The first Halo I ever finished was 2009’s real-time strategy affair Halo Wars. That has to be something you don’t often hear. Most players’ first brush with a series as monstrous as this is undoubtedly some core Halo spectacle viewed from behind the muzzle of an assault rifle, not highlighting a convoy of units in eagle eye as a stand-in, custodial god of war. It feels like a fitting way to measure my unusual relationship with Master Chief, the UNSC, Covenant and everything else that Halo is, so we’ll go with it.
Somewhat ironically, Halo began from a strategic position, rather than being mapped from the outset as a shooter. The project evolved spiritually as a kind of outcropping from the clotted battlefields of Bungie’s 1997 tactical game Myth, trading a Braveheart aesthetic for more of a Starship Troopers vibe, and then rendering everything in anthill 3D. Even as a primitive vehicular prototype, emphasizing the physicality of the terrain, there wasn’t really anything that looked quite like it.
Its rise would be inevitable. In my early teens, a friend once showed me a few screens of some rudimentary marines riding a now-iconic buggy over a sweeping plain, talking about how this, not yet outside of Mac exclusivity, was going to be the next big thing. At least, that’s how I remember it.
He wasn’t wrong. By the time Master Chief had come to prominence as the hero, the star, of the multiplayer console FPS—and the term “Halo-killer” was inadvertently coined—I was too busy sneaking through Metal Gear Solid 2’s Big Shell to pay that much attention.
Not that I wasn’t envious of a capable console shooter, with or without four-player deathmatch. The original Halo: Combat Evolved may not have been the first home attempt at the genre, but it was arguably the most important. As close as its inspirational competition could get, the likes of Medal of Honor, Quake II and GoldenEye, none which I was ever that great at, felt comparative years behind. Bungie followed the unlikely lead of Argonaut Games’ Alien Resurrection, which mapped moving and aiming onto separate analog sticks over a year before the Xbox launched. That precedent aside, though, the Bellevue-based studio set the standards for the modern shooter genre almost singlehandedly.
For me, any devotional attention paid to Halo Wars proved to be an accidental crash course in mythology. As I went deeper, an entire universe started leaking out at the seams, referencing just enough for me to later get absorbed by the overtly cerebral vignettes in the 343 Industries-funded Animatrix-like Halo Legends, 343 having taken over the Halo series when Bungie spilt from Microsoft after 2010’s Halo: Reach.
This was finally the back entrance I needed. Halo may have spawned a legion of fans on the back of its legendary shooting, but across a number of interviews I did with Bungie vets, I was told it isn’t how they see the series’ core. Instead, as former Microsoft Games Studio head Ed Fries puts it, the games at their best are “vista moments”—evocative and hard to pin down, and maybe best encapsulated by the camera slowly tracking out above the bluffs in Halo 3’s debut trailer, Master Chief diminishing in the weight of the moment. That there’s an emotional core entombed somewhere under the stratum of dropped bullet casings and alien corpses is no secret among many the series’ many architects.
Still, it all might have been left behind as an Iain Banksian footnote without a foundation in gameplay: tight, sophisticated, smart and unapologetically rapt in the romance of new frontiers. And if Halo’s campaign did things that were thought impossible for CRT play, its revolutionary, sticky multiplayer, germinating in university dorm tourneys, flourished to become a combat universe unto itself—a literal Halo Nation.
That pedigree wasn’t easily won. Bungie’s story rivals gaming’s most volatile, its marriage to Halo growing steadily uneasy under fatigue, hubris and the weight of blockbuster expectation when it wasn’t at risk of being outright consumed from within. Yet like Master Chief, Halo is defined by a devotion to fight: even when it stumbles, the series manages, valiantly, to up the ante. Xbox just wouldn’t exist without it.
For better or worse, Halo was a perfect storm. As its history has been told to me—a tangled knot of design, contracts, platforms, ideas, direction and incredible achievement—an ideal distillation is something that could realistically never be recreated. Perhaps the saga is saddled with an impossible legacy, its most fascinating points deviations from that mode, some left unseen.
Whether you prefer vistas or ordnance, where Halo may go from here feels at once predictable and expansive; think of these stories as a patchwork roadmap from a number of people who lived it, replete with detours and roughly sketched paths, all in pursuit of answering that question.
What follows across the three parts of our exclusive oral history are direct accounts from the people who made Halo, in its many and varied guises, since the 2001 debut of Combat Evolved. You will be reading:
Alex Seropian Bungie’s original founder, Seropian partnered early with Jason Jones, turning the bootstrapped company into a legitimate developer of series like Marathon and Myth. The “father” of Bungie, ex-members credit Seropian with giving the studio a family feel, even as he oversaw its business dealings.
Jaime Griesemer Cutting his teeth as map designer on the Myth series, Griesemer eventually took on a jack-of-all-trades role throughout the series development that ran the gamut from multiplayer to mission design. He’s also responsible for designing Bungie’s now-famous FPS console controls.
Marty O’Donnell Bungie’s in-house audio expert from before the studio’s Halo era to his departure with Destiny, O’Donnell defined the series’ sound as much with its iconic theme as he did its shifting musical style (note Halo 3: ODST’s smoky jazz), casting choices and influence on creative direction.
Marcus Lehto The first person to work the original Halo prototype with Jason Jones, Lehto drove Bungie’s art team to build the look and feel of the UNSC and Covenant forces and rich environments, creating a colorful, multifaceted look that’s become unmistakably synonymous with Halo over the years. Considered the father of Master Chief.
Joe Staten While only credited on Halo as “cinematics director,” Staten was actually the primary driving force behind the series’ far-reaching narrative, creating the personality and humor of Master Chief and imbuing each script with the Hollywood-styled drama it became known for. Best known for his work on the noir-esque ODST.
Paul Bertone Bertone’s work on studio prototypes and making maps for Myth II led to nuts-and-bolts mission building on Halo and design lead positions on Halo 2 and 3. After the conclusion of the initial Halo trilogy, Bertone led ODST’s development as director, creating its open world and Firefight systems.
Max Hoberman Initially hired to help Seropian with company business, Hoberman started Bungie’s Halo community team before taking charge of Halo 2’s Xbox Live multiplayer. Hoberman’s success with 2’s online integration led him to leave Bungie during Halo 3 to found his studio, Certain Affinity, (mainly) creating multiplayer components for Halo and other series ever since.
Peter Tamte A businessman in game publishing (and former Apple employee), Tamte was Bungie’s executive vice president. He convinced Steve Jobs to introduce Halo at Apple’s annual Macworld event—putting both the game and Bungie on the map—and helped broker the deal for Bungie’s acquisition to Microsoft.
Ed Fries Former Head of Microsoft Game Studios, Fries oversaw the entire development slate for Xbox, and was instrumental in the company acquiring Bungie, among other studios. A lifelong programmer and tinkerer, Fries also is also the creator of Halo 2600.
Stuart Moulder Then the general manager of Microsoft Game Studios, Moulder played a key role, along with Fries, in the acquisition, management and support of in-house developers like Bungie, shaping the Xbox platform as a whole.
Dan Ayoub 343 Industries’ head of external development, Ayoub works with teams outside of Microsoft to get Halo-related projects made on the publishing side. Originally joining the studio to help Bungie finish Reach, he has overseen projects like Halo Anniversary, The Master Chief Collection and Halo Wars 2, among others.
Kiki Wolfkill While getting her start with Halo as executive producer of Halo 4, Wolfkill has since expanded her role to shape the narrative direction of the Halo universe itself, developing and producing trans-media projects like Halo 4’s Forward Unto Dawn, The Fall of Reach animation and most recently the as-of-yet untitled Halo live action series with Steven Spielberg.
Frank O’Connor A former journalist hired by Bungie to liaise with the community and business in the Halo 2 era, O’Connor is the only member of their old guard to join 343. As franchise director, he currently oversees everything related to the universe’s overall presentation, from business development to its creative thrust, and has played a large role in writing numerous Halo stories, including Halo 4’s.
Ryan Payton Headhunted by 343 after leaving Kojima Productions in 2008, Payton challenged the nascent studio to think differently about what a Halo game could be as Halo 4’s creative director. Though replaced by Josh Holmes, Payton’s narrative contributions would help define what the finished 4 would eventually look like. He left Microsoft to found his own independent studio, Camouflaj, in 2011.
Josh Holmes After taking over as creative director to finish out Halo 4’s development, Holmes has become 343’s head of internal development, in charge of planning future projects and growing the studio on a macro level, as well as serving as executive producer across multiple Halo titles.
Tim Longo A veteran of Crystal Dynamics and Lucasarts, Longo’s experience with major franchises played a key role in his leading Halo 5’s development as creative director. He is responsible for guiding the team-centric design and expanding 343’s Halo beyond Master Chief and Cortana—an approach that seems likely to continue into the future.
Marcus Lehto, Halo prototype designer Bungie had just wrapped up Myth: The Fallen Lords and was embarking into Myth II’s development. Their first offices were in South Halsted in Chicago—not a very savory area of town, but it served us well. The place was this giant old building, with lots of room for the company to grow, even though at that time we only had maybe 12 to 15 employees. So I came on board, and I was immediately working on a small "side project" with (Bungie co-founder and Halo director) Jason Jones.
Marty O’Donnell (Bungie’s in-house composer) Bungie was a total seat-of-the-pants operation at the time. It was this scrappy place—a bunch of guys, pizza boxes and sweat socks on the floor. It was like walking into a frat house or a dorm or something. So I was the professional and they were like a bunch of kids, just goofing around. That was the impression I got.
Max Hoberman (several Halo series roles) We used to call Marty “The Elder Statesman,” to just remind him that he was old.
Marcus Lehto That was 1997. Our “side project” was the first baby step of Halo. What Jason wanted to do at that time was, in the spirit of Myth, a real-time strategy, real-time tactics game.
Jaime Griesemer (Halo series mission design) They were looking at Myth and thinking it would have done better if it were sci-fi, and looking at StarCraft and thinking that would be better without all the resource management. And Bungie had always invested a lot in its engine technology, simulating things, and relying more on the physics to provide the gameplay. So they wanted to one-up all the sci-fi RTS games, and have vehicles that really moved like vehicles, and terrain that really mattered because it was 3D.
The integration of vehicles right from the very start was a leap that I hadn’t seen before. Just driving freely across terrain was not something that had existed. You had racing games and you had shooters, and there was no overlap at all between the two, except maybe (Bally Midway’s 1983 arcade game) Spy Hunter. So I was pretty impressed.
Marcus Lehto I was hired to provide more of a creative vision. Jason at that time was hands-on programming every day, all day, so it was really fun for me, problem solving through those initial steps. Then we brought on a few more folks and began building a real, playable prototype. It was a top-down, lots-of-units-on-the-ground kind of game.
Jaime Griesemer We were going to use primitives for interiors—sort of sliced-out subsections of level parts that could snap together in lots of different ways. Like, one room and one hallway that you could kind of configure however you wanted to. (Similar to DOOM’s SnapMap feature).
Marty O’Donnell We knew Myth II was coming out and that there was also a smaller group working behind closed doors on something new. One day I went over there and they asked me in—they wanted to show me what they were making and get my advice about audio and music. That was when I first saw Halo. It looked a lot like Myth. They were using its engine and it had that isometric camera, except it was sci-fi—there were all these little tanks that you moved around, space marines fighting aliens in different kinds of vehicles.
Jaime Griesemer I think at the time it was called “Monkey Nuts”.
Marty O’Donnell Within a week it’d changed—Jason really didn't want to tell his mom that he was working on something everybody called “Monkey Nuts,” so they changed it to “Blam!”.
Max Hoberman I remember seeing guys like Shi Kai Wang, an artist we hired really early on, working on concept sketches for the Covenant vehicles and units. Those left an impression. And Marcus’s actual models too, for the first version of Master Chief and the Warthog—I first saw those in-engine on Jason's machine, with his little playground demo when it was still an isometric perspective.
Marcus Lehto Jason really didn’t have “Halo” yet—he didn’t have the universe in his head. It really was a collaboration from the beginning, a journey we took together. And as more individuals introduced their own creative ideas and unique perspectives, it continued to evolve and grow.
Marty O’Donnell Marcus showed me these early storyboards, which showed the camera as kind of third-person, with one of the marines running around and attacking an Elite alien. I remember thinking that looks a lot cooler, but too bad the final game won't be that. I just thought: this is what Bungie makes, they make these kind of games. And I think they didn't want to make first-person shooters anymore, because they had done the Marathon trilogy and they were tired of that.
Marcus Lehto Master Chief started out as, and always was, that human tank. He was a guy in powered armor. But the mobility that he had, the shape language that broadcasted this presence of strength, needed to continue to evolve—he started out very, very blocky. When we first started I think he had maybe 400 polygons in him. It was ridiculous.
Jaime Griesemer Then, canonically the story goes, they made a mode where you could just attach the camera to one of the units—just looking for different kind of ways of controlling RTS units. And it was so fun to be in the Warthog driving around over hills that they kind of got the bug to just make a game about that.
Marcus LehtoI like the feeling that the Warthog’s not a Ferrari. It’s like a Hummer or a Jeep, something that’s meant to get beat up, meant to get shot at, meant to grind its way through the most horrifying terrain and terrible circumstances that lay ahead of it. I built it so that it had four-wheel steering. We wanted take these really tight corners, hot-dogging around on the terrain, with lots of throw in the suspension so it could jump these big hills. And we were like, holy shit: Why aren’t we driving this instead of allowing the AI to drive it?
Alex Seropian (Bungie founder) Once the Warthog was in that scene and you could pile dudes into it, experimentation started with the viewpoint and the camera just kept getting closer and closer. And controlling it, just that double tactile nature of load a dude in, get a dude out, hands on the steering wheel—it was like, this shouldn’t be an RTS game.
“It wasn’t even clear that there was going to be a story at the beginning. It was a simple multiplayer game to begin with.”— Joe Staten
Jaime Griesemer At first I was sent over to San Jose in summer 1998, to interview with the Oni team at Bungie West. So the first time I ever got to see Halo it was third-person. I think they called the marine “future soldier” or something like that. He was supposed to one of the RTS units on the battlefield, but he was not Master Chief.
Marcus Lehto When I created the Master Chief and the Warthog, I was having fun. I thought: Okay, let’s place ourselves in the year 2500 and imagine a world where we’re at war with these alien factions. Pretty standard stuff in sci-fi, but it was something that you didn’t then see very often in games and certainly not in this more freeform, exploratory, third-person action shooter type.
Jaime Griesemer At first you had one gun, an assault rifle that would shoot grenades, and there was a little single-person boat, they called it the Doozy. And that was the whole game. This was when 3D accelerators were really kicking off, so the number of particles you could throw up and the water reflections—you hadn’t seen this stuff yet. So I just got to run around on the beach and blow up palm trees for a while.
Max Hoberman I thought it was a good idea for Bungie to diversify. You know, changing up the product range a little bit and not putting all their eggs in the strategy basket. I had an enormous amount of trust in Jason, and didn't question his design and development decisions.
Jaime Griesemer The team was eight or nine people when I joined, mostly working on the engine front. The first thing that I worked on was multiplayer, so some of what I did was weapons. You know, making a shotgun and sniper rifle and hitting all the fundamental shooter components.
Joe Staten (cinematics and narrative direction) It wasn’t even clear that there was going to be a story at the beginning. It was a simple multiplayer game to begin with. Like a lot of Bungie games, that’s where prototyping starts and how they find the fun.
Jaime Griesemer We had a four-versus-four single elimination mode, and we used to knock off development at 4pm every day and just play for two or three hours.
Marcus Lehto We tried all kinds of multiplayer stuff. Jason wanted something like a hilarious super jump where the longer you held crouch, the higher your jump would be. So you’d let go and fly 300 feet. We had all kinds of crazy interactions, and we thought, “Alright, we’re all having fun here, so something is right.”
Marty O’Donnell We were going to do a behind-closed-doors showing at E3 in 1999, before the game’s public debut at Macworld in July. Any press that wanted to see it had to sign an absolute mum’s-the-word, non-disclosure agreement. And that caused more buzz than anything, because the press was saying, “The E3 title we really like is something from Bungie that we can’t talk about.” So that really set us up to be able to knock it out of the park when showing it to Steve Jobs.
Jaime Griesemer It was just days before we were going to announce at Macworld. We still didn’t have a name, and we actually hired a branding company to come in. They came up with hundreds of names and it finally came down to “Covenant”. That was going to be the name of the game, and there were several logo treatments. I actually sat not too far from Paul Russel, one of the artists. He was like, “Covenant? That name is stupid.” So he came up with five or six alternatives, one of which was Halo.
Alex Seropian I didn’t like the name at first.
Marty O’Donnell Nobody liked “Halo”. It was like, oh, it's too religious, it's too ambiguous, and it's too on the nose because [the ring world] looks like a halo. And it's so hard to see that stuff ahead of time. Because why would it be Halo? I might've even said, you know, in my day, that was the name of a shampoo for women.
Marcus Lehto But Paul just wrote it up on our whiteboard wall. And then Jason or somebody else was like, that’s it. That’s awesome. It was simple—it described enough about what our intent was for this universe in a way that created this sense of mystery.
Peter Tamte (Bungie’s then-executive vice president) I decided to join Bungie in 1999. I had interest in helping an entrepreneurial company grow again, and the company had had some financial setbacks in ’98. Part of it was that Myth II had shipped with an awful recall bug, and Alex [Seropian] made it clear one of the priorities was to generate cash. So Bungie re-released some of back-catalog products in collections, which helped a lot, and entered into a distribution agreement with Take-Two, selling them a small percentage of the company. That gave them cash flow.
Joe Staten Peter was also the reason we got into Macworld that year, because he was a former Apple employee. So we got an audience with Steve Jobs.
Peter Tamte Right away I got thrown right into the thick of things. Another thing that I did right after joining Bungie was call my old boss at Apple and asked him to be the one basically to introduce Halo to the world. That was Steve.
