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

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Image: Edelman

This is Part II of the interviews my son (John Luke) and I conducted at 343 Industries with Frank O’Connor, Franchise Development Director; Dan Ayoub, Executive Producer of Publishing; and Josh Holmes, Studio Creative Director and Creative Director, Halo 4. For Part I, click here.

GeekDad: The Halo community is very vocal about changes to the franchise. How has it reacted to the changes to the original Halo?

Frank O’Connor: Strongly. I think there’s been a lot of hugely positive reaction and a lot of negative reaction that we predicted about the specificity of the multiplayer engine. So, if you can predict these things then you can ameliorate them. As we mentioned before, we did the title update for multiplayer so we’ll be able to add Halo classic game-play features back into the Reach engine. I think they’ be really happy about some of the philosophical approach we’ve taken to it. You think about something like the re-release of the Star Wars movies, where they change things and fans get completely bent out of shape about Guido shooting first, and where it’s the exact movie — everything is now perfect. So, they’ve fixed bad special effects, they cleaned up some of the shots, they didn’t touch anything. They left it completely intact. And then they added things: you can watch alternate endings, you can watch all these cut scenes and deleted scenes and so on. That was the philosophy that we went for. Don’t change what’s good about it. Just add, add, add and give people options and a wealth of content.

One thing, I mean, we really don’t deal with the fiscal side of the business, but we wanted this thing to be a bargain as well. And it is. It’s forty dollars compared to sixty dollars, and it’s effectively a AAA game. I think that the reason we were pushing for a lower price point is that a lot of people already have a version of the game in their library, whether it’s the PC version or the original Xbox. When they’re spending forty dollars, they should feel like they’re getting at least forty dollars of new stuff out of this experience. I think we did that and we went above and beyond. People I think have been overall very happy. Where they’ve been cynical or questioning our decisions, we know about those things and we’ve predicted them and we’ve takens steps to make sure that even those people are going to be happier than they think they are when they do eventually get it. I think we’re feeling really good about it at this point.

Image: Edelman

Dan Ayoub: The community is extremely vocal, which is fantastic. And it’s been great, because they’ve been vocal since the beginning and in some cases we’ve been able to make real-time changes to the game based on the fan feedback. The audio is probably the best example. Halo had that very iconic music. We worked with Skywalker Sound and rerecorded all that stuff. It was just going to sound really fantastic and big. And you know we kind of announced that and people are like, “It’s kind of crappy — that’s neat and I love that, but even though it’s over ten years old, but I’d like to play it in the original.” And we were actually at the point in our development cycle where so many people were saying, “It’s a good point. Let’s do it.” And, you know, we figured out a way to do it and we actually made that change. That’s a very good example that I like to call out. We obviously can’t be reactive to everything that people say, but that was a great example of something that people are very passionate about. And we were kind of like “yeah, we could see that, that makes sense.” We were very happy, as this was a case where we were able to react to that feedback in real ​time, which you don’t generally get to do on a disk product, right? — which was fun for us.

FO’C: The design of the Master Chief himself is another great example. We knew that wasn’t solved. So we started rolling out footage and screenshots and we showed early versions of what our redesigned Chief would look like. Now, the Chief looks the way he does in Halo 1 because of the number of polygons, shaders, surface materials and technology that was available at the time. He definitely, obviously has an aesthetic look, but some of it was limited by technology, so we were trying to update it in a way that was respectful to the design. We got down into pixel-height discussions about the height of his face-plate and stuff. We did actually take a huge amount of feedback from fans, unbeknownst to them, as they started to complain or like. Eventually we try not to work with anecdotal data because it’s dangerous. But, on something that was as subjective as that, it was some pretty telling reactions that we were getting from fans. But, of course what you don’t get is the 95% of people who aren’t vocal, right? That’s why anecdotes are always dangerous, and that’s why it’s always a tricky balance listening to the community and looking at the data. You have to figure out, you know, where that balance lies.

DA: Yeah, overall, I found the community really supportive, and I guess “relieved” is the word I use in many ways to describe the reaction I’ve seen from fans. “We’re so glad you’re doing it this way. This is the right way to do it. Thank you for not changing the gameplay.” I think it’s been a great experience.

GD: I’m throwing a doozy in here for you both. How do you feel about father-son gaming’s potential as a creative activity? It’s something that’s been a trend in the news. I’ve done some posts on the subject on our Wired blog before. And what would you say to critics of video game violence and “M”-rated games and how that relates to father and son gaming together?

FO’C: So, Halo sits in a strange spot. First off, we’re a “Mature” rated game. We were given a Mature rating for Halo 1. And it’s a violent game. Any game where your agency in the universe is to destroy things is naturally and intrinsically violent. However, in Halo‘s defense, you’re blasting brightly colored aliens a lot of the time who’re shooting lasers at you. The worse curse word that I think we have, and you should cover your ears for this one, is I think “bastard.” And that’s sort of a natural evolution for the series.

