Employee Spotlight: Jeff Easterling
Picture this, you love Halo more than any other video game that you’ve ever played. The story, the endless battles, heroes from all walks always beating the odds in the end. Imagine if your love for Halo could help you get your foot in the door—pair that with your experiences and drive, and you become a bonafide Spartan at 343 Industries.
Halo Franchise & Narrative Writer Jeff Easterling (he/him) has a very similar story, but he took a lot of unique steps along the way that make him an irreplaceable member of our team. He keeps tabs on the Halo lore, and helps ensure that our awesome new game stories, novels, comics, and more stay in step within the universe that we’re honored to tend to here at 343.
Now, let’s hear about how he got here!
So how in the world did you land at 343 Industries?
Cue proverbial “record scratch” here I suppose, huh? I always laugh a bit at this question when asked because in many respects, my journey into the game industry is anything but conventional. What really got me started was my pure love for the Halo franchise itself. No matter what the IP, I naturally gravitate towards examining the details of its universe and surrounding canon—for Halo this was no different, really. I became fairly knowledgeable about it, and it's certainly a key component in what eventually got my foot in the door. But honestly, I also owe a lot to previous professional experiences as far as equipping me with the right skills to succeed here.
Yeah some may not know it, but you’ve got quite the eclectic background professionally. Can you talk a bit about that?
Yeah you could say that... I spent twenty years writing and creating science development content at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, Florida. Basically, think of it like Bill Nye/Beakman/Mythbusters type of stuff. A lot of launching rockets, freezing things with liquid nitrogen, setting things on fire, and kayaking with alligators. Primarily my role was to write, produce, and perform theatrical science shows and content for the science center. By the time I left, I was the program director and had a team of around thirty incredible and talented folks, made up of content writers, subject specialists, actors, and performers. We worked together to produce new live shows, demonstrations, and classes we’d perform live for both the general public as well as within the surrounding school systems. During this time, I also expanded my purview a bit and wrote programs for the Florida Aquarium as well as educational classes for a wildlife preserve for a stint.
And there was—did I hear right—racing?
You did hear right. On top of all the above, for fourteen years I worked in professional motorsports in a variety of capacities, from pit crew work to learning race strategy and engineering solutions. I worked with teams representing Viper, Porsche, Audi, BMW, among others. With sportscar racing in particular, I loved the fact that the discipline is so internationally-focused; getting to work with a ton of folks from a variety of different backgrounds and approaches to problem-solving.
A few years in, a close friend of mine and I founded a motorsport management company. We worked with international teams and drivers to help them with a wide range of logistical solutions to help them run programs in a variety of North American sports car series. For example, helping a team that might be originally based in Europe transition to race in the US, assisting them in a variety of ways, like finding staff, getting cars and crew that were based in the US, and we even worked for those teams during the races, like pit crew work and such. And then in between the races themselves, I also helped drive and support our own company’s strategy and logistics, handling PR and communications, etc.
So, how did all that eventually translate into... well, Halo?
Funny enough, as diverse and unique as those aforementioned experiences were individually, they were largely all centered around storytelling. Communicating concepts and ideas whether it be what happened in a race with a driver or a team or trying to explain how things like physics or electricity work to both kids and seasoned adults alike. How to connect to diverse audiences that come from different backgrounds and make them care about and understand what was happening.
During the middle of all this, PAX 2011 happened, and I went to Halo Fest with one of my brothers. It was cool to be boots on the ground to meet the folks representing Halo’s past and its future (keep in mind that Halo Fest was celebrating the franchise’s tenth anniversary at the time, with 343 still relatively fresh at the helm). While I was at PAX I began forming relationships with people I really admire who were already working on the franchise itself, suddenly spurred me on to look at gaming as a professional option. Plus, it didn’t hurt that I had already quickly begun to fall in love with the Seattle area itself..
