This past week Arse-bot and I had the awesome opportunity to speak with Frank O’Connor of 343 Industries. Frank is a really great guy and we had a lot of fun. We talked Halo 4, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, and bit about 343 Industries:
Chris: So Frank, you are Franchise Development Director at 343. What is a normal day like for you and what does that role entail?
Frank: There isn’t a normal day, because it entails so many different things. Last week I was in most countries in Europe doing a press tour showing off the game and just being a spokesperson. But most of my real proper job is crafting stories and a universe in and around the Halo game franchise. That can be anything from, in the case of Forward Unto Dawn sort of the inception and creation of that product and the story, all the way to working with our writers and narrative director on our video game. Of course the extended franchise: the action figures, and skateboards, and you name. It is all a business that all has to be run and all has to be appropriately and correctly tied into the rest of the universe all in the service of the game.
What was your specific involvement with Forward Unto Dawn?
Helping craft the idea in the first place with Matt McCloskey, one of our business directors, and helping to coalesce a small kernel of team for the thing to snowball around. It had been 5 years since the last numbered Halo game, and you know, that’s most of the life of a new hardware platform, the 360 in this case. We knew there were a lot of people curious about the Halo universe, and were going to be curious about it, and we wanted to give them a piece of fiction and a piece of story that could tell them a little bit about the Halo universe without being intimating and without being too gamey. The 2nd half of it was kind of an organic evolution of conversations that we’d had about our live action TV commercials for the big game launches. The fans love those. We made some shorts with Neil Blomkamp and fans loved seeing the Halo universe brought to life. Those two ideas sort of met in the middle and we decided to make a TV show. It was as vague and organic sounding as that sounded.
After production of Forward Unto Dawn was complete, what was your first reaction to seeing the Halo universe brought to life in such a cinematic way?
I mean, we had seen it a little bit with working with Neil Blomkamp on the shorts with Peter Jackson back in the day before the movie kind of went away. So I’ve seen this stuff lots and lots of times and it never ceases to amaze me. I think the really interesting thing about this product is that we’ve done all these vignettes and they never had any real narrative content, they were moments. It was like, this is an action moment in the life of a Spartan, or this in action moment in the life of the Warthog as it were. That’s cool and its great to see that stuff, but its not satisfying in terms of having an actual narrative arc. So the exciting for me was really the first day of work with Todd and Aaron Helping, the screenwriters, as we modeled through what the story was going to be and what these characters were going to be, and we started to realize we had this germ of a really amazing story.
Obviously fans have been hoping for a full length feature Halo film, and Forward Unto Dawn seems like it will certainly scratch that itch, but do you think this will be as close as we will ever get to a full length studio Halo movie?
No, we obviously own the full rights to Halo as a franchise. There’s really nothing stopping us from doing that other than bandwidth and timing. One day if all the stars align and the right script and the right director and everything is there, then sure we’d absolutely love to do it, but there’s no plans at this time.
Spartan Ops has been likened to a TV series. It sounds really unique and exciting. Has it been difficult to approach and plan missions for it that could have possibly been saved for Halo 5 and 6?
No, in fact one of the really cool things about Spartan Ops is that, you know when you are playing the main Halo campaign, let’s say it takes a player 10 hours to go through, we can’t control the pace of either the narrative or the gameplay experience because 10 hours is too much to expect most people, and there will be people that do it, but you can’t expect most people to sit down and play it for 10 hours. So you can’t really predict the holistic experience, whereas if you are making a movie or TV show, a movie is an easier metaphor, if you are making a movie and its an hour and 45 minutes, you know where the beginning the middle and the end is you can really kind of use music and drama and story to manipulate the viewer’s experience, right? With a video game you can’t really control it to that discreet level of detail. This actually gives us the ability to do that both with the episodes of story that accompany Spartan Ops, but actually also the missions. We knew that we could make a mission, let’s say 15 or 20 minutes long, we know where the lows and highs are going to be in that and we can craft, actually a fairly different type of campaign experience even though its similar to the co-op campaign in the main game, we can actually control the pacing in a much more accurate way. So it does have a really different feel to it.
Let’s talk a little bit about multiplayer. Last week Ragnarok, which is a remake of the fan favorite Valhalla from Halo 3, was revealed. Why was this map chosen and what was the process like for recreating it?