Joe Staten Jason, Peter and I went out to Apple headquarters to pitch this demo to Steve. He came into this little antechamber where we set our PC up, eating a Fudgsicle: “Whaddaya got?” I didn’t really say anything because I was just there in case the demo didn’t work. So Jason talked him through the demo, and Jobs sat there pretty quietly. The demo started you on the inside and then moved outside, and Jason made a very big deal about the transition and how it was very rare in games.
Peter Tamte I was not there for the actual presentation with Jason and Joe. Because that’s not how you did it with Steve. Steve always wanted to deal with the creator.
Joe Staten So, the sun was shining, with the lens flare, and Steve sort of stopped the demo right there and said: “Yeah, but you know, at Pixar, we can render dozens of suns.” Jason’s immediate reply to him was: “Yeah, but can you do it in real time?” There was this pregnant pause and Steve’s says: “Okay, you’re in.” And he picked up his Fudgsicle and walked back into his office, and that was it. So that’s how we got in, a little bit of chutzpah and an OpenGL tech demo running on what was soon to be the Mac.
“Halo was one of the five most anticipated games on three different continents, before we had spent one dollar on advertising.”— Peter Tamte
Marty O’Donnell I had one weekend to come up with the Macworld presentation music. Joe told me, “We’re going to be on the stage with Steve Jobs, he’s going to introduce it, and Jason’s going to do a live scripted demo.” We had no ability to put sound on anything, because up to that point all our sound work had been on PC. There was no way to get that working on the Mac in time. So I remember sitting with Alex and saying, “Look, let me do a score, and we’ll just have music play along with whatever this is. Let’s do it up right.”
Peter Tamte Steve was always the type who could recognize something that had the potential to change the world. He was good at that. After he saw it, that was it. And just a few weeks later Jason would be on stage to show the world the first glimpse of Halo.
Marty O’Donnell I said to Joe, “Emotionally, what are we trying to say here?” All I knew at the time was that the game was space marines versus aliens. He said, “I don't know what the story’s going to be yet, but it needs to create a feeling of ancient, epic and mysterious.” Monks singing make you feel ancient, so I wrote the melody, which my composing partner and I, and a few other singers, performed. It was one of those fun things we really didn't have any time to second-guess.
Marcus Lehto We put a lot of effort into building that in-game trailer. That’s where we started compiling more information that would give Master Chief a personality and the Covenant a reason for existing. It’s when things started to really click as far as what this universe was.
Marty O’Donnell I wanted an Arabic chant—Qawwali—after the monks and orchestra. So my main jingle guy, Bob, had someone come in that Monday after we finished everything, and it was time to record the chanting part over the top. And I said to the guy, “Look, I've got nothing written, I just need somebody to improvise.” He asked me where I wanted the part, so we stood there with our headphones on listening. Then it was time, and I sang it.
The guy was thinking about trying himself and he asked me to repeat it, so I did. And Bob just said, “Marty, why don’t you just do it? It sounds great!” And I said, “Oh no, I can't—I don't know what I'm doing, I'm just making it up.” He said, “Yeah, who cares?” I was always embarrassed about that, because I thought I'm probably making fun of somebody by accident—I don't know what's legit and what isn't. I'm just using my ears and I'm improvising nonsense syllables.
Peter Tamte I think what made Halo such a successful game was evident in that initial demonstration, this feeling of adventure and exploration within a very interesting world and the freedom to go anywhere. And after it was introduced at Macworld by Steve, it just exploded. I always tell people Halo was one of the five most anticipated games on three different continents, before we had spent one dollar on advertising.
Marty O’Donnell Everybody was talking about how this game from Bungie looked and sounded different. And I knew that no matter what people thought about game music, getting melodic hooks into people's heads is unbelievably powerful for branding. So in my mind when I wrote the theme it was like I was writing a jingle for Halo.
Jaime Griesemer The reaction was amazing. I think we kind of blew people’s minds about what was possible in a shooter, so they were really excited. And then we sucker punched them.
Ed Fries (former head of Microsoft Game Studios): One day out of the blue, the phone rings and it’s Peter Tamte, who I knew a bit. Basically he said Bungie’s going broke—not an unusual call at the time, since developers and publishers were often going out of business—and they needed to be acquired. I was very interested. At the time I had two years to pull together an Xbox launch portfolio, but was kind of in a panic trying to figure out how we were going to have games at Christmas 2001, for hardware which at that time didn’t exist.
Peter Tamte In January of 2000, Take-Two had invited two of their leading developers to attend a meeting with Microsoft in New York, to show off this new game console that they were building. So it was me and Alex, with Sam Houser and Terry Donovan from Rockstar, and at dinner that night we started talking with the Microsoft team about their plans for game support to launch the Xbox.
Ed Fries Bungie was just the kind of developer I liked. Hardcore, talented. I played their games, particularly the Myth series.
Peter Tamte It became apparent that there might be an opportunity for Bungie there. Alex and I talked that night, and I ended up calling Ed within a day or so. And he immediately said, “I hadn’t thought of that, but you know what, this is interesting.” So he sent a team out to Bungie to play the game.
Stuart Moulder (then general manager, Microsoft Game Studios) First-person shooters were generally tunnel-based back then, kind of claustrophobic experiences. And that Halo was outside in this alien landscape, it had a sense of galactic scale that was really amazing to see, even in that really nascent stage.
Alex Seropian We had always thought some day, maybe, we’d get bought and it’d be awesome. But we had had conversations with other companies like GT Interactive, offering to buy us in stock. Like, we’re going to do an IPO and you’ll be rich. And then we’d never hear from them again, because it was all lies.
Max Hoberman I was probably more aware than most that Bungie was in a financially risky place. And Bungie was such a proudly independent company, I think for the majority—certainly of our fans, but I think even internally—the whole acquisition really caught them off guard.
Alex Seropian We liked Ed and Microsoft was a company we knew. And if the acquisition worked, Bungie itself could be so much bigger. But we still had this deal with Take-Two, so we couldn’t do the Microsoft deal because they had distribution rights to the game. So the complexity was getting the rights back.
Ed Fries We worked out the deal pretty much that I wanted with Take-Two—I really only cared about Halo and Bungie’s people. The team would move from Chicago to Seattle, and Bungie West in San Jose would finish and ship Oni and move up to join everyone else. So, Take-Two got Bungie’s back catalog plus Oni, and I got the team plus Halo. Which in retrospect was a good deal.
Marcus Lehto So we sat down and we’re like, “Okay, now we’re going to make this game for the Xbox… How is this going to work?” Obviously, we played around with it functioning in third-person but it was pretty clear to us that it needed to transform into first-person.
Joe Staten Halo had very organically become a story about whoever was behind the gun. We didn’t know who that was yet, but it was a guy in the cool iconic armor that Marcus made. It wasn’t until after we went to E3 2000, which was right around the time Microsoft got interested in us, that it started to sink in that, holy shit, we’ve got to make a game now.
Marcus Lehto In order to actually feel like you were firing a gun, to have that connection now that you had a controller in your hand, it had to be first-person—it felt too distant and separated in third-person. We wanted to truly connect to the character, to the world you were exploring. It really was Jason’s insistence around that same time that we be more connected to the players themselves, and going first-person was the best way to achieve that.
Jaime Griesemer Growing up I was a console kid, for sure, so Xbox was exciting to me. But I was pretty skeptical that Halo was going to be right fit because there hadn’t really been console shooters. Even playing GoldenEye felt like garbage next to PC shooters. It’s fine given the constraints, but I would play against my friends and destroy them since I was the only one playing it like you would on PC. Everybody else felt handicapped by that controller.
Marty O’Donnell Nobody is more responsible for the feel of Halo controls than Jaime Griesemer. He was the one that really thought everything about the controller through. Like, what is it you do with a mouse and keyboard that you have to now do with the thumbsticks? Nobody had figured that out. And he was sitting there, really fine-tuning controls, probably more than anybody.
Jaime Griesemer There’s a lot of code in Halo that interprets what you’re doing—how fast did you move there, what are you looking at? If it’s an enemy, we can assume that when you slow down, you’re trying to aim. So there are pages and pages that interpret the input that comes in, in a way that isn’t blatant and in your face. We tried to conceal how much help we’re giving the player.
Stuart Moulder It essentially buffers your movements, so that you get the movement you wanted, not necessarily the one you were making. Which gives you a really controlled, precise experience, beyond what your thumb could actually give you, unassisted.
Jaime Griesemer The real shine of the Halo controls is all in the small details. Like how you can only carry two weapons, so you just need one button to switch between them. A lot of why that came about was due to technical limitations—you don’t want to switch to a weapon and then wait for its animation and textures to load.
Marty O’Donnell Everybody knew the key to the selling on Xbox was making the controls work. If they didn't feel right, it didn't matter how polished everything else was, it was just going to fail.
“Talk to anybody and they pretty much say without Halo the first Xbox would’ve been the only iteration, which I think is probably true.”— Marty O’Donnell
Ed Fries Nobody knew what was going to be successful. I probably had 30 or 40 games going on between Xbox and PC, and we were doing a deal with Steven Spielberg about this new movie he was doing called A.I., which was going to be really big. We had three games in development on that alone, none of which shipped. So you’ve got to imagine this environment of panic combined with adrenaline, but money’s mostly no object at the same time. So we were spending lots of it, trying to do all this crazy stuff.
Stuart Moulder After A.I. we asked, “Okay, what are our bets on?” We hoped third-parties would have some good titles. We had Halo, we had Munch’s Oddysee and this game called Azurik that (former Microsoft chief technology officer) Jay Allard had started which was a piece of shit, so we knew nothing was going to come of that. Munch’s Oddysee was too quirky to be a tent-pole title. So it was kind of all on Halo.
Marty O’Donnell For people whose first introduction to consoles was with PlayStation it was a really hard sell—nobody really thought Microsoft would make a box that was going to unseat Sony. It’s surprising that they did as well as they did. I mean, talk to anybody and they pretty much say without Halo the first Xbox would’ve been the only iteration, which I think is probably true.
Ed Fries I would get, “Who’s your character?” You know, Sega has Sonic, Sony has Crash, obviously Mario for Nintendo. “What’s yours?” And that’s never a question I had a good answer to. But at the same time, if you looked at what was going on in PC gaming, it was a really exciting time, with networked multiplayer—LAN deathmatches with all these games—but there was no equivalent on the console. So Xbox bridged that gap.
Stuart Moulder In my head, I thought Halo would be our Corvette. Chevy has Corvette not because it drives revenue or makes them a leading brand, but because it’s the one sexy thing they’ve got. There’s the Malibu and all this other shit, but Corvette, that’s 50 years of being pretty fucking awesome. I didn’t know if Halo was going to sell a lot of units or not but it was going to be sexy as hell—it was going to show what the platform could do, what no other platform could do.
Ed Fries Here was a group of PC guys who'd never done a console game trying to put this game out that's not really a console game next to, say, Lorne Lanning, who had a successful history with Oddworld on the PlayStation. Nobody knew Bungie in the console world—but they did the day after launch.
Jaime Griesemer None of us had ever seen an Xbox before we signed up. I think it had only been announced a few days before Microsoft met with us. It just signified such an incredibly dramatic change—in platform, timeframe, living location, just everything.
Stuart Moulder I went to Chicago and had an open Q&A, where anybody in Bungie could ask questions. What Alex did was super smart—he said, “I'm not going to try and persuade anyone. Everybody should be able to make their own decision.” It was absolutely the right thing to do—I think most would follow Alex and Jason, but for some key people I think it was really important that they had a chance to talk directly and hear what our plans were.
Max Hoberman Alex and Jason did a really good job spinning the buyout internally as an amazing opportunity that could help shape the future of this brand-new console. The best way to do that, and the only way to do that effectively, was to do it right next to the team building the console.
Stuart Moulder I don't think anyone felt like, “Okay, I believe everything we just heard.” I think it was, “Well, this guy doesn't seem to be an asshole, he seems to actually like games, and will probably try to do the right thing.” For them it was more like, Xbox is important enough and this is important enough that they won't fuck with us, and will actually try to make it work. That's about all you can really hope for—they were willing to take a leap of faith.
Marty O’Donnell So, Microsoft bought us.
Paul Bertone (Halo series mission building/design lead/director) I was one of the last people hired in Chicago to work on a PC successor to Myth—codenamed “Phoenix”—and we found out about the buyout in the first two weeks. We ended up with a kind of siege warfare game, like Rampart, where one player was the attacker and the other the defender. It had trebuchets that could smash down walls, which could be destroyed brick-by-brick—that was pretty cool. But Halo was always calling.
Marcus Lehto We had an insanely short period time to figure our shit out—to actually convert Halo from a third- to first-person game and build a real world. I swear, it was like nine months. Just a ridiculous period of time to build the entire first game and ship it.
Paul Bertone For almost a year we worked on “Phoenix,” and it just wasn't coming together. We had good ideas, good-enough technology, and a really close team. But our leadership was lacking a little bit. We just couldn’t get that crystalized idea into a bug-free prototype that people could play and get behind and believe in. Then in April or May 2001, Halo called. I went over to its single-player campaign, the engineers moved over, and all our artists got absorbed.
Jaime Griesemer I didn’t unpack for six months. Microsoft’s movers came, somebody packed up my tiny apartment, moved it all out to Seattle. I bought a bed and just unpacked the clothes that I brought with me. There just wasn’t time for anything else, because we were working crazy, crazy hours.
Paul Bertone Scchhluupp. That sucking sound. Marty used to walk around the office all the time, just driving his coffee cup around, making that sound as different people got sucked into the Halo team. He loved doing that.
Jaime Griesemer We started out in a cubicle nightmarescape. Then we moved to the Millennium Campus in Redmond, and we were there for a number of years. That’s where we shipped Halo.
Ed Fries I had a whole wing of the Millennium Campus set up for Bungie. I took them on a tour, and they hated it. It was classic Microsoft at the time, all rows of private offices. It was very much a programmer-centric company; like, close your door if you don't want to be disturbed. And they're, “We don't want this, we want cubes.” Back then, the only people who had cubes were maybe administrative people doing accounting. But to Bungie it was about this open, collaborative working environment, which I understood eventually. So we had to go and tear out all the walls.
Marty O’Donnell Millennium was absolutely the most Microsoft-looking place you could be in. The other team just down the hall from us, who we ate lunch with and crossed paths going to the bathroom, was Encarta. You couldn't have had two more diametrically opposed cultures, the Encarta people and Bungie.
Jaime Griesemer It was a bunker. We’d be all working our asses off and somebody from another part of the company would bring their kid through our space to look at what was going on, like it was a zoo or something. It got a little antagonistic, to the point where we would tow Microsoft employees out of our parking lot.
Marcus Lehto It was a massive undertaking, and we were very green at that time. I mean, imagine a bunch of 25-to-30 year olds trying to make this game together, figuring it out as they go along. Our relationship with Microsoft was pretty good then, but we still had this chip on our shoulder as this independent developer, and continued to maintain it—to our detriment in the end. But we learned a lot from them.
Jaime Griesemer The big thing that we were worried about was what had happened with (MechWarrior developers) FASA, the studio that Microsoft bought before us. That was another Chicago company, and we knew a bunch of those guys. Microsoft brought them all over, split them up amongst a bunch of internal teams, fired a bunch of key people and basically destroyed the entire studio, the IP and everything.
Stuart Moulder At that time Microsoft organized by discipline—so, all programmers are here, all artists here, all game designers here. But with Bungie we said, “We're not going to fuck with you. We're not going to fuck with your titles, we’re not going to fuck with your internal organization structure.” Alex remained head of Bungie and everyone still reported to him.
Jaime Griesemer As individuals I think they understood, but Microsoft still struggles with creative endeavors. They had an internal process where you could set up an interview with any other team to talk about joining them, and within a month we were getting a request every day. A guy in database software said, “Hey, I want to work on a game, can we go out to lunch?” No, we can’t. So we got kind of territorial, where a Microsoft keycard wouldn’t give you access to Bungie.
Marty O’Donnell I remember Microsoft hired a marketing firm who had done a bunch of work and wanted to make a presentation to the top guys in Bungie. Nobody wanted to go do it, so Jaime and I said we would. So we go to this room, and the suits are at the conference table with the Microsoft people, and they had this PowerPoint that showed how well we were testing in all these demographics and all this stuff.
They said, “If there's one thing you take from this meeting it’s that we absolutely think you should change the name.” And we just laughed out loud. It was like, we are not going to listen to you. They’d had somebody cut a two-minute video together to heavy metal, all quick cuts and fast action. No story, no nothing. I'm like, what's this? This didn't look or sound like Halo at all.
Jaime Griesemer They hated the name. They said that it doesn’t mean anything, and to people it does mean something to, it’s not on-brand, because what we’re selling is the super soldier, not this weird space junk. In every foreign language it sounds stupid, it’s feminine—they had so many reasons why the name should be changed. They went for months and months, and they came back with a bunch of names. It was another border dispute.
At some point they said, “Okay, we’re going to do a subtitle.” And this was before subtitles were the thing every game had. We thought that was dumb, but whatever, we could ignore it. Eventually they came back with Combat Evolved, and we thought that was the stupidest thing ever. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s not really informational, and it’s not even good grammar.
Marty O’Donnell It's funny that right from the get-go we had so many weird, rubbed-the-wrong-way problems with Microsoft. But they were never that big of a deal. Ed Fries was a really good guy. I'm not saying he got us 100 percent right away, but he did by the end. He totally understood who we were and appreciated what we were bringing.
“Microsoft hated the name. They said it doesn’t mean anything. They had so many reasons why it should be changed. It was another border dispute.”— Jaime Griesmer
Marcus Lehto We didn’t know what we were going to do for the game’s campaign. We had a rough idea as to what could happen, but no means of understanding how we were going to construct it. Where was the Master Chief going to go? What kind of pitfalls we were going to throw him into?
Joe Staten Over the course of a number of weeks, we set down some very basic principals. We thought up the alien race—a conglomeration of different races—and talked about what they might be, quickly putting those ideas into a basic level progression. Then I had to go down to San Jose for three months to help ship Oni.