By the end of 2011 I started researching what it took to get into the industry. I was talking to people that had the jobs I wanted to take (only partly kidding!) and really examining my personal strengths. I asked myself, how can I applythose strengthes to this new industry and what are the knowledge gaps that I need to work on? I had a few close calls with a couple of other awesome studios along the way, and ultimately got an opportunity in the summer of 2014.
Initially I was brought on primarily to write and produce the public-facing encyclopedia for Waypoint and Halo Channel, including long-form content, UI strings, and informational descriptions. After the new website and app launched later that year, I started expanding work on projects in other areas, continuing on work for things like the Master Chief Collection while still maintaining Halo Channel content and writing for Waypoint before eventually transitioning onto writing additional content for Waypoint completely and beginning to work on certain elements for Halo 5: Guardians.
What kinds of specific skills or experiences have you found helpful on your way to working at 343?
ALWAYS BEING ON FIRE (sometimes literally because science, but that’s different…). And really I’m only kind of joking—we’re constantly working on something (usually several things), and when you’re working on creative content, it’s always moving, always changing, and you have to learn how to be nimble and responsive. Sometimes what you are working on is years out, and sometimes it’s only days away, so you have to be able to adjust your own creative cadence to respond to both types of timelines.
When I was writing theatrical scripts or working on a race (sometimes a 12 or 24-hour long race), you learn to think about both the short and long term simultaneously. When something goes wrong, the question becomes “how do we respond to this in a crisis?” I learned how to pivot and how to action on solutions rather than fixate on the problem. I think back to 2005 working on an Italian-American race team having to learn enough to be able to speak both languages to communicate with teammates. When a car comes in and you need to make decisions and take action RIGHT NOW that might determine the outcome of the result, there’s no room for delay—or mistake. All of these experiences taught me that one of the most important skills is the ability to work within a team and never see yourself as a more important or less important part of the overall structure. To always have the big picture in mind, and work for that larger goal together.
I feel like this would pay off pretty well in gaming...
Absolutely, it honestly paid off in huge ways when I transitioned to the gaming industry. When I’m creating any Halo-related thing, I’m working on both a small team and much larger team at the same time. My small team that falls into a bigger organization that, at the end of the day, is focused on trying to make great Halo stuff. Sure, I work on individual projects but it’s also a bigger team that has an impact across the entire studio, community, and platform—and honestly, in some ways the industry because of how important and long-standing Halo is as a franchise. It’s also about understanding what your impact can be and understanding how vital everyone’s impact is to the process; everyone’s value and the importance of all the individual pieces and how they all eventually fit together.
Science in particular has taught me that it is rarely about the solutions themselves. It's called the scientific method for a reason—a way to shape how we apply the process to all manner of problems you might face, and solutions you might seek. It taught me that asking better questions is usually more important than looking for better answers and sets you up for success going forward in a variety of different capacities.
Halo is a transmedia franchise, transmedia meaning that we’re always telling the story of our universe across different types of media in direct and tangible ways. I have probably written (tens maybe?) of thousands of individual pieces of content in my life. Including scripts, classes, articles, blogs, features, outlines, press releases, product descriptions… one thing that I’ve definitely learned about writing is that you can only get better at it by DOING more of it.
So, speaking of doing all that writing, what kind of things do you write for Halo here at 343 Industries?
My current role is Halo Franchise and Narrative Writer. I focus on storytelling elements across the Halo universe and across all our products. The Franchise team as a unit helps oversee the Halo universe and how it’s applied to all our different mediums. Specifically, I focus on stories that we’re telling and work with both internal and external creative partners to craft stories and make them feel authentic to the Halo universe. Right now, a few of the larger projects I’m working on are the campaign and narrative side for Halo Infinite. I’m also working on new Halo books, we just wrapped Halo: Shadows of Reach, and I’m currently working on the novel that comes next. In fact right before we had this interview, I was literally reviewing the manuscript.
As a longtime fan of Halo over the years, what most surprised you about “how the sausage is really made?”