Valhalla was obviously a fan favorite. It was really suitable for a lot of different elements of the whole Halo sandbox and that’s obviously true of Halo 4. One of the main reasons to pick Valhalla this time was because of the way the Spartans move in Halo 4. Its not a big deal for players in most other video games, but its a big deal for Halo players, is that now every single Spartan has sprint. The weird thing about Valhalla is that even though its quite a long map, once you have sprint it meant we were able to make it really really multipurpose. It totally worked for vehicles, but now it actually works for on-foot combat as well. Of all the remakes that we could have considered it gave us the most flexibility for the most different types of gameplay and that’s the reason it was picked.
Nice, I’m really excited for it. Another exciting thing on Ragnarok is the mech, Mantis. How does that work?
Its very powerful. Its very slow. Like everything in the Halo sandbox its about sort of empowering the player, but keeping things nice and balanced. It is armed with a machine gun, a missile launcher, and a stomp move where you can basically run up to Spartan or a vehicle and stamp on it and destroy it. Of course that’s balanced with it being a lumbering, noisy, mechanical object so its not horrifically overpowered. In fact one of the most satisfying things to do in the game is to carjack the Mantis and yank the occupant out of the little pilot’s wheelhouse.
When you stomp a vehicle or a Spartan is there a medal you get specifically for that?
I believe there is actually. I think that we will be revealing the medals in the upcoming weeks, but yeah I believe there is a special something for proficient Mantis users.
Awesome. Tuesday morning Ryan over at IGN and 343’s Kynan Pearson revealed a new multiplayer map called Abandon. What can you tell us about the map’s location and unique look?
Oh my god, I do not have a good time on that map at all. Its definitely one my weak points. When maps have a lot of verticality my 42-year-old twitch reflexes get killed. Its like most of the maps set on obviously an alien world. Its overgrown and in ruins. Actually its funny, a lot of the maps that we have in Halo 4 are very new, sterile, clean spaces because its this living Forerunner world so this is one of the rare instances were you are going to things that are really overgrown and sort of decrepit.
Yeah its got a really unique look from what we’ve seen.
Yeah and it works really well for close quarters combat so if you are using things like the Scattershot, there’s loads of ways to surprise people. Its got lots of sort of honeytraps where you think “I’m going to go there” and people can lay in wait for you.
You may not be able to answer this yet, but what new additions and improvements can we look forward to in Halo 4 and Halo Waypoint in terms of stats tracking and will there be a developer API?
We aren’t going to expose a developer API at least in the immediate term or at launch. Its definitely something we think about for the future. There will be significant upgrades to all of Waypoint’s current functionality in time for launch and a little bit before.
My group of friends and fellow bots here at Big Shiny Robot really got into Bungie Pro and rendering film clips to show off cool things we did. Can we expect a similar feature?
We will have more information about video rendering and other features of that kind closer to launch. Sorry, I know you hate those kind of answers.
Can you tell us about a key moment during development that you thought was really cool or interesting?
You know, its not really a moment, but there was a point where there were literally 9 members of 343 Industries and we were being tasked with taking over the entire Halo universe, we suddenly had this realization that we were going to have to grow from 9 people to almost 300 by the time we shipped. It was sort of terrifying, but maybe in the first couple of interview loops we started to realize something which was that every single person that came to interview for the job was a Halo fan. Of course it makes logical sense, but its not something you are thinking about when you are trying to poach people form AAA studios and trying to bring them to Seattle from different parts of the world. That turned out to not only one of the easiest parts of that challenge, and it wasn’t easy at all let me be clear about that, but it actually gave us some of the best opportunities because for all the people who were Halo fans and knew what made Halo cool and knew what was special about Halo, they had all these techniques and perspectives and abilities that they were able to bring from the other studios and from the projects that actually helped us grow and evolve the game.
So Halo 4 went gold about a week or so ago, congrats on that by the way, what does it feel like at 343 and how is the team reacting?
Thank ya. Its weird because there’s a few more parking spaces and people are of course off crunch more or less, but there’s still little segments of team. I mean to your point earlier the Waypoint guys are working on getting the website and the backend stuff ready for launch. We’re still working on Forward Unto Dawn doing final color correction and VFX for the last couple of episodes. We’re doing all of this launch activity and marketing stuff and for some of us we just keep going. I’d like to say there’s a huge sense of relief but not for me, not quite yet. I think the team is really, I think they’re really elated about the project, I think they are rightfully proud of the game. I think that they are really sort of pleased and proud at how they’ve come together as a team and as a family. To grow that quickly, to grow from 9 people to 300 people in 3 years and build a game and come out of that process with what we hope is a great game and a really sort of happy, successful, collaborative culture is way more than we could ever have hoped for when we started this.