Marcus Lehto I vividly remember building, literally on 3x5 index cards, a number and letter system. A10, A20, A30 and so on for each one of the missions. B30 was “The Silent Cartographer”. I pinned them to a board and I just stared at it for hours. There must’ve been 40 of those cards of there, and I’m like: “There’s no way in hell we’re going to build all of this.”
Jaime Griesemer Cortana came along well before Microsoft. That was another totally crazy thing. Marathon had this AI named Durandal, which is a famous literary French sword. When we decided on a similar AI in Halo, we looked at that idea again.
Joe Staten When I got back I started to dig in with Jason on the Covenant’s religion, why they would band together. Even in Halo we had the idea for a prophet. You’ve got to give people some indication of what the power structure looks like. These guys just can't be random aliens. There has to be some compelling reason why they’re unified to keep this Halo ring safe, some sort of religious significance. I'm a student of history as well as creative writing, so looking back across time it was just natural that religion would in some way inform any great union of creatures.
Jaime Griesemer Those swords came in a “three-pack”—Durandal, Cortana and Joyeuse. We thought, “Well, Joyeuse sounds lame, it has to be Cortana.” Everything in Halo was named in this totally bizarre way.
Joe Staten Jen Taylor, who Marty hired to play Cortana, was someone I went to college with. She and I were theater majors together, and I knew she'd moved to Seattle. So when Marty and I were talking about voice actresses, I said, “Yeah, I'll bring in my friend Jen, she's got a really great voice.”
Marty O’Donnell The plan was for Cortana to have a slight British accent. So we tried Jen’s British and she was good, but she had also done No One Lives Forever, and that main character was British. And I thought the voices were too similar.
Joe Staten Marty said, “Just be you. A little bit older, but you.” And Jen, of course, is now the voice on every Microsoft phone, right? It's funny how life comes together.
Marty O’Donnell And there are still a few lines in there like “toady about,” and “sod off,” little British colloquialisms. And then there was Sergeant Johnson—he was just a caricature unashamedly lifted from Aliens. He wasn’t even supposed to that much of a main character, but everybody loved him because his actor, David Scully, improvised tons of lines. So we ended up with several different lines that the game could randomly choose from. This adaptive audio was really important for player immersion.
Joe Staten Marty and I both felt like if we were going to create these characters, even the little guys that run around with you, it’s important they have distinct personalities, a sense of humor—that they feel real. If they did, the world would feel real, too. If they didn’t, it would feel like a made-up video game world.
Marty O’Donnell I remember saying, “People are going to start falling in love with different marines.” But they were mostly just cannon fodder. I said, “Joe, please, let’s at least end with Sergeant Johnson showing up on your ship and saying, ‘Good to see you Chief!’ or something.” Then people would say, “Wow, at least one of our guys survived.” And Joe said: “No, don’t worry, I don’t think anybody’s going to fall in love with these guys.” Everybody did.
Jaime Griesemer I was in the meeting where Master Chief was named. I think it was me, Jason, our artist Rob McClees and Joe Staten. We were already working with (Fall of Reach author) Eric Nylund, who came up with name John. But you weren’t going to run around getting called John in the game—that wasn’t going to fly. So, in thinking about other ways we could name him, Rob said, “Well, we could give him a rank.” I was like, okay, Sergeant then. But Rob said, “Well, he’s a marine, right? So it has to be a naval rank.”
So I said, “Okay, he’s a Commander. He’s like James Bond.” Rob is a stickler for military accuracy, and he’s the reason the shotgun shells have a little dent where the firing pin hits. He said commanders don’t get sent into fights. So we looked up ranks in the US navy, and above this certain line you’re no longer considered expendable. Looking there, Master Chief was the highest non-commission officer rank that’s considered expendable. We thought the name sounded stupid, but it just kind of stuck.
Joe Staten It was a pretty lively discussion inside of Bungie, how much personality should we give this guy in the green helmet. I felt that he couldn’t just be an empty vessel, and that we could do better than Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman. We can make it his story and the player’s story at the same time. So I focused on the simple ways that we could give players a sense of character. Which is where Master Chief’s wry humor comes from.
We also decided there should be a clear distinction up front between the Covenant and the UNSC (human forces). It’s ridiculous to think that 500 years from now we’d still be using ammunition-based weapons that fire lead slugs and shoot casings everywhere, but we did it because the aliens had laser weapons.
I wanted one of our early artists, Shi Kai Wang, to design all of the Covenant. He took these curvilinear forms from sea creatures, shells and iridescent textures from a horseshoe crab carapace. And that purple, green, blue—color was super important to defining them.
Joe Staten We wanted players to get that the red Grunt is harder than the orange Grunt or the blue Elite isn’t as tough as the gold Elite, so we had to make sure it was dead-bang obvious when you saw them. Marcus really pushed to make the art incredibly readable.
Jason was never super interested in figuring out the details of the story front to back. He really enjoyed laying down tent-poles. Like the Flood reveal, for example—I don’t know where this is going to come in the story, but a really critical part of this game has to be the change of an enemy, from who you think your enemy is to another.
Ed Fries I got an email from (Microsoft chief executive officer) Steve Ballmer, which was unusual for me. It was pretty short. It basically just said, “Steve Jobs is mad that you bought Bungie, call him and calm him down.” And then it had a number. Okay, I guess I have to call Steve Jobs.
I said to him, “Hey, I know you're mad.” The irony was that when we acquired Bungie, we didn't have a job for Peter Tamte, and I felt really bad about that. But Peter was leaving to start a Mac porting company—and I said we could license our IP to him. Jobs said, “Okay, that sounds good.”
“We looked up ranks in the US navy. Master Chief was the highest non-commission officer rank that’s considered expendable. We thought the name sounded stupid, but it just kind of stuck.”— Jaime Griesmer
Joe Staten My entire time at Bungie, I was the duct tape guy. A level would get cut: Can you put some story duct tape over this giant gap? Which is why you get a crummy cinematic of Captain Keyes saying, “I was hanging out in my prison cell and I happened to overhear these aliens talk about this place we’re on, called Halo.” There was a whole level there where you actually figured that out.
In games you’re often ripping out a chapter, or you’re changing weapon values. I sometimes liken it to some punk kid walking on to a film set with a paintball gun and just lighting everything up. Halo was very much like that. I can’t remember how many levels were cut.
Ed Fries The deal I made with Steve required that Alex and I appear at the next Macworld, on stage in front of 11,000 hardcore Mac fans. It wasn't my first choice. But we agreed. I think it went okay—nobody booed, there were no snipers.
Peter Tamte After Macworld, Ed and Steve both said something like, “Don’t screw it up, Peter.” It was a real simple conversation.
Marcus Lehto There was no way we would be able to build everything for the story, which worried us. We were up against a very hard deadline. So I floated the idea of reusing some of the environments—and we shamelessly reused at least three or four, played through backwards and modified a little bit. But we really needed to do it
Paul Bertone And the designers worked really hard to make each area unique. Take the two Pillar of Autumn levels, in the air and after it’s crashed. The artists worked their asses off to make that look and feel different in almost no time. It was like, you're going to have like three weeks to take that initial geometry, crack it open a little bit, make it look like the fight is done, like a whole side of the ship got blown out. It was a moment of pride for people.
Stuart Moulder The way the levels were laid out was almost like a LEGO set in glowing Covenant blue, so much that on many of the levels you see arrows on the floor. They weren’t put there by Forerunners for the Covenant to get around, but by one of our testers, who would always get lost. That’s one of the more ludicrous artifacts seen in the game.
Paul Bertone I came on for the last four months. I didn’t know the scripting language, how the engine worked, how encounters were meant to be built—there was still a lot that needed figuring out. So, there were a lot of conversations with Jaime, a lot of brute force, sitting at my desk, and coming up with how I wanted an encounter to play out. I'd just work on it until I hit something that I could not do.
Jaime Griesemer Multiplayer was also kind of bad until very shortly before the game shipped. You would just shoot at a guy forever, and they wouldn’t die. Me and a couple of the other designers, including Max, said: “You know what? We’ve got to hit the reset button.” So we flattened it all out and rebuilt it from scratch. It’s amazing that it came out as well as it did, really.
Paul Bertone Multiplayer is actually something that was on the chopping block until very close to the end of the project, which would've been an obvious tragedy.
Max Hoberman The original plans for multiplayer, pre-Microsoft even, were always to do something less head-to-head and more arena-based. On Halo the team just ran out of time and ended up shoehorning it in. It was never really by design, the way it worked. It was just a scramble to get something done.
Jaime Griesemer I kind of thrive on chaos. And you get in a position where you can’t second-guess or doubt or be overly analytical about what’s happening, because it’s got to happen right now.
Marty O’Donnell The whole game was coming together so late. Some of that stuff we got in just at the very end. Jason and Joe and me and a couple other people had a big picture; but everybody else was just so focused on their area that I just don’t think they knew what else was happening. It was intense.
Jaime Griesemer It wasn’t like we had a lot of experience, or were experts. But this incredibly talented team got it done, despite the fact that a lot of them, including me, didn’t really know what they were doing.
Marty O’Donnell It was just really fun, but it was also really scary. Right at the end, Joe was going to deliver Halo’s cutscenes. I was going to do all the music and (Bungie’s other audio guy) Jay Weinland was going to do the sound effects. But it just kept getting pushed back. Alex was tearing his hair out, everybody was freaked out, like we weren't going to get this done. But how do I score a scene if I don't know if it's 30 seconds or a minutelong? I can’t.
Finally, Joe delivered all 33 cutscenes, and we had three days to add sound effects and music. We had to finish 11 per day. That first day I finished 11, right on schedule. That was September 10, 2001. I woke up the next morning, my wife and my daughters are freaking out, and I see what’s happening.
While we’re watching this thing, I realize I don’t know if the world is ending. I called Jay and he was already at the studio. I said, “What are you doing? Go home. Who else is there?” He said that everybody was. I’m like, are you kidding me? We had all gotten to such a fever pitch that we thought we couldn't even lose a day. It was really kind of insane. I went over and made everyone go home.
“You could really feel that there was something magical to Halo when Bungie was wrapping it up.”— Stuart Moulder
Stuart Moulder You could really feel that there was something magical to Halo when Bungie was wrapping it up. Nobody can predict a hit, but what you can predict is the quality.
I’m there, and I don't know if Halo is a hit. We've had hits, and this certainly deserves to be one, quality-wise; and we’re going to market the shit out of it because we’re Microsoft. But we don't know what people are going to say. The one thing we can count is we love this game, and now that we no longer need to be testing it, we still like playing it. And that's not true for a lot of games that get shipped.
Jaime Griesemer People forget that Halo wasn’t a chart-burner right off the bat. I’m not even sure it was the best-selling launch title. But it had this insanely long tail, where every week the Xbox would sell a certain number of units and something like 50 percent of those sales would convert into Halo sales. So it just kept selling. Two years after it came out, it was still in the top 10 sellers on the console. That’s almost unheard of now.
Marcus Lehto We had created what we thought was a fun game, but we had to cheat pretty significantly in order to wrap its campaign, and deliver a story. So we understood the fallacies of the game inside and out. We knew what we had to leave behind, because we just couldn’t finish it otherwise.
We were excited for people to get Halo into their hands. But also we were terrified. Then the reviews started coming in, and people started connecting to it. To our relief it reviewed very well, which made us feel really great and energized about what we were going to do next with Halo—at the time, we weren’t sure we were going to do a sequel. We didn’t have a vision for where the game might actually take us, in its universe. We were kind of riding by the seat of our pants at that point.
Ed Fries Bungie saw Halo as the long vista, the epic moment—you know, when you're standing at the top of the deep pit and you have to go down. For them it's the quiet before the storm. The other part matters too, but that was what was special about Halo.
Master Chief is part of that, and that relationship between him and Cortana and the player. You’re this epic character, but you’re an epic character in a losing battle. Halo is about winning the battle but losing the war. That's what it's always about, which is really interesting. It’s like, “I'm going to win this battle, but the aliens are getting closer and closer, and soon they’ll be on Earth.” And then what? I think that's part of what makes Halo, Halo.
Marty O’Donnell After Halo shipped, everybody was gone for a month. I remember there were moments after we were finished, and the place was empty.
Marcus Lehto Halo took its toll on a lot of individuals in the studio. And Jason was of them—he internalizes a lot and bears a lot of responsibility and burden on his own shoulders, for the team and the well being of any project.
Marty O’Donnell I was thinking: that’s probably it. I’ll probably move back to Chicago. We’d ship Halo, just the one game, and that would be the end of it.
Paul Bertone I didn’t get the chance to celebrate with the Halo team. I immediately went back to work on “Phoenix”. I think I only had a week off, and then I was right back to this other game that I really wanted to make.
Marcus Lehto Jason had a difficult time separating work from external life during the making of Halo. It consumed him in a way that ultimately hurt him physically, too. He was not well when we eventually began making Halo 2.
Marty O’Donnell At some point in early 2002, Jason came to me and said, “Marty, you know, I think we should really work on Halo 2. I’ve got a bunch of ideas I want to do.” I told him to slow down. That he didn’t like doing sequels. He’d never liked them. He said, “You know, I owe it to everybody here.” I was like, that’s the complete wrong reason to do something! You don’t owe us anything.
Jaime Griesemer Everybody wanted to do a sequel, because there was so much cut out of Halo that we basically had enough ideas and concepts to make another game. I mean, towards the end we were saying, “Okay, which are we going to cut, the shotgun or the sniper rifle? We don’t have time to do both.” We decided to lose the shotgun. Only, of course we didn’t—a small group of us stayed late for a couple nights and got it in there.
Marcus Lehto Halo 2 was now time to really spread our wings and do some cool stuff with the engine. We were exploring different avenues there, and the story was going off in different directions.
Marty O’Donnell At the same time we were watching the success of Halo and seeing how people were playing it. That helped Halo 2 take shape. Then we brought the Oni team up and converted them into working on Halo’s multiplayer. They were promised that after that was done, they could do any game they wanted to do, so they started working on a game called “Monster Hunter”. Not the one you know today, but we had a game called that in 2002.
Joe Staten There were a couple things Jason was extremely passionate about that I left on Halo’s cutting room floor, because I just couldn't figure out how to make them work. So they came back around for Halo 2. He said: “There should be a scene in the game where the Master Chief is standing on an orbital above Earth. The Covenant’s attacking Earth, and Chief puts his hands on the glass and he looks down and says, ‘Only blood will pay for this.’ That's got to be in the game somewhere.”
And the other thing that “needed” to happen, in the sequel, was that Captain Keyes has a daughter, and she’s really mad at the Master Chief, so she puts a bomb on his back and throws him into a hole. I was like, hold on a sec, you want to make the daughter of Captain Keyes one of the villains? “Yeah,” he says, “it’s going to be great!” I’m just like, dude, I don’t see it. I think the longest conversations that we had about Halo 2 were wrestling about that one scene.
Finally we talked through what was interesting about that idea. I think what Jason really cared about was, at some point, that the superhuman Master Chief had all his tools taken away from him, and then faced an even bigger challenge. And that became, for better or worse, the Master Chief being pulled away by the Gravemind and set on a different path.
Marty O’Donnell To a certain extent Jason understands all the different aspects of how a game gets put together, and on a small team he’s in there working on whatever needs doing. But it’s hard to say that he’s a visionary leader, because he doesn’t cast a vision and convince people to get in line or put their best efforts behind it. And whatever he’s focused on at the time, that’s all he’s focused on. So he’s sort of like this choke point.
Marcus Lehto Sadly, a lot of discussions at the beginning of Halo 2’s development happened in insular little groups that didn’t talk well with one another. And that was the crux of much of the conflict that would occur, because we didn’t have clear leadership.
“I think everybody had their own priorities for the sequel. For me, I felt passionate about exploring this whole other world, that isn’t all about Master Chief. The other side.”— Joe Staten
Max Hoberman The original plans for Halo’s multiplayer had been to do something very novel, something akin to Halo 5’s Warzone, with larger maps, more players and AI. And when the team started on Halo 2, they wanted to revive that, but completely scrap the smaller arena-based multiplayer mode of the original, and local split-screen. All the stuff that had been such a huge hit in Halo was just being thrown out the window.
Marty O’Donnell We knew down the line Xbox was going to be plugged into the internet, and deliver online gaming, and one of Jason’s big pushes at that point was for Halo to have a strong online side.
Max Hoberman I argued that we had to support people that wanted to play locally—through split-screen and LAN play. And that people loved the Halo multiplayer, so even if it wasn't what we originally planned we needed to have it in there, and it would be a huge mistake not to. I was mostly telling Alex and Jason, and I guess they agreed with me.
So eventually they said, “Hey, you’re right. We should have a smaller-scale arena multiplayer. But we don't have anyone to do it. And you keep saying you want to be in development. Do you want to be in charge of that?” So I said, okay.
The rest of the team called small-scale multiplayer the “party game,” which I thought was a little derisive. I just dove in and started planning with this incredibly small team and no resources. And in six months we’d been incredibly productive. In comparison, the big Warfare mode had had zero work done on it—nothing at all—and the single player game was starting to be in a bit of a crisis.
Marcus Lehto The solo campaign was chaotic. There were too many cooks trying to drive the project in different directions.
Marty O’Donnell Almost immediately the “Monster Hunter” team was pulled into Halo 2. Then their lead, Hardy LeBel, was asked to help the struggling “Phoenix” team. Alex and Jason told him that they were unsure if “Phoenix” was going to work, but they wanted him to work like crazy on it, get the team up and running, and then report to us whether it should be killed.
So, Hardy did. They made a playable build, it wasn’t up to scratch, and he told Alex and Jason to kill it. Which they did, but Jason wanted the “Phoenix” team to survive.
Paul Bertone We started to work on like a third-person fantasy action game, like a beat-em-up, codenamed “Gypsum”. That lasted from around the start of 2003 to that June. It was pretty cool. It was a bit of a bummer to stop it, because now we have games like the Arkham series and Shadow of Mordor and The Witcher 3—and that’s the sort of free-roam combat that we were doing back then, but nobody’s ever seen it.
“Gypsum” was my second-favorite time at Bungie. It was a small team, we all sat with each other. We were doing something that I absolutely wanted to do, and I still want to do in my career.
Joe Staten I think everybody had their own priorities for the sequel. For me, from a storytelling point of view, what we wanted to do was Halo, but bigger and better, in a lot of different ways. And something I felt passionate about was exploring this whole other world, that isn’t all about Master Chief. The other side.
Jaime Griesemer I think the first conversation I had about Halo 2 was with Joe about story ideas. That was when the idea of playing as the Dervish, later called the Arbiter, first came up, to see the Covenant from another side.
Joe Staten It was like, what if you are the guy who lost the Halo ring? What if you were the guy whose butt was on the line for protecting the most valuable religious object in the entire world, and you blew it? That seems like a pretty interesting story, and one we should tell.
Jaime Griesemer For 97 percent of the game’s development, the Arbiter was the Dervish. I’m going to be careful here because I don’t remember all the details, but that name refers to a special, set-apart role in the religion of Islam, a kind of holy warrior. So it really fit the idea of this distinguished, extremely powerful, almost blessed-by-the-gods warrior.
But then 9/11 happened right before we shipped Halo. And the tone and atmosphere at the time was very complicated, especially when it came to Islam. At the last minute somebody in legal said we couldn’t use Dervish. Half of it was like we shouldn’t appropriate somebody else’s religious beliefs for some goofy sci-fi game, and part was we don’t want to antagonize anyone. It was a really complicated mix, and we just said okay.
Marty O’Donnell Dervish had been in place for a long time, and we had all these lines of dialogue recorded, saying the word all over the place. We said to Microsoft’s geopolitical experts, “Look, you approved this a year ago. We asked you about this stuff.” We were really upset. I thought that there was nothing we could do. But we cut out every word from every character that ever said the word Dervish, and re-recorded all those lines to try to match them, saying “Arbiter” instead. I think there were user manuals that were already printed with Dervish in them. It was horrible.
Jaime Griesemer A couple lines slipped through. But it’s kind of garbled, so you don’t really know that’s what’s happening.
Marcus Lehto We always joked about Halo being a space opera. Halo 2 was the quintessential space opera moment of the saga. Playing the Arbiter worked fine in the end, but it was something that I didn’t like. I wasn’t excited about it, and I felt like it was going way off the rails from where we started.
Joe Staten We didn’t want to churn out another copy of Halo. We wanted to do something unexpected and give people a view on the Halo world that they didn't think they'd get, and make that really relevant for gameplay. On that score, I think Halo 2 succeeded pretty admirably.
Marty O’Donnell We had a great plot twist in Halo when you discover the Flood. We kept that secret from everybody—it was a wonderful moment and a great reversal, as everything you thought you knew now was different.
I told Joe that I didn’t see that in Halo 2. He replied, “It’s when you realize that you’re playing as the Arbiter.” But no, that’s not a plot twist. It just isn’t. I could never convince them it wasn’t. It wasn’t a good reversal; it was just a mechanic that was unsatisfying.
Joe Staten I must've worn down enough people that we should absolutely tell the story of this other guy. Not many games of the time were doing dual perspectives. But I think what sold it was access to all the Covenant weapons, being allied with Grunts instead of marines—it's not just story, it's the entire sandbox you get.
“I think if we just kept ourselves to the things we cut from Halo we would’ve been okay, but we didn't. We tripled everything. For the first year of Halo 2's development, we couldn't play it.”— Jaime Griesmer
Marcus Lehto As with the first game, with Halo 2, Jason really burned out. Roles started to get a little bit blurred and there was a lot more tension among folks like myself and Joe, Paul, Jaime and Marty.
Joe Staten The cinematics and audio team was in a different part of the office to the core development team. So we just weren't privy to all the conversations that went on in those pods every day.
Jaime Griesemer I think if we just kept ourselves to the things we cut from Halo we would’ve been okay, but we didn’t do that. We tripled everything. The engine was torn completely apart—for the first year of Halo 2’s development, we couldn’t play it, which makes it impossible to make any real progress.
Joe Staten One conversation I remember very specifically was when Marcus and I finally sat down to review the script. He was terrified of the scope it implied. His job in that meeting was to assess how many props are you asking for, how many effects does my team need to build, how many custom cinematic stats… You know, it was a big game at that point.
There was a lot of new lore and story stuff that had to get generated to show the Covenant from the other side. We committed to a bunch of content that the story required, but we couldn't produce enough of it while trying to make everything else look better.
Also we implemented (the physics engine) Havok in Halo 2, so everything about how the vehicles worked changed, everything about projectiles worked changed, everything about how you built the environment changed. That was a huge technical hurdle.
Joe Staten Then we just plowed ahead, much like we’d done with Halo, with one notable exception. We ordered ourselves a giant sandwich, took a bite but didn't realize exactly how big it was before we started in. And we did that across the board, technically, artistically, and story wise. But of course, we didn't figure that out until way too late.
Max Hoberman At one point the team said: “Okay, change of plans—we're cutting the big Warfare mode, there's no way we can do it. The party game is going to be our multiplayer, but it's going to be online and Max, you're in charge.”
Alex Seropian I left Bungie at the end of 2002, once the team had been established and it was obviously going to be working on Halo for a long time. I wanted to sink my teeth into something new, and the choices that were presented to me at Bungie—the challenges, opportunity, growth, whatever—just weren’t necessarily the ones I could imagine doing forever.
Paul Bertone Alex was the heart of Bungie. He's a family man, and he brought that atmosphere to Bungie. There were all these other personalities bubbling underneath the surface, and they all trusted Alex without question. He’s the one that kept everybody at bay.
Things just changed after he left. All of a sudden you had this whole group of people who had to figure out how to work together, and all these problems that Alex had been solving. A lot more politics started blooming at that point.
Max Hoberman Doing multiplayer was the most productive, intense period of my life up to that point. I was just a machine. I had one environment artist who doubled as a level designer and I eventually got permission to hire one additional environment artist, but I had to do the hands-on work outside of the other guys, helping on levels.
I was also doing all the UI design, the really complex online stuff, like coming up with the party system and figuring out the ranking system and matchmaking and a million other things. It was crazy.
Marty O’Donnell It was early 2003 and Jason said that the “Phoenix” team was demoralized. But he’d promised these guys that they would have a game, so he went over to be their creative director and project lead. There were probably 15 people on this team. Joe and I took him out to lunch and said, “Jason, you can’t do this. You cannot leave the Halo 2 team.”
I told him: “This is the most important project Bungie has. I told you that you were going to get bored working on a sequel, but you convinced me you were going to hang in there, and put all your energy behind this.” He’s like, “Oh, I can do both!” Like he could run the “Phoenix” team and once a week check back in on Halo 2. Joe and I begged him, told him that wouldn’t work. And he did it anyway.
Jaime Griesemer That left a skeleton crew working on Halo 2.
Marcus Lehto That wasn’t the first time the studio tried to have another pet project functioning in the background. But it was too hard.
Marty O’Donnell I said to Jason, “Look, if you’re going to put somebody in charge of a team you have to, like, formally bless them—you know, knight them with a sword, and say they’re now king of the empire and that they’re going to bring everything together.”
If I remember, the leaders he left were Jaime, Marcus, and engineering leads Chris Butcher and Michael Evans. Because somebody had to be able to say, “Okay, we’ve talked about this long enough, and we’re going in this direction.”
Jaime Griesemer I’d shipped one and a half games. I didn’t know what I was doing. Suddenly I was the only designer working on planning all the missions and all the enemies and everything, kind of in a vacuum. And I didn’t know anything about leading people or directing progress. We were moving backwards for so long at the beginning of Halo 2.
Jaime Griesemer When a big chunk of the design team went to “Phoenix,” we brought in some new blood, animators and environment artists. So while I was trying to feed this beast of an art team, I was also trying to teach them how to make a mission. And being young and sort of dumb, I thought, “Ah, that’s fine. I can totally take on all the responsibility and at the same time keep up this huge creative output, and sell the team on it.” It was a disorganized mess, at least for the year.
Marty O’Donnell I think Jason took his eye off the ball working with the “Phoenix” team. And he didn’t see some fundamental flaws that were happening in the leadership of the team.
Jaime Griesemer Engineering had read some cool SIGGRAPH papers and had this idea for completely dynamic lighting, like they were going to be the ones to make it work. Eventually we realized we could achieve that with just one or two characters on-screen, but it’d still occasionally reduce the frame rate to three per second.
They had taken a gamble on what I think was called a stencil lighting model. And they thought they could do the whole engine this way, that they could do all the lighting this way, and it was going to be revolutionary.
Then we had the famous Halo 2 demo at E3 2003. The lighting model was just beautiful. But when we came back we realized: we can’t ship this. It wouldn’t run. There was no way we could do the whole game this way. It was a huge, horrible realization that the entire plan that had been worked on for two years was basically going to be thrown out.
Paul Bertone After the E3 demo it was decided that Halo 2 was in too much trouble as it was, and the entire studio was folded into just the Halo team.
Jaime Griesemer Basically we hit the fire alarm, cancelled the “Phoenix” team’s game and brought everybody back. But at that point we had dug ourselves such a huge hole that we weren’t really able to get out of it before it was time to ship the game. I mean, Halo 2 was a shell of a game in a lot of ways.
Marty O’Donnell So Jason came back and at that moment, all distractions were gone. There was no “Monster Hunter,” there was no Bungie West, there was no “Phoenix” team. All hands were on deck, and we were doing Halo 2 this new way.
“We started a complete redesign of the campaign about a year and a half in. A lot of people sacrificed themselves in ways that you should never have to for your job.”— Paul Bertone
Marty O’Donnell Jason brought Paul over, and they went into a little room called the clubhouse with Joe Staten to come up with the new plan for what Halo 2 was going to be.
Paul Bertone I became mission design lead. We basically started a complete redesign of the campaign about a year and a half in, a very silly Herculean effort. A lot of people sacrificed themselves in ways that you should never have to for your job.
Jaime Griesemer I focused on what I really knew best, the combat and weapons and vehicles sandbox. So, I only did one mission on Halo 2. I still wanted to do the tutorial, because I was very involved in playtesting. But we rewrote the AI for Halo 2, and all this stuff worked fine, but apparently it wasn’t good enough for us. So I went from having my hands in almost all the pies on the first Halo to being much more focused on the combat and the moment-to-moment gameplay in the sequel, which would continue.
Max Hoberman We went another year-plus without the campaign being playable. Meanwhile, we’re playing multiplayer every single day for two years while the campaign was in development. And the quality of the work was a direct result of just that constant hands-on playtesting and iteration.
Paul Bertone Looking back, was our retooling necessary? I don’t know if it was or wasn’t. It was definitely not well thought-out, not well planned and not well executed. I would never do the same things again, so late in a project.
Jaime Griesemer Jason’s process is kind of isolated—he tends to just go off in a room, come up with stuff and then come out. We hadn’t been working that way for a year, so it caused some friction with the rest of the team. In the end we just had to do the best we could.
Paul Bertone Jason and I would be working on this new campaign while people were still working on the old stuff. We weren’t ready, and they needed to work on something, so there was this whole situation where people knew we were changing things, but we weren’t ready to talk about it yet. That resulted in a whole lot of animosity.
Marty O’Donnell Paul and Joe and Jason sequestered themselves away with whiteboards and the team was like, “Okay, what’s going to happen now? What are we going to be working on?”
Paul Bertone It was all new missions, so we had whiteboards—I actually still have then in my garage right now. We’d have a top-down layout of the mission, it would have a list of the encounter beat moments from space to space, and a list of narrative beat moments: this is where a cinematic is, and this is where a mission dialogue is going to happen.
And it all lived on the boards. There was no paper, no digital documentation. Because we were working so fast we needed to be able to just stand in front of this essentially live document. If it got erased, it was gone forever. We took a lot of pictures on old-school digital cameras, because we didn't have picture phones at the time.
Marty O’Donnell When we realized that what we were going to be able to ship was a mess, we just had to change it, and so drastically. It was unbelievable.
Paul Bertone We got the first couple missions down as templates, with all the information that we needed to see. Then other people started trickling in, like Marcus and the other mission designers. It was so much work, so the other designers were brought in, and we all worked on it together.
Ed Fries I'm probably the only one who would tell you this, but after launch everyone embraced Halo to such an extent it was actually a problem. Once the whole success of a platform rests on one game, that game has to be there.
I remember I was in a meeting about Halo 2, and the reality was that we needed to move it back a year to deliver the game that we wanted. (Former chief Xbox officer) Robbie Bach turned it into a vote. The choices were to force Bungie to ship Halo 2 a year before it's ready, or give them the extra year to get it done right.
All the senior people who worked for Robbie voted to force the team to ship it. I walked out of the meeting, saying: “I'm going to quit right now if that's what we’re going to do.” So they went back on it and gave Bungie extra time, but I still quit six months later. That vote had showed the attitude of what was going on there.
Marty O’Donnell I remember having a very vociferous discussion with Pete Parsons, who was then sort of Bungie’s manager as an internal Microsoft executive. He said, “Marty, it’s inconceivable for us to not be a launch title for Xbox Live,” which was coming in November 2002, just a year after the first Halo’s release. And I said, “Yeah, and I want to have a baby in four months. There are just things that cannot happen.” He told me, “You’ve got to understand that Microsoft has already planned their fiscal year.”
I said, “Fuck the fiscal year!” Which became sort of a statement that everybody knew at the studio. I wasn’t saying screw Microsoft—I explained the only way you truly motivate a game development team, and especially Bungie, is by saying we have to get this done for E3, or get it finished for Christmas. If you say, “Oh, we need to get this done for the fiscal year,” they just won’t. They will not do it.
Joe Staten We ended up completely cutting Halo 2’s third act, which was brutal and horrible, and something nobody wanted to do.
Paul Bertone This was the absolute worst possible way to do something with a group of creative people.
Joe Staten We had this great third act wrap-up of Master Chief and the Arbiter coming together and defeating the Prophets and discovering The Ark, and this deeper secret inside of it. But it was so above what we could possibly do from a production point of view that it fell apart. There was meant to be a mission where you were fighting on top of The Ark, like it was uncovered like it is in Halo 3. So you're fighting multiple Scarabs, going through a trench run to make your way into it. We had it all modeled out, we had it all massed out, this big structure with Scarabs sitting on top of it.
Marty O’Donnell All that stuff was going to culminate and end on Earth. And it was going to be the end of Halo. We had no plans to do another game after this. It was like: this is how Halo ends.
Marcus Lehto That was the thing that I take away from Halo 2 more than anything else. It was a tumultuous time in our history, when things got so bad between leaders not working well with one another that it threatened the existence of the project, the quality overall and the existence of the studio. And it’s somewhat evident in the fact that Halo 2 didn’t really wrap up right. It kind of left you dangling on a thread. It felt disjointed.
Joe Staten We wanted to explore more about the Flood itself, which was a challenge because I couldn't quite wrap my brain around it. I couldn't quite figure out how to make them a race you cared enough about. And I think you can see that in the Flood sandbox being more of the same. I mean, no knock on Jaime, as he spilled tons of blood on the project. But I don't think we really ever got Halo 2’s Flood right in a way that anybody was satisfied with.
Marty O’Donnell I was still confused when they came out of the clubhouse and presented it to the team. Joe said, “Okay, here’s how the ending’s going to go. We’re going to do this and this and this and…” And I’m like, “Wait, Joe, are you saying that the last person you play in Halo 2 is the Dervish? And when you get to the end it shows a cutscene with Master Chief going back to Earth saying, ‘I want to finish this fight,’ and we run end credits?”
He said, “Don’t worry, it’ll work!” I said no, it wouldn’t. People will be throwing their controllers at their TVs. We’re going to make it look like you’re about to be Master Chief going to Earth to finish this fight. And then you want me to climax the music, go to black and run credits? I couldn’t imagine a more horrifying ending.
If you search for “worst endings in the history of video games,” you’ll see Halo 2 right up there. It was like, this is worse than the ending to Back to the Future Part II. I could not believe what we were doing. But we had gotten ourselves into this bind, and there was no way to change it.
Joe Staten We had all thought, and hoped, this is going to be like The Empire Strikes Back. That was a cliffhanger, and nobody freaked out when Luke was just on a hospital ship and nothing got resolved at the end. It'll be just like that. Well, no. Empire did a whole bunch of other little cool things that made that okay, which we didn’t do.
“We all knew what Halo 2 could’ve been, had we actually had our shit together.”— Marcus Lehto
Max Hoberman People are always shocked when they think about the impact multiplayer had on the quality of what we put out, and when I tell them all the hurdles that I faced. They think multiplayer must been what the majority of the studio was working on. Right? Uh, far from it.
Marty O’Donnell The famous Halo 2 crunch was so bad. We had to renege on so many promises. And this is such a typical Bungie story, as it happens over and over again. We just couldn’t deliver.
Marcus Lehto I think Halo 2 has the darkest memories for me, personally. We struggled the most as a studio at that time, just to figure out what we wanted to make, how we were going to come off of that success of Halo and to ante it up. But we just didn’t have the right leadership at that time.
Paul Bertone I slept at the office some obscene amount of days in a row, like almost an entire month at the end. I kenneled my dog for almost two months. There would be mornings I’d wake up at home and not remember how I got there, and many others where I’d wake up at my desk, or somebody else’s. It was that way for a lot of people. A lot of relationships got fractured, and that felt irreparable, at the time.
Marcus Lehto We were obsessed with detail and with quality overall, so whatever we were going to ship, we knew it was going to be something that played well. But we all knew what it could’ve been, had we actually had our shit together.
Joe Staten We were driven by the strong desire to outdo ourselves, but we didn’t fully understand our limitations. And it was a hard process to admit to ourselves that we couldn't do everything.
