Monday, March 07, 2011
No other game is as synonymous with Xbox as Halo. From the first time Halo: Combat Evolved landed on Microsoft's first console, the UNSC have been fighting the Covenant ever since, launching a multi-million dollar franchise with a massive fanbase. And to think, it was very nearly a Mac RTS!
With Bungie now leaving Halo behind in a 10-year publishing deal with Activision, the series now falls to sole custodians 343 Industries, who will now be steering the franchise going forward. So, what ideas or innovations do the studio have to push the envelope? Or will the developer play it safe and stick to the tried and tested Halo formula that has served the series so well over the past nine years or so?
We sat down to chat all things Halo with 343 Industries' Frank O'Connor, Franchise Development Director at Microsoft's February Showcase, finding out what the future holds for Microsoft's biggest game.
What was the process like creating a new DLC in the Defiant Map Pack for Halo: Reach as your first proper Halo project as sole developer?
It's been a long process and I feel like the hard part has already been taken care of, like contracts, servers and moving stats over and all that kind of stuff. So now this is weirdly a sort of fun, awesome, creative collaboration with which we have an affinity. And for me personally and some of the other guys, we've had that affinity since Halo 2 and we've been through this aspect before, so it doesn't really feel that different. The interesting part is really going to be the reaction of the fans, but the process isn't really any different to how it's previously been in terms of making the DLC. So, we'll see the fan reaction will be a combination of people who don't care who makes this stuff, which is most people, but the hardcore fans are the ones we pay the most attention to an a day-to-day basis, and they're going to be scrutinising and we'll be scrutinising their reaction.
Did you want to put your own stamp on the map pack to make it that little bit different or was the aim to make it blend seamlessly into Halo: Reach?
It is a little bit different because we included a Firefight map, which we've never done as DLC. But we're never going to be in the business of putting our stamp on something just for the sake of it. I think what we will do is have – which is something every developer has each year – is a lot of new faces and a lot of fresh ideas to throw at problem spaces and to throw up opportunities as well. Things will be somewhat different, but hopefully in a nice organic way. We're not going to say this is 343's Halo and nobody has guns and instead everybody has clubs. That's not the way to approach a beloved franchise for one thing, and most of the people we hire, desperately want to work on a Halo game. Some are ex-Bungie, some are from Microsoft and have always worked on Halo and some are brand new to it, but one thing they all have in common, is that they love Halo and not another game.
This year being the 10th anniversary of Halo, what do you see as being a pivotal moment in those last ten years?
From my perspective, I have a very high level view of the Halo community, and I think of them as little segments, like the hardcore, the media guys and some who confront us with questions, while others just want to play Team Slayer on Halo 3 and nothing else. And there are even some people who don't even play the games and just love the Halo universe, like the comic books, novels and so on. I think of them as different groups although they're all individuals. Like in politics when people try to make a complicated situation simple, people miss the points, so we do our best to listen and pay attention to people's points. You can't be all things to everyone, but if you know who your market is and who your audience is composed of, then you're doing a better service.
Now that Halo is fully under your umbrella so to speak, where do you want to take the franchise given the high that Bungie went out on with Halo: Reach? There's a lot of pressure on 343 to deliver.
We want to treat it the same way Bungie did. It's not enough to just reiterate. You have to be innovative, creative and be better than you ever were. Like any Halo game, there's a lot of ideas left on the table because of budget, time and so on, so those ideas could go in as an organic part of it. But again, ultimately what we want to make from now on, is Halo products that are better than the best Halo products, and that's all we've ever done. That's the correct route to take the franchise, which is easier said than done.
With Halo being synonymous with the Xbox brand, is there any pressure from Microsoft to deliver a Halo game that uses Kinect?
There's definitely internal pressure from ourselves, because Kinect is actually really cool, so how can we utilise it? But there's no pressure from Microsoft. No executive has ever come to us and said, make a Halo FPS using Kinect. It doesn't work like that. We'll look at logical things to do with the technology in the same ways that we once looked at Xbox Live and said what can we do to take advantage of this new system that's at our disposal. Our focus has to be on making an FPS and frankly speaking, the controller. If there are things that we can do with Kinect, we will do them, absolutely, but it's not a direction we're being told to go in and there's no ultimatum being handed down to us. We'll see if we like it and look at what things we can do with it.
If you did plan to use Kinect, would you integrate it into the next main Halo, or would you branch off into making a Halo devoted to Kinect?
Either would certainly be interesting and we're already looking at ways to have Halo Waypoint work with Kinect although its less of an interactive experience, but it still feels playful. So, yes and no, I guess is the answer. I mean we could definitely change the Halo UI so that you could control it with your voice or your hands, and those are the kind of things we'll look at in the future. Those are easy problems to solve and the simple question is, if we did that, would it be as good or better than playing with an analogue stick and if not, we won't do it, right?
There's some cool experiences here today that are absolutely made for Kinect from the ground up. I mean, The Gunstringer especially; when you look at that, you think there's no way that experience would be the same with anything else other than Kinect and Child of Eden is absolutely perfect for Kinect. You could play both with something else, but you'd want to play them with Kinect more than you would with the analogue stick. You can see that from just watching people play it and both are core experiences. I think the way to win the Kinect hardcore fan is to make cool new things rather than try and paste Kinect controls onto old ideas.