I think the biggest thing is that everything is way more difficult and/or complex that it might seem. And in all honesty, I’m not even sure I would necessarily say it “surprised” me per say—a lot of my own professional experience has led me to assume as much—but I’m not sure anything can truly prepare you for the tangible reality until you hop over that fence. And a lot of it comes down to the inherent complexities involved with making anything interactive. Even think about the difference between managing the creation of a traditional novel vs a “choose your own adventure book” for example—just simply adding the element of user choice gives things a whole new layer to consider on the creative side.
There are way more dependencies than one might ever assume, with so many unique factors that have the ability to affect the outcome in ways often difficult to assume. You have the elements of engineering, sandbox, UI, art, narrative, networking, and other underlying tech that tie a game all together and so many teams working on these interconnected elements. It’s incredible, really. I certainly remember even some of my own moments as an avid game-player thinking “why don’t they just…” and still continue to learn, it’s never that easy. And while it’s definitely reality, it’s also important to never let it become an excuse of sorts, because the whole industry has to deal with it, and at the end of the day, we don’t care what challenges might lie in the way, we all want to make the incredible experiences that our amazing community love and deserve. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be awesome, but it’s certainly still a valid thing to keep in mind from a context and perspective point of view. There are so many intricacies and I’m still constantly like “Oh, that’s why!” even in my seventh(!) year here.
What’s the biggest insight you’ve gained into why certain decisions are made?
Oh man, it’s honestly hard to pin down one. I’ll give an early example, coming in pretty fresh and working with the team putting together the Halo Channel. Now from the fan perspective, obviously you would just assume that with something like this, you would obviously have all the things—every trailer, video, motion comic, cutscene, vidoc, home video... it’s a vast encyclopedia! But then I learned about the marvelous (obvious air quotes inbound) world of Usage Rights—and this happens with any linear media, really: rules and policies by which we define how content can be used, what types of things you can showcase where and for how long. It's an easy assumption to make (I certainly did) that we can just use the clip from this commercial thing here or this cutscene there, but that's actually often not the case because you might not have the rights from certain performances, pieces of music, etc. The assumption that “because it’s Halo,” it belongs to us and you can do whatever you want with it, but back to that “everything’s more connected and complex than you would imagine” bit, it’s simply not the case—particularly when you deal with a franchise that’s coming up on twenty years' worth of both content and contracts.
For every asset, we must take it into consideration a host of different elements to determine if it can be used. The more real things get, like making things with hyper realistic likeness, the more you have to take into account what types of likenesses you plan on using from the incredible performers that help bring our stories to life. And of course, there are disadvantages and benefits from any direction you might choose. Take for example a character like Buck, played by the beloved and charming Nathan Fillion. Depending on what the intended use is for a particular performance, you might have to make the decision between “should we keep the helmet on to expand our usage options” and “nope, seeing that handsome face is definitely worth additional hoops you might need to jump through.”
On the outside (of any industry, really), we see such a narrow slice, and often lack so much context that it’s hard to understand sometimes. We all have our own points of reference, and an important learning I’ve had to make myself is being at peace with everyone else’s unique perspective. As a consumer, I want to play/hear/see/experience awesome stuff, regardless of “what it takes” to produce, and as a creative, that’s vital to remember when I’m suddenly on the other side of the proverbial fence.
It relates back to what I mentioned about science. Like with many creative endeavors, decision making in game development isn’t always super clear. The scientific method is oftentimes equally applicable when faced with these challenges. We make an assumption, we take data-driven elements that are taken into account and see what the outcome is. Like, I can see a problem and then I make a guess about it, but let me also experiment and let me see what the data says. And then with entertainment, you have the added element of user perspective. We have to pair raw data with community sentiment and see what they’re saying. You can’t just design by numbers and analytics, and you also can’t just design by Twitter/reddit committee. And at the end of the day, we are also a business and are considering all sorts of elements:
- What’s good for our brand?
- What’s desired by our community?
- What’s good for Xbox and Microsoft?
- What’s good for our industry?
- What’s for lunch?
Okay maybe not as much the last one.
