LOS ANGELES — Microsoft believes that it can take its multibillion-dollar Halo video game series into Hollywood. It is doing so with two major video events — a digital feature from director Ridley Scott and a possible Showtime television series from Steven Spielberg.
The maker of the Xbox One believes the two shows will help sell its video game console and the Xbox Live entertainment service that sits atop it. If it succeeds, Halo could become a big money-maker on two different kinds of media for the publisher. Microsoft is disclosing more details about the shows at its press conference today at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) conference. From what Microsoft has said so far, it is experimenting with creating multiple points of entry for a single entertainment property. The TV shows and the games will influence each other and pull fans across the TV-game divide.
The Halo sci-fi shooter series, starring supersoldier Master Chief in his crusade against the alien Covenant, has sold more than 50 million copies since the first game debuted in 2001. Microsoft will stoke demand for the series as it launches the Halo Master Chief Collection, a single disk with all four previous Master Chief games as well as the initial episode of Ridley Scott’s Halo: Nightfall digital film feature. The collection goes on sale for $60 on Nov. 11, the 10th anniversary of Halo 2. Fans of the TV show could gravitate to the games, and the games could draw in TV viewers.
“Nightfall is a specific story that basically connects the past to the future,” said Bonnie Ross, the general manager of Halo developer 343 Industries, at a recent press event. “We are not talking about the [Spielberg] TV series and we are not talking about Halo 5. Look at Nightfall as a very deliberate piece that connects Halo 4 to Halo 5.”
Halo franchise development director Frank O’Connor said at the press event, “Including Forward Unto Dawn [a previous Halo streaming series], these things are in the same universe. Characters will walk back and forth between them in a natural way,” as far as Halo 5, Nightfall, and the television series go.
Last year, Ross said at E3 that Master Chief’s journey would begin in 2014. Now she says that meant that the collection and the Nightfall series would pick up the story and it would be continued in Halo 5 in 2015.
“This is the first time we will tell a story over two years,” she said.
The game-TV tie-in — just the first in a series of game-related original television shows — is an attempt to completely enthrall the fans of the game series with new live-action TV shows that they will love, keeping them loyal to Microsoft’s platform and creating demand for its Xbox Live online service and its Xbox One console. The strategy is akin to the original shows coming from rivals Amazon (Alpha House, Betas) and Netflix (Orange is the New Black, House of Cards).
Microsoft’s 343 Industries, which inherited Halo from its creator, Bungie, is collaborating with Scott’s Scott Free TV on the Nightfall series as well as with Spielberg’s Amblin Television. While the Nightfall series will debut inside a game as well as on the Web, the Spielberg show is expected to appear first on the cable network Showtime, based on recent rumors.
“We embarked on a Halo digital feature [Forward Unto Dawn] a couple of years ago,” said Nancy Tellem, the head of Xbox Entertainment Studios and former head of CBS Television, in a recent press briefing. “It was a risk at the time because we weren’t sure how the fans would react. As it happened, it was really well-received.
“It showed [the fans’] appetite, wanting to learn more about the characters and flesh out the mythology that’s revealed in the games. I think about 50 million unique viewers watched that, which in my world would be fantastic. But it also highlighted the love of the game, how a rich storytelling opportunity with Halo was something [the filmmakers] were very sensitive to, making sure they were respectful of the fans.”
She made it clear that 343 Industries is in charge of the Halo universe. Shooting has begun on the Nightfall, which has a higher budget than the Forward Unto Dawn series. Microsoft still has to make a lot of decisions about how to reach fans. It could do so with a subscription service, or it could rely upon advertising and make the shows free. It could also make the shows free as part of a purchase of a $60 game, as it is doing with Nightfall‘s inclusion in the Halo Master Chief Collection. Tellem said that the shows will likely experiment with digital interactivity, rather than just appear as passive viewing experiences.
The Nightfall project’s executive producers are Ridley Scott and Scott Free TV president David Zucker. Sergio Mimica-Gezzan (Battlestar Galactica, The Pillars of the Earth, Heroes) is directing the show.
Ross said that Nightfall‘s story is “a very deliberate piece” that connects Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2, Halo 3, and Halo 4 to next year’s Halo 5: Guardians. The new characters seen in the show will play “a very interesting role” in that game.
As for other Nightfall distribution opportunities, Ross said Microsoft is still working out how Nightfall becomes accessible after the collection disk debuts. O’Connor said that it’s not yet clear how many episodes there will be.