Halo 4’s Master Chief and Community Ownership

The release of Halo 4 earlier this week put an end to both the excited and nervous anticipation of the renewal of a franchise in transition. Now in the very capable hands of 343 Industries, Halo is with us forever now or at least until the studio rounds out their own trilogy. The smooth transference of ownership — and more importantly the community’s positive reaction to it — reflects a continuation of the changing relationship between player communities and developers.

For fans of the series, Master Chief’s return has been a long time coming. Halo: Reach launched two years ago, but the game was a side story and mechanical departure from the standard Halo series. Master Chief has been slumbering for over five years since the release of Halo 3, longer than his actual cryogenic sleep between the events in Halo 3 and Halo 4.

343’s reclamation of the Halo franchise after Bungie departed brought the studio more than just a healthy and profitable series. The characters of Cortana and Master Chief are for the most part characters in transition. The studio also now manages the series’ huge fan base. Players that have been with the Chief since the first Halo are now interacting with developers who were players themselves 11 years ago.

Active community members, the individuals who once flooded the Bungie forum, preached their love of their game on fan sites, or worked on expanding any number of Halo wikis, are now sourcing their content and their inspiration from another font. Even Halo detractors have a new target to criticize, “haters gonna hate,” as they say. 343 inherited more than a game. They inherited a community.

While the significance of this transition should not be understated, this is not the first time a beloved franchise has changed hands. The amount of trepidation and vitriol that came out of the gaming community must have reached epic proportions when Retro Studios took control over the Metroid series. Metroid: Prime released to incredibly positive reviews, and at least until recently (when Team Ninja took control), the Samus persona felt alive and strong.

The difference, of course, is that Metroid: Prime and its new first-person perspective was a huge transition from its 2D roots. Of course, other major departures have shifted expectations and outcomes related to various games. Fumito Ueda announcing his departure from Sony recently naturally made fans, including myself, worried about Team Ico’s continuing success. On the other hand, Halo 4 sets itself apart by its sheer size and continued market strength.

These sorts of transitions, particularly when they are well received, remind us that these characters, stories, and worlds are amorphous, collaborative creations. Master Chief may never die simply because we won’t let him. Players have strong stakes in game worlds, which a passionate collection of Mass Effect fans made perfectly clear when their demands for an altered ending to Mass Effect 3 was met by Bioware.

Likewise, older franchises have seen revivals and reboots in recent years (thanks, Kickstarter), some by teams composed mostly of developers new to the their respective franchises. Indeed, ownership of characters like Master Chief have never been in the hands of one person. From licensed comic books to community written fan-fiction, the Chief has always been an amalgamation of influences. With the character almost effortlessly switching hands, how else might the ownership of cultural artifacts change in the future?

Wired recently published a fascinating article on Japanese Pop-star sensation Hatsune Miku. Unlike most teen idols, Miku is entirely digital. Her clothes, songs, and even her dance moves are by and large created by her fan community. Yes, she is technically owned as intellectual property, but she enjoys an unfettered connection with her followers. Miku is literally the digital manifestation of her community’s appreciation. She is a recursive cultural artifact that dances on puppet strings held by millions.

Is Master Chief so different? How far removed from this digital freedom are our most beloved video game icons? Bowser appears in this year’s Wreck-It Ralph, a film about a completely fictional video game character, who (appropriately enough) escapes from the confines of his own game. With this circumstance, we can add a whole new meaning to “video game escapism”. Why should Master Chief ever take an indefinite slumber in Cryo again?

With his transition into 343’s hands, we can easily imagine a cycle of movement. When this trilogy is done, another can take control. And when development tools get into the hands of the player community, freely given or otherwise, why not release Master Chief from the traditional chains of ownership? Many of our modern icons may go the way of Miku, becoming vessels of community interests carried by development studios and even the fans themselves.

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