In 2009, after an extended bout of unemployment, something wonderful happened to me. I was hired to work on Halo Waypoint as their editor. It was the strangest interview of my life. From the team leader’s incredibly laidback style and the fact that everyone wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie to being asked to play Halo 3: ODST in front of them (during which I spent most of my time running like hell from a Hunter—oh, the shame!), you’d think I should have had some insight into what this job would be like.
But nothing prepares you for working at 343 Industries. Nothing.
There’re the full-size Spartan statues everywhere. The guys who turned their work space into a machine-gun bunker, complete with camo-netting and machine-gun turret (plastic full-size gun attached to a file cabinet). The unbelievably intense arguments over every geek show/comic/movie/book/meme/etc. out there. The way homemade food left in the kitchen unleashes a Flood-like frenzy (hardly surprising considering the sheer number of young, unmarried men at 343 who, apparently, can’t cook). And you’re working on Halo. There is nothing better.
But the best part of all of this is the people. When I started at Halo Waypoint, there were just a handful of us. There had never been anything like Waypoint (a website-like presence on a console), and none of us really had much experience creating daily content. But there was a love, a drive, a work ethic unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was like being constantly in battle-mode in the war of fun. Long nights and living in each other’s laps, trying to get content out to the world at midnight every night: we were manic, stressed, and having the time of our lives.
Working together like that reveals a lot about those involved. And the one thing we all had in common was passion. Some of us were fans who were excited about working on Halo in any capacity. For others, it was, and continues to be, the culmination of years of devotion and hard work. Over the next few days, I am sharing interviews with three of those superfans who helped to build Halo Waypoint. Two have moved on to other important positions at 343. One has stayed precisely where she belongs. All are my friends, my fellow soldiers and Spartans, and people whose love of and passion for Halo still takes my breath away. And I wanted to share them with you.
Jessica Shea, Halo Waypoint’s Community Manager, is the conduit between fans and the franchise. She works tirelessly (often 10-12 hours a day) to make sure that fans don’t merely feel heard, but are heard. While everyone at 343 cares about what the fans want, she is the one who listens most carefully and gives them voice in the studio.
Laura Akers for Comics Bulletin: What did you do as a Halo fan before coming to 343?
Jessica Shea: Before I came to 343, I started (playing) the franchise in the days of CE, although I only played Campaign back then. When Halo 2 launched, I started playing it on LIVE. I got really into it. Around the launch of Halo 3, I got so into it that I started two websites: a fan-site and a screenshot site. I did both of those for about three to four years. The main one was more of a personal video game blog, and while I covered all video games, I ended up having somewhere around 1,300 Halo posts, which was approximately 60% of my content. That’s not counting the screenshot site, too.
CB: And you were known as?
Jessica: I was known as "Hawty McBloggy", which I should mention I did not come up with that name!
CB: I think it’s the best name ever. Who came up with it?
Jessica: My husband came up with the name. One afternoon I said, “I want to start a blog. What should I name it?” and his response was, “Hawty McBloggy, that’d be so funny!” I thought to myself, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” And then, an hour or two later, I sat down, opened up WordPress to start my blog, and the very first field you have to enter is the name. You can’t even get past that screen without entering a name, so I literally spent two hours staring at a blank computer screen. Then I typed in “Hawty McBloggy”, and off I went. Haven’t looked back since.
CB: So you did screenshots. You did blog posts. What is it about games that really got that much interest from you? What’s your attraction to games?
Jessica: I think for me, I really like Halo, and on top of that, I really like what people do--above and beyond the game--with Halo. So I loved when people cared so much about the franchise that they got a tattoo, or they made a cake, or they made a video, or they wrote a song. I just really like that above and beyond, because it’s that above and beyond that really shows just how passionate you are and how it’s more than just a video game to you. So I think that drove the vast majority of the content…just being attracted to the passion behind it, and all the different ways people express that. It’s so fascinating seeing people’s hobbies and how they morph Halo into them. I have always been impressed with that.
CB: So how has it been being a very public female in a really male world? The really male Halo fan community?
