Somewhere off the main drag of sleepy Kirkland, Washington, tucked away from the restaurants and art galleries that line the waterfront, rests a setback, sunken office building. From the street, this mass of concrete and angles looks unremarkable. Inside, however, the nondescript building is home to 343 Industries and ground zero for the multi-billion dollar "Halo" video game franchise.
A towering replica of “Halo” protagonist the Master Chief stares down at me as I wait in the lobby for Kiki Wolfkill, executive producer for the “Halo” franchise and leader of linear storytelling for 343 Industries. Even as a statue, this faceless warrior looks intimidating. From his perspective, I am probably nothing more than dental floss.
Suddenly, a breezy, confident voice echoes down the hall towards me.
“Coffee or cocktails?”
This is not how my interviews usually start. But Wolfkill is not your usual interview subject. Much like the offer she has extended, there’s an interesting duality to her personality, one that she wears on her sleeve, literally, in the form of a tattoo of turbulent waves and plum blossoms meant to signify the balance between chaos and calm.
I kind of feel comfortable playing in two contrasting spaces. I think some of my success comes from my ability to balance things that are fairly divergent.
Wolfkill’s both a race car driver and self-proclaimed shoe-loving girly-girl. She’s a creative spirit and practical problem solver. She can enjoy a $30 martini or a cheap beer in a dive bar. Talk to her awhile and you can sense a gentle disposition, but you’ll also come to understand that she could easily pull a page from the Master Chief playbook and kick your Covenant ass if she so desired.
“I kind of feel comfortable playing in two contrasting spaces,” said Wolfkill. “I think some of my success comes from my ability to balance things that are fairly divergent.”
Those that know Wolfkill agree.
“She can play both sides really well,” affirms her husband Dylan Eddy, a freelance designer. “She can throw down with the intellectuals but let loose equally as well.” This ability serves her well with the community of devoted fans who form the Halo Nation. Wolfkill oversees the expanding universe of digital content for the “Halo” franchise, including “Halo: Nightfall,” an original live-action digital series executive produced by Ridley Scott that will be released this fall on Xbox Live and also included in the upcoming Xbox One “Halo: Master Chief Collection” anthology. The series will introduce a key character from “Halo 5: Guardians,” which will launch in 2015. A live action series produced by Steven Spielberg is also in the works.
“Halo” has clearly come a long way from its first-person shooter origins. As video games increasingly absorb a film-like narrative structure, “Halo” has expanded from an isolated adrenaline experience into an immersive world where rabid fans not only consume content, but also help create it. “Having our community involved in building multi-level games or remixing stories makes ’Halo‘ unique and amazing,” said Wolfkill. “It’s a very powerful thing to have fans want to give back.”
“Halo” these days focuses on, to use the industry buzz phrase, “transmedia storytelling.” Translated into English, that means mixing lots of multimedia forms together to flesh out a universe. “We give players and viewers access to ’Halo‘ in a way that encourages discovery and exploration,” said Wolfkill. “It's about building a world and finding different outlets for telling that story.”p
So what is Wolfkill’s story? Do a Bing search on her and you’ll find this theatrical plot — female race car driver with the coolest name not yet in a Quentin Tarantino movie takes male-dominated gaming industry by storm. While interesting, it reads like a Michael Bay movie whereas her life feels more like a Joss Whedon flick.
“I'm a very competitive person,” admits Wolfkill. “What’s always propelled me is wanting to do great work.” Great work for Wolfkill doesn’t mean changing the world as much as having an impact and being the best at what she’s doing in it. “I have a core belief that if you’re good at something, you will always have opportunities,” claims Wolfkill. “That's how my path has worked.”
We’ve now relocated to a dark booth in an empty bar. Wolfkill, sipping a dry martini with two olives, greets the silhouette of a bartender. She informs me that this place, along with the Starbucks next door, serve as unofficial conference rooms for many of the “Halo” brain trust. Not bad work if you can get it.
“If you had told me 10 years ago that one day I’d help make ‘Halo 4,’ I would have never believed you,” maintains Wolfkill. But that is where she finds herself today. “I have never been career focused in the classic sense,” she reveals. “I’m more about, is what I’m doing interesting? Is it challenging? If not, then what’s next?”
Much of her mindset comes from her childhood. After she was born in Seattle, Wolfkill’s family relocated to a farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania, a small borough along the commuter line leading to New York City. As an avid reader and artist, she often followed the free-flowing path of her own imagination. “Being in two worlds at once was magic for me,” she recalls. Wolfkill’s parents encouraged her and her older brother, Kim, to be adventurous and pursue whatever intrigued them.
“We had certain levels of freedom that come from growing up on a farm,” said her brother Kim Wolfkill, a senior partner manager at Turn 10 Studios, creator of the Forza Motorsport racing game franchise. “We’d play on our own for hours in the woods, completely away from civilization.” That freedom extended to gender roles as well. “I never felt there were things I shouldn’t be doing by virtue of my being a girl,” said Kiki Wolfkill. “If my dad taught my brother to use a bow and arrow or gun, he taught me too.”
I never felt there were things I shouldn’t be doing by virtue of my being a girl. If my dad taught my brother to use a bow and arrow or gun, he taught me too.