Paul Bertone It was basically a death march to the end. Nobody will say anything different, and if they do they’re just trying to sugarcoat it. Just a death march.
Jaime Griesemer Some of Halo 2 was great—the Xbox Live component was something nobody had ever done, the multiplayer was excellent. And a lot of really cool tech and story stuff happened. But we had to kill ourselves to get it done.
Paul Bertone I honestly thought that nobody was going to buy it, because the stuff we had to do at the end of the project felt so gut wrenching. But luckily, nobody saw how it was before, so for them it’s like all the stuff we took out just doesn’t exist.
Jaime Griesemer What’s the phrase? Putting ten pounds of shit into a five-pound bag? We really tried to cram it too full, and we paid the price.
Marty O’Donnell (Bungie’s in-house composer) The end of Halo 2 was so horrible, I wasn’t sure if the team could stay together, it’d been such a grind. Relationships went, divorces happened. It was incredible. But after quite a number of months, and it became important for Halo 3 to get made.
Marcus Lehto (Halo prototype designer) I think we were excited about the idea of Halo 3. And we realized we had to make right for what we did with Halo 2. We had to put a cherry on this, really bringing the Master Chief’s story to a close from our standpoint, and build a great game to say goodbye.
Jaime Griesemer (Halo series mission design) Right after Halo 2’s launch we were scrambling because our multiplayer was totally messed up. We shipped it and everybody just slept for a week. But when we came back and played it we were like, “Oh, this isn’t the multiplayer game we wanted.”
Max Hoberman (several Halo series roles, including lead on Halo 3) The single-player game was such a mess up until the very end—Jaime and Jason (Jones, Bungie co-founder) were rebalancing all of the weapons in the campaign for the two weeks before it went gold. Unfortunately, the weapons were shared with multiplayer, and it broke the game.
Jaime Griesemer There were whole weapon classes that were just not viable for multiplayer. And this was in the early days of Xbox Live—patching wasn’t really a thing on consoles, especially a day one patch. So we had to figure out the five changes that’d take the game from busted to playable.
We caught that it was broken a lot faster than most of players, so we were able to sneak out a patch. People remember Halo 2 as being a great multiplayer game, and it was—but it wasn’t when we shipped it. That was immediately the sort of grenade that we all had to dive on, in dealing with it.
Max Hoberman Before we started planning Halo 3, Pete (Parsons, an internal Microsoft executive at Bungie) came to me and said, “While we figure out what we’re doing for Halo 3, we've got all these environment artists and a bunch of level designers, and we’d like them to do some DLC.” So I went from a team with two environment artists to a team with 30 environment artists, none of which had any experience with multiplayer.
It was especially challenging because they gave me a mandate that drove me bonkers. The team had such a painful experience on Halo 2 that the priority was that everyone has fun and enjoys themselves, not that we put out a quality product. The DLC wasn't great because of it, so I was kind of disappointed with that.
Marty O’Donnell It was really hard to figure out who was going to lead Halo 3. Jason (Jones) had left. He said, “I can’t do this again, I almost killed myself.” He didn’t know if he wanted to make games anymore, and he just took off.
Jaime Griesemer With Halo we’d started all these different threads in the story, going different ways, and we opened this big can of worms with the multiplayer. Now, how were we going to bring all that to a close? Everybody at Bungie wanted Halo 3 to be the last Halo. It was going to be a complete set, and then we were going to move onto something else.
Max Hoberman Going into Halo 3, I think Jason and Pete decided that there really wasn't anyone on the design side well equipped enough to be the. So at one point they came to me and said: “We want you to be the lead for all of Halo 3.” I talked it through with them, and agreed that we really had no alternative, and that it was the best thing for the project.
Joe Staten Jason vaporized at the end of Halo 2. He went on his long sabbatical out of the blue, and it was left to us to figure out who was going to lead the Halo team. At that point Bungie as a group was really rudderless, if not quite leaderless, really.
Jaime Griesemer There was a lot of fallout from the game being late and hard, and a lot of relationships that needed to get mended.
Max Hoberman When Jason left he supposedly did so with me set up to be the lead, and then I immediately ran headfirst, for the first time, into politics at Bungie. And Pete had this challenge of how do you affect this change, how do you communicate this to the team, how do you make this happen.
Jaime Griesemer If you watch the documentary we made for Halo 2, man, there’s a lot of whining. Instead of looking at how can we learn and move forward, the narrative became poor us, pity party, we all have PTSD, we can never let this happen again. That was a real changing point in the attitude of how we made Halo games, where we just stopped kind of pulling out all the stops and really going for it.
Before, it used to be part of the culture to challenge people to do more. And all of a sudden it was: stop asking people to do more, don’t you remember what happened last time? It became really hard to break any new ground. I think that was when the turn-the-crank mentality started.
Marcus Lehto We all wanted to move on and do something different. We were getting sick of Halo at that time.
Jaime Griesemer We didn’t see Jason for a while after Halo 2 shipped. We had a cut-out of him printed out on cardboard, and we put it in the corner of the room.
Marty O’Donnell We would just stand that up in meetings.
Jaime Griesemer Jason came back toward the end of Halo 3, but wasn’t super involved.
Marty O’Donnell Jason for the most part had very little to do with Halo 3, almost nothing to do with ODST and very little to do with Reach. He was starting work on Destiny because we convinced him to. He was thinking about what else he wanted to do, and travelling a lot. All the while, he was still a Bungie employee. Because, you know, we had convinced everybody that all the magic sauce came from Jason.
Jaime Griesemer The expectation was he was coming up with the next big thing that we all were going to work on. I think he kind of felt that pressure whenever he was around the rest of the team. He was expected to come up with the next Halo. Which is ridiculous, because no one person made Halo, and no one person can roll the dice and come up with Halo again. That’s just not going to happen. But that was sort of how the set-up was.
Marty O’Donnell It was a confusing time, because Jason had left, and once again he didn’t bless anybody. He didn’t say, “And here is the next leader of the crew. He has all of my blessing and power.”
So, there was a bunch of really creative, strong-minded individuals fighting. I wasn’t one of them, by the way, believe it or not. I was not fighting for control. But you know, Jaime, Paul (Bertone), Marcus, Joe—there was a bunch of finagling to try to get Halo 3 and up and running.
Jaime Griesemer I was happy to stay out of it. But the missions had to keep going, right? We couldn’t sit around and wait.
Max Hoberman In my opinion, Pete never had the balls to just say, “This is it, this is the way it must be, this is what Jason and I decided.” He was trying to take a very soft approach and it didn't work. Eventually I put my foot down and with Pete in the room, and said to the other guy who wanted to be lead, “I'm fine if you want to do single-player.” I was happy to do multiplayer—I'm very reliable and kick ass at it, so I'm fine with that, I don’t have any issues there.
Joe Staten I think Paul had aspirations to be the project lead, Jaime as well, probably. I realized that it wasn’t a fight I was going to win.
Max Hoberman What followed was a mountain of work, undoing everything we had done on Halo 2. Not only had the Microsoft rolled out a new Xbox, but they had redone all of the underlying Live systems, the backend, and had broken everything across the board.
Paul Bertone (design lead Halo 2 and 3, director ODST) Everybody had the things that they wanted to fix about the process. And I wouldn't say we ever really got to a consensus about exactly how we wanted to do things, as a team.
Marty O’Donnell It was a clumsy start to Halo 3 in my opinion. We didn’t really have a clear vision for what it was going to be, or a clear leader. It eventually worked itself out, but it was very, very messy.
“Some of our pushback and fighting with Microsoft was warranted. It was just our default approach to put up a giant iron wall to protect ourselves.”— Marcus Lehto
Marty O’Donnell About a year into Halo 2’s development, I remember talking to Pete Parsons. The Halo team had gotten some sort of bonus check for you know, $12 or something, for the success of Halo. And it was like, wow, yeah. I’m exaggerating slightly, but whatever the amount was, it wasn’t commensurate with the success.
I thought: This is what happens when you sell intellectual property and you’re just working for a company, and how I’d love to “go pirate,” and start our own. So we a small crew of people started talking about what we’d need to do to either do that, or convince Microsoft that they should share more.
Marcus Lehto We still had a pretty significant chip on our shoulder about this Bungie culture, the idea that Microsoft was not playing real nice with us. That’s debatable in hindsight. They were probably struggling just as much with us as we were with them, because we were kind of assholes back then.
And looking from the outside, trying to figure out how to work with Bungie, well, Bungie is really hard to work with. It’s not a very collaborative studio when it comes to external forces coming in and saying, “Hey, can we give you some suggestions on what you do with marketing?” Or on how we the handle the game, and whatever.
Marty O’Donnell I think we called this little group the Blue Crystals or something like that. We had a code name. The whole point of negotiating was either we’ll continue to make Halo or, basically since they owned Halo, it’d be on them to keep it all on track. “Good luck,” we’d have told them, “but we’re going to go try something new.” But they were like, “No, no, no, we want you to stay.”
Paul Bertone There was a lot of politics, a lot of arguing and a lot of stuff that for me wasn't enjoyable. I wanted to work on a game, and I wanted to be with designers. So I left the meetings.
Jaime Griesemer I was little bit of a wild card, so they didn’t really want me in the meetings. And it was all sort of backroom stuff, and that’s just not my style.
But as soon as I heard about it I was like, “Why aren’t we just talking about this in the open? Why is this random sampling of seven guys or whatever negotiating this deal?” That kept me even farther outside of it, so I was just like, “Whatever, I’m just going to finish Halo 3.”
Marcus Lehto Some of our pushback and fighting with Microsoft was warranted. Some of it, not at all. It was just our default approach to put up a giant iron wall to protect ourselves and what we thought was our culture, which we saw as eroding.
Joe Staten I was really not privy to any of those negotiations. Partially because I don’t think they wanted me to be part of the group, and partially because I had no interest in being part of it. I was more focused on doing fun creative stuff.
Marty O’Donnell Halo 2 was so successful that we hit our profit cap for the initial deal we had worked out with Microsoft on day one. That’s when we started negotiating harder for better profit sharing, for Halo 3.
Things came to a head. We were advised that we could just tell them that we want Bungie back, and we’ll give you Halo 3 for it. But it got a little more complex than that, and we ended up doing three games. But basically we got Bungie back by continuing to give Halo to Microsoft, but only until an agreed end date where we’d stop making it.
Jaime Griesemer We knew we weren’t going to ship another Halo on the original Xbox—Halo 3 was going to be a 360 game. For while we thought it might be a launch title, but after Halo 2 slipped it was pretty obvious that wasn’t going to happen. So began a lot of planning on how we were going to tie things up, and tempering the overreaction from Halo 2.
Marty O’Donnell I remember comparing it to The Lord of the Rings. We wanted to have an epic conclusion to a grand trilogy. But we were hoping that this would be it. This would be the end of the Halo story. It’s a trilogy, the story arc comes all the way through, and that’s the end of Master Chief and Cortana. Satisfying, and cool.
Joe Staten A big thing that happened is that Marcus and I had a giant argument. He said he was done working with me, and I with him. I think everybody agreed that the best thing was for me to take a big break from working on Halo. So I took an extended sabbatical.
Marty O’Donnell For a while Joe physically wasn’t in the studio or working on Halo 3. We were trying to figure out who was going to write the story. We tried a couple different story committees. It was really difficult.
Joe Staten During that time that we really started looking at Halo in a more rigorous way, like, what are the stories outside of these games? And it struck me as I was sitting at home that there are many we could tell in this universe. What might those stories be?
It just so happened that Ensemble Studios started to work on the franchise (having been acquired by Microsoft in 2001), first with a Halo MMO, and then Halo Wars. So I got called into that conversation to help them figure out what story we wanted to tell and carve out little white spaces for them, so they’d be free to tell whatever story they wanted in their part of the Halo universe.
The other thing that happened, of course, was pre-production for the Halo movie. So I became sort of the de facto franchise guy for the Halo universe during the early stage of Halo 3’s pre-production.
Marty O’Donnell When the story committee was done with their outline, they brought us in, the seven of us who were the leads or on the board of Bungie, and gave us the whole story. Everybody else was like, wow, this is going to be good. This is going to be great.
But I was like: “No, this isn't going to work.” Where was Ron Perlman and (the character he voiced) Lord Hood? Where was Miranda (Keyes)? We never followed up on her story. I mean, maybe we didn't necessarily enjoy the Miranda part, but you can't just let these things drop. And there was nothing surprising. Nothing happens.
Jaime Griesemer The Halo 3 story was written by a bunch of guys in the middle ground saying: “I want to do it this way but I can’t explain why, and I’m not sure my idea’s better than yours so I’m just going to defend it loudly.” You know, no reasons why, so it’s just a shouting match. But there’s nothing you can do to resolve things.
This is really a cheat, but I had just seen Serenity. And what I thought was amazing about it is none of the cast is safe. There’s the Shepherd, then boom: he gets killed. And you’re like, okay, they needed to kill a character. But then they killed Wash, and so shockingly! He’d just delivered one of his typical funny lines, and he’s dead. If they can do that, then anyone could die. They ratcheted up the stakes.
So I went home and was talking to my wife. I said, this is the problem—nobody dies in Halo 3. Even if we’re going to try to make you believe Master Chief might die, you never would.
I decided: I’ve got to bring back Lord Hood, Miranda has to die, and then Sergeant Johnson has to die. And more than that, he should be killed by 343 Guilty Spark, who you think is your buddy. Then you should have to kill Guilty Spark. Then we can maybe make you feel like Master Chief is at risk. So I wrote these nine or so plot points—not good story, just plot points. Those were what we needed to insert into the script to make it work.
Jaime Griesemer At first there was a lot of, how can we recapture Halo with Halo 3 and kind of undo a lot of things we did with Halo 2? My opinion is always that you can’t go backwards. None of the fans want you to go backwards. You have to go forward, in the right direction. So that sent us spinning. When half the team is trying to go forward and half the team is trying to go backward, you’re going to just spin in place.
Marty O’Donnell I showed my plot points to every guy on the story team, individually, and they all said almost exactly the same thing: “I had that idea before, but nobody liked it.” At the end I got everybody to agree, and told our producer, let's bring them all in. We all sat down and that became the story.
Joe Staten There was definitely a weird situation. Jaime and Paul had their own butting of heads over certain things, and then there was Rob Stokes, the sort of third design lead who was doing all the writing. I just focused on working with Rob to make the story the best it could be, and figure out what he cared about most. I treated Halo 3 like, “Here’s your white space, and here’s some bumpers I’m going to suggest.” I tried to maximize Rob and the team’s freedom to tell the story they wanted to tell.
Marty O’Donnell We didn’t have a real writer, but we had Joe back. We’d figured out how get him on the team to write cinematics and dialogue. He was going to co-write with this Rob—but they weren't getting along well, so we went and got a Hollywood screenplay writer named Peter O'Brien, basically as the referee editor. So Joe and Rob would work together, then Peter would work with them as an editor, with Joe doing the writing and Rob as the designer. And then Peter would present to guys like me, Marcus and others.
Joe Staten By the time I came back into the studio, Halo 3 had been pretty much figured out. It was the same story that we always wanted to tell: Master Chief rescues Cortana from the Gravemind and kills the Prophet of Truth. But I was brought on board at that point to go in and do an edit and polish pass on all the scripts.
Jaime Griesemer There was certain direction that was established with Halo 2, so at least we knew where we had to start. And there was a lot of excitement for bringing the Flood to Earth. You know, every game’s got to be bigger and better.
Marty O’Donnell I remember Joe coming back and seeing what the story was that we were asking him to write. He was like, “You're killing Sergeant Johnson?” I said we had to. This is the end of the trilogy, so we've got to make the stakes big at the end. “Ahh, you can't kill Sergeant Johnson!” He never forgave me for it. To this day, I think he thinks it was a mistake.
“There was definitely a lot of drama going down with some parts of Halo 3 not working and features being cut and all that stuff. But I was always very confident we were making something good.”— Paul Bertone
Paul Bertone We were just trying to figure out the game. And Pete's big mantra was that everybody has to be involved, and there were probably 70 or 80 people on the team at that point. It was just too hard to be creative. Take the logistics of all the meetings I had. We’d have a creative meeting, everyone talks to their people, and they get feedback. It comes back, then we talk about the feedback, then the feedback goes back in and out. Then a couple weeks later maybe we've made some progress, maybe not. It wasn't a very enjoyable process for me. I did very little actual design work at that point. I was mainly just sitting in meetings.
Everyone had worked on Halo as long as I had, and sacrificed just as much. It's impossible to think you’re going to create this thing with a group who frankly didn't really get along that well. It just kind of wore on me. Even at the end of Halo 2 I filled more of a producer role then an actual designer role, for quite a while.
Max Hoberman Going into Halo 3 I wanted to spend all my time innovating on what I had done on Halo 2. Instead, I spent an entire year of my life trying to figure out how to get feature parity with Halo 2 in the online feature set.
Paul Bertone As a creative person, it didn't feel great. I think it was maybe six months or a year into it when I thought: “I have to take a break and decide if I want to keep going through this grinder, if I want to do this again.”
So I stepped back, and I’m sure that pissed off a lot of people. I didn’t really talk to anybody from Bungie about it. I just went to Pete and said, “I need to take some time off,” and just disappeared. I felt like I had nothing in the tank at that point, and the best thing for me was to recharge my batteries and then be able to come back, get my head down and do what I did during Halo that made it successful.
Jaime Griesemer We did have an additional production focus, where we had our list of vehicles and weapons and characters much earlier, so we could scope more appropriately. What I mostly did in pre-production, in addition to coming up with those lists, was plan for any improvements we were going to make to the existing stuff. So we started like five or six gameplay prototypes.
Max Hoberman The Live team had intentionally just ignored us and broken everything in this effort to streamline the online systems so that everybody could have matchmaking, a Halo-like party system, and voice chat.
I ended up hiring a guy, a dedicated user-interaction architect type, and the two of us locked ourselves in a room for a year on to figure out a bunch of baseline stuff: like, how do we have a party system when Microsoft just rolled out their own ubiquitous one? So, we spent a huge amount of time fixing and working on that.