Nobody sat down with a list of criteria and said “Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this.” But there’s no reason in our universe to have excessive gore or lots of human blood. The only time you see human blood is when you or your compatriots are [makes guttural dying sound], in fact. But the ESRB who defines these things, you know, they had some pretty stringent rules at the beginning. And, we were around near the start of their process. I feel personally, and this is not to reflect Microsoft or the ESRB’s opinion, that, I think, if we launched this game today, you know, with the Call of Dutys of this world and so on, we’re just not compared in the same breath. Those games are much more visceral and realistic in their portrayal of human-on-human violence, and that’s of course, one of the biggest concerns for the ESRB.

As a parent myself, I feel like we’re fairly “soft” mature, and I’d be happy to play it with my teenage kid. Certainly, all parents have a responsibility to supervise what their kids are playing and doing and seeing. And that’s the number one job, ​right? Like, forget the ESRB, forget what corporate responsibility is. Parents have a responsibility to shield or expose their children to the things that they’re comfortable with doing that. But, again, our game is lasers and needle shards and spaceships. And we also don’t force you down any particular paths to do things, like we don’t force you to kill people necessarily. You do have to kill a lot of aliens. But we let you solve problems by driving around them, for example, and coming up with smarter solutions than that. But, ultimately you’re shooting.

I know when I was a kid, and this is going back a long time, we we would play like, cowboys and Indians and soldiers and stuff, and do and say infinitely more violent things than ever happened actually in our game. But we of course didn’t have high resolution graphics and y’know hours and hours of game-play to immerse ourselves. So, again, I always put the onus squarely on the parents, but obviously Microsoft and the ESRB and all of our competitors all take that responsibility very seriously, so when you see a Mature rating on a game, we’ve all thought about it, we’ve all talked about it, we’ve all discussed it, and we all feel that it’s appropriate. Otherwise we’d change the game, or we’d change the rating by changing the elements of the game so it can be re-rated. So, yeah, it’s up to parents, and again, my perspective as a parent is that our game is the kind of shooter that I would want my kids playing. And I wouldn’t necessarily want little kids playing any type of shooter without, you know, fairly serious supervision.

DA: Yeah, obviously, I agree with what Frank said, and all the same caveats. In terms of the father-son gaming. The first fact that I have is that gaming has existed in our cultures forever, right? It’s a very basic premise about these games, it’s a fact of life. The fact that we have the technology now, that it’s digital, rather than moving pieces on a board, or you know, rocks and sticks and stuff, for me, that’s just a natural evolution of our business, and I just think it’s digital now, and that’s what it’s like. And, on a personal level as I said, when we were talking earlier, I grew up playing video games with my dad. It was a bonding experience for us. My dad would come home. He’d been at work all day, I hadn’t seen him. We’d sit down and play games on the Intellivision together, and he’d ask me what I was doing at school, and he’d laugh at me when I crashed the plane and stuff like that.

FO’C: B-17 bomber?

DA: It was actually Triple Action on the Intellivision.

FO’C: That was your answer to combat?

DA: Exactly! [laughs] That was the game that we played together all the time. Now, I look back at some of my favorite memories with my dad, and it was playing video games with him, because it was time where it was just the two of us. My mom and sister wanted nothing to do with it. It was just great, ’cause it was the guys alone just playing, and it was some of the best time I spent with my father.

FO’C: Well, Halo is interesting in that regard as well in that it’s somewhat inter-generational. It may sound like only ten years, but that’s long enough for your kid to have gone from being a toddler to a teenager, for example. We have a lot of parents who were young men when ​Halo first came out, and now they’re fully fledged parents with kids in high-school even. And, it gives them a chance to connect in a very nostalgic way, but with new, better graphics that their kid will actually put up with, for example. But also there’s the Kinect functionality, [which] lets you do a very literal, game-sharing experience. If your kid sees you just running out of ammo, he can just say “Reload!” which might get annoying, if there’s no agreement in place as to whether [laughter] uhm, and the library function as well, where you can curate the elements of the universe and explore the Halo universe in a way that is non-violent and is non-confrontational and you can just go through and you can explore the fiction and the factions in the universe that way. So, it definitely gives you tools to play around with that relationship.

GD: What’s your most important technical achievement with Anniversary and the one that meant the most to you in meeting the bar?

DA: I would say it’s kind of twofold and they’re inter-related. Probably the biggest one for us was interweaving the original Halo code with the new graphics and audio engine. I mean, that was to solve a very specific problem, as I’ve said, which was to make sure the game played exactly the same way as it did. And the best way for us to do that was to actually use that original code, but we needed a way to make it look modern. And interweaving that code for us was a very hard, very tricky process, because you’re taking code that’s ten years old and interweaving it with a very modern code and be able to get some great performance out of that. But the benefit of that, and that led to the feature that I personally find the most rewarding on this is Classic mode, that ability to switch back and forth. Because, initially, we wanted to do that since the beginning, but it was a menu item. So we were going to let you, when you started the game, choose to play in original graphics or new. And while we were figuring out this problem, for a period of time we could do it in real time. And we all looked at that and said, “no, no, no” this has got to be a feature. You’ve got to be able to do this at any point during the game. So, solving that technical problem actually gave birth to this feature, which I would argue, has turned into one of, if not the most popular feature of the game.

John Luke Venables: What do you guys do on a typical day?

