There is something to be said for a personal narrative. One which is crafted from the heart of the writer, in which their entire being is placed onto the page. The sum of all experiences, the joy and the pain is written in word. These stories have a certain genuine style, of which is difficult to replicate. Many of the most prolific science fiction authors such as Phillip K. Dick, wrote not because they were paid to, but because they had to. In Dick's case, it was because of his drug induced paranoia and the hallucinations that accompanied. His novels did not sell well, and even though many of his most popular books such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Man In The High Castle received critical acclaim, the public was mostly unaware of his brilliance.
Dick passed away in 1982, never knowing that only months later, his works would be passed around into lucrative hands and made into blockbuster films. The Minority Report, Total Recall, Paycheck, The Man In The High Castle and many, many more were all transformed into film or TV adaptations to great acclaim. But, as with any mass market media, they were watered down and appealed to a much larger audience than he originally intended.
One of Dick's works was an anomaly, an outsider. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was adapted by director Ridely Scott, under the title Blade Runner. Perhaps it was dumb luck, or the fact that Mr. Scott himself was an anomaly, that Blade Runner not only captured the novel before it, but surpassed it in every way. Before Dick's death, he saw a screening of the film and called it "surreal & intoxicating." Blade Runner went on to be, what is considered by many, the most significant work of science fiction ever crafted. A legacy in which we all ask ourselves, who is the replicant, and who is the human being.
But this is not the rule, it is the exception. Unless someone has the ability and vision to craft a narrative masterpiece, a mass consumed story will always be straight forward and withing complexity. Not everyone, is a Phillip K. Dick, not everyone is a Ridely Scott. And that, is more than ok. As Rachael said...
"I'm not in the business Mr. Deckard, I am the business..."
Halo is a multi-billion dollar franchise, three billion to be exact.  That's quite a lot of money, exchanging quite a lot of different hands. Lets break that down. If every Halo game is sold for $60USD, and the franchise has made $3B-USD, than that means over sixty million copies have been sold. That is 1/6th the population of the United States, that is a large number. Have you ever wondered how so many copies are sold, to so many different people? People who share a complex background of culture, location, income bracket, literacy level and education. It's somewhat staggering actually, and it is a science unto itself. But in order to reach a wider audience, somethings within the franchise must be streamlined so as to appeal to as many people as possible.
First, we need to look at what a typical AAA video game takes to develop. In general, developing a AAA game is a massive undertaking, comprised of anywhere between a hundred to up to four hundred developers. Artists, coders, engineers, designers and writers must collaborate together in order to realize a singular vision. That unto itself is a difficult undertaking, as the AAA industry, contrary to popular opinion, allow for a great deal of freedom to the developers to go about just how they develop the game. For instance, an artist may have a certain idea about a level, and a designer may say something along the lines of "wonderful art, but this wont work with the level design we have planned out." All of these conflicting ideas can delay progress, and contract the budget the studio has to work under. In terms of the narrative in a AAA video game, writers within the industry are not usually as well trained in narrative development as say, the movie industry or authorial publishing industry. There are many reasons why this is. The games industry is still very young, so the talent pool is quite small. The major reason however, is that video games are still treated as "toys" and consumer products for the most part and not as art. The positive is that this is changing, slowly but surely.
Going along with the narrative angle, it's a very different style of writing than any other industry by simple way of how the story is told. In a film or novel, the view or readers is an outside participant, following the world and characters through an observatory role. Whereas, in a game, the player is a direct participant of the narrative. This presents a lot of challenges for a games industry writer, even more still for a traditional author. A game's narrative must synchronize with the environment, pacing and gameplay. As we see with many games who fail to recognize this delicate cohesive dance, a syncing of all aspects of development is crucial to a successful release and overall positive experience. Again, this is very difficult thing to do with the constraints of budget, deadline and abstract costs looming over a studio's head.
