The Expanding Universe of Halo - Josh Holmes tames transmedia

The success of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is practically synonymous with the success of Halo 3, the first-person shooter that was the first Xbox title to sell over 10 million copies. Indeed, the Halo franchise is the de facto case study for the explosive growth of the video-game industry.

But Halo is growing in altogether new directions, outside the scope of unit sales and revenue forecasts. “The Halo universe is so rich and diverse and deep that it really bears continued exploration and discovery, so we’ve focused on continuing to expand the universe through a number of different vehicles... Some of those are novels, some of those are comics,” said Canadian-born Josh Holmes, Executive Producer at 343 Industries, the division of Microsoft Game Studios that handles the Halo franchise.

“We do stuff like Halo Waypoint, a completely free community experience on [Xbox] Live, that’s just there to continue to provide compelling Halo content to the fans that love it. There are those fans who really care very deeply about that,” Holmes explained. “Those fans will continue to evangelize about the universe that they love so much, and potentially bring other people in, and introduce them to this amazing universe. There are those fans who aren’t going to care about a motion comic, for example, that tells some deeper, more intricate part of our universe’s history, and that’s not of interest to them, and that’s fine! If they’re more interested in the games, more interested in the novels, that’s fine.”

Halo was originally developed by Bungie LLC. Bungie was acquired by Microsoft in 2000, shortly after Halo was announced. Under that corporate stewardhip, two wildly successful sequels, Halo 2 and Halo 3, were released. Bungie then split from Microsoft, in 2007. While Microsoft and Bungie continue to maintain close ties for development related to the Halo franchise and other titles, 343 Industries was formed within Microsoft to handle the increasingly-complex “stewardship” of the Halo universe. This effort includes both community engagement and maintaining the coherence of the Halo narrative across many different products - two responsibilities that are not always easy to reconcile.

How can the official keepers of the Halo flame fulfill their mission in a world of transmedia storytelling and fan-generated content? “This is one of the things that a lot of [game] developers and creatives really struggle with,” Holmes said. “It’s really important to be able to create those spaces that are safe for the fans to play within, those walled gardens [where] they can develop their own fiction, and have a meaningful impact back on the franchise, because that creates a true exchange of ideas and a much deeper level of engagement.”

Holmes appreciates the dilemma of reconciling fan engagement with content stewardsihp, but he clearly believes it can be managed. “It definitely takes some courage on the part of the creatives to be able to invite their community and their fans into that creative process, and there do need to be boundaries,” he explained. “For us to maintain a cohesive storyline and universe that make sense, where everything can connect, we need to be able to draw those boundaries.”

Holmes points out that fans can be engaged and empowered without necessarily handing over the narrative reins. “[For] some things we can say, ’well, this may not be in our canon, but it’s OK for you to create your story in the way that you might want, to express your thoughts on this aspect of our history. We’re not going to say that it’s part of our canon, but that’s OK.’ That’s part of having the highly-engaged community that Halo does.”

Interview and photo: Charles Prémont, reporter @ Le Lien MULTIMÉDIA and

Text: Daniel de Segovia Gross, a nomadic Internet pioneer and software designer, who just might have been a first-person shooter in a previous life.

 [September 22, 2010]

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