A Legend in the Making
As you know by now, Halo 3 will come in three flavors later this year, ranging from the standard game, to the super deluxe "Legendary Edition." The Legendary Edition comes packaged with a collectible Spartan helmet, two bonus discs and an exclusive cinematic storyboard booklet. I’ve seen the final helmet first hand I can honestly say it's totally awesome. The end product is the result of all the blood, sweat and tears that so many people have poured into this project over the past two years (yes, you read that right, this project started over two years ago!).
The Legendary Edition helmet - and its equally impressive packaging.
Here at Bungie.net we talk a lot about the making of our game and the internal happenings at the Studio but we've seldom looked beyond our own walls at some of the other pieces of the puzzle. Naturally, in addition to the actual game code and art assets and facets we’re working on directly, there are teams around the world who orchestrate the packaging, manuals, advertising, fulfillment and everything else required to ultimately get the game onto store shelves and into your hands.
The Halo 3 Legendary Edition project represents a huge amount of work and is perhaps the most ambitious packaging endeavor that Microsoft has ever embarked on. The Bungie team has been intimately involved in things like color samples and providing the 3d models for reference and ongoing feedback - but the bulk of the work is being done by people outside of the Studio.
Who are the folks responsible for making this project a reality? What does it take to produce three different skus and have them released simultaneously around the world? What the heck is an “RFQ” and what does a “Global Operations Launch Program Manager” do? If you’re like me, you likely have no idea what is going on behind the scenes to make this happen, nor the amount of work it requires. Hopefully, like me, you’ll find some of this fascinating in terms of scope and complexity. Who knew so much went into that little helmet that will soon adorn the bookshelf in your game room…
I recently sat down with two of the guys leading the charge on the Legendary Edition to shed some light on the project and a side of game development that seldom gets acknowledged.
Hey guys, thanks for taking the time to talk with us! Before we get started, could you introduce yourselves to our readers and give a little insight into what you do at Microsoft?
I’m Craig Carlson, the global operations launch program manager for the Halo 3 launch. I’m responsible for all three editions from procurement through disc replication, final packaging and coordination, distribution and transportation out to retailers to support the games release date.
My name is Jeff Sanborn and I work in the Packaging and Engineering Management Group within Operations. In my current role I’m responsible for the structural packaging for Xbox and Windows platforms.
How do you typically approach a project of this nature?
CC : For the Legendary and Limited Editions, there are four phases to program managing Halo 3. First is feasibility and fact finding. Next is development – the actual tooling, injection molding, painting, assembly and packaging of the helmet and tin. During all this is a lot of planning followed lastly by execution – the actual launch once the game disc RTMs* (*“Releases to Manufacturing”). The key to this is global coordination of all procurement and launch activities for Operations. This includes orchestrating these activities through an International team of experts in each region.
JS : As we develop packaging strategies for clients we lock packaging in four phases – gather, design, test and execute. In short we look at the goals and objectives of our clients (in this case, MGS/Bungie) and balance them against manufacturing capabilities and technologies, retailer requirements, cost objectives, legal and regulatory compliance, environmental stewardship, branding objectives and the need to get the product from manufacturing the end consumer looking great.
How does something like this Legendary Edition SKU come together? When/where did this whole idea originate?
CC : I first got involved in this in an all day, Saturday planning meeting here in Redmond in June of 2005. We looked at wax-resin, cast-resin and injection molding as design and manufacturing solutions before settling on injection molding. The next challenge was RFQ’ing this and finding suppliers with both the capacity required as well as the capability. It still amazes me that we ended up using our largest Keyboard supplier, but since I launched 8 keyboard and desktop products with them while working in MS PC Hardware, I was convinced that they gave us the best chance for success in the end.
: When I stop and look back it’s hard to believe I’ve been working on this project for two years now. To a great extent working on the Legendary project has required us to re-look at how we define the boundaries between product and packaging. In a more traditional packaging role, we would have only looked at the retail box packaging and left the helmet design and such to others, this product allowed us to take the virtual concept of the Mater Chief helmet and bring it into the physical world knowing that the Halo Nation is very specific when it comes to what the helmet should look and feel like. The product you see now is a great example of what happens when you put very creative folks together and give them the task of creating a product/package that brings elements of Halo into the 3D world. A great deal of the success around the look of the helmet falls on the Bungie team who were amazing in their ability to articulate to our industrial design team all the nuances of what makes Halo special.
How does working on the Legendary Edition compare to some of the other projects you’ve worked on in the past? (it’s ok, you can admit this is the coolest thing you’ve ever done! )
: I’m what you would call a Microsoft old timer, (21 years +) and this has been one of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on. The cool factor of Halo aside, the thing that has made this special has been ability to bring a group of people together with expertise in such a wide range of areas all working towards one goal. I believe the respect the extended team has had for each other’s area of knowledge and responsibility has had a direct impact in our ability to design a Product that carries the feeling of Halo while still meeting business needs of Microsoft.
: This is so different and has forced me to move to a new level. I love it when I am so captivated by a program that it creates its own energy. I have always “Lived my Programs” but my passion for Legendary is unmatched.
These Vacuum Metalization molds are used to produce the visor.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face when creating something as unique and ambitious as the Legendary Edition?
CC : Making believers of MS folks, coordinating all required activities from Legal through the actual launch, trying to generate excitement in 2006 for a product that is launching in 2007, and finally, praying that with 22 pieces to the helmet and 5 more to the base, that we did not end up with a Helmet that looked more like a keyboard.
: As we finalized the concept of the Mark VI helmet, we knew that Microsoft had not done any previous works with this amount of detail and complex geometry . It is one thing to look at a keyboard, mouse or console and say ‘yeah that’s what it should look and feel like’. It is an entirely different thing to produce a helmet where all of our customers have a very specific expectation of what it should look like.
When we look at other “like” items out in the market place we have seen a number of high quality collectors icons created for movie titles by various studios. These have tended to be short or very limited production. Given the scale and magnitude of the Halo 3 launch and demand exceeding 450,00 units, it requires a whole different set of thinking in terms of materials, industrial design, and deco methods. To this end I feel that challenged everybody in the extended supply and manufacturing chain to bring their “A-game.”
Can you give us an idea of the actual scope of this project? Exactly how crazy complicated is it to pull together a “package” like this? How many people are involved?
CC : I was part time on Halo 3 since February 2006 and full time since late October. Jeff Sanborn has been heavily devoted to spec and design long before me and probably consumed up to 1/3 or his time this past two years on Legendary and now Limited. In addition, I have 5 sub-teams I am program managing (Legal, Planning, Reliability and Compliance, Global Operations and Global Logistics) to say nothing of managing the development activities in China. Between December 27 and March 6, I spent 43 out of 69 days in China, and I am not quite done there.
: Taking a look at the number of people that have had a direct hand in getting this from concept to final specs for manufacturing, I come up with at least 48 folks on 3 continents that have been heavily involved. This list includes concept designs for the helmet and base, retail carton designs, graphic designers, thermoform plastic (packaging) designers, legal council, environmental compliance specialists, and industrial designers who took the surface of the helmet and made it into an item that could be manufactured. Even at this number I’m sure I’m at least a few folks short. The thing to take away from here is the collaboration and coordination.
At peak capacity this factory will produce one helmet approximately every twelve seconds!
What’s it like heading over to China so often? Is it common for these types of projects to be manufactured over there? Why is that?
CC : Labor cost in China is still well below what it would cost us to do this same helmet, or mice and keyboards for that matter, here in the USA. This is the bottom line reason for building there. Tooling is also about 1/3 the price of USA tooling. Otherwise, the Legendary Edition would be prohibitively expensive to produce and the goal was always to deliver a high quality product at a fair price.
I like China and love Hong Kong. I am a Manufacturing guy who is trying to reinvent himself since almost all manufacturing for any product and any company is now done in China. Everything is a process and I love being around processes and producing something tangible that our Marketing and Sales folks can proudly sell. The people are wonderful, they listen and we, Microsoft, are definitely the customer.
The factories I have been to over there since 2000, however, are a bit mired in the 20th century and have not yet adopted Lean Manufacturing principles. Labor is getting more expensive every day so I believe this will change in the next few years. I would love to be a part of this new industrial revolution there. If it was up to me, I would move to Hong Kong and take the train up to China daily to work with our factories. I actually hate travel. I have now made roughly 50 total trips to China in my seven years here and this is very hard on my family and me.
This Vacuum Metalization chamber would make an excellent Halo MP map!
You once mentioned some dizzying statistics about how fast these things would be coming off the line and how fast they’d later be stuffed with contents prior to going to retailers… Can you share some of those stats with our readers?
CC : Building 36,000 helmets per week in a six day week, equals 6,000 per day, 3,000 per 10/hour shift, 300 per hour which all translates to one every 12 seconds. For final FPP (once the Game disk RTMs and we can complete the final production into the Helmet packaging) we will do 40k per day, roughly 20k per 10 hour shift, 2,000 every hour, which is one every two seconds. It may take 10 seconds a unit, but in this case we will need five lines to carry this out.
These patined and 'metallicized' visors are on their way to be integrated with the rest of the helmet.
So, the helmets get produced in China, which is happening right now, and then what happens by the time they reach stores?
CC : Due to capacity and lead-time, we are completing everything we possibly can in China, including all the Retail Packaging, and reusable shipper, and then storing in an MS warehouse in Yantian China which is our major shipping port to Long Beach. We will ship these over the summer to Memphis, Dublin and Singapore to await the Bonus and Game Disk RTM.
Once we RTM it will be a mad, mad scramble to get everything replicated and delivered to the Assembly Lines. Jeff has made this as simple as possible for our FPP supplier by designing the box so that all they will have to do is remove the two retail boxed helmets from the shipper, open the top flap in the retail packaging, place the two amaray cases in the recessed areas found on top of the internal protective packaging thermoform, close the flap, pull a final, localized artwork “Sleeve” over the retail packaging and then place the unit back in the reusable shipper. It minimizes USA and European Labor and protects the helmet from every being touched from the time it leaves China to the time the end customer opens the box when he gets it home.
Twenty-two pieces come together to form the Legendary Helmet at the factory in Dongcheng, China.
Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding the project?
CC : We are preparing for a huge launch to be followed by very large replenishment orders in the first few days following the Street Date in the standard Core SKU. This Halo 3 Program will require my full time and attention until after Holiday. Risk and Mitigation Planning has been huge thus far and will only intensify once we approach the launch itself. So, even once this product ships, my work is far from over!
What kind of backgrounds do you have? What advice would you give to anyone out there who wants to get into this line of work some day?
JS : As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been at Microsoft for over 21 years now. I came to Microsoft with a background in print and graphics. Over the years I’ve done work in print production which led to working in print purchasing. From there I moved into managing print and paper as a commodity back in the day when software manuals were really big. My experience and background in managing vendors, and metrics lead me to the Packaging Engineering area, where I was initially focused on the business management aspects of our vendor base. I guess the learning here is that Microsoft is an environment where you have the ability to plug and play core sets of skills. While tactical knowledge or content expertise is always important, the ability to manage complex projects and bring folks together while having fun is a good thing.
CC : I have a BS in Financial Economics and am an APICS certified CPIM, but neither of these is a prerequisite for anything. Not being an engineer is not a draw back at all. Most of us can learn most things through assimilation. What is required is a burning desire for creating new products, then producing them. In the final analysis, this still requires that someone manufactures them. If it is not produced, there is nothing to sell.
So before we wrap this up, I just have to go back and ask – what does “RFQ” and “FPP” mean for all of us non-operations folks out here?
CC : “RFQ” stands for “Request for Quotation”. It’s a procurement term for going out and having suppliers bid on something. “FPP” is our lingo for “Final Packaged Product”, basically what’s for sale on retail shelves.
Thanks again for your time. We can’t wait to get our hands on our internal copies of the Legendary Edition!
Stay tuned to Bungie.net for the ongoing saga of Halo 3 development including more looks into some of the lesser known groups and ventures that make the final game a reality.
The Legendary Helmet will only be available in limited quantities so if you want one, you should seriously consider a pre-order.