343 Industries boss Frank O'Connor on the return of Master Chief

Sam DeHority and Matt Tuthill co-wrote this article.

Depending on how you look at it, Frank O'Connor either has the best job in gaming or the worst. The head of 343 Industries is the man most directly responsible for launching a brand new Halo trilogy — and not a prequel or offshoot this time, but a new story arc set after the events of Halo 3. Hallowed gaming ground is beset with all sorts of pitfalls, as O'Connor is well aware having began work on the franchise during the development of Halo 2.

He recently showed off the first few minutes of Halo 4 at E3 2012 — a sequence that sees a frightened Cortana wake the Master Chief out of hyper sleep so he can defend the frigate Forward Unto Dawn from what appears to be a rogue band of Covenant. It's clear the campaign mode will waste no time with exposition and thrust players right into the heart of the action, though O'Connor remains somewhat guarded on what role the Covenant will ultimately play and who the real antagonists are.

In a recent interview, we picked his brain on campaign, multiplayer and bringing Halo into a new era.

A lot has been made about Spartan Ops, the new multiplayer mode that's going to connect events in multiplayer to the Halo universe with new missions coming out through Xbox Live. But with all the emphasis on events being connected to that universe, will players who just want a mindless team deathmatch be left in the lurch?

Spartan Ops is a mode within [the capital ship] Infinity; the character you create for Spartan Ops is the character you then take into multiplayer. So if you customize your armor, your loadouts, your appearance, all of that goes into all of the multiplayer modes. Stuff like Forge is in that multiplayer suite as well. So it's really split into Campaign and Infinity, and Infinity is the umbrella for everything you do in multiplayer. If you just want to play team deathmatch, go into Infinity, select team deathmatch — it's that simple.

The main story spine [of Spartan Ops] is the starship Infinity itself. If you think of it like the Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon, it's almost a character unto itself. It's the largest ship humanity has ever created and it's decked out with lots and lots of staff and equipment, but also a group of Spartan IVs. They're sort of the spiritual successors to Master Chief — they're elite warriors kitted out in Spartan armor and they go on a series of missions.

Some of [the missions] will happen on the ship, some of them will happen off-world. War Games itself happens in a virtual environment — a training ground for the Spartan Ops. So Spartan Ops happens in the real universe, and War Games happens as a simulation within that universe sort of like the Star Trek Holodeck, only you're training for war.

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We've heard that you want to make Chief less of an empty vessel and more of a character, but part of his appeal is that he is the empty vessel. Anyone can imagine himself or herself as the Master Chief.

He actually, on a line-by-line basis, doesn't have any more dialogue than he's had in previous games. We just counted the lines of dialogue — which is a really simple exercise for the Chief because there aren't a lot. Most of the character development that's done for the Chief in this game is going to be done first by fidelity — just our graphics and animation bar that's been raised — and second, the characters and events that happen around him. So those are going to be the things that drive your understanding of who the Chief, what he's been through, what kind of character he is, and what he's become.

Because it's four years after the events of Halo 3, and the Chief literally saved mankind, he's become kind of an icon for humanity, and they all thought he was dead. It's going to be interesting to see when he does reconnect with humanity what that's like for them, and for him. But he's not going to start spouting monologues or long speeches.

But that does happen? He reconnects?

He is absolutely going to reconnect with humanity at some point during the game.

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Did you feel a need to bring any of the extended universe into the game? The novels, the comics and things like that?

I'll preempt what I'm going to say with this: If you've never played a Halo game, it doesn't matter. You can pick up Halo 4. It's a complete story. You'll understand who these characters are and what their deal is, and in some ways it'll be even easier to understand than previous Halo games. We kind of dump you in the middle of the action and either assume that you don't care about the story, or that you're up on the story and there's not a lot of bringing people up to speed, necessarily.

This game will feel really complete in terms of the story arc and the narrative. A point you made about the lore versus the character; he is a vehicle for the hero's journey. He's not Odysseus. He is a vehicle for you to explore that journey. And unlike reading a novel or watching a movie, you're in control of your own destiny, so you're experiencing the story and participating in it and having agency in it in a way that you don't with normal narrative. So people become attached to that and… they think Chief is a certain way, either in spite of or because of things that he says. But they often have ideas about who the Chief is which is mapping their own personality onto that, which is great and is a big deal for us.

The lore is really deep. We have loads of novels and comics and extended fiction. About three years ago when we took over the franchise — and I'm as guilty of this as anyone else, in fact, I was often responsible for it — if we did a novel or a story, we didn't want to interfere with the main game line, so we'd say, "Well, make it happen over here on a distant planet so it won't affect our main story." It was safe and satisfying to a certain point, but I think ultimately it limited what our partners who were authors and writers were able to do. And also, I think it was unsatisfying to consumers, who had invested a lot in the universe. If it's Star Wars, you want to find out what happened to Han Solo, so if every time you're picking up extended fiction, it's just ignoring that, it gets unsatisfying.