To break it down, a AAA game usually costs several hundred million dollars.  That accounts for development, marketing, product outreach, publishing and product outreach. Within these aspects, you also have to factor in unforeseen hitches in development such as level re-design, balancing issues, narrative re-writes and conflicts within the collaborative environment. The games industry functions under the assumption that is is the same quality as the film or novel industries, and that is not the case. Management and executive decisions based on this mentality often are the sole reasons which determines a game's success. Again, the games industry is a youthful one, being around in a professional iteration for less than three decades. It's hard to demand great monoliths of art when the artist making such masterpieces has only be doing so for a minuscule amount of time.
I used to run a video game development studio out of sorts. I say "sorts" because it wasn't really a business or for the sole purpose of publishing games to a mass market. Instead, we focused on the angle of education and teaching other's the various aspects of game development. Without a doubt, the single hardest aspect of development for most people was the design phase. That is, finding out what they wanted their game to be, do and function as. That is not to say they did not, right away, have a solid concept. It was more the fact that neither designers or engineers could agree on their proof of concept. Most courses I taught in game development were around ten weeks, some less. The teams present had only ten weeks to figure out a concept, design it, program it and then test for stability. That is far less than the average AAA game, and they had to do so without a budget, the pressure of marketing their game to the general public, or having to refine their game in a way that most common consumer's could grasp easily.
That last bit, is probably the most important aspect of AAA game development. Making a game, that appeals to a wide audience and that the common consumer can grasp. From experience, I know that anywhere between twenty and thirty percent of a AAA game budget goes to play-testing and consumer SaaS (Software as a Service.) These two aspects are incredibly important in terms of how well a game, made under the sky of hundreds of millions of dollars, will sell. After perhaps a year of hard development time, after much of the budget has been dropped on the actual building of a pre-alpha, various testing contractors are out-sourced to provide people who will devote a few weeks to playing the current build of the game.
These play-testers are watched over by the developer and publisher with great care. "Do they look like they are having fun? Are they bored? Is there confusion as to the level design?" Many, many more questions will be asked, and pondered upon during this time. If the majority of users are getting frustrated easily, don't understand the story or for a plethora of other reasons, the game goes back to the drawing board.
Entire swaths of the narrative may be cut, entire levels removed and replaced with more easily accessible content for the average consumer. Now, this isn't just what happens during the development of Halo, but rather what happens across the board. Publishing companies are not going asked the hardest of hardcore franchise fans to come and play-test their game, for two major reasons. One, there is personal bias and the players may say they like something even if they don't. Second, existing fans already have a good grasp the play-style and narrative of the franchise, so there is little to gain in terms of new feedback. Who they will have come and test their game, is the average Joe. The guy on the street who has never heard of "Xbox" or "Halo." That is because, if the average person can grasp the narrative and gameplay, common sense says that the majority of consumers will as well.
This is solid, almost un-penetrable logic. The laurels of many game franchises have rested on this tried and true method. But the big question is, even though this process succeeds in making the millions back spent to developer the game, are fans of the franchise at a loss? Have they been overlooked for the greater good of the common consumer? Let me say, from someone who has walked the halls of video game development his entire life, no. No this is not the case, and never will be. There is something within multi-billion dollar franchises called "diversifying factors of consumption," and it is the very reason why Halo's story continues to thrive outside of the main games.
Most of Halo-Nation knows what "expanded universe" means. For those that do not, it is the expansion of a fictional franchise with materials outside of the main series. As an example, the Alien franchise has some incredibly diverse entries into its extended universe. I still consider the Alien novel River of Pain to be on par with the first two films in the franchise. Recently, the franchise released its entire story-bible under the name The Wyland-Yutani Report. The reason that Fox Studios began to release these extended fictional materials to consumers was for the simple fact that two new films are approaching in 2017 and 2018. What better way to gain interest than by releasing new editions of the previous films (Aliens 30th Anniversary was released this past month) and expanded lore materials to a wide array of fans? Two specific audiences were targeted. With the novels and story-bible, the more hardcore lore enthusiasts like myself who will without hesitation, eat up every bit of lore given to us. The re-releases of the films targeted the general consumer, as those who had never watched the films could now do so in high definition Blu-Ray and with added features that tie into the future films.
