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Content buried in the past

MGS Development Group Expands

Article by Holly Longdale, MicroNews Staff WriterGame Universe (Archived version by Archive.org)
After seven weeks and 95,000 words, Microsoft Games Studios' (MGS) first game novel, Halo: The Fall of Reach, was complete.

The task of writing a prequel to the story in Bungie Studios' Xbox game Halo® was assigned to Eric Nylund, content writer in MGS and accomplished author. Nylund has written five science-fiction/fantasy novels, one of which, Dry Water, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award.

Every morning, Nylund spends two to four hours working on his next novel before heading to Microsoft's Millennium campus from his home in North Bend, Washington, where he lives with his wife, Syne Mitchell, an author and retired Microsoft employee. He said each novel takes about a year to write.

Nylund said the seven-week deadline he faced for writing Halo: The Fall of Reach was a little daunting. But, unlike his other fiction, he had an established story "bible" from which to work that contained names of people and places. Nylund also had the convenience of working down the hall from the Halo lead game designer, John Howard.

Not only did Nylund accomplish the assignment, but he also went 10,000 words over his target word count by adding three chapters.

The book was published in October 2001, one month before the release of the game. It's now in its ninth printing, with 124,000 copies sold. It was picked up by the Science Fiction Book Club for a hardcover edition.

"My novels capture a certain audience," Nylund said. "With this novel, I was able to capture a new game audience with a huge fan base."

Nylund also contributed to Crimson Skies, based on the PC game of the same name, which was published in October.

Brute Force: Betrayals by Dean Wesley Smith also was published in October. A second Halo novel is due in April, a third in fiscal year 2004.

Where did the idea to publish novels based on Microsoft's game properties come from? The MGS Franchise Development Group (FDG).

"Publishing novels offered a way for us to develop the game universe," said Nancy Figatner, business-development manager in FDG. "We created a new kind of publishing agreement with Del Rey Books."

Eric Trautmann, lead content developer in FDG, played a critical role in getting the first Halo novel written, edited, and sent off to the publisher. Chapter by chapter, Trautmann reviewed Nylund's work to ensure that it was true to the vision of the game's designers and the story guide that his team created—now 600 pages thick.

"The novel had to be high quality," Trautmann said. "We want people to see the MGS and Xbox logos and know that the product is good."

The FDG team has to have a deep knowledge of MGS games, including weapons that different creatures use, colors of armor, landscape, and much more. For example, Crimson Skies, a more established game, has five volumes in its story bible.

"I get paid to be like a Star Trek geek," Trautmann said.

Games are not just software, Figatner said. They are an entertainment model that has created a whole new experience with licensing intellectual properties.

FDG also works on licensing for toys, entertainment such as film and television, and cross-platform products.

Doug Zartman, content specialist in FDG, had to pay attention to the same minutiae for the prequel novel Brute Force: Betrayals.

"Late in the book's development, the game team added a fundamental new technology to their universe," Zartman said. "There wasn't time for a rewrite from the author, so I found an appropriate scene and wrote a line foreshadowing this 'experimental technology'—just enough to ensure continuity between the book and the game."

Halo: First Strike Author Eric Nylund

Article by Marty Greene (Archived version by Archive.org)
Eric Nylund has published seven novels: virtual reality thrillers A Signal Shattered and Signal To Noise; contemporary fantasy novels Pawn’s Dream and Dry Water (nominated for the 1997 World Fantasy Award); the science fantasy novel A Game of Universe; and two of our favorites, Halo: The Fall of Reach and now Halo: First Strike. I was lucky enough to get Eric to take time out of a rainy Seattle day to talk about his experience working in the Halo® universe.

First Strike went on sale recently and has been very well received by fans—which makes sense considering Nylund's first Halo novel, Halo: The Fall of Reach, has sold close to 200,000 copies and appeared on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list. It surprised some fans that he didn't return to write the second novel in the series, Halo: The Flood.

"I knew the second novel would be a difficult project, covering the events of the game. If you're a fan, you've already played through these events—so half the fans are going to be mad because it's not exactly like the game … and the other half will be mad because it's too much like the game.

“Bill [William C. Dietz] did a great job with it. He gave us our first look inside the Covenant, showed what the ODST [Orbital Drop Shock Troopers] can really do, and told us what it was like to be assimilated by the flood first hand. Great stuff."

Of course Eric is no stranger to difficult assignments.

"The first novel, Halo: The Fall of Reach, was written in seven weeks. Of course I couldn't have done that without the support of the Consumer Products Group [formerly the Franchise Development Group]. The universe was already hammered out pretty thoroughly in the story bible by Eric Trautmann and Brannon Boren. They were handed basic story stuff by Bungie, and they fleshed out many of the details in the universe. That saved a lot of time.

"I actually had 16 weeks to write Halo: First Strike, but there's a caveat. My son was born right in the middle of it. I had some time off for paternity leave, during which I was still pretty busy, but I did get a chance to read some good reference material. The biography of Gunny Hathcock [Marine Sniper by Charles Henderson], the Army's manuals on special ops and urban combat, stuff like that. I've also had the chance to hear what fans thought of the first two books and incorporate that feedback into this one. I do read the forums."

With several of his own books under his belt, Eric Nylund still relished playing in someone else's universe.

"I've enjoyed seeing the character of the Master Chief evolve over the three books. Besides the Master Chief, I like writing Doctor Halsey. I think she's the closest to my own personality. She has more of an idea of what's really going on—the big picture—than any other character."

Though he was given an endpoint for both books (Halo: The Fall of Reach had to lead up to the beginning of Halo, and Halo: First Strike had to lead up to the beginning of Halo® 2), he had a lot of creative freedom. Naturally that brings up the question of what exactly is covered in Halo: First Strike.

"It covers the period between the games. It picks up right where The Flood left off and covers the events that precede Halo 2. I also got to come back to the events on Reach, so you'll get to see what happened after the Pillar of Autumn left—more SPARTAN action, more of Doctor Halsey, and most importantly, you'll find out how Sgt. Johnson shows up alive in Halo 2. Unfortunately, Yayap won't be back."

Can we look forward to more Halo novels from Eric Nylund?

"You never know what the future holds, but I'd like to. I've enjoyed working with Jason Jones, Joe Staten, Loraine McLees, Jaime Griesemer, and everyone at Bungie. We're kicking ideas around. We'll see where it goes."