Jessica: I try to not focus on that as much as possible. I try to pull gender out as much as I can, and really focus on the people because, quite honestly, I don’t see how gender is relevant to playing a video game. It doesn’t make me get more headshots; it doesn’t make me get less headshots. It doesn’t make me play smarter; it doesn’t make me play dumber. I’m going to play how I play because of who I am and that’s not related to my gender.
CB: So that’s what you do.
Jessica: That’s what I do.
CB: What has been your experience, you know, in terms of how you get treated as a woman when you play or go to cons?
Jessica: That is an incredibly complicated question.
CB: Yeah, but if I asked it when I interviewed Jacob [Benton; interviewed here], it wouldn’t have made any sense.
Jessica: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. I would say sometimes I probably get treated differently. Sometimes it’s in a good way, and sometimes it’s in a bad way. So I do believe that it all evens out.
CB: So what was your reaction when you were first approached by 343? You’d already been working with Waypoint, for quite some time [High-profile fans and fan groups are occasionally approached to contribute fan content to Waypoint. Jessica had been working with Waypoint in this capacity for months before she was hired], but when they said “Hey! Come on in an interview,” what was that like?
Jessica: It was exciting, and it was frightening, and I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to do and take on for a job. It’s completely different than when you have it as a hobby, and I had loved Halo for eight or nine years before I had it as a job. So part of me, that instant it was offered, was all “Oh my god, yes. Best dream job ever!” The realistic part of me really had to sit down and think, though, was this something I wanted? I never had any aspirations to be in the video game industry, so it’s not as if it was something that I’ve always been working toward. It was something that just happened. Now that I’ve done it, it’s crazy. I compare it to a roller coaster: it’s this insanely awesome ride, and I’m just going to ride it for as long as it’ll have me. That’s been my philosophy the whole time. Didn’t expect to get on this ride, don’t know when I’ll get off, but here I am, enjoying every second of it.
CB: So what were your first impressions of life at 343?
Jessica: My very first day…I started on the day that Reach launched. So of course, I came in and there were tons of launch events, both internal and external. I spent my first week doing nothing but launch parties. I found myself thinking, “Wow, this is pretty much the greatest job ever! Party, party, party!” Another thing that happened was when I started, nothing game-wise had been announced. All that was known was Reach.
So I came in, and the first thing I heard about was Anniversary. I about pooped my pants. The next thing I heard about was Halo 4, and so then, of course, I definitely pooped my pants. My head exploded so many times on that first day!
As far as the studio goes, I think what was apparent in the early days was just how much everybody loves Halo, and I think that’s one of the coolest things about 343. Bungie created Halo. They created this legacy, and they did such an incredible job, and we got the honor of continuing it. So when people come here, they’ve come here to work on Halo. They haven’t accidentally stumbled upon it. Everybody that’s come here, this is what they want to do. They want to do Halo, so I think it’s very unique in that regard where the passion runs incredibly high for what everybody’s working on.
CB: So you’re a very public part of Halo, but people’s perceptions based on your public persona, it’s not really an accurate reflection of what it is you do here. So what is your job title, and what do you do in any given week?
Jessica: My job title is Community Manager, and if you ask the community what I do every week, they will tell you I have a five-minute work-week, four minutes of it spent looking at cat pictures, and one minute of it spent posting on Twitter.
While I do probably spend four minutes looking at cat pictures, I spend much more time posting on Twitter (LOL). I also manage anything having to do with the community and everything that it entails. So that’s everything from social media, to blog posts, to the content on Halo Waypoint, to all of the behind-the-scenes stuff. I go to meetings about the website, where we discuss everything from how it’s being redesigned to if it’s having issues, and how to fix those issues. The website, the forums, the console app, the game--for every experience a community member has, I am in the relevant meetings. I am a part of those decisions, and my job is to represent the community. I tell various teams what the community thinks, what they want, what’s okay, what’s not okay, and basically fight for them when needed. That involves a whole lot of fun stuff, and then that also involves more of the daily grind.
CB: So what have been some of the challenges from somebody in your position, in these months leading up to the release of the new game, 343’s first entirely original creation?