Her parents’ interests had a profound effect on her. Dad (the Wolfkill surname comes from a Pennsylvania Dutch heritage) was an ex-marine and NBC News cameraman in Southeast Asia who was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Kennedy after surviving 15 months as a prisoner in Laos. His camerawork led to Wolfkill’s interest in broadcast journalism, a skill that has served her well in framing visual ideas in her art and work.
Mom’s Chinese ethnicity led to an avid interest in Chinese culture and, according to Wolfkill’s husband, wicked culinary skills with Asian fusion cuisine. She planned to pursue Chinese studies at Cornell. However, after spending the summer before college in Seattle, she changed her mind. Although she didn’t know anyone, she found the different lifestyle refreshing and exciting. “I think I was craving a contrast from the prep school and Ivy League path I was following,” said Wolfkill. “I needed that other side, which is why I ended up going to college here.”
But how does one go from Chinese history student to racing fiend? Her dad was an amateur racer in the 1950’ and 1960s. Her mom also pursued the sport for a time in Hong Kong. Instead of animals in the stalls on their farm, they had racing cars. “They were always connected to the motor sport community,” she recalls. In fact, her parents’ time in Hong Kong and love of motorsports led to dad befriending Steve McQueen, beginning a lifelong companionship that included McQueen serving as best man at Wolfkill’s parents’ wedding.
Wolfkill herself didn’t start racing until she was out of college in the early 1990s. “I discovered I was really good at it,” she said. “Plus it felt so natural. I could be on the track by myself in a noncompetitive scenario and still enjoy it.”
Wolfkill raced with NasaPro, SCCA Pro and Motorola Cup, amongst others. She also competed in the Women's Global GT Series. In 2002, she took part in the Gumball Rally Race from New York to Los Angeles. Seated behind the wheel of an Xbox-styled Mini Cooper, she managed to finish twelfth, ahead of many of her fellow drivers armed with their Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches. “I really respect her racing skill,” said her brother, a well-known racer in his own right. “One of my proudest moments is standing on the podium with her after we won an endurance race together at the Thunderhill Raceway Track.”
While racing let her express her passion on the track, she struggled to find a similar passion off of it. Interested in digital content, she got an internship at Paul Allen’s software company Asymetrix by exaggerating her knowledge of Windows 3.0. “She understands how the machine works,” said Eddy. “When she doesn’t get something, she reads about it, studies it and figures it out.”
From there she moved to Microsoft Encarta, a digital multimedia encyclopedia, which eventually led to cinematic art work for Microsoft PC games, editing video and audio game components. When Microsoft went in search of a subject matter expert for its Cart Precision Racing game, they discovered one in their own backyard. Soon she found herself advising on other racing games, which balanced with her work on the art side. Ultimately, she landed at Xbox, becoming the director of art at Microsoft Game Studios.
Her involvement with “Halo” came about somewhat organically. Game developer Bungie, which created the “Halo” franchise, decided it wanted to pursue other interests. Microsoft founded 343 Industries to take over the reins and enlisted Wolfkill to help 343 place its own stamp on “Halo.”
The fact that “Halo” had such a rabid fan base made the change very stressful. “We had to be very deliberate in thinking about ‘Halo 4,’” Wolfkill said. “There was a lot of disbelief that anyone else could build a ‘Halo’ game.”
Wolfkill and her team wanted to make sure they were moving the franchise forward without leaving anybody behind. “We have a very broad audience,” Wolfkill explained. “Some come for the gameplay, some for the universe, and some for the narrative. We needed to respect the legacy and ensure that anything we added felt meaningful to the universe.”
So how did she help find a solution? “You have to totally invest yourself emotionally,” she maintains. Her co-workers agree. “Kiki made ‘Halo’ a personal passion,” said Franchise Development Director Frank O’Connor. “Yet at the same time, she was able to pop into orbit to view everything from an objective distance, so that she could adjust her approach when it was time to put her boots on the ground.”
“Halo 4” introduced major new elements to the game such as the Promethean Knights, advanced Forerunner AIs, and new armor enhancements that people could use to specialize their characters. As the fastest-selling “Halo” release of all time, the game proved to be an astounding success. “The ability to participate in building at this level is amazing. I have to pinch myself about that.”
These days she focuses less on the game itself and more on the immersive universe. Recently, she helped contribute to the expansion of the franchise’s efforts in linear entertainment with the online series “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.” “With Xbox One, we have the opportunity to allow people to experience all these different modes of storytelling — game, television, even graphic novels – in the same place and without friction,” said Wolfkill.
I want to transform how people experience ‘Halo’ in their living rooms and on their PCs.
And where will “Halo” be heading in the future? “Our next step is to try and make the connections between the game and its linear entertainment aspects even more experiential,” said Wolfkill. “I want to transform how people experience ‘Halo’ in their living rooms and on their PCs.” That doesn’t mean creating content for content’s sake. “We will never do anything that doesn't move the universe forward,” Wolfkill added. “We won't do something for the sake of being in a certain medium.” Transmedia storytelling be damned.
Spending time with Wolfkill, it’s obvious that she loves both the world she lives in and the one she helps create. “To escape into a new world is exciting,” she said. “I think about all the things I love about it and then that I get to give that feeling to other people. How amazing is that?”
As we emerge from the darkness of a dimly lit bar back into the world of light and the living, I find the contrast between the two locales befitting her. One world is simply not enough for Wolfkill, so she races in fifth gear through two.Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft