"Writing enduring original IP, creating a universe of stories is one of the most challenging things you'll ever do as a writer, but it's also the most rewarding," says Bungie's Joe Staten.
Creating the Halo universe, now several games into a massive universe, "really has been this whirlwind of excitement and terror", he noted as part of his Game Narrative Summit keynote.
At GDC Online in Austin, Staten addressed an audience of writers as a veteran responsible for an enormous world -- and now heading into the creation process of Bungie's "next big thing."
But he never forgets that with the original Halo, the marquee for Microsoft's brand new console, success was far from assured. So they treated that title as if it were their last -- and it turns out that's a solid way to ground a narrative.
"Halo wasn't perfect by any stretch, but [we had] laser-like focus on this one game... like it'd be the only game we'd ever make," said Staten. "This focus really paid off and enabled everything that came after it."
The most important lesson learned from the development of the original Halo, he says, is that place should always come before plot. "It would have been madness for us to write a script up front... and in fact, the scripts we tried to write got blown apart," he reflects.
So instead, "we focused on building blocks, on interesting places, interesting characters. We tried to construct this context for all the stories we could tell."
The cinematic and mission scripts came late in development, Staten says. "Fight the impulse to start with plot -- make an enduring place that allows many plots."
And faceless, iconic Master Chief, the hero of the first three main titles, works as a character not because he's an elaborate personality, but because he's the "perfect reflection of power projection," Staten explains. "Halo isn't great for its story. Halo is great because it's fun to play -- it allows every player to be this powerful actor in a rich physical simulation."
The downside of the first title's laser-like focus, he continues, is that no one made plans for the future, setting the team up for the "dreaded sophomore slump" in the second Halo game. "It was the perfect storm of design and technical over-reach, and who can forget the cliffhanger? Certainly not me, and certainly not my fine friends in the press," he joked of the second game's ending.
"Halo 2 had one of the best final acts I've ever written," he says ruefully -- "that nobody ever saw. And that's painful... but if you have the most beautiful thing in the world and it doesn't end up getting made, who cares," he says.
And thus the most important lesson he feels he has to offer from the world of Halo -- writing for games is about building worlds, not writing words, something that can be hard for heavily verbal storytelling types to grasp. He alluded to the egocentricism of most writers as artists and creators, explaining how they tend to be sensitive about the way their work is used, or insistent about the way the design teams implement their narratives.
"Most people on your teams are never going to read your scripts," he said. "Your most important words are for internal use only... don't be 'that guy', you don't want to be this out-of-touch, unrealistic writer on your team," he says. "Know the strengths and weaknesses of your game and your tech; write within those limits, and make everyone responsible for the story," he advises.
Writers shouldn't aim to develop massive canons -- "they're unwieldy and hard to shoot," he joked. "The best way to invite people into your universe... is to make safe pockets where they can play, with simple rules and clear boundaries but a lot of internal freedom."
"Don't be offended," Staten added, highlighting the importance of staying humble and meshing well with the design. "They want your worlds, not your words."
Much of Staten's talk was devoted to a question-and-answer session with the writers in attendance. Although he was strict about being unable to talk about Bungie's "next big thing," one attendee submitted a question that asked in very broad terms what other areas of design the team was hoping to address that perhaps they hadn't in the development of Halo.
[UPDATE: As much of his talk was dedicated to world-building, Staten said he felt it was a shame that most gamers could only spend handfuls of hours in the Halo world with each game they'd made. "Wouldn't it be great if we could make a world that was always there for you?" He posed, speaking with almost comedic precision to avoid a factual statement.