That said, the thing I'm most looking forward to, is using Netflix with Kinect, as I've already got Zune for Kinect and I'm so lazy, that I want to use Netflix with Kinect too.
Can you see how a first-person shooter might work with Kinect?
I can see loads of ways how the Halo universe might work, but I don't think you could take a Team Slayer game and adapt it to Kinect, as I can't imagine anyone giving up their controllers. There's lots of experiences you could have within the Halo universe, like we could do an interactive movie for example that has nothing to do with gameplay or an encyclopedia where you can explore Halo facts and stuff like that. These aren't necessarily game experiences and more just Halo experiences though.
With the exception of Marathon, Bungie exclusively made Halo games before signing up with Activision. Do you see yourselves as a studio now devoting yourself to the franchise?
Hardcore fans will know that our studio name is lifted from the Halo universe, so that's our goal. It's a huge franchise worth millions, with a legion of voracious fans and it needs to be ongoing, but with a lot of love and attention. We can't just publish a Halo game every three years and not have a focused, dedicated team working on it. That was the best thing for Bungie and it'll be the best thing for us too.
Can you comment on the rumour about a remake of Halo: Combat Evolved?
Well like you just said, it's a rumour. And if you really really want to play Halo: Combat Evolved in 720p HD, go to Games on Demand. It's there right now for like $9.99!
But don't you think a remake of the previous Halo games is a good way to introduce new fans to the series? Players that don't necessarily want to be dropped in at Halo: Reach without knowing the Master Chief's origins?
We know from research that we have to know about the lapsed fan, who might be someone who hasn't played the series since Halo 1 or he now has a PS3, a baby or whatever thing it is that stops you from being involved with the franchise. I'm like that with some books, where I'll start reading a trilogy and I'll get two books in and give up. So, we have a lot of lapsed fans, we have a lot of new fans and we have a lot of fans who just read the books and don't play games, because I guess they just don't like video games. We do create cross-overs between all of those groups and we don't do it cynically, but it is sometimes deliberate and The Forerunner (Halo: Cryptum) is in its sixth week on the New York Times bestsellers list and it's climbing, so it's a great success from a publishing standpoint, but the reason to do it, is what we always what we do with Halo and that's not to go broad, but we go deep. We take things that you kind of know about and then we explore them. So, The Forerunner Saga is just the latest example of that.
Would you liken the Halo franchise to something like Star Wars then, that continues to grow and gets passed down between generations, between older and younger siblings, for instance?
I hope so. After ten years, this is the reason why our five or six million or so fans aren't just the same people from before and why it continues to grow is because we're into about two generations now, who play Halo - whether they should be or not - and they are recommending it. I think nostalgia has a lot to do with that, but a player who grew up playing Halo: Combat Evolved and didn't touch it again, but probably played Reach, could adapt really quickly to it.
Although we're on a different scale to Star Wars, Halo has a lot in common with Star Wars. Like when I think of Star Wars, I think of X-Wing fighters, lightsabers and landspeeders and so on; and when you think about Halo, you think about Warthogs, Banshees, Battle Rifles and Plasma Swords, so there's a very relatable collection of 'stuff' that is in our universe like there is in Star Wars. We're just on a much different scale, obviously. There are a lot of similarities, but we've learnt a lot lessons from Star Wars, both good and bad. When they started the franchise, they made a lot of ham-fisted “we didn't know this was going to be huge” moves like the Star Wars Christmas Special, which of course we now love, but it probably wasn't seen as awesome at the time.
Those are great lessons for any franchise as a core principle and I'm often asked what's the secret to having an awesome transmedia franchise, and it's to make sure that the original thing that it's based on is awesome. The End. And you can't make a plan to do that, but it's the truth and although Avatar is a giant successful movie, it didn't work as a franchise, so you can't plan that. It just has to be organic and it has to be natural. You can't force it.
You've said that with the next Halo you don't want to iterate but innovate. Are you concerned therefore that people might then say that since the franchise has gone from Bungie to 343 Industries that you've ruined it, if you change it too much?
Absolutely, but we have a huge advantage over somebody trying to make a new franchise or make a new game, and that's the core mechanics and the whole universe are incredibly strong. So, if ain't broke, don't fix it. But when I said we should innovate, that's where the kind of quantum leaps and geometric improvements come from, is innovation. And an innovation in Halo 3 that doesn't affect the gameplay one iota, is Theatre Mode and the ability to customise levels with Forge. These are things that feed back into that core experience that you love, and that's where you innovate. You don't try to innovate the fun out of something, you innovate to make it ever more enjoyable and more accessible.
In a way though, Bungie did innovate with the armour abilities in Halo: Reach, but if 343 tried to do something similar, fans might react differently.
Yeah, we're definitely going to be under a different spotlight. If we had done that, then we'd be judged differently than when Bungie did it. But then, that's a small segment of your audience that's making that kind of judgement and we have to be ready to take the good with the bad.
343 Industries' Halo title is rumoured to be heading for a November 2011 release to coincide with Halo's 10th anniversary.
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