True. But anyway, sorry for the long-winded answer to your original question! It’s something I’m passionate about because I think it’s all vital to consider even when your job seems to be as simple as “hey go write cool Halo stories.”
Speaking of cool Halo stories, you were recently involved in the new novel Halo: Shadows of Reach—which comes out tomorrow!—What was your role on that and what was it like?
So, for projects like this I work closely with Jeremy Patenaude, our lead editor on the Franchise team, who is often our primary link from a content perspective between authors and the publisher too. We work together in a variety of ways, helping supplement content with the author and the publisher, reviewing the manuscript and helping devise creative suggestions and solutions when necessary. An example might be offering reference points and connective tissues found or within other books, games, make those connections for the author and further enrich the story, as well as keeping things on track canonically as best we can. We are always looking for the best ways to support the authors and make their own creative experience with Halo as smooth and positive as possible. It’s an interesting place to be because we have to keep in mind the story we want to tell as a franchise but we also want to give the author creative autonomy to create a story that they’re equally invested in.
Call me crazy, but it sounds like you enjoy this process.
Guilty! I absolutely love it. And there's a wonderfully unique element about working on books in particular; they allow for a different bandwidth in regards to the type of narrative exposition you can achieve in print vs in an interactive narrative, cutscene, or even more traditional linear media. We’re able to tell stories from a different perspective that you can’t do in other mediums. And obviously every medium has its strengths and weaknesses, I just personally love novels, and grew up reading everything from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy to Dune and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This format has helped us expand the lore of our universe in some really incredible and profound ways, and it’s always an honor to be able to play a part in that process.
And then to be able to work with the people that are all involved? That’s actually the best part of the entire thing, whether it be with folks like Jeremy, or Tiffany O’Brien and Scott Jobe on our Consumer Products team, our publishing editor Ed Schlesinger, or our incredible slate of talented authors we’ve worked with recently, like Troy Denning (author of Halo: Shadows of Reach), Kelly Gay, Matt Forbeck, and Cassandra Rose Clark.
Speaking on working with lots of different people, your team works on a ton of different stuff overall, correct?
That’s correct, the Franchise team is an incredible place to be because we get to work on basically... everything—in some way at least. I’m constantly thankful for this squad. Whether it’s working alongside my fearless fellow writers Kenneth Peters and the aforementioned Jeremy Patenaude, elite producers like Tyler Jeffers, Carlos Naranjo, and Neil Tuazon, content savants like Amanda Morton and Quinn Spence, or our fearless leaders Corrinne Robinson and Frank O’Connor, as much as I adore Halo to its very core, it’s absolutely the people more than the product that keep me as excited as I am to come to work every day. I love the fact that our team is able to constantly be working with other groups across the studio on basically anything that has Halo on it. I’ve also been incredibly privileged to work alongside people like Paul Crocker, Aaron Linde, Dan Chosich, and Joe McMcDonagh on the Halo Infinite narrative team, helping craft campaign experiences for Halo’s next big adventure.
And if that weren’t enough, another favorite element is getting to work on Halo experience that don’t necessarily even happen in Halo. Being part of the Xbox Game Studios family means that we have a wealth of amazing partners that we get to collaborate with and make some pretty awesome crossover experiences.
What’s your favorite crossover project you’ve ever worked on?
Oh man, that’s tough. It’s got to be a tie between the various Halo elements we’ve placed in the Forza games and the Arbiter guest character we did for Killer Instinct.
Forza likely being obvious because of my motorsport background. In fact, the #17 Zonda GR that I worked with in real life was actually featured in the first four Forza Motorsport games, so that series has always held a special place in my heart. But yeah, to be able to work with Playground Games and Turn10 Studios to put the Warthog in the Forza Horizon games was incredible, in particular with Forza Horizon 4, as we were able to add a fully fleshed out Showcase experience that feels like a mini piece of the Halo campaign into the middle of an already brilliant racing game. The fact that I can blast through the countryside in a Warthog flanked by a Porsche 917 LH and a Maserati MC12 Corse is *chef’s kiss*.
It certainly sounds like it! And you also mentioned Killer Instinct?
