Interviews// Halo 4: Bringing Back Master Chief

Posted 27 Sep 2012 14:10 by
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Master Chief is back. And yet, it almost feels like he?s never been away. It?s crazy to think that Halo 4 is being released some five years after Bungie?s Halo 3 - for an iconic character that has become the mascot of the Xbox brand, Chief?s absence is rather unorthodox.

But, you should never rush a good thing - the Halo franchise has been gently passed over from Bungie to 343 Industries over the last half-decade, and it takes time to build a workforce that can generate the same quality that is expected from a core Halo game.

This fact should have been the most pressing thing on the mind of franchise development director, Frank O?Connor. But, as he tells me in our interview, the legendary sci-fi franchise attracts a lot of very talented fans. Fans who are more than willing to help shape the future of the series, and lead Master Chief on an all-new, dazzling adventure...


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SPOnG: You mentioned in your presentation earlier today that you?ve employed developers from all over the world, who have worked on a number of franchises - Metal Gear Solid, Call of Duty... and that they each offered varying perspectives. What specific perspectives did they offer?

Frank O?Connor: A lot of it is... ultimately a lot of these guys are just gamers, right? And even consumers have ideas that they want to bring into our game - and believe me, we get a lot of emails about what those ideas are. The difference is, of course, that these are professionals who actually have experience in how these things work and how they play out in the real world.

But, they also have technical abilities that are absolutely new to our studio. I think we?re seeing the results of that in terms of gameplay ideas, artistic interpretation of the universe, and of course in terms of technology. We had the luxury of being able to overhaul a lot of our technology, but we also had the luxury of a huge influx of ideas.

It?s not like we simply use them all, though. We do what any developer does - we prototype them, test them... test them again, and then when the successful ones get implemented and tuned until they?re perfect.

I think the influx of surprising new ideas that comes from strange and unexpected perspectives really helps too. We?re not just hiring people from shooters or action games, we?re hiring people from driving games, and sometimes they?re going to come up with ideas that come from that space - that are completely tangential to what you might expect from a shooter, drawing value and unexpectedly imaginative features into the game.


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SPOnG: How challenging is it to put your own creative spin on the Halo franchise, while ultimately keeping with Bungie started with the franchise?

Frank O?Connor: That was something that we thought was going to be a challenge and a problem space - having to grow a studio from 9 to 300 people in record time - but the reality was that everyone had this shared passion. They came to the interview and got the job because they had this passion for on a Halo game. We all have a central focus. When you have everyone agreed on what their passion is, it makes things a lot more focused.

Having a shared goal is something that a lot of businesses just dream of having. Our industry is obviously a much more creative business... but you can imagine that a banker would be pretty excited if all his staff were targeted and focused on the same goal and were just as passionate about it. Imagine that with something as imaginative as a sci-fi video game.


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SPOnG: As self-confessed Halo fans yourselves, you?re obviously getting a benefit in terms of developing the game. But, was there also a risk of having a blinkered vision of sorts, and not being able to look at it objectively?

Frank O?Connor: Yeah - objectivity is really hard, but I don?t think it was a problem this time, because it was a new team and they were forming around new ideas and new people. So I think this time we got nothing but benefit out of the process. It was a creative Pandora?s Box initially, and we focused on good, tight, well-thought out ideas.

We?ll be a real team next time - we?ll have shipped a game, and we?ll have started to develop habits and muscle memory. So we?ll worry about that on a cultural level - is our team going to get stuck in certain types of rut, or are we going to be able to continue to keep this really open attitude towards the game?

By the same token, I think it?s very important to respect to franchise at its very core. Especially with a game like Halo, that has a special feel to it - I?m not saying it?s perfect, but people know how Halo feels. When you imagine a controller in your hand you automatically know how you?re going to move around in that universe. When you respect that and keep that central, I think you have a kind of safety buffer built in to stop it going askew. That comes from the shared experience that everyone has.


