Microsoft finally lifted the lid - or at least partially removed it - on Halo 4 at a massive showcase event in San Francisco last week. We spoke to Halo Franchise Development Director Frank O'Connor to discover just how big a challenge creating Halo 4 is.
Q: 343 Industries is still being very secretive about Halo 4. Are you not desperate to cut loose and just show off the game?
Frank O'Connor: Some of the things that we do in the games industry, and this is probably true of most developers, some of this is in service of a plan. If you don't have a plan, it's just going to be chaos right? So we do, of course, have a marketing plan laid out for the year. But the marketing plan is based on the production plan. There's some things - I will tell you, right now, there's going to be a rocket launcher in the game come hell or high water. But there's also other weapons that are just as predictable on paper as the rocket launcher, but you don't want to say [O] and [X] is going to be back in case it's not.
So, some of the secrecy is just in service of real production realities where you have to be careful. But our big ticket item this year - I mean, the campaign is huge, it's at least 50 per cent of what we're showing and doing this year - but what we're doing with multiplayer, we hinted at it and it's a tease, that's the thing I'm excited to share with people. And also, like, I just want to play. Sometimes I just watch our demos and I'm like, ah, I just want to go and do some System Link and just start shooting people.
Q: There's an economy of time to multiplayer that most developers forget, isn't there? There could be ten great multiplayer games, but nobody has the time to play all ten of them.
FO: Yeah, I'm definitely the nexus of that, because I'm supposed to do all of this for competitive analysis, right, which eliminates some of the fun from games you know you'd have fun playing, and I don't have time. I look at my Xbox LIVE activities, like, Halo 3, Halo 3, Halo: Reach, Call of Duty, Halo: Reach, Halo: Reach. It definitely takes your ability to sample and puts it in a different place and then reduces it somewhat, and it's a shame.
We have the most amazing conversation about games in the office and that's one of the days you always remember that you work at a games studio, because everyone is talking in crazy granular detail about whatever the latest big thing is. And small things, too, our studio will come in and so Show & Tells on things they are excited about. Sometimes it's like, a Minecraft mod, and sometimes it's Call of Duty. Everyone in the studio loves video games - we have a lunchtime fighting game setup where people go play Street Fighter or Tekken, or whatever's kicking.
Q: You've hinted that Halo 4's multiplayer will be framed within a narrative. I like the idea that there's a reason why red and blue are fighting, but do you really think people have ever wanted an answer to that question?
FO: That particular point, phrased that way, I don't think people really care. I think they love [Halo multiplayer announcer] Jeff Steitzer's voice and the weird surreality that multiplayer Halo brings. It ended up, for a reason that will become apparent later in the year, it ended up becoming necessary - so we thought, what's a cool way to make that make sense so that everything else makes sense. So we solved the Red vs Blue Team Slayer thing in the service of the greater goal, which is again the aspect of multiplayer that we'll talk about later. It makes perfect sense, and it's not really all that new. It's something we talked about during Halo 2 and Halo 3, and it's the same answer each time. It's just that we're going to put it in a fairly different context, and finally explore it a little bit.
Q: People find comfort in what they know, don't they? Especially multiplayer.
FO: Yeah, I think people like being good at something. That's the most addictive part of your multiplayer FPS experience: I'm good at this. People do the same thing with cars, too, like 'I really like the clutch on this Volkswagen' so they'll keep buying Volkswagen. I think that's true of video games, and you develop muscle memory for things. But also FPS games, I mean you or I could pick up most AAA FPS games and have a reasonable first game because of conventions, right? I think the thing that is different about Halo, and it's not unique but it's certainly one of the defining factors of Halo, but the type of universe you're in, the sci-fi universe, and the emergent sandbox stuff that comes out of it.
I'm talking about campaign, really, but people's campaign experiences are never quite the same. You know, someone will say 'that level was so hard, I ran out of sniper ammo and every time I went round the corner that one Jackal sniper would spot me' and another person will say 'I didn't even see that, I just drove right past it in a Warthog with gung-ho marines who were just blasting their way through the whole thing. It's one of the key differences in Halo, the ridiculous amount of variety that you get out of a sandbox experience versus a scripted, or tunnel and hub experience.
Q: You talk about Halo's emergent nature being what makes it special, and if that kind of gameplay ever found its way into Call of Duty that could drive the CoD fans crazy. But doesn't the same work in reverse? If you're bringing in things like customisable loadouts to Halo 4's multiplayer, which people will relate to Call of Duty, don't you ever think you might upset traditional Halo fans?
FO: You've described a really good design challenge that our designers were faced with. How do we introduce people to that in a way that doesn't alienate them from what they're doing? Can they still have their core experience? Yes they can. If you never want to engage, does it really matter? You can make it not matter if you so choose in matchmaking. You can just say I'm going to be this guy, playing this way, and I'm just going to be happily doing that. That's always going to be there. When we talk more about what the rest of that multiplayer experience looks like, I think it'll be attractive to people in the same way that campaign is. In campaign you want to find out what happens in the end, and in our new multiplayer experience you'll want to find out what happens to you.
It's funny, and in some ways it's because we're on a single platform. If you're, say, the PS3 team working on Call of Duty, you're not under the same level of scrutiny even though they have some of the same challenges. We're a platform standard bearer, and we're always trying to push our art and our craft but we're also trying to support and push the platform, too. So it puts different levels of expectation on you, different pressures. I'll say this all night every night; the most pressure we feel, we usually forget about external pressure because it's really coming from inside, is how can I make this the best thing ever? Sometimes it's in the context of, how can I make this better than Call of Duty or some other Halo game, or some other weapon in a really specific granular thing, but mostly an average 343 staff member is thinking how can I do the thing better than I've ever done it before, and in a way that will delight and surprise people? That's the pressure. And it's 200 people, every day. And I mean everyone. Designers, artists, our admins in the office go through this. Everyone wants to feel proud of the product.
Q: At the end of HaloFest, Marty O'Donnell said he was worried that Bungie caught lightning in a bottle with Halo. He said it relating to Bungie's future as a studio, but the same idea applies to 343 Industries as well. How can you make lightning strike twice?
FO: We're lucky because Marty O'Donnell and Bungie handed us a small bottle of lightning with a stopper in it. We have that, and that's a great luxury. I think the industry is littered with the corpses of really technically brilliant FPS games that didn't succeed because there was something about the core gameplay that just didn't click with people. That's not necessarily the problem we have to solve. The problem we have to solve is that people's expectations for Halo are that it gets bigger, and better, and more creative, and more innovative every single time. And in important ways, not small ways. We can't just tweak a Battle Rifle and say oh great, it's better. Even if we did as good as [Bungie], and made one weapon better, that would be great. If you were a new studio trying to build on this franchise, that would be a pretty good point. But that is nowhere near good enough, right? So we do have a huge challenge.
But Bungie, you know, they have huge bottles and they're standing on the top of a mountain with copper rods - they're not going to have much problem catching lightning in a bottle again, I think Marty is doing himself a disservice there. We have to do that, sure, but we also have to build upon an existing universe and an existing franchise and please a rabid, excited, energised, enthusiastic fanbase, and bring people in from the cold. Bring people in that didn't have a 360 until recently, or stopped after the Xbox 1, or have only ever played Call of Duty and so on and so on. That's our challenge for the people. But our challenge for the craft is always the same. Do it better, do it bigger, advance the art, advance the technique and advance the fun.
Halo 4 will be released later this year. For more on the game check out our first impressions.