

Halo 4” was a big step towards doing that. The game sold more than 4 million copies, grossing $300 million in its first week and earning widespread critical (and player) praise. The problem is, a core community like the one that surrounds Halo rarely speaks in a single voice. And, as Microsoft Game Studios executive producer Kiki Wolfkill pointed out, it’s one that comes with “no volume control.”

“The one thing the community demands is evolution — but the other thing the community equally demands is that you not change anything — ever,” said O’Conner.

To satiate that community, Microsoft and 343 have branched Halo into a variety of mediums. The game’s universe has over 1,500 SKUs, with items ranging from books and films to pajamas and bobbleheads.

One of 343’s charges is to ensure that any property that tells a Halo story ties in with the overall fiction of the universe. Novels (which have regularly made the New York Times bestseller list) establish backstories for characters, as do the Web films like last year’s “Forward Unto Dawn.” Even marketing campaigns are used to further the story, rather than simply show footage from the upcoming game.

But the rule at 343 is that no one property can be required reading or viewing for anyone. Those who watched “Forward Unto Dawn,” for instance, might know the backstory of one of the game’s characters, but a shortened version of that story is repeated in the game, so no one is left out. No one is left out that way, but people who invest more in the Halo experience gain a little additional insight that heightens the experience.

“We made a decision that every story we were going to tell in the Halo universe had to matter,” says O’Conner. “It had to matter to the player. It had to matter to the reader. It had to matter to the viewer and it all had to connect. We had to strike a very careful balance in telling these elaborate transmedia stories and make sure that each piece of story stood on its own — and that none were required to understand other parts of the universe. … We can’t expect people we’re asking to spend $60 on a game to need to spend $10 on a novel or to watch a TV commercial or a Web series.”