Yep, Killer Instinct has been special to me honestly since my youth—it was something I played in on the Super NES and N64, and of course it was something I’d line up for in the arcades growing up (KI and NFL Blitz, baby!). I remember sitting in the audience in LA at E3 in 2013 when they announced Killer Instinct’s return for the Xbox One, and being absolutely beside myself with excitement. Fast forward a couple years and fellow Franchise Writer Kenneth Peters and I are working together to help bring the Arbiter as a guest character to the game. We had an absolute blast, brainstorming names for the moves and alternate costumes and armor, it was super cool. The cherry on top of that particular project was that one of my best friends, Rukari Austin, just happened to be the community manager of Killer Instinct at the time too. A perfect storm of creative collaboration to say the least!
Again, it goes back to how great it is to have such an expanded scope of work and getting to be part of a wide range of creative outlets. I mean, we’ve put Halo in all sorts of amazing places: Gears of War, Rocket League, Minecraft, Bomberman… the list goes on and on—and we certainly aren’t done yet!
Do you have a favorite Halo product? If yes, what is it?
So I’m gonna be super biased and say the book Halo Mythos: A Guide to the Story of Halo. I say biased because I was honored enough to co-author it with both Jeremy and Kenneth. The process of writing that book was a lot of fun, not only because I got to work with people that I admire and am friends with, but also because we were able to work with some ridiculously talented artists to help bring to life some really cool areas of the universe that had never been visualized before. Plus, it originally launched on my daughter’s birthday! So yeah, probably my single favorite piece so far.
What about any favorite lore elements that you’ve added or contributed to the universe?
We can talk more about that when Halo Infinite comes out...
Do you have a favorite video game, what it is and why?
I’ll omit Halo 2 for the sake of fairness, but it’s always tied for the top spot with Mass Effect 2.
Mass Effect 2 is just brilliant. I love that universe; I like the relationships that you form with characters. I think that it’s easily the crown jewel of the series. And even though it’s technically a single-player game, I played it a ton alongside my siblings, and we were always discussing scenes and choices made in the game, etc. So many great memories.
And I also find myself for some reason really loving “middle” chapters in things—stuff like The Empire Strikes Back, Gears of War 2, Uncharted 2.
Any reason in particular for your love of “2s?”
Heh! Honestly, I love the connective tissue type moments that typically exist in those games, or any other type of media to be honest. They sit in the cool sweet spot of drawing on things that have been experienced before while offering the prospect of what’s to come still in the next episode/game/movie, etc. I love how it can call back to things you remember while offering you the mystery of what’s still out there.
I feel like the conclusion to something is so bittersweet! And they’re often really hard to live up to anyway, expectations are rarely met. The beginning is still unknown, it’s the ground floor, you can do whatever you want there. The middle…well, you already have a piece, a place to start and you’re excited about what that might mean and there’s still so much more to go!
What other games are you playing right now - and what besides Halo has ranked as your biggest gaming influence?
Hm. My influences over time come from different genres, kind of like my background, unsurprisingly. I love racing games like Gran Turismo and Forza. I also look at single player experiences, like Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, God of War. Assassin’s Creed has a special place in my heart because I’m a huge history buff. I love the cool underlying sci-fi element to it but how you’re also getting to explore ancient cultures and areas. As far as influences from a creative standpoint, the biggest one might actually be Assassin’s Creed in many ways, as they have the combined narrative, world building, sci-fi, techno-magic mixed with ancient mystery and mythology. It’s something that’s definitely reflected in my favorite aspects of the Halo universe. I love the juxtaposition of boots-on-the-ground military fiction with this literally other-worldly element of ancient alien history and mystery.
As far as games I’m currently playing, it’s a decent list. I’m playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and I am loving it so far, and just recently finished God of War on my PS4, which was absolutely brilliant. I’ll of course always make time for racing games, like Forza Motorsport 7, Forza Horizon 4, Gran Turismo Sport, Project Cars, etc. And like any good long-time Bungie fan, I’m also always spending an inordinate amount of time in Destiny—in fact I just earned my Forerunner title, so I can keep my Halo cred even when fighting the Darkness instead of the Banished.