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SPOnG: It?s only the second Halo game this generation in which Master Chief takes a leading role. How do you feel about that, now that we?re nearing the end of the Xbox 360?s lifespan? Do you feel that Master Chief, as a mascot for the Xbox brand, hasn?t been on the console enough? Is it about time he?s come back?

Frank O?Connor: Yeah, I think the quality of the experiences that you get out of the investment and time [of the previous games] are more than worth his lack of appearances. I know that?s not what you?re saying, but I think that ends up being a net benefit to the player. But the funny thing about this is this has already lasted longer than almost any other console generation.

I think the horsepower that?s still hidden away in the Xbox 360 still continues to surprise. We were able to do things on this box that I wouldn?t have considered possible at the start of this generation, and we still haven?t tapped it out. When I think about my consoles at home, I have one Xbox 360 in the basement I just use for gaming and I have one in the living room for just about everything to do with media, as well as games. So I think they?re going to have more longevity and more utility in the household than any other previous console generation has ever had.

So not only is there life in the old girl yet, but we have plans to support the Xbox 360 for Halo 4 for at least another three map packs. Who knows what?s beyond that - but this has been one of the longest generations of console hardware for a really good reason. The box does a lot of things and continues to surprise us, and it?s one of the things I love about console development.

PC gaming tends to chase Moore?s Law - it?s about upgrading your system and the software goes with that. And I used to enjoy that process - that hobbyist process of buying graphics cards and building new PCs. But I think with consoles, seeing the work that talented developers can squeeze and eke out of this box is just as satisfying to me as jamming a new graphics card into a computer.


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SPOnG: I?m going to ask a really base question now...

Frank O?Connor: Sure.


SPOnG: You fight against the Prometheans in Halo 4... You?ve watched Prometheus, right?

Frank O?Connor: [Laughs] Yes.


SPOnG: Any correlation between the two?

Frank O?Connor: So as a matter of record, the Prometheans were mentioned in the Halo universe long before we even knew they were going to do an Aliens sequel. But, you can imagine our faces when the launch day and title of the film were announced! We remember that pretty well, we just threw our hands up and shouted, ?Noooo?. Yeah, Prometheus... and its sort of parent words get used a lot.

It was an important fictional thing for us to just stick with the original plan, because there?s some stuff that will be revealed in the game - and it?s a trope that gets used in sci-fi a lot - about... obviously, Prometheus stole fire from the gods, and there?s some metaphorical elements of that which will play into the story in the future. But yeah, we called it that first. We were kinda bummed out the day we found out what that movie was called! But we never shifted from our original intent, so we kept the name. We did consider changing it, but we decided against it.


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SPOnG: How difficult was it to think of a whole new trilogy for Halo, considering Bungie created this huge trilogy, rounded everything off and now you?re tasked with rebirthing it so to speak?

Frank O?Connor: Well, obviously I worked on Halo games before this at Bungie, and even at the end of Halo 3 we were implementing the legendary ending and had this whole world down there... We?d already started thinking about what was down there and what mysteries were going to be there. What new adventures the Chief would have down there. And that?s the whole point - it wasn?t meant to be a cliffhanger, it was supposed to be a ellipses that says, ?this story isn?t done?.

The first thing that people ask - even when ODST came out - was ?When are we going to find out what happens to Master Chief?? The funny thing is, that made choosing a story for Halo 4 the easiest decision that we ever had to make. Which story do we tell? That one. The one people want to see.

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SPOnG: Did you have any input from Bungie, or feedback?

Frank O?Connor: Oh, obviously I lived there and I?m friends with a lot of these guys, so we talk about it all the time, and I?m sure that... we?re probably pretty competitive, but people there are super-nice and say super-nice things.

But it is a business, and there?s going to be creative competition in the future. I think just as a gamer, I?m excited about what they?re doing next, and I can?t wait to play it. I know that it?s going to be one of the games I spend hours and hours playing, so... it?s a pretty good community in the Seattle gaming industry. They?re pretty friendly and inter-connected.


SPOnG: Thanks a lot for your time.

Frank O?Connor: My pleasure, thank you!
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