GeekDad Father and Son Interview, Part 1: O’Connor, Ayoub, and Holmes on Making Halo Anniversary

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Image: Microsoft

My son John Luke and I had the opportunity to visit with the main dudes who have taken over the development and care of the Halo franchise at 343 Industries. Fair warning, though — the studio head honcha is Bonnie Ross, who graciously brought me a cup of coffee before our interview sessions. We spoke with Frank O’Connor, Franchise Development Director, Dan Ayoub, Executive Producer of Publishing, and Josh Holmes, Studio Creative Director and Creative Director, Halo 4 . They shared their thoughts on taking over the Halo franchise from Bungie Studios, the pits and falls of developing a legend, the reaction of the fan community and why they are motivated to continue doing what they do.

This is Part 1 of the interviews my son and I conducted at 343 Industries.

GeekDad: Briefly introduce yourself and what your responsibilities are at 343 Industries.

Frank O’Connor: Hi, I’m Frank O’Connor, and I’m Franchise Development Director at 343 Industries. I work on all aspects of the franchise and fiction on everything from the game story to licensed goods like action figures, comic books and so on.

Dan Ayoub: My name is Dan Ayoub. I’m Executive Producer of Publishing. So I manage all external development, Halo Anniversary being the most recent game coming out of our group.

GD: What is your approach to the future development of Halo‘s legendary franchise that is built mostly on a Bungie-created code base?

DA: I can speak certainly to [Halo] Anniversary. One thing we wanted to do with Anniversary is a celebration of ten years of playing Halo. I mean, I think we are very conscious that people have very, very fond memories of when they first played Halo, and that’s not something that we wanted to mess with. In fact, that’s something we wanted to celebrate. So it was important for us to make sure that the game played exactly the same way as it did in its original version. And the way we actually did that is that we went so far as to use the original code in the game. And that actually ensures that the game plays exactly the same as it did ten years ago. So for us it was all about celebrating that ten year legacy with the fans and being very, very conscious of the fact that people did not want to see the game-play change. So, I joked that we shipped the game “warts and all,” like we didn’t actually change bugs in the original game, because for many people that was so core to the original game-play. So we resisted the temptation to make those changes in core game-play and we focused on other things, and you know it felt part and parcel with not just wanting to do another remake, right. So, obviously the celebration but we wanted to do more than just an HD remake, so we took that philosophy and added a ton of extra features to it, and turned into an all out celebration of that ten-year anniversary. Do you want to add to that, Frank?

FO’C: Just to compound what Dan said, the magic of Halo and the “secret sauce” is the game-play, and if you moved it to a different engine, if you moved it to a different technology you’d lose that essence. One of the funniest things about it is the dichotomy. It meant that it was one of the simplest problem spaces for us because we weren’t going to change it. But it was also a difficult technical challenge to get the new graphics layer working on top of the existing game-play engine and graphics layer. So it was a mixed blessing: the one thing, once we had that resolved, we didn’t have to worry about whether it would play well. And you have a lot of other franchises in game development cycles where they literally don’t know until the last couple of weeks of development before that thing goes to gold master if it actually plays well. I mean, you can’t quite be sure until everything’s optimized, until everything’s tested. After a certain point, we didn’t have to worry about that. Often now I have to go play through the game several times just to unlock levels so I’m ready for a demo, or just work-related reasons. But in doing that I realize: one, that I’m having fun doing that and it should be a chore, right, and two, that it hasn’t dated in the slightest, that it holds up after ten years and it feels like it came out yesterday.

DA: Yeah, some of the best compliments we got when we started demoing this to press and fans was they picked it up, and the two great comments I loved to hear was “wow, this game could have released last month” and ironically, “wow, this feels exactly like it did ten years ago,” which I think is a testament to just great that original game felt, that people are able to remember it ten years after playing it for the first time.

GD: When did you decide to change the original Halo with the Reach multiplayer engine?

FO’C: When did we actually start having conversations about the content of this game?

DA: Yeah, I would say about eighteen months ago. I would say it’s hard to pin it down to a date. I mean, we were close after the Reach launch.

FO’C: As Dan says, about eighteen months ago, we started discussing what the content was going to be, and we had a sort of idealized visions of what it would be. It would be everything to everyone, blah, blah, blah. We also had discussion of a very pared down, literally just an HD remake, where everything is just upscaled to 1080 and so on. Eventually we realized that, given that we were now shooting for a very, very artificial date, and not a natural one at all, which was the November the 15th date. We wanted to make this the ten-year anniversary — that there were some things we were able to do, some things we wouldn’t be able to do. We ended up doing a lot more than what we ever thought we could. But the hardest part of that decision making process was: do we remake the multiplayer component with the original multiplayer engine, add a networking layer and keep it exactly as what it was verbatim?