Jaime Griesemer One of the prototypes was the Scarab, this giant thing with AI control that you could fight on top of. Another one was equipment—can we get the AI to use these things and have it drop items, then you can pick them up and kind of reshape the battlefield a little bit? And there was a Flood that could change between different types. My idea was we’ll take five or six shots, pick two that land and polish those up, then the gameplay will at least be a little bit different from Halo 2.
The problem was they all worked, and they all had people invested in them. Looking back I should've gone with my original plan, which was cut half of them. But everybody was excited about them, so we did them all. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs a little bit, but we didn’t have any huge cuts like we did in Halo 2.
Paul Bertone After six months I took on the mission lead role. I think a lot of the competition between me and Jaime was coming from my side—I wanted to work on systems and AI, and we butted heads a couple times. But once I came back we cleared all that air, got on the same page really started to trust each other. That felt really good.
Max Hoberman In early 2006 I left Seattle and moved back to Austin while Halo 3 was still in development, and I did as much as I could on the content side. I got us through pre-production, and once we were in production I left it in other people's hands and worked through the remainder of the complex online problems for the rest of 2006.
While I worked on that I also started up a group of contractors, to start working on some downloadable maps for Halo 2. Around Christmas 2006 I officially gave notice and signed a contract with Microsoft that same day to start my own company, Certain Affinity, and take the work we had been doing for DLC maps and essentially continue it independently. I left before Halo 3 shipped.
Jaime Griesemer I think from my perspective, the gameplay side went smoother than it had in any project. We crunched, but it wasn’t a crazy crunch at the end—we were able to fully support all the missions and I think I learned a lot about delegation. We got a couple other sandbox designers on the team at that point that could do some of the menial work that I had been doing, so I could focus more on strategy and making sure everything came together.
Paul Bertone There was a lot more forward progress happening on a daily basis. I think we produced a really great game, but I think it could’ve used a couple more rough edges, a couple more iconic experiences that are challenging for players.
I really wanted to come up with something that felt good and was competitive within the campaign—that’s where campaign scoring came from. Just the idea that there’s this different mode where you can turn on scoring based on your skill, headshots, grenade sticks, all that, and you get more points or multipliers depending on difficulty. That ultimately led to ODST’s Firefight mode.
Jaime Griesemer In a way Halo 3 was a lot of fun. In Halo 2 we had gotten to do a lot of the things we just hadn’t gotten to with Halo, so we had a pretty complete game—so on Halo 3 we were adding on all these crazy bells and whistles, like Forge mode, where you can make your own maps, and the giant Scarab.
Paul Bertone The co-mission design lead left a few months from the end of development, so I took his missions and split them up between a couple designers. I ended up kind of cleaning up the entire thing again. It's not like it was a bed of roses. There was still a lot of work to do.
I took the Cortana mission, completely gutted it and rebuilt it in about three weeks—that mission where Gravemind is talking to you and Cortana is in distress. We didn’t have a lot of resources for that. It was a lot cooler on paper. And it had the transforming Flood, but I don’t think we did great there. It’s a kind of half-baked mission that needed to be there for the story, so we sort of threw it together, but I would’ve preferred not to do that.
Jaime Griesemer Bungie was still a fun place to be, but the studio was being constructed in order to turn out Halo games. And so anything that was too far outside of what had already been done in Halo, we just weren’t culturally suited to do. I pushed back against that pretty hard. I mean, after Halo 3 shipped, I’ve never really worked on another Halo game. It felt clear then that Bungie was just going to make Halo games for the rest of its existence.
Paul Bertone There was definitely a lot of drama going down with some parts of Halo 3 not working and features being cut and all that stuff. But I was always very confident we were making something good. We hit our stride, and it was a great, consistent experience. We never thought, “Oh man, this is just the first half of the last game, again.” That was something I was really proud of. We didn't really have that massive reset.
Marty O’Donnell I wanted the contract with Microsoft to be a very simple thing. It ended up being that we also needed to give them Halo 4. That wasn’t a bad thing—we needed more money to be independent. But there was also a middle game that was going to happen between Halo 3 and Halo 4.
There was a period where we were going to work on a game with Peter Jackson. We had what we called the three buckets—Halo 3, the Peter Jackson game, and Halo 4. We had to fill those three buckets in order to be completely independent, and own our own IP. We officially became our own business around then, but we still had our contractual obligations with Microsoft.
Joe Staten Peter Jackson was trying to form a game studio, WingNut Interactive. We partnered with him to help them cut their teeth in games by getting them and Weta to make a Halo title, Halo Chronicles. So I was spending my time in New Zealand pre-producing what would’ve been a Peter Jackson game set in the Halo universe.
Marty O’Donnell Jackson first came to visit the studio in 2005, and we kept talking to him during the next year. Joe and Paul were primarily the guys he spoke with, while the rest of us were thinking about whatever Halo 4 was going to be.
Paul Bertone I only went down there one time, right on the heels of Halo 3 shipping. But as design lead I pretty much had free reign to do what I wanted. And we knew for this (WingNut) game you weren’t going to be the Chief, you were just going to be a marine. We did a lot of work on prototyping what that would feel like, during that timeframe. And Joe was hashing story stuff back and forth with Peter’s writing team, because they didn’t know how to do anything with games.
Marty O’Donnell What they came up with Peter was this interesting game where you wouldn’t be an alien, but you’d get alien tech and it would sort of attach to your arm and all this stuff. From my understanding, the rough story for it came out of Joe’s head.
Paul Bertone Joe came up with the concept of “be the bullet”. We wanted to take the player on this emotional and gameplay journey from just being human to being a modified human. Not modified in the sense that you just put on power armor, but where there’s biological shit actually happening to you.
You were able to switch into this completely different combat mode, where the only way you could do damage was through a powerful melee attack. And you had two hand weapons. One would push enemies away from you, and the other stunned them where they were. You also had a double jump and an auto-aimed long distance dash that you could do from the air.
We prototyped did a lot the simple stuff first: lowering the camera, slowing the player’s direct movement, lowering the jump. Then we rebuilt the first five missions of Halo 3, just to see how they played. You know, with no rechargeable shields. And we found out a lot about how far we could kind of pull things back. We realized we could actually dial down a lot. Weapons aside, as those are pretty sacred in Halo.
You were effectively going to be weaker as a player, so I wanted to do things with AI and make it so they wouldn’t just attack you straight away. (Engineer) Damian Isla and I worked together on this system that he wrote called kung-fu, which was basically that you’d be surrounded by a bunch of guys but only a couple would engage you at a time. The others would be hiding, or would reveal themselves just to take a peek. A lot of that made it into ODST. It’s funny, because the player was eventually going to become a Promethean, which is a concept they later used on Halo 4 and Halo 5 for the Guardians, and some other bad guys.
Marty O’Donnell At the same time, Jackson was going to do the Halo movie. So Joe was exploring all that stuff with them, too. Not long after the first meeting, Guillermo del Toro was set to be the director and Peter the producer. That fell through, so they got Neill Blomkamp. He was like a protégé of Peter’s, and a Halo fan. He started working on the movie, and Weta Workshop made a fully drivable, four-wheel Warthog, full size, and all these weapons and cool props. They were really going to do it.
Paul Bertone I have a lot of good memories from that time, particularly my visit to New Zealand. We were sitting in his big conference room, Peter talking away, and I look out the window and all of a sudden the Warthog drives by. They had built the fucking… and I was just like, “I’m sorry, the Warthog just drove by.” Peter was just as excited. He was like, “Oh yeah, we should go check that out now.”
So we went out, checked it out, we all got to drive it around, and (long-time Bungie producer) Curtis Creamer drove it into a building. That was pretty funny. It had four-wheel steering, so he got it to where the wheels were drifting and just went sideways into a building. Just a little bit.
Joe Staten I don’t know how to make a movie. I never worked in Hollywood. But we were dealing with some pretty high-powered Hollywood people to try to get this movie done. The Halo movie went through all kinds of different writing and directing partners. But it was a wonderful time in my life, having the chance to meet all kinds of people. I flew to New Zealand three or four times in a year, spending time with Peter and his writing crew.
I’d sit down with Peter, in his office with all his Oscars, and we’d go through the Halo movie script. I’d tell him what really mattered; that if he did this with Master Chief, that’d be great. “Oh, okay,” he’d say. “Great! I didn’t get that before. Awesome. Okay, so now we’ll go and write another draft of the script.”
But then on one trip, (then Bungie studio head) Harold Ryan and I had to fly into Auckland, rent a car and drive to Peter’s. On that ride, we talked very honestly, and reasoned: “This movie’s probably not going to fly.”
Video game movies then, and I think still now, are unproven—can you be successful at any budget? Are you sure you’re going to be successful at $150 million? That’s a huge leap of faith for any studio to take. I’m not a Hollywood lawyer or an agent, but I could look at the deal and go, “You know, it’s going to be really hard for everybody to get comfortable enough to green-light this thing.”
And I could just see it in the way that they looked at the scripts. We never landed on one that was solid enough. And we had some great writers on it, from Alex Garland to a young writer named Dan Weiss who was working with del Toro and ended up being a show-runner on Game of Thrones. I just remember thinking, “I know it’s hard to get stuff green-lit in Hollywood, but this is Halo. And if we still haven’t gotten this ball really rolling by now?”
Paul Bertone Ultimately, where the WingNut game was going to go was that you were the Promethean all the time, and you ended up in low orbit, fighting Covenant cruisers with this ability to turn yourself into a missile, targeting specific parts. But then the Halo movie deal fell through.
Joe Staten I don’t think Harold and I knew 100 percent, but we could just tell. And our creative ideas weren’t gelling completely on the whole Halo Chronicles thing—so that probably wasn’t going to happen. But we needed to come up with something, because priority one for us was to get Bungie on its second journey.
Marty O’Donnell I thought, “Oh good, we don’t have to do this middle bucket anymore.”
Paul Bertone The prototypes were pretty far along. But because Joe and Weta and Peter and those guys were working on the story, you couldn’t really start actual mission design stuff. So on my end there was a lot of waiting around. And they just never got to the point where anything got locked down where we could do anything.
Marty O’Donnell The plug was pulled on everything. Neill Blomkamp was still working with all these props, and he ended up making those Landfall short movies that led up to Halo 3. What he did was great. Fast-forward to District 9 and you actually see some of the props that were made for the Halo movie repainted white. The battle rifle, for example, is a Halo rifle, except it’s white. And then there’s the alien arm, and everything. To Joe, it was like, wow. I love District 9, I think it’s great. But Joe had trouble seeing that movie, let me just say that.
Paul Bertone Once the movie project was officially killed, Joe and I were actually working on multiplayer maps for a little while, for Halo 3. The studio was a little bit in flux. Marcus was moving full steam ahead on Reach, which would be our final Halo game, and Jason had just come back to the studio and had started to work on what’d become Destiny with Jaime and some engineers and artists.
Joe Staten Bungie still needed to make another Halo game. We already had the Reach team spinning up. So Harold asked me, “If you were going to make another Halo game, what story would you tell?”
Marty O’Donnell Somehow Harold cut some sort of side deal, and Microsoft wanted us to do an expansion. You still owe us a middle bucket, they said. They looked at the contract and it said nothing about what order these would come in. So it was a case of, whatever this project might be, you owe us something, no matter when it’s done. And we were like, no, that’s not the deal.
Sure enough, the contract wasn’t clear enough about it. So instead they told us, “You’ve got to come up with something that goes in between these things.” And it could be a smaller thing, a smaller project.
Paul Bertone Microsoft wanted Halo 3 campaign DLC. And Joe and I were interested in doing that, but less so in taking existing Halo 3 campaign content and reusing that in any way, shape or form. It’d have felt cheap to us, and we’d have gotten killed in the press. We wouldn’t have been happy working on it.
Joe Staten Harold had told me, “Okay, if you’ve got an idea for a game, you and Paul can go and make it. It’s got to be simple and it’s got to be fast, it’s got to be based in the Halo 3 engine, and you don’t get any engineering support. But I want you guys to come back to me with a proposal for what it would be.” After that conversation I definitely rekindled my passion for in-game storytelling.
Paul Bertone There was definitely a lack of information being passed around. Harold was telling me and Joe, “Just design something cool and I’ll make sure you guys can make it.” But I don’t think that was getting to the other Bungie leads, because it was very challenging to get resources for that project.
Marty O’Donnell That’s where ODST came up. It started as Halo 3 Recon. It wasn’t going to feature Master Chief, and it’d be a short story, just an expansion pack. You know, some new multiplayer maps and a whole bunch of things that had been scattered through the entire series, all in one package. That would fulfill our contract with Microsoft. It would come out followed by Halo 4—or rather Reach, as it proved to be—a year or a year and a half later.
Joe Staten As a creative person you never want to do the same thing in exactly the same way again. You always want to put a different spin on it. And that was definitely the case with ODST, and the game ideas that we talked about with Peter Jackson. I mean, I love a good detective story. And if someone gives me an opportunity to tell one in the Halo universe? Sure. That’d be pretty cool. I was always hungry to do something new.
Paul Bertone At that time the way royalty packages were set was based on the project you worked on, not the studio as the whole. So nobody wanted to work on ODST, because the end result wasn’t going to be a big monetary benefit. All that stuff got hashed out maybe halfway through the project, but it was still a weekly battle with the production team to keep the resources that we had, and just an amazing fight if I needed extra resources for anything, right up until the end when we were in bug-fixing mode.
Marty O’Donnell ODST was going to be very different kind of game, with this hub city in it—you could go in any direction you wanted and tell different parts of the story sort of in random order. Which was part of what Paul wanted to do, I think, with the Peter Jackson game. So he was able to bring some of that into this.
Marty O’Donnell The story of ODST took place during Halo 2. It’s what happened back when the ship at New Mombasa took off—it didn’t destroy the city but it demolished a whole bunch of things. So here’s the ODSTs that were dropping at the same time and got shoved off course, and how they came back together. It’s a fun, self-contained little story.
Joe Staten All our ideas congealed into the story of a squad trapped in the city at night, with this noir-ish theme.
Marty O’Donnell Paul and Joe were tired with how Master Chief's a cybernetic super soldier who, almost like Superman, can do anything. He could get killed but he didn’t seem as vulnerable as a human. Whereas the ODSTs are just normal humans in some cool body armor. So in ODST, you have to think about what you're doing a little bit more.
Joe Staten Paul and I really wanted to tell a story of the everyman. He’s part of the ODST so he’s a pretty tough guy, but he’s not a super soldier. He’s someone who’s hoofing around this dark, abandoned city trying to figure things out. And the tone and the theme, they just really fit noir pretty well, I think.
I was just really interested in doing open-world—I was super fatigued on building the linear missions, with no excitement to make another Halo game. So I really pushed for the basic structure of ODST, just to be able to explore ideas in what felt like was kind of a safe project, because back then Destiny was going to be a fully open-world game, like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls series and stuff like that. And that was something I was super excited about.
I think a lot of people liked that back and forth with the hub, the ability to just live in the world a little bit, which is something that Halo never really let you do up until that point. You could go where you wanted, exist here and maybe listen to the music or check out the scenery. A game that is always pushing you forward gets very fatiguing after a while. And those sorts of tropes get very uninspiring as a designer, when you’re playing the same card over and over again.
Joe Staten I was always hungry to see what other cool things were happening, which then wrap back around and informs your experience. ODST is an exercise in that thinking—how can we tell multiple sides of the same story and make it richer?
Marty O’Donnell At that point we had figured out how we were going to finish our time at Microsoft: Halo 3, ODST and then Reach, and we’d done by 2010. And simultaneously, Jason and the guys were working on Destiny.
Paul Bertone We had gotten to the Chief to this point where, narrative wise, it was really hard to think of a problem he could solve that wasn’t as big as anything he’s solved before. Always having to ratchet it up is really challenging, and it felt nice to bring it all the way back down, and to have the narrative so closely match the gameplay was really exciting for me.
Joe Staten I’m a huge noir film fan and you know, ODST was really my first chance to be a creative director on a project where you’re responsible for rallying people around hopefully a simple set of core ideas that they can all understand, and then let those be their guideposts for cool work.
Marty O’Donnell Microsoft said they had gotten the rights to use the word “Recon,” and that they talked to the Tom Clancy people. But the Ghost Recon team was pissed. We already had a trailer that said Halo 3 Recon on it, because Microsoft had approved it, but we had to change it to ODST.
“Microsoft said they had gotten the rights to use the word ‘Recon’. But the Ghost Recon team was pissed. We already had a trailer that said Halo 3 Recon on it, but we had to change it to ODST.”— Marty O’Donnell
Joe Staten One thing I’d always wanted to do was to create first-person dialogue. So, you know, marines will tell you when they’re low on ammo, or when they’re taking damage or when they’ve seen an enemy—I wanted that coming from you, the player, when stuff like that happened.
The Master Chief would grunt and groan, and the Arbiter would have involuntary non-verbal responses. But they didn’t speak, they just sort of made guttural noises. I always thought it’d be fun if you were saying to your buddies, “Hey, I’m low on ammo!” And your partner would be like, “Okay! I’ve got you covered.” So that naturally had us thinking about hearing different voices coming through your helmet.
Paul Bertone I mocked up the silenced pistol and the silenced SMG, and as soon as I showed Joe, we were like, holy shit, okay. That’s when we really started to kind of find our footing, getting stealth gameplay in. It’s going to be at night, and you’re going to be sneaking around. We really started to build on that.
Paul Bertone To me it wasn’t really a radical departure from what Halo already was, but I think a lot of people, because they’re not in my mind, found it hard to envision the end product.
Joe Staten For me noir was something that everybody got, and Marty understood it musically. I think he really enjoyed that project.
Marty O’Donnell Joe was the one who kept saying, “This is going to feel like film noir.” And I’m like, wait, Joe, what are you talking about? Halo? “Yeah, it's going to be this and this, and it’s at night.” Okay, film noir. I wondered if that would work.