FO’C: This. We just sit around. No, I mean it depends.

DA: More yelling [laughter].

FO’C: Today’s a good example for me. Today I had a meeting with a story group, who’s working on the story for Halo 4 and some other things. I had a bunch of meetings with our marketing department, who are coming out with an outline for Halo Anniversary and we were just going through the footage and saying “This guy’s uniform looks wrong, you know, the space is too big, the audio is wrong here, ‘Let’s change that to cellos.'” It’s really fun, but my job in particular is very scattered and it’s all over the place and I could come in on a day and all I talk about is the size of heads on ​action figures, or I could come in on a day and discuss the fate of Cortana, for example. My job is usually fun, but it can be really dry and really granular for such a sort of ostensibly exciting universe, it can get really – we can make it seem really dull. But, I’ve enjoyed most of my jobs to be fair. But, of all the jobs I’ve ever had, this is the one where even if I’m mad about something, I’m excited to come to work during the day, because there’s genuinely always a creative challenge to be solved during the day.

DA: Yeah, I mean, my day varies a lot too, right? Because we work with a lot of external partners, as well as internal ones, I can spend a lot of time either on the phone or on email with our partners in Texas or Russia or Canada or something like that. Yeah, and if I use today as an example, a lot of time today was spent shepherding Anniversay through manufacturing, right, so we’re where we need to be and our Kinect stuff is all ready to go. And talking about other projects that we have in development, and it could go from working on schedules to playing stuff and saying, “no, this doesn’t feel right” to working with our marketing team to come up with features that we think are going to be exciting to people. No, it’s again, like Frank says, it’s a lot of fun coming in in the morning. The franchise, I think, and the love of the franchise, is what keeps a lot of us motivated. And, you know, at the end of the day, I always say, like, we’re making games, it should be fun. You need to want to get up in the morning and come and do this because of the love of your craft, and that’s one of the things that make 343 a lot of fun. It’s that people have that passion for what they do.

JLV: Why do what you do? What drove you to choose to do this?

FO’C: I’m gonna date myself, but I got, I can’t remember, it was like a birthday gift or something like that. I got some money, and I decided to get a word processor, because I want to be a writer, and I went and bought a Brother electric word processor [laughter] which had a narrow, one line LCD screen [laughter], and all it let you do was basically type what you wanted to type until you got to a period, and then you could change it before you hit Go. And, then it would print out like a typewriter. Because I was fresh out of college and I had no inspiration for what I wanted to write, and I was reading a video game magazine, which I read a lot of, and they actually had a classified ad in the back saying”Do you want to write about video games for a living?” and I said “yeah, I sure do!” and they asked for a sample review of a game. So I wrote a review of Strider on Genesis and I sent it in. And, I completely forgot about it. I mean, it wasn’t a career move at all. I had just graduated college doing media studies, which is journalism, radio, the whole gamut. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I was two weeks out of college at the time. Then I got a call saying, “Oh, we’d love to have you come and interview for that job.” And, I’m like, “What job?” I had sent out a bunch of resumes, like to insurance companies and stuff. And that was that. So that was it. That was my first ever real job. So, that’s why I’ve never had a miserable job yet.

DA: In terms of why, I think a lot of it is that there are few industries that let you express yourselves in certain ways, and I think what always makes me excited about games is … I mean, I’ve been designing games in one form or another, most of them, and I was terrible at that, when I was a kid, designing board games and stuff like that. But this is ​an industry that is exciting to me not just because I love the games and the background and stuff like that, but you get to create something — you’re on the edge of technology, because you’re forced to kind of stay up-to-date with what’s going on, and I’m passionate about technology as well as games, and for me this is just the perfect marriage of those two things. And, when I was growing up, I’ll date myself a little bit, there was no school you could go to for games or anything like that. I designed role-playing games and board games and stuff like that with my friends, but never really read… I think when I was eleven, I sent a game pitch to Activision, with some very crude hand drawings and they sent me the most nice “Really, kid, don’t waste our time” rejection letter. But it was phrased actually very nicely and very politely and I was encouraged. But I just never thought you could make a career out of games at the time. And, I think I was working at a railway in Canada at the time when Ubisoft came to Montréal and it was brand new. Nobody knew who they were. And I’m like “Oh, this is cool, I’m gonna give this a shot’ and that was fourteen years ago and I never looked back. And I don’t think there is any other industry I could be happy in.

With the constraints of space, the last segment of the interview has been included here in MP3 form. My son and I also spoke with Josh Holmes, Studio Creative Director and Creative Director, Halo 4. He shared his creative approach to continuing the expansion of the Halo universe, why he’s glad he’s not an actor anymore and why playing Halo can be a fantastic, creative mechanism for kids.

[Listen to the Josh Holmes Interview]

I would like to personally thank 343 Industries for their warm welcome and for our studio tour. My and my son’s heartfelt thanks are extended to Bonnie Ross, Frank O’Connor, Dan Ayoub, Josh Holmes, David Ellis and all the many developers we played with during our game-play multiplayer sessions. We were honored to witness the level of dedication and hard work on the game. The Halo universe is in good hands. But, I still refuse to put away my gravity hammer.

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