On November 6, 2012, an ancient evil will awaken. With that ominous line and a terrifying scream from the AI companion Cortana, hit the "most anticipated" list of a lot of gamers at E3 2012. At Comic-Con International: San Diego 2012, Microsoft's 343 studios brought the game to show off directly to fans for the first time.Campaign Screen Leading the charge was Frank O'Connor. As the Franchise Development Director for Halo at 343, he now guides the entire franchise across multiple games, and has been involved in other content for novels, comics, and beyond. Formerly a content manager at Bungie, if there's a person who knows Halo, it's Frank.
We pulled O'Connor aside at a press event at SDCC and got to talk about the future of Halo, the pressures of forging ahead without Bungie, and much more.
Newsarama: So Frank, I thought Bungie, the creators of Halo, left Microsoft… that mean's Halo is dead, right?
Frank O'Connor: Well, no! Bungie left Microsoft, they're working on something that I'm excited to play that will be published by Activision. But they handed us the reins to Halo and we took them with gusto, and we're looking to ride that wagon up until November 6th when we launch Halo 4!
Nrama: What is it about Halo that makes it an enduring property that can go from team to team, and outside of games? Because it has, we've had Halo comics, novels, the strategy game Halo Wars… what makes it something that can go from group to group like that?
O'Connor: It's a super strong universe, it has really vital and alive components.Concept Art Think about the individual components, the Warthog, the way it sounds and it feels. Think about the weapons, the UNSC industrial design. It's able to take, as you say, an awful lot of interpretation and be viewed through some different lenses and prisms but retain its core.
Nrama: Obviously there are a lot of sci-fi properties out there, a lot of people that have done the "Space Marines" concept. What makes Halo unique, and what does Halo draw from those other ideas that have come before it like Aliens and the Heinlein stories?
O'Connor: Loads of Sci-Fi has influenced Halo. You can see that in every pore of its being! Like you said, Aliens, Heinlein, a lot of movies, novels, everything serves from Philip K. Dick through Ian Banks and beyond.
And then because you have a large team working on it, you take those influences, and our original ideas, which push it over the edge, and you just pour them with passion and love into the product.
Nrama: You were with Halo as a property with Bungie. I imagine once they decided to go their own way, you had the opportunity to take on another franchise, do anything you wanted to do. What made you stick with Halo?
O'Connor: I mean, the reason I started with Bungie in the first place is because I love Halo. I'd been playing Bungie games for years, Marathon, Pathways into Darkness, but Halo was the thing that really entranced me. It was this universe that they built, and what I always wanted to do as a gamer was explore. I wanted to shoot things, and have fun with sandbox combat, but I wanted to explore a universe and learn about the universe. And Halo did that really well.Campaign Screen So that was the thing I loved about it. When Bungie separated from Microsoft and went it's own way, I was still there, but Halo was where my heart laid. So I was talking to Bonnie Ross, my general manager, and she was taking over the franchise. She was coordinating with me on the handoff of the story bible and all that stuff, and I realized immediately that she and the small team she had gathered at 343 were really dedicated and really passionate about this stuff. They were taking it really seriously, and not as a piece of business, but as a piece of art.
That was what they cared about! So, we were pretty cynical, thinking "Microsoft better do a good job with this, I hope they love it!" But then seeing these people, seeing that they did love it and in some ways they were fresh to it and weren't at all bored with it - in the way we were kind of tired - they had that fresh perspective, that verve that they brought to the universe, that's what made me "jump ship" effectively, and stick with the franchise rather than the studio.
Nrama: I was a Mac guy, so the ones you mentioned, Pathways into Darkness and Marathon were huge things for me...
O'Connor: Because we were waiting for Doom!
Nrama: Yeah, exactly! So like you, I've been with Bungie from the start and jumped into Halo early. If there's somebody that's heard about Halo but hasn't played it before, what is unique about Halo 4 that makes it accessible and that would bring them into the franchise?
O'Connor: I think what makes Halo unique is kind of reflected in this room [gestures to the fans playing, clearly varying in age, sex, and style]: the audience isn't monolithic. If you look at the Counter Strike audience, it kind of looks like a Counter Strike audience! They love the game, and super specific parts of it. But Halo has this really wide-ranging, really disparate audience. Some people just like the fiction, some people like the sandbox and physics, some people like the gameplay and gunplay, and some people just like the extended universe, the novels and so on.Campaign Screen I think it's the breadth, the depth of the universe that compels me, and I think there's something in it for everyone.