And then I saw some early concept art that showed the city and it was at night and it was raining, it was very Blade Runner-looking. I liked the noir idea, and started thinking about a lonely, jazzy thing. So I sat at the piano and I just started playing. I called the piece “Rain”. It had a rainy feel to it.
Joe Staten It evolved from there. And Marty said, “Well, who do you want to cast for this?” And I said, Nathan Fillion, because he’s awesome and I love Serenity and I’d love to get him in a video game.
Marty O’Donnell Of course, because I was a fan of Serenity I had cast Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk and Adam Baldwin in Halo 3. They didn't play major characters; they were just AI marines. We had so much fun with them that we said, “Let’s get them in real roles.” So Joe wrote with them in mind.
Paul Bertone We needed to figure out a way to reinforce what Joe was doing narratively in the game. He wanted to do this Alternate Reality Game (ARG), and we had this big city hub. What can we do with that? Exploring that was a great opportunity for players to opt in to whatever story they wanted.
Joe Staten I got to work again with Elan Lee and the crew at Fourth Wall Entertainment—these are the guys that did I Love Bees (Halo 2’s ARG). They came in with “Sadie’s Story,” ODST’s story within a story. I said, here’s the story, here are the things I care about, the main character is a girl named Sadie and her dad is the guy who built the AI that runs the city.
Paul Bertone We started littering those ARG items around. Then Joe had this idea that as you’re going through environment, these different objects will start talking to you. You know, to essentially lead you to these new scenes, telling this completely different story about what happened in the city right before it was abandoned.
Joe Staten I said it would be fun if we had sort of a spin on Dante’s Inferno, where it’s all about exploring this hellish city and you go down through these levels and end up meeting this AI which I called Vergil. I think there’s something cool about The Divine Comedy—I had just re-read it because this cool new translation had come out.
Paul Bertone I let people fill in a visual blank. Halo’s fiction has always been very heavy-handed, there hasn’t been a lot of need for players to fill in the blanks of what’s going on. It plays out exactly the way you think it’s going to play out. So the ARG was really nice.
Joe Staten “Sadie’s Story” isn’t literally the Inferno, but it follows—you meet a guy who represents gluttony and all the deadly sins. So they ran with that core creative idea and came up with a pretty cool story. I guess that was a little bit of religion sneaking in again.
Paul Bertone We were short-handed and we had a very short production cycle, and even though Joe and I sat next to each other, we actually didn’t interact a whole lot. He had his whole world going on, deciding how to decorate each area so that it told a story that fit in with the ODSTs, as well as the story of the ARG. He really wove that together nicely.
Joe Staten ODST’s other big priority was to do what became Firefight—to really blow out the co-op part of the game.
Paul Bertone It was like the encounters that I built for the Truth and Reconciliation mission in the first Halo: waves after waves in a small space and the campaign scoring from Halo 3. Those two things are basically what Firefight was, which is why it was an easy jump, design wise, to make on ODST. And I’ll give Marty a lot of the credit because he really pushed me to do it. Marty was huge on the forums, you know.
Joe Staten If we’re going to have a big space that’s best to explore cooperatively, let’s really double down on it. Paul and I love co-operative games, so we wanted to tell one story from multiple points of view, solving a central mystery.
Paul Bertone I didn’t want to do it, because we had such limited resources we were barely going to be able to finish the game that Joe and I wanted to make anyway, and I just didn’t see it happening. Tim Williams, a production or technical designer at the time, built the first Firefight prototype because we had no bandwidth. Joe and I were working on the campaign and the hub, stuff like that. But what Tim built was good, and I knew it would work.
From day one, when designing campaign missions, we outlined spaces that could work for Firefight. We didn’t have the resources to completely create our own, so they happened inside the missions—which helped the narrative, I think. I’d tell designers what spaces were important, because I had a vision for Firefight that couldn’t be played there and then. We took a massive leap of faith, making environments without Firefight yet existing. It worked out at the end.
“I think if you asked anybody on the ODST team, they would all say that was the most fun we ever had making a Halo game.”— Joe Staten
Marty O’Donnell We were able to have a small team. That’s why it was called Halo 3 ODST—we weren’t building a new engine like we had for Halo, Halo 2 and Halo 3. It was the only game we did that just iterated on an existing game engine. Meanwhile, we were building a brand new engine for Reach, which was going to cause the same problems it always does when you don’t have the tools and technology finished and the content creators are pulling their hair out because they don’t know how to use the engine.
Paul Bertone For content creators and designers, a new engine is a massive upheaval. You spend the first year and a half of the project not being able to do any work that you truly feel confident about making the final game. As technology changes, you’ve got to rebuild environments, characters, and re-assess your design. There’s a lot of needless churning. So it felt really great to have a known engine and make a small number of changes that were really, really powerful.
Joe Staten Compared to the bigger Reach project, ODST was a scrappy little one. But I think if you asked anybody on the ODST team, they would all say that was the most fun we ever had making a Halo game. We got to do novel design things and didn’t have to worry about the technology breaking on us every day.
Marty O’Donnell The plan for the expansion pack was to put it out cheaply in the spring of 2009, as we’d finished it the winter before, and to under-promise but over-deliver. People would think, wow, for a $30 expansion pack, this is almost as good as a full-fledged release. We had Halo 3 in the title so everybody knew it was an expansion pack, and for an entire year of talking about it to the press we’d say, “Yeah, this is a campaign expansion,” and tell them to expect some extra fun in the Halo 3 engine.
Joe Staten But the Microsoft Xbox leadership looked at what we had and said, “Hey, this is bigger than DLC, and we want to charge $60 for it.”
Marty O’Donnell They looked at their 2009 Christmas release schedule for the Xbox and they came back and told us it had to be our major Halo release for the 2009 Christmas season. We were on our knees, begging them not to do that. Now we were over-promising, with the threat of under-delivering. It was the opposite of what we wanted. It’d be a gem at $30. But as a major release, it was going to get dinged. And it was.
Joe Staten We said, well, we can ship it later, but if you want it to be a $60 experience, we should polish it more. So we were able to do the thing I’ve always wanted to do, which is finish and then spend months tweaking and tuning and polishing. It was really wonderful to literally lock ourselves in this room for two or three months, Paul and I and a rotating cast of characters, just polishing. And I think it shows. For the size of the team that it was, it was actually a very stable, polished game.
Marty O’Donnell That’s why we put “Sadie’s Story” in there, too. Because if you really wanted to be a completionist and go through and get everything, you could spend, you know, 10 or 12 hours inside this game.
Paul Bertone Up until post-production, about six weeks before we finished, there were no enemies in the city. Marty really wanted a dynamic music system, so that if you weren’t in combat it would always be playing the somber stuff. Then, when combat started, the music would change. I tried a couple times to do that in Halo script, and got pretty close, but a lot of times the music would kick in when it was supposed to, only to then stick. So you’d run away from combat but have this crazy, bombastic piece still going.
Marty O’Donnell I said that every time you come back to the city from a mission, I want you to feel completely alone, and I need some time to set that mood again. I can do that lonely noir saxophone with a new piece every time.
Paul Bertone It was always the plan to have enemies in the city. It felt really bad without them. You always need that resistance. The intention was that they were the remnants of the Covenant, sort of stragglers.
Marty O’Donnell I had gone back into the city, and this really nice piece of music starts playing but suddenly, out of the sky, all these aliens are attacking me. It didn't fit at all. I said, “Paul, what are you doing?”
He said, “Oh, yeah, there was just too much time when you're alone in the city, where you're not fighting and I think people are going to get bored.” I’m like, no, no, no, please, you’ve got to let me have a little time! The player just got out of a level—you don't have to keep the intensity up. Let it breathe a little bit and let them come across hunters and aliens as they explore.
Paul Bertone I’m not going to look at ODST and say everything about it was perfect. There were a lot of hardships and passionate debates on how things should’ve been, a lot of starts and a lot of stops. But to see the amount we did, with fewer than 20 people full-time on the project, with help at the end to push it over the line, I’m super proud. ODST is definitely my top project at Bungie. It’s the one I’m most proud of.
Joe Staten We were revitalized by ODST. At least, I know Paul and I were.
Marty O’Donnell (Bungie’s in-house composer) On July 7, 2007, just months before Halo 3 shipped, Bungie was able to be an independent entity, no longer owned by Microsoft.
Jaime Griesemer (Halo series mission design) Reach was part of that contract, because we had to make a game to cover the gap between Bungie’s withdrawal and when what would become 343 was up and running.
Marty O’Donnell Halo 4—eventually Reach—was taken over by Marcus (Lehto) as project lead. I don’t know how the decision was made, but conceptually I remember talking about not continuing the Master Chief story. It would be a prequel to Halo. So we were going finish our Halo run without any need to figure out the Chief’s future.
And we already knew there was a story about (the human colony of) Reach, and Reach is like Titanic, where everybody dies. So I remember saying, “Okay, everyone who plays this game knows that everybody dies.” But Titanic was still a really compelling movie, even though you know the boat sinks—you’re not expecting it to not sink. So that was sort of the philosophy around Reach.”
Jaime Griesemer Everybody that worked on ODST was in the same boat as me. They didn’t want to work on the same Halo anymore, but try something new with storytelling. ODST was a cool experiment, but I think Reach was more of a slog. They were essentially making Halo 4, without the number. And they saw it that way, so a lot of the expectations that came with that were on them.
Marty O’Donnell It was probably the largest team at that point—the production values were higher, we had more of everything, more designers, more artists, more everything. Marcus was the first project lead who hadn’t come more directly from the game design side of things. So it was sort of a different view of how things should go. And that was interesting.
Jaime Griesemer After Halo 3, I’d had to hire my replacement, (Reach sandbox designer) Sage Merrill. Then I wrote a spec for a game called Dragon Tavern. At the same time Jason (Jones, Bungie co-founder) was doing that on the other side of the building. We started bouncing off ideas off each other and it became clear that if Jason’s idea was great, mine wasn’t going anywhere.
So I started trying to get my ideas into what he was working on, and that process worked for about a year. I eventually worked on pre-production for Destiny for almost four years, and then left. I got hired at Sucker Punch, and helped them ship Infamous 2’s DLC and Second Son before we saw a beta for Destiny. But the stuff that I was working on doesn't have a lot of resemblance to what Destiny became.
Once ODST and Reach shipped, all of a sudden the Destiny team was up to 300 people. I was having less and less impact and the game was veering more and more toward Halo, which was more comfortable for them in a lot of ways. Originally it was this third-person fantasy co-op game, but it would click closer and closer to Halo every few months.
I was really happy with the handover to Sage. I told him, “Look, you’re basically like the only guy I can see taking over the Halo sandbox and doing a good job. And I want it to continue to be done well.” So I felt good about where I left them, with the ability to continue cranking the handle.
“We knew that the future of Bungie was with Destiny and Reach was our final chapter of Halo.”— Marty O’Donnell
Paul Bertone (Halo series mission building/design lead/director) I only worked on Reach a little. After ODST was done, the guy Marcus hired to be the lead designer unfortunately didn’t work out. So I was splitting time between Reach and Destiny, and I was super fatigued, because I’d gone all the way through to the end of ODST without a significant break. Jumping into a project in its last year is very mentally challenging.
Jaime Griesemer I helped out on ODST and Reach in a kind of consulting role. Mostly because they would be like, “Okay, we’re going to add a new character. But wait, nobody here understands how characters work. Call Jaime in here, and have him explain what all these fields do to somebody.” Which was fine, I was happy to help in that way. And I helped a little bit at the end doing a little tuning and tweaking, because that stuff’s always really finicky. But I was mostly working with Jason on Destiny.
Frank O’Connor (Halo franchise director) I joined Bungie as a sort of community and internal marketing liaison halfway through Halo 2’s development, at a really pivotal moment. I’d been there a few weeks and one day we called this big floor meeting when they said they were going to have to make some really hard decisions, and reset what the plan was.
I was always doing little tiny incremental things with development throughout, but where I really started working on things going directly into the game was Halo 3, when I worked with (engineer) Damian Isla on the terminals that explained the deeper lore. So I was doing more and more story as we got towards the end of it, and as we started Reach, I got the chance to actually write the script.
But during that period Bungie spun out. And my passion was always Halo. I loved the studio and my friends there, but I was so invested in the story of Halo and the external pieces of the universe that I made the choice to leave for 343 Industries, and remain part of Microsoft. It did mean I never got to finish Reach, which always feels like a little lull in my career, but the story is roughly the one I wrote.
Marty O’Donnell I wasn’t super excited that some of the real stakeholders in the history of Bungie and Halo weren’t working on Reach. And there was a point where I was trying to convince them to bring Paul (Bertone) down and have him polish up the final design, and get Joe (Staten) down to help me get the dialogue for the mission script better than it was. I think I was rejected, so that was tough, because we knew that the future of Bungie was with Destiny and Reach was our final chapter of Halo. It’s always important to make the thing you’re going to ship next be the best possible, and I felt like we were not doing that.
Frank O’Connor Actually, Marty was really involved in the Reach story as well.
Marty O’Donnell I was flopping back and forth, working on ODST and Reach. I was helping with the story on Reach, and I got (Halo 3 writer) Peter O’Brian back as a writer, too. That was another one of those things where there were a lot of early story outlines and iterations on how should this be, and there was this concept of The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai.
Frank O’Connor The weird issue with Halo—that the very first game starts with elements of an ancient prophecy, and an all-powerful, galaxy destroying weapon—is that it’s really hard to build up from there. So sometimes we go back. You see that in Reach and ODST where it’s back to mud, boots on the ground.
Marty O’Donnell I kept saying, “We know Titanic’s going to sink, so how can you make everybody care about the characters?
Paul Bertone We knew when we needed to ship, and decisions needed to be made. But my mental state of “shit’s got to get done” wasn’t where the team’s emotional pulse was at. A lot of stuff was up in the air, as design leads changed. Some of it was figured out, some of it wasn’t.
Marty O’Donnell I would hear Marcus and some of the other designers talking about The Magnificent Seven and Saving Private Ryan, and Peter and I talked about story a lot. We both agreed those are two different models. You don’t care about anyone in Saving Private Ryan through the combat. It was the down times when they sat around the fire, and one guy talks about being a teacher and this guy talks about his home life, that was its classic way of getting to know the characters.
I said: if we’re going to use that model, we need dramatic moments where you get to know these characters without their helmets on, and you learn about them in some personal way. The other way is like The Magnificent Seven, where each individual has their own skills and what’s important is getting why they decide to try to protect the peasants.
We either had to have those personal relationships with the characters; or we had to have moments where you care about the inhabitants of Reach by seeing how they’re sacrificing themselves. I don't think we did either of those things.
I mainly spent my time on the sandbox, and with (environment artist) Chris Carney on multiplayer. My first thing was to establish a definitive list of weapons and abilities. Sage knocked that out. And I did some mission reviews, but those guys were seasoned at the time, so they didn’t need a lot of help.
I spent a bit of time on Reach’s multiplayer, because the only multiplayer that existed at the time was the team objective game. There was no party game or Slayer or Capture the Flag type modes. I believed that had to be there, as it’s a core Halo pillar.
I was all for adding the objective mode, but wasn’t keen on that being the only multiplayer experience in there. Because, honestly, we tried to build that into every single Halo game, and we never pulled it off. When you get down to requiring communication and coordination by people who don’t know each other, and don’t give a fuck about each other, it’s just really hard.
Multiplayer is what keeps people playing for years. So Chris and I kind of bootstrapped it. He designed a bunch of maps. We worked together a little, but he was really the workhorse behind all that. And then together we kept iterating on the prototype for the objective mode, which eventually became what we shipped.
Marty O’Donnell I could never convince the team to make a choice with which way they wanted to go. Suddenly there were all these characters—but they were just cannon fodder. They were nameless voices with no story. There was going to be a story of this girl and her father who was a doctor, but it kept getting cut down until it was meaningless. You didn't care about anybody on Reach.
Paul Bertone The engineers’ biggest challenge was more technical, because they had gutted the old animation system and now it was a case of seeing what these new animations do, and how the AI can take advantage of that. And, ultimately, what is that experience for the player like? Is there really a benefit to all that work? It definitely looked a lot better, but what does the player get back from it? I don’t think we spent a lot of time on that.
The other thing that happened was we were moving to a new studio, in Bellevue, so we were going to leave Kirkland. And as the artists finished, they moved, then the programmers. By the time we were finishing Reach, there was a skeleton crew. That was weird. We put the last piece into Reach, pulled the plug, closed the door and went over to Bellevue. It was definitely an end of an era, in a lot of ways.
The thing I'm probably most proud of on Reach is the way we handled the ending. We had to figure out a way to make your death mean something. We had it so you saw each character die—just like The Magnificent Seven—and Noble Six is the last one alive. Roll end credits, and there you are, Noble Six, still trying to survive. You can go any place you want in this pretty big area, and we just keep throwing harder enemies at you. How long can you live?
Finally you get to this point where, for the first time in any Halo game, your helmet gets a crack in it. And you know at this point, you’re going to die. So it was a nice thing—the first shot in the game is an old cracked helmet on a glassed planet, and of course you realize at the end that’s Noble Six’s helmet, and that he didn't survive.
Marcus Lehto Reach was the best experience for me, personally. And it wasn’t just because I was driving that project—we actually instituted good practices for how to build a game, and how to keep a team happy from a morale standpoint. We had clear leadership, and clear production. We redefined production in a way that became a creative problem-solving tool for the studio rather than just a scheduling monkey and sandwich platter-getter that they were before. So there are all kinds of things that finally coalesced and came together with that project.
Dan Ayoub (343 Industries’ head of external development) I was brought on at 343 to work with Bungie on Reach, and that was my first entrance into Halo. It was interesting because the studio was at this really fascinating transitory point, where we were building up to do Halo 4.
Marty O’Donnell At some point during Reach, Microsoft started building 343 to be the people to take over Halo. It wasn’t always the friendliest transition in the world. I mean, it just was hard. This was our baby that we never owned. And we were going to give it over to a bunch of strangers. And the only person who had decided to stay with Microsoft and be part of the new order was Frankie (O’Connor).