One of the production realities is that, that might not have been possible. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have been possible. The original game-play engine doesn’t support real latency field networking in any real way. It uses system link, which in itself was an evolution of kind of Apple Talk. It’s just a very simple system, and it would have taken a tremendous amount of engineering. And then, we don’t know how Halo would really have played online. We don’t know how those weapons, how that balance, how those levels would have played so we’d have gotten to a test situation before we really knew.

So early on, we looked at another factor, which was Halo Reach had just come out, and these things rely on a population to make them fun. So, if we arrived in it with another game in the middle of Reach‘s lifespan, we’d have a negative impact on that population by taking people away from Reach and into this new game, as it were, in terms of the remake. And so we made a decision at that point to stick with the Reach engine and we have to do something meaningful with the types of map and the collection of maps we add to it. And at that point we had a discussion about the title update, which is some code that we added to the Reach engine to give us the ability to manage more classic feeling playlists, and pay homage to the original Halo game-play features like the three-shot kill pistol. So we made that decision — we know that the end results would be good. We know that now — we’re doing testing and we’re very, very happy with it. We know that the Reach fans will be happy with it because it gives them a huge amount of content. But we did know that people who are fans of the original game-play were not going to be super happy with that. And we knew that was going to be a huge ​compromise right off the bat. But, I think if they just stick with us, I think they’ll find that it’s the right decision.

DA: Yeah, I think Frank nailed it all on the head. The one thing that I would add to that that’s interesting, that I can get from that decision, is all of the armor abilities that come from Reach. So because we’re using that engine, those armor abilities you’re now able to bring into your new multiplayer experience. And the example I give all the time is Beaver Creek, right? It’s amazing how a level like that changes when you factor in things like jet packs for example, and all of a sudden, like, people are rocketing all over the place. So it added a great, new dynamic element. ‘Cause it’s kind of like taking these maps you know and putting a new spin on them, which has been really rewarding. And, you know, the flip side to that, going back to the philosophy of wanting to maintain that game-play. If you want, of course, you have the opportunity to play those maps without those armor abilities. But that’s just another bonus we got from using the Reach engine — is just giving another kind of face to these maps that you know and just see how they change with some of the new Halo elements that we get from Reach.

FO’C: There’s some fairly significant features that Reach adds to it. I mean you have things like saved films, the ability to take screenshots, and forgeable environments that you can customize and change yourself. We probably could have added some of that functionality, but not all of it had we started with the original Halo gameplay engine. So, ultimately, it was certainly the best thing to do, knowing what we know now.

DA: So, there are actually two engines. The campaign engine is a hybrid of the original Halo code, and some new graphical and audio engine stuff that we’ve done and we’ve married those two together. The multiplayer portion is Reach. So the campaign version and the multiplayer engine are running on different vehicles.

FO’C: That experience will be seamless to the player. You can see behind you on the menu screen it just launches from one menu. You won’t be aware of all that stuff going on under the hood. It’ll be seamless.

GD: Would you like to mention any other significant game-play elements that have been changed?

DA: We were very mindful that we didn’t want to change that game-play. So the features we approached were things that would be additive. Classic mode is a great example. That’s the feature that at any point during the campaign game-play, you hit the Back button, and the graphics revert to how they were ten years ago. And then you hit it and it comes back. You can go back and forth as much as you can. That’s fun, that’s awesome — it lets you relive some of the nostalgia, but it doesn’t change your game-play. That core game-play remains the same. You know, the 3D implementation, again, if you have a 3D TV and that’s technology you want to take advantage of it looks fantastic, it looks awesome. In fact, we did a custom 3D solution — we didn’t use something off the shelf. That looks awesome, but it doesn’t change your game-play.

So, we kind of focused on those kinds of experiences that would be additive and help ​you learn a little bit more about the history. Terminals. We did a new terminal approach where they’re more graphical, so you find them and you unlock these really fancy, slick motion comics that give you more history about the ring and the universe. Awesome, but it doesn’t change your game-play experience. So all of these features were built around maintaining that game-play while giving these cool, new features to the fans.

Look for Part 2 of our interviews with 343 Industries tomorrow.

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