Nrama: Let's talk about that a little bit more. You mention the depth of the universe, the fiction, a lot of people think a first person shooter is just, "you shoot people in the face! Okay, done!" Talk a little about how the fiction of Halo and how Halo 4 is going to expand on that.
O'Connor: In a lot of ways, it's just classic sci-fi. It's a big universe, and when you enter the Halo universe, you literally enter in the middle of combat. You're on the Pillar of Autumn and being attacked by this mysterious alien race that everyone in the game seems to know about, and you're popping out of cryosleep having to deal with that.
In a way that's how we start out Halo 4. A lot of people haven't played Halo since the original Xbox, or have been playing other franchises like Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, or even have never played a Halo game. So we needed to make a game that serves the fans of the series, the legacy of the series, but also is going to be compelling and interesting to people that haven't checked it out before, and we think we've done a really good job with that.
Nrama: Halo: Combat Evolved brought a lot of people back to the First Person Shooter genre in a way that maybe Goldeneye and otherwise Doom only really did that. What does Halo 4 do for the FPS genre that will bring people into it?
O'Connor: Well, first of all, without Goldeneye and Doom, there's no Halo, right? Obviously we were massively influenced by that. They created a lot of systems and stuff that you're used to now, especially in console FPS games, but that they innovated there. They innovated in control schemes, they innovated in sandbox physics, and it was just an evolution of things we loved.Spartan Ops Screen The difference with Halo is that it was advanced for the console, then with Halo 2, the matchmaking, the way that you matchmake now in any console shooter kind of owes that legacy to Halo. That was one of the ways that we attacked Halo 4, how can we up the ante to pay off that legacy and expand upon it?
We're going to do things like Spartan Ops which is weekly episodic content, both gameplay and fiction. We've made improvements, both incremental and radical across the board in technology, gameplay, and so on. We have seven weeks until the game goes to RTX, which is where we send it off, make sure it works, then it goes to manufacturing. It's gonna be crunchy!
Nrama: You've worked in the Halo universe for a long time. With that unique perspective, what keeps you coming back to it as an employee and a fan?
O'Connor: Well, it's easy for me. I work a lot on the fiction and the broad universe. So we're constantly building story and characters and pushing things forward. We do a little bit of retrospective stuff - you're going to see a really interesting historical take on Halo in "Forward Unto Dawn" our live-action digital series. We've explored the history and the past, but the thing that really interests me is pushing forward.
Even the digital series adds to things in really interesting, compelling ways.
Nrama: Playing Devil's Advocate, why do people even need story in a first person shooter though?
O'Connor: I think the reason people need story is because they need to connect with the reasons that they're their. They need to understand why they're in the universe, and they need to understand what their agency in that universe is. Narrative and story and fiction are the wrappers surrounding the atmosphere that drives all of that.
Nrama: Is there any piece of the Halo universe, including extended universe stuff, that people should really focus on before coming into Halo 4? Or can they really just come in clean?
O'Connor: No, if you've never picked up a Halo game before, numbered sequel or not, you'll start out very fresh with Halo 4. You'll understand who this character is, you'll understand the surrounding archetypes and scenarios. I think it'll be a really great way for people to enter the universe.Spartan Ops Screen Realistically, I'd be perfectly happy with Halo 4 being people's first Halo game, and they can go off and explore the catalog and library after that.
Nrama: Frank, you obviously love this property, you're a huge fan. What's the very first thing a fan should do when they play Halo 4?
O'Connor: Play the campaign. Play the Campaign!
You're going to learn a little bit about your character that you'll create in multiplayer from the campaign, and you'll learn about the universe and the new basic systems. And it's a lot of fun! We have beautiful cinematics, we have a great story, great gameplay, it's going to be a lot of fun.
Nrama: So Multiplayer plays into the story now?
O'Connor: Absolutely. Multiplayer has a very light fictional wrapper now as far as traditional multiplayer is concerned, and a very deep fictional wrapper with Spartan Ops, our episodic multiplayer.