Frank O’Connor I stayed with Bungie for a little bit and had to make a very hard choice about where to go. I’d been meeting with (343 studio head) Bonnie Ross and some of the other people from 343. Bonnie came in and I wondered, “Is this going to be a marketing person who doesn’t get the universe, or our fanbase?” I was concerned because I love Halo and wanted it to go into good hands. But she was really singularly impressive, and in fact if I hadn’t had those meetings with her I would’ve stayed at Bungie.
Marty O’Donnell There were on-going weird negotiations with Microsoft for a really long time, but I wasn’t involved with it anymore. It had to do with how much Bungie was going give code support for Halo going forward, and what happened with Bungie.net and how would we migrate lists of Bungie.net subscribers over to 343’s people. There wasn’t a lot of love between Microsoft and Bungie, dating back to early on in the negotiations, prior to Halo 3 being shipped.
Jaime Griesemer I considered going over to 343 for a while. I thought, well, I definitely know how to make a Halo game better than those guys, so maybe I’ll go over there. But my heart wasn’t in it, so I wouldn’t have done a good job over there, either. And they had their ideas for where they wanted to take it as well.
Marty O’Donnell I had no desire to talk to 343, because I was 100 percent Bungie, and 100 percent Destiny. I mean, essentially at that moment we were competitors, right? We were trying to make the Halo killer and they were trying to make Halo. It’s not like we had any animosity, but there was just no way that was going to happen.
Kiki Wolfkill (Halo narrative direction at 343) I joined 343 in 2008. I had been the director of art for Microsoft Studios and looked over first-party titles from that perspective. At that point Shane Kim was running the games division, and he had been talking to me for quite a while about moving into an executive producer position and leading up a games effort. Eventually they started talking about having Bonnie head up Halo.
I was given a few studio options to look at, and I met with Bonnie. I was already a huge Halo fan, and intrigued with her vision for what the studio could be, and the potential for the series. And what became clear in my first conversations with her was she really wasn’t thinking about just the next game, but the whole IP and franchise.
Dan Ayoub I was not working on internal stuff at that time. I came on late stage with Reach, probably in the last year. I wasn’t intending to be the guy who came in and told people how to do things. It was more about finding the gaps, and to help them push it over the line. And we were spinning up with Max Hoberman’s Certain Affinity to start doing some additional DLC, too.
Marty O’Donnell I didn’t know Frankie had made his decision to go to 343. I found out on a weekend. He had told Harold Ryan (Bungie studio head) on Friday, and Harold told me that afternoon, and then I called Frankie and said, “Let’s get together for coffee.” I spent two hours trying to convince him, asking: “What can I do to have you stay with us, rather than go to them?” But there were tons of reasons why 343 was better for him at the time, and I couldn’t convince him to stay with Bungie. In the long run, he probably was right. I think he might’ve seen some things that I wasn’t seeing.
Frank O’Connor I knew Destiny was going to be an RPG and RPGs are not my thing. And I knew Destiny was going to nail the shooting mechanics but I couldn’t care less about the grind—even now, in Halo, I don’t grind. So knowing I’d get to keep doing the thing that I love in terms of gameplay, but also as a universe I was now really very familiar with, was comforting in a way. And having Bonnie come in and inject a little bit of excitement about what we would be able to do was super valuable to me.
Marty O’Donnell There was a moment there where I was just like, wow, Frankie, come on. There was a certain amount of: Bungie invented this, Bungie owns the lore, we’re all still together. And sure, 343 were going to do what they were going to do, but we weren’t going to help them.
Max Hoberman (several Halo series roles, including lead on Halo 3) At some point, the nascent 343 group reached out to us at Certain Affinity, and I’m fairly certain it was at Frank’s bidding. They were interested in doing a Halo digital download game. So we pitched a bunch of ideas, we had some really cool ones—I still have one to this day that I’m dying to make—and we all locked onto one that we were super excited about. We got really close to putting a contract in place, and then the Halo Waypoint website came along and it had become a priority.
So, the other stuff we were thinking about doing got canned, and we ended up going on to Waypoint. I won’t lie, I was pretty bummed. But it did rekindle this relationship with Microsoft, and then we got pulled on to work on a multiplayer map pack for Reach.
Dan Ayoub Max and I clicked pretty quickly. We’re not actively working on something right now, but we still talk. I really respect his opinions on just gaming in general and certainly around a lot of Halo.
Obviously the Certain Affinity guys got Halo very quickly, with the Reach DLC, because a lot of them were from Bungie and Max understood the flow, understood weapon placement and things like that. And what came out of that was a very long relationship that continues to this day, because we worked with them on Reach, Halo 4, Combat Evolved Anniversary, and the Master Chief Collection.
Max Hoberman 343 wants to be really, and I appreciate this, respectful of the franchise. I think some of the fun ideas we had first put out as pitches to them, they were just really nervous and a little too out of left field, a little too casual. So we ended up settling on something more serious and closer to what the Halo games were than any of our ideas, for better or worse. We remade seven Halo maps for Anniversary, plus a Firefight map, or something like that. And that was probably what I would call the beginning of our current, sort of on-going relation with Microsoft.
Dan Ayoub Anniversary’s multiplayer used the Reach engine as a base. So my conversation with Max was just, “Hey, what are the maps you found most exciting or were most passionate about that we can revisit, and modernize?” We had to make some structural changes, taking into account player mobility in Reach. But Max was in right away. He thought that challenge was great.
“If Halo 4 is the start of the next big part of John's arc, where does he need to go and where, more importantly, do we want him to end up?”— Kiki Wolfkill
Kiki Wolfkill When I came on at 343, there were maybe nine people. And we had these two threads: what do we need to do to carry Halo forward, and who do we want to be as a studio? There was a lot of making sure we understood every single piece of Halo, not just from a player perspective, but from a development perspective. Where did it come from, what are the things that are important, what is its heart and soul that we need to make sure to preserve, and what we want to build on or evolve or change or make different? It was all really complex.
Ryan Payton (Halo 4 creative director/narrative designer, and founder of Camouflaj) I shipped Metal Gear Solid 4 in June of 2008 and I had about four months of paid vacation built up. I went back home to Washington State and discovered some health issues with my family that I needed to take care of. About a month later I flew back to Japan and I told Konami and Hideo that I had to quit and they were very supportive. As I flew back home after living in Japan for five years, I had to think seriously about what I wanted to do next.
I had a very peculiar skillset. I was not a trained designer, programmer or producer, but I was involved in a lot of interesting, high-level aspects of Metal Gear Solid. So with no relative work experience outside of Japan, how could I apply my unique resume to western development? I remember when news hit online that I was leaving Konami, within 15 minutes, I had an email from a Microsoft recruiter saying they wanted me to meet with me.
Frank O’Connor As much as we were starting to build a basis for Halo 4, most of the effort and energy was going into building a team from scratch. And we couldn't cut corners: this was a Halo game, so we had to get the best people.
Ryan Payton At the time there was no name for 343 Industries, it was just the Halo studio. When I joined we had some ideas about different projects, but it was undefined. At the beginning, I spent maybe half of my time recruiting.
When I came in to interview at Microsoft, I didn’t know what job I was interviewing for. Midway through the interview process they asked me questions like, “If you were creative director on Halo, what would you do?” It was then when I realized what I was interviewing for, and then I just went for it.
Kiki Wolfkill I think we were driven a lot early on by where we wanted to take John’s (Master Chief’s) story. And we wanted to be able to tell a story over the next ten years. We wanted to map out what his hero’s journey looked like. We knew that’d take more than one game, and maybe more than just games to tell it. But if this is the start of the next big part of John’s arc, where does he need to go and where, more importantly, do we want him to end up?
Ryan Payton Ever since I played Halo: CE I’ve been a massive fan of the franchise. When Halo 3 came out, I had it overnighted from Seattle to Tokyo, and the next day I brought it to the studio and made sure that everybody—including Hideo—looked closely at the game. I knew Halo 3 was a landmark game for the industry.
Some folks were really interested in the gunplay, others were more interested in the graphics. Hideo gets motion sickness, so he wasn’t able to look at the game much. I remember he asked me to shoot a plant near the start of the jungle level. When it reacted, he nodded in affirmation and walked off. I remember wanting to show him more of the game...
Kiki Wolfkill We knew early on that we wanted to add a new enemy type to Halo 4. So figuring out how to make it work within the sandbox and not disrupt it was a focus of a lot of the design work. We also were learning a new engine. And I think if I look back on 4, one of the biggest struggles we had was that iteration wasn’t as quick as we would’ve liked it to be.
We went through a lot of back and forth on visual design, in terms of the story we wanted the character design to tell, and what we wanted people to understand about the Prometheans and Forerunners just by looking at them. In parallel to that, we were iterating through how they needed to move and react, and how they needed to fit into the sandbox. Melding these things together and iterating on them was bumpier I think than anyone would've liked.
Ryan Payton I really liked the people I interviewed with. They were genuine and passionate about what they were doing, and everyone wanted to break the mold. They wanted to take risks, which was music to my ears.
Kiki Wolfkill I think Ryan originally had a different vision for Halo 4. He had some really amazing and expansive ideas, and injected a lot of fresh and valuable perspectives into Halo, coming from his Metal Gear background. It was always a pleasure to work with him, and I think his ideas were always welcomed because of the place they’d come from, which was not being professionally steeped in Halo.
Ryan Payton I challenged myself and the team to think differently about what a Halo sequel could be. As a massive Halo fan, I thought the best thing we could do to embody the spirit of Bungie was to take risks, so I pushed many progressive ideas that initially got a lot of traction within the company.
However, I think the problem we had with doing something creatively challenging and risky is that we were attempting to do this with a new team that had never shipped anything together. I believe that both my successes and failures at 343 were ultimately the result of my naiveté about how important it is to have a solid team with multiple titles under its belt before taking on something as wild and as crazy as I was proposing for Halo 4.
Frank O’Connor I had worked with Ryan on some prototyping that we did on a project that was really cool, that still exists, that’s still extant, and we might go back to it one day. That preceded working with him on Halo 4, on content and lore. And a lot of Ryan’s ideas are good, natural evolutions of the Halo universe and the Halo systems, if that makes sense. And those systems span fiction and gameplay. With his vision, Halo would’ve evolved into something that wasn’t necessarily a traditional FPS.
Ryan Payton To give you an example of the kind of creativity that I’m interested in, you know, Halo is 90 percent shooting. [So] what more compelling territory can we explore then, in mission 5 of Halo 4, [if we] have no shooting? That’s one of the directions I gave the design team, which was hard for them to get excited about because so much of Halo is about shooting stuff. It actually got a lot of pushback, obviously we never ended up shipping that mission...
Kiki Wolfkill I think when it came down to executing on the FPS and bringing all the ideas in the story, that’s where sometimes it was a challenge for Ryan. But I think we would always get to place where a lot of his story ideas were able to come through. He was really passionate about writing and expansive storytelling—but I don’t think you can fit all of those ideas into one experience, and sometimes that led to a lack of focus on the core experience.
Ryan Payton I was full speed ahead on the project for two years, not sticking my head above water or caring much for much outside of the game except for my family. Every book I read was related to Halo. Every movie I watched was for Halo 4. Every game I played was for Halo 4. I was one hundred percent in. Then one day I was informed that I was no longer creative director. Effective immediately, I was now narrative director, in a diminished role, and not managing the design team. That was a hard day.
“I was interested in the storytelling ambitions of what it meant to be a Spartan, and the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana was a point of endless fascination to me.”— Josh Holmes
Kiki Wolfkill Any designer will say it’s always a challenge to get the picture in your head into execution. How you get there, that’s a big gulf for any designer to bridge. And I think with something as big and complex as what we were doing with a new team and a new engine, there were a lot of factors coming into play at the same time.
Ryan Payton Early in the project when we were prototyping many ideas. Some ideas worked out and some didn’t, which is just part of the creative process. Even though I’m extremely critical of myself, I’m grateful for how much I learned about myself after the demotion. I knew I could have handled some management situations differently. It was really important for me to go through that. I had a meteoric rise in the game industry and had been really lucky. It was time for a dosage of reality. My demotion was good reminder that life can come with a lot of disappointment. You don’t always get what you want. I felt that God was trying to bring balance to my career. [laughs]
Frank O’Connor None of the really revolutionary stuff that Ryan was talking about properly made it into the prototyping. It’s fair that if we had shipped the game Ryan had in mind it wouldn’t have been much like what we ended up with; but he never got to that state of prototyping or completion, so it’s kind of moot from a practical sense.
Ryan Payton That was just an embarrassing year, because you’re looking people in the eye, or people don’t want to look you in the eye because you used to be their boss’s boss and now they’re not sure where you fit within the pecking order. And I was also really unclear about to what degree of influence I had on the project moving forward. And it was clear that the Halo 4 was going in a different direction than I had envisioned, and so it was really hard for me to kind of keep up and stay engaged. During that year I was definitely thinking maybe this is not the right place for me anymore, and I had to start thinking about what I would do next.
Kiki Wolfkill Around the time Ryan left, in the summer of 2011, we were really in the chute in terms of making the game. We weren’t just ideating on a game, it was sort of rubber meets road. And I think the whole team was very much execution-focused at that point. And obviously we had Josh Holmes come in as creative director, before Ryan left, so there wasn’t a clear shift.
Josh Holmes (Halo 4 creative director, Halo 5 producer, and 343’s head of internal development) I was coming in, trying to understand what pieces were in place with the experience, what the goals were for the game. I was taking a lot of ideas that had been set in motion and boiling them down into something that was practically achievable.
Ryan Payton One of my failures on the project was that I wasn’t able to inspire enough people to get behind those bigger ideas. I came into Microsoft ill-equipped to influence people on a scale like that, within the Microsoft machine.
And I wouldn’t say that all my ideas weren’t working—we had playable prototypes that proved out many of them. Some of those ideas eventually found their way into Halo 5. The biggest idea, which I can’t get into, definitely made people uncomfortable, which was a natural reaction, I think. You should ask them.
Max Hoberman As far as I could tell, from the information I gathered, they had done a pretty serious reboot on what Halo 4 had been.
Frank O’Connor I don’t think there was a hard reboot. I mean, it was different from Ryan’s perspective because he had some cool ideas that just didn’t make it into the game, and some of those he was really passionate about. Ultimately, when we parted ways, it was because of that sort of difference.
Josh Holmes Ryan and I had a good relationship when I came into 343, and we’ve maintained that since. I’m really impressed with the game (République) that he’s released at Camouflaj.
At the time Ryan had a lot of great ideas about where he wanted to take the game, and I think he was struggling to take those ideas from the theoretical space into what we could build as a team. So what I was asked to do was focus on taking those ideas and working with the team to get them into a playable experience. The two of us had a lot of great conversations.
Frank O’Connor Josh took over as creative director and while that might’ve been troubling, he really righted that ship very quickly. Within a couple weeks we were back to a steady plan and he really just kept it moving.
Josh Holmes The way we develop the experience here is to work across the teams and go through prototype and iteration, trying to stand up an experience as quickly as possible within the game, so that you can get your hands on it. To understand not just what you might envision, but to be able to play it.
Some of the early ideas we had for Halo 4 are still represented in the final product. That being said, I definitely took the team on a wayward path towards something very different. The team ended up shipping something more traditional, which I think was a good move considering that this was the team’s first Halo project together.
For better or worse, Halo 4 feels like a sequel to Halo 3, and that’s what I wanted to avoid. In fact, I wanted to change the game so much that we couldn’t even call it Halo 4. There’s a hint of that idea in Halo 4, but it’s not obvious...
If I could do it all over again, I would’ve fought hard to not make Halo 4 as it shipped or this innovative, forward-thinking Halo game we dreamt up. I would have remade Halo: CE internally at 343—for Xbox 360 or Xbox One—and made it a faithful, unbelievably beautiful, well-designed remake that would teach the team how to ship together, how to work within this engine, and how to earn respect from the fans. We should have done that before creating something wild and crazy.
Frank O’Connor Some of the stuff Ryan took with him to Camouflaj is absolutely representative of at least the tone of some of what he was shooting for, with Halo 4.
Josh Holmes Kiki had a lot of direction regarding where she wanted to take things, which made things easier for me. Frank had laid out the overarching story that we wanted to tell across the franchise—then it was about trying to manage the moment-to-moment experience.
I was interested in the storytelling ambitions of what it meant to be a Spartan, and to have gone through all the experiences that Master Chief had gone through. And the relationship between him and Cortana was a point of endless fascination to me. In many ways, she’s more human than he is, and he’s starting to grapple with his own humanity at the exact moment when he’s losing the thing that means the most to him. Those were the things to me that really spoke to me.
Kiki Wolfkill We had a lot of debate around how much story do you put around Master Chief. When does it start to take away from your sense of empowerment and living as him? And what should the ultimate fate of Cortana be? She has a limited lifespan, but she’s beloved by fans. Those were the two big and constant story conversations.
Frank O’Connor Halo 4’s funny, because over the years its reception has got better, as people have become used to its intricacies and nuance. But we saw a lot of outright rejection of some of its multiplayer stuff, which we fixed in content updates after the fact.
I think the number one thing that we lost in the multiplayer, but that we know now and kind of knew then, is symmetry. We had some asymmetrical game types and that was the thing the people who didn’t like it focused on most, that it wasn’t that simple four-by-four symmetry.
Max Hoberman Halo 4 stuff was a challenging project. But it’s always hard when the tools and the technology are in development simultaneously, while you’re trying to be in production, and co-development is always challenging.
We had a lot of history with the Halo franchise and we understood a lot of core fundamentals, and we were working with a group that was mostly, especially at a decision-making level, fairly new to Halo. And they wanted to do things the way they wanted to do things, and we had very little voice in the discussion. We just kind of had to go with the flow, and you can imagine that’s challenging.
Josh Holmes Every day was pretty muc