You’ve played Halo since the first game; what Halo memory stands out the most for you across those entire 20 years?
My top memory isn’t actually from me working at 343 but playing through the entire campaign with my siblings during each midnight release. Even when I started working on the franchise we continue to connect online for each launch and play through the newest adventures together. I’m super close with my family, who all still live back in Florida. I’m the oldest of five, and gaming and technology in general has been an incredible blessing to keep us all connected despite the distance. Hopefully I’m continuing to make them all proud and justify my cross-country excursion!
Any particular midnight release that stands out?
Specifically? I’d probably say the Halo 3 midnight release, which was of course a huge moment for Halo itself, being a seminal moment for both the franchise and the gaming industry as a whole. It was impactful to the entertainment world because of the sales records it had, really helping usher games onto an even bigger stage for the entertainment industry as a whole. Personally, it was a sweet spot in age, I think I was around 26 and we all ranged from 12-26 years old, it was a perfect age range for all of us to share in the experience.
What other passions do you have, other than video games?
I love sports—any Tampa Bay and Seattle sports specifically, with the main outlier being our love for Alabama college football. My dad was born in Alabama, and even though the rest of us were born in Florida he still raised us with the right rooting priorities there lol. And sports overall has always just been a huge thing in my family; I played a ton of baseball at a pretty high level up through high school, one brother is currently the Bucs writer and NFL Draft lead for USA today, and our sister was an NFL cheerleader for the Buccaneers for several seasons.
I also really love music, whether listening, writing, or recording it. Another brother is a professional studio and live musician, and actually the four of us brothers were in a band that toured a tiny bit, playing original post-rock stuff we composed that was largely inspired by bands like Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky, Hammock, and American Dollar.
Wait, so what did you play specifically?
I play the keys, piano, and such, and I can play bass and guitar just fine, though I’m sure the rust is strong right now. But yeah, our stuff was pretty much all very instrumental/ambient based. We did a bunch of gigs in the central Florida area, won a few battle-of-the-bands contests, but mainly and most importantly, had a blast just writing and playing together. It’s absolutely one of my favorite time periods in my life.
What inspiring words do you have for someone that wants to work at 343 Industries?
Be the best version of yourself. Don’t focus strictly on resume bullet points. There will always be “talented” people, they’re a dime a dozen in some respects. There’s always going to be someone who is going to be “better than you” from a technical standpoint, so while you obviously want to always strive to improve your skills in whatever discipline you desire, it’s absolutely equally important to focus on other, potentially more intangible elements that you can bring to the table. Being a great person to work with, being able to communicate effectively—meaning both getting across your own ideas, but also listening to the ideas of others, collaborating, being a person that makes others excited to work with you. Inevitably, most of us end up spending a pretty large chunk of time “at work,” so the things that you can do to not only perform your individual tasks well, but also improve the working environment of others so that they might perform well, end up being incredibly vital.
These things all also help with another vital element, which is networking. Our industry—like many others—is built on relationships. With our colleagues, our professional partners, even our competition. As vast as the impact of gaming is worldwide, it’s actually still a remarkably small industry, and you never know when an established connection might help open new doors of opportunity for you. It’s often who you know that can help get you in, and what you know (and what you do) that helps keep you there. Or, here.
Diversify your own experiences, talk to people from all walks and perspectives. Like pretty much all life on earth, it thrives the most when biodiversity is abundant, and you can go a long way in creating the richest experience—both professionally and personally—when you can bring your own opinion and experience and combine it with others’ to make something truly unique. My favorite aspects of working in this industry are that I get to meet people from places and backgrounds that I might have had no idea about otherwise, and it’s super fulfilling.
If you want to work at a place like this, you should come prepared and eager to not just improve the experience of others, but to have your own perspective enriched by your colleagues and teammates. And of course, you know, still be awesome at what you do.