So three years ago, we made a decision to just make everything matter. And it's a lot of hard work and heavy lifting; you have to tie all these pieces together to make it function, but it's worthwhile. Again, when you pick up Halo 4, it's going to make sense. It'll be a big sci-fi epic story; "I explored this world, I met all these characters, I did all this stuff." But if you followed all that other fiction, there will be all these other layers of resonance and depth to it that will really pay off. Only a small percentage of our players invest all that time in extended fiction, but for those guys, the torchbearers of the franchise, it'll be a great payoff for the amount of passion they poured into the universe.

What was the most difficult part of getting back into it? Because when Halo 3 came out, the message was, "No more Halo. This is it. We're done."

The hardest part is, when Bungie was doing it, one of the things they always did was innovate. When you think about the original Xbox with Halo 1, they took FPS controls from a PC and mapped them on a joystick to make it playable, and Halo 2 invented a lot of ways to match people on Xbox Live. They made it simple so you don't have to figure out how servers work and stuff like that. Halo 3 did a lot of social stuff — forge map creation, saved films, screenshots, the ability to share all kinds of stuff like that. So the hardest thing for us is innovation. You can iterate all the time. You can just take Halo 3 and make it a little bit better and that's an improvement. But it's that drive to innovate and expand and give people value for their money as well as a coherent experience.

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Speculation abounds that the Forerunners are the new enemies. In this first scene you showed us, Chief is fighting the Covenant. Is this a sort of farewell to the Covenant?

It's not a farewell. The Covenant will continue to be a part of the universe for sure. We've kind of explored the events between Halo 3 and the beginning of this game in a series of novels with an author called Karen Travis. The Covenant is in a real mess; there's infighting and civil war. Their whole religion was just yanked out from under them. I found that if you disprove a religion, there's still going to be true believers. There's going to be some really interesting politics that happen with the Covenant.

As far as Halo 4 is concerned, some of that is settled, so when you see these Covenant — and you saw Cortana reference that — "these could be pirates, these could just be scavengers" — you'll find out what this group of Covenant is and how it connects to the rest of the threat. And you're right to infer that they're not the biggest threat that you're going to face.

There's talk of other Spartans on the ship. How much interaction are we going to see with them? The only Spartan has always been the Master Chief.

He's sort of a John Wayne figure. He's the last known surviving Spartan. If you go deep into the cannon, there are other Spartans scattered throughout the galaxy that aren't reachable. We had the Spartan IIIs in Halo: Reach, and they were a sort of emergency budget measure, like, "Can we build Spartans on the cheap in huge numbers and throw them at the Covenant to try to solve this problem?"

The Spartan IVs are something else. We've had time, we have new technology, better weapons, better armor and better training. They're conscripted from other ranks of the military, so effectively you're plucking from the Navy SEALs and Delta Force, the best of the best warriors that they have, and pairing that with this new technology. In a lot of ways, they're almost a match for the Chief. If you play as a Spartan IV in multiplayer, you're not going to notice a lot of difference between a Spartan IV and a Spartan II, but the II is like a vintage AC Cobra: Regardless of the new technology, this thing still does 180 miles an hour for some reason. It just has a natural charisma, and Chief is always going to have that role in the universe. He's also the most experienced fighter in the entire UNSC, so he has a lot of wisdom he can bring with his physical prowess.

What was the biggest critique that Halo 3 received, and is that in your mind at all making this game?

I started working on Halo 2 at Bungie, and I absorbed most of those complaints; it was part of my job. Halo 3 was the first game on the next-gen platforms, and we realized that people don't start complaining about games until you get to the iterative process, two or three in. So Halo 2 got a lot of complaints from fans, and we didn't really start getting complaints about Halo on Xbox 360 until ODST and Reach, and that's a natural part of the evolution of any process. I'm sure the Madden guys go through this. I'm sure the Call of Duty guys go through this. It's just the natural way the vocal aspects of the community express their displeasure, or sometimes more constructive complaints.

They're generally about really granular things, and I'd love to tell you what the biggest one is, but the community is not monolithic like that… When the game is as complex and as layered as something like Halo, where there are so many different options, you have different types of audiences that complain about different things. And for everything that someone's really complaining about, it's someone else's favorite thing. It's like music. No matter how you feel about Ke$ha, someone else is rocking out to that because it's their favorite song of all time. You can't control for that.

Matt Tuthill and Sam DeHority co-wrote this article. All images via 343 Industries.

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