This two pronged approach to consumer marketing and outreach is incredibly effective and every year corporations who do so make millions of dollars back on their investment. Halo, 343 Industries and Microsoft are no different. They realize that there are two (or more) sub-sets of fans who each have specific desires in terms of what they want out of the franchise. Allocating the majority of the marketing and production budget to the games means that it must reach a broader audience as to gain that money back and make a profit. Bungie era games were very narrowly focused, often following only one or two plot arcs and having a very linear way of how it went about telling the narrative. With 343 Industry, they are attempting to weave a more impressive and complex story, while also catering to the general public. In order to do so, they need to focus on two primary sub-sets of fans, the minority lore addicts, and the majority general consumer. General consumers will gain more revenue, while lore savvy individuals will spread by word of mouth the incredible depth of Halo's narrative.
It makes sense to spread considerably less of the budget on fans like myself, who are heavily invested in the lore. By developing secondary supplemental materials like Halo Mythos and the novels, they can satisfy that fan-base while at the same time being more generally focused on the majority sub-set of the general consumer. In that regard, if the games feel more generalized and water-down, that is because they are. The general public isn't going to know who Blue Team is, nor are they going to relate to Jameson Locke the way those who watched Nightfall have. Halo 5 attempted, admirably, to tie in as much of the extended universe as possible while at the same time being linear in its narrative arcs.
The issue is, it seems that there is a distinct lack of trained or professional/academic grade writers at 343 Industries who can actually pull off such a feet. That is not to say, they will not adapt and learn how to do so, but generally it takes several years and decades to be able to masterfully craft a narrative which can tie in other media without seeming disorganized or jarring. There are a few writers at 343 Industries (a fellow UCSD alum, even) who are academically oriented. However, it takes more than one to deliver a complex and woven narrative. This is because peer-review is critical, and a writer who is academically and professionally oriented will have a difficult time considering the feedback of those writers who are more streamlined and market focused. The ideal solution is to break off the writers into two teams and have the market focused writers develop the game narrative, while the more academically inclined focus on the extended universe. In that sense, there will be less clutter and more cohesion in terms of the various arcs being developed.
Do not fear the business, nor the market. Without either of those entities, Halo would not have ever came to fruition. Do not criticize the author, instead guide them through their vision and concept. It is an easy thing to say how you would develop something, point out all the negatives, and fan the flames of what you fail to understand. Instead, see what the writers are doing, where they are going and lend a kind ear as to the positives and how it could be slightly altered with improvements.
Most importantly, realize that we are dealing with a consumer franchise. A product. While your feedback is considered, it is not the final word. Microsoft and 343 Industries have a vision and a direction for the franchise, and know what is best in terms of market stability and revenue gains. It may sound cold, but in the most general terms it is anything but. If you look at simple how much content 343 Industries have given the franchise, and how much more it continues to develop, it is clear that the people behind Halo care more about the fans than more developers would dare to consider.
While improvement can always benefit a fictional universe, some of those improvements come at a cost to how many people the universe reaches. Would you rather Halo fade into obscurity as a niche market, and at the cost of inferior content? Or instead, would you have Halo grow, thrive and reach out to fans across the globe with interesting and meaningful content?
Do not fear progress or its missteps, instead fear stagnation and its familiarity.
Sourced Materials Utilized For This Article
Dick, Philip K., and Richard M. Powers. Confessions of a Crap Artist. New York: Entwhistle Books, 1975.
Dwyer, F. Robert., and John F. Tanner. Business Marketing: Connecting Strategy, Relationships, and Learning. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Perry, S. D., Markus Pansegrau, and John Mullaney. Alien: The Weyland-Yutani Report.
Zackariasson, Peter, and Timothy L. Wilson. The Video Game Industry: Formation, Present State, and Future. New York: Routledge, 2012.
A Halo fan since the beginning, 2001. Also a games industry consultant, writer, and educator. These are my thoughts, praise and advice concerning the past, present and future narrative of the Halo franchise.
Halo, all assets within, characters and merchandise are property of the Microsoft Corporation and is developed by its subsidiary 343 Industries.
I do not own, claim to own or retain any rights to the Halo franchise. This is a fan based work, and is strictly non-profit.
All other images, articles linked, materials and franchises that are not strictly specified as my own are property of their respective owners.
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