The sense of camaraderie and team spirit that is gathered from places like Twitter and forums is just really awesome. It seems like everyone is really tight tight-knit there.
Yeah. I think that was part of the process of having to grow so quickly I think actually worked in our favor because you know we had this shared passion and it was all Halo, Halo, Halo. Then of course you get to know each other as colleagues and friends and it seems artificial from the outside but from the inside it felt, it really did feel like family.
One more question then Arse-bot has one. As a fan of Halo what are you most excited for?
I honestly, this is no word of a lie, every day I go back to my house and I have a recumbent bike in my basement gym, which is all creepy, and I get on the bike and I play Reach every single night. I play various multiplayer modes. So I’m excited just as I was to move from Halo 3 to Halo: Reach, I’m excited to move from Halo: Reach to Halo 4, and to just get a fresh new multiplayer experience for my workouts. I always burn more calories when I’m losing, because I can’t rage quit really, because I’m on a bike, so the worse I do the more calories I burn, and luckily I’m very bad at the game.
Tyson: You had kind of touched on this a little bit when we were talking about the map Abandon. My friends which includes Chris who is conducting the interview, and some of the other guys who run our site, we get together, we played Halo: Reach, we played Halo 3, we’re big into hopping online, getting a squad together, and just trying to tear things up. We all have a different style of play. I’m kind of the running gun type, we’ve got friends who hang back and snipe, we’ve got the guys who go for the vehicles. Could you describe your play style? How do you play the game and how would you describe your Halo style?
So you actually brought up a really brilliant point about Halo, which is that its not monolithic. I mean obviously you have role players in Counter Strike, but my experience in Counter Strike is that everyone is some sort of genius at killing me. Its a very sort of specific game and game style that you play depending on the mode obviously but there’s always the same feel. Halo players are really not monolithic. They do tend to be role players. I’m great at, I’m not great at a lot of things, but I’m a good driver, and I’m excellent at sneaking and getting flags. Right? I can’t hold a territory, but I can get a flag when a good team is otherwise occupied. Those are my skills. One of the cool things about Halo 4, and I think that people tend to think of the career progression as a way to get more power, but it doesn’t really empower you, what it does is it empowers you to create a player that maps to your style. A good vehicle specialist for example is going to be able to customize his character to be not only better at driving, but to be rewarded for being a good driver. That’s what its really about. Its about customizing your character to suit your style of play, rather than to simply make your character more and more and more powerful as you grow. Its more about about giving your more fine tuned controls over doing the kinds of things that you like to do and we hope that that promotes really interesting dynamic and teamwork. Other than that I’m a pretty decent SWAT player. That’s about it.
Again I’m 42 and often we’ll go play MLG players and I think they expect because I work on the game that I’m going to be good, not great, but at least good, and they’re very pleasantly surprised when they absolutely destroy me.
Tyson: Well you know, we’ve had discussions too about its not always about the win necessarily. Obviously we all love to win, and there’s always some friendly trash talking going on, but sometimes its just about how close the game is. We’ve had talks about this with some of the other first person shooter games how it seems to be really off balance, but with Halo it seems like you guys have really been able to fine tune it to where even if you are losing, you get matched up with a group where its like “Gah, you know we lost but that was an awesome match.”
Its a combination of the way the game’s interior systems work and TrueSkill and obviously the way matchmaking playlists are split up. But you are right in Halo it tends to never be a complete blowout unless someone on your team quits and that’s one of the reasons we added join-in-progress is to ameliorate that problem and keep those games balanced. You’re absolutely right, I don’t feel bad if we lose 50 to 48, in fact I feel pretty good about that. That’s one of the hard things in game design is that for competitive play to be satisfying, you can’t always win and you can’t always lose so it should really be about how you performed on that day and that moment and that should be where the satisfaction comes in.
Tyson: I can tell you right now we get a lot of satisfaction from Halo games, and we are huge fans, and we appreciate all the work that you and everyone at 343 has put in. We’re really excited for Halo 4 and we’re looking forward to Forward Unto Dawn as well. We appreciate you taking time out of what I’m sure is a busy schedule to talk to us today.
Absolute pleasure. Thanks so much for your time guys, seriously.