Jessica: My biggest personal challenge was when we made the very first Halo 4 announcement at E3 (in 2010), and then how long we waited before we shared any information about it. It’s really hard to stay quiet about something, especially when the fans are clamoring for new information, and then not being about to give it to them because there’s a greater plan in place.
There were numerous dates set up for all the various announcements, we had very special things planned, and we had a very special cadence to make the biggest impression possible on everybody, and to just give them this really great experience. Of course, when you’re on the other side, when you’re a fan, you don’t know any of that is going on. When you want more information, that’s all you want. You don’t care about the rest. So it’s really hard being that middle person, and me knowing all the great things that are coming, them not knowing all the great things that are happening and will happen, and trying to balance that.
As a studio, I think our biggest challenge has been following in Bungie’s footsteps. They are, in my eyes, one of the most beloved developers out there, and I know millions of people that feel the same way. So trying to follow them is a very big challenge. I’ve been very proud of 343, as far as how far we’ve kept the very core of Halo intact. At the same time, we haven’t been scared to take it to the places that we believe it should go.
CB: How is being a wife and a mother impact what you do, and how does this job impact you being a wife and mother?
Jessica: That’s a big, loaded question. I would say being a mother has been a big benefit to this job, because I kind of see our community as this great collective being that I just want to take into my arms, hold them close, and take care of them. So it’s very much a nurturing thing for me. I care about what they think, and I want to take care of them, and I want them to be happy. So I imagine those two roles are really similar. [I can testify to the truth of this. Jessica has been a passionate and very successful advocate for the fanbase. She goes to amazing lengths to take care of them and represent their concerns and desires, and she does it out of love.]
CB: And you occasionally have to discipline.
Jessica: [laughs] Occasionally. Maybe.
As far as the other side goes, I think if there were awards for being the coolest mom ever, my children would probably grant me a few of them. They are very excited to see me do something that I’m so passionate about. How many people get to do a job that they love, that is pretty much their dream thing? I understand that every day, and I wake up every day, knowing that, and knowing, walking through these doors, that I’m very, very blessed.
CB: What are you most excited about in relation to the game or the launch or both?
Jessica: I am most excited to be able to play the game with my friends that I’ve had for years. It’s a blast playing with people in the studio. We have play tests all the time, we trash talk, we have a great time, and we also work, of course. [laughs] I should probably say that we work.
But I’ve been on Xbox LIVE for six years now, and I’ve had the same people on my friends list since Halo 2. So I cannot wait for the day that I can go play it with them. So I’m very excited about my own personal social aspect, and being able to play this game with the community, the very people that have been waiting so long to play this game.
CB: So can you tell us about a fan moment that has really impacted you?
Jessica: I’ve had numerous incredible experiences with our fans. Halo is very blessed with its community. It’s so big, it’s so passionate, it’s so vocal, it’s so talented. Some of my most special moments have been with the Make A Wish kiddos that we work with. We work with them a lot, and that’s always difficult, but incredibly special. Kind of like how things are with life in general. I think the most special things are often times the most difficult.
Then I also have just super great moments with specific fans. There is this one person who I’ve come to know over all of the conventions, and every time I see him now, he brings me a bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans. Just because I’m always talking about how much I love when they fill up our food troughs--I get so excited when they give us chocolate-covered espresso beans. So every time they do it, I go on Twitter and say, “Oh my god! I have chocolate-covered espresso beans! I just ate ten of them!” and I’m all hyper and excited.
It’s the little things like that where I feel like I’m not just a person in a job, but I feel like people really take the time to get to know me as a person and the things that I like outside of Halo, and I think that’s when I’m touched the most. And it goes both ways: I enjoy when I get to know people the same way. When I see someone and I can say, “Hey, how’s school going?” “Did you get that promotion you wanted?” “How’s the wife and kids?” That’s what I really like.
I love getting to know everybody on a real level outside of Halo. ‘Cause we’re all people. Everybody that’s behind a controller is an actual person, and I want to get to know every single one of them.
This is only the first! We also have interviews with 343 Halo writer, Jeremy Patenaude, and Halo 4 Mission Designer, Jacob Benton!
Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her sporadic but often too-lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers