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Interview: 343 Industries' Frank O'Connor


Now that Halo Waypoint has launched and the Halo Legends anime project will soon begin airing on Xbox consoles everywhere, we got the chance to discuss the current state of Halo with 343 Industries creative director, Frank O'Connor. After the break, you'll find discussion on Waypoint, Legends, Halo 3: ODST sales and whereabouts of Ryan Payton. We also talk about the whether or not there's just too much Halo out there, whether we'll see any Halo games for kids and we even squeeze in a question about Pimps at Sea.

Hi, Frank.

How's it going?

Pretty good. So, first question. Halo Waypoint is available now. The Halo Legends schedule has been released, and among other things, there's a new encyclopedia out, there are two more books on the way, comic books. Do you ever worry about the franchise becoming over-saturated? How do you keep people interested in Halo?

Well, I mean, I worry about that constantly, but bluntly speaking, we just came off the launch of a game, and there's really no more material out there than there typically is. I think the big difference this time are the two projects you mentioned in terms of scale, which are Waypoint and Legends, which are a little bigger than the kind of support stuff and ancillary canonical stuff that we typically do year-in, year-out. I mean, we have five New York Times best-selling novels, the encyclopedias you mentioned, one of Marvel's best-selling graphic novels, comic books series, all that stuff. All of that stuff has existed in the past, and it exists because of one simple reason, which is demand. So, we wouldn't make it if we weren't continually being asked for it via consumers and then via the partners that we talked about like Marvel and Tor Books. I worry about it all the time, and we obviously turn down almost infinitely more stuff than we actually produce, but when we produce it, there's a good reason, and a good plan, and a strong demand.

I don't suppose you could give an example of something you've turned down?

I can't, because it would be a big partner, but you know, you can imagine the kinds of things that we would turn down. For example, we made a Halo Risk game because it was based on Halo Wars, and Risk and real-time strategy kind of had a natural connection, and there was a strong demand for it. That's stuff's measured by the retailers and the partners that we license from. They get these requests. You know, they'll get a request from a store saying, "We want more Halo stuff. Can't you do anything in this genre?" So that one made sense, but we've had other requests to do board games that didn't make any sense. They didn't match the material. There was a demand for it, but if it doesn't actually make sense, and it's completely crazy, we won't do it.

So, I shouldn't expect to see any Halo Valentines anytime soon?

Not that we made, but I've had a couple [laughs].

[laughs] So, you mentioned Halo Waypoint as being something that's sort of bigger than a lot of these ancillary products, so going forward, is this Halo Waypoint going to be a permanent bullet point for the Xbox 360? You think there's enough content to keep it going forever?

Yes, the point that you brought up in the first place is that, there is a lot of Halo content. It's a big franchise, and it's a fairly broad franchise. And one of the problems right now is, if you play the games on the console and you're not a hobbyist, and you're not a forum-going game advocate, there's a lot of stuff that you're sort of loosely interested in, and there's no channel to watch it on, and obviously Halo Waypoint very firmly, very directly addresses that. It gives people who are sitting on the couch with that controller a way to engage more deeply in the universe that they want to, and it gives us a chance to share the stuff that we already have, and the stuff that we're planning on making and building in the future much more directly with that audience. It's pretty one-way. There's no real direct way for our audience to communicate back to us, and in that regard, it's kind of like a TV network or even a movie. It's content that they're digesting and exploring. But we're not a replacement for something like or HBO Forums. It's very much complementary to both of those types of things.

OK. So, this is just a way for maybe some of the consumers who aren't hardcore internet savvy, just a way for them to keep in touch with Halo.

We definitely want to give the community a voice through Waypoint

Yeah, and because they're right there with their Xbox, they're connected via Live, obviously, with people who have those same interests. You know, typically people have less than the 100 limit of friends, and this gives you a way to have kind of mini-community that has a shared interest and has a shared knowledge base on a particular thing. It could be anything, right? It could be Star Wars. In our case, it happens to be Halo. It also lets people who follow all the games kind of track their career across that prior engagement with the other games, with ODST, with Halo 3 and with Halo Wars, specifically. And we're hoping to do more in the future, obviously, and really make your Halo career a very integrated feeling thing. We're still working on that, and there's only so much we can do with the existing ways that those games talk to Xbox Live.

Well, speaking about the future of Waypoint, so are you looking to expand the functionality of it, maybe include small games within Waypoint or allow users to submit content via Waypoint, things like that?

Yes, Waypoint actually already has a lot of community-created content on it, and our method of delivery is your television set, ultimately, so we're definitely going to steer towards the things that work best in that medium, and that means audio and video. It's not much fun to read a long essay, for example, on a TV screen, but we can do things with audio and video interviews and documentaries and cover the user-generated content that's out there. The ultimate example of that is Red vs Blue. They took it and ran with it and made a hobby into a real business, and actually made it into a real industry in a way. You know, machinima without Red vs Blue would be a very different place. So we definitely want to give the community a voice through Waypoint, and that's something that we'll get to pick the best of the best and surface the most exciting stuff from that community, and hopefully in rich multi-media ways, right?

Do you think in the future, with future Halo games, obviously you couldn't put them into the current ones, but would you consider integrating Waypoint into future games?

The question is do you integrate in or integrate out? We obviously haven't figured out what we're going to do with Waypoint as relates to Halo: Reach, which is the only game on the horizon that we're talking about. And we'd love to do something much more intensive and cool with it, but Waypoint can't be a replacement for the game. You know, the game at the end of the day and the stuff that Bungie's making has got to be the core focus. Bluntly speaking, people will probably love the content that they digest on Waypoint, but we fully expect them, once they've seen the thing that they're particularly interested in that day or that week, to go straight back to playing, hopefully, Halo, or whatever other games that they're currently engaged in.

Do you think that Waypoint is something that could even push sales of a Halo game, get people interested in the series, or do you think it's really more just for people who are already fans?

We'd love to do something much more intensive and cool with it, but Waypoint can't be a replacement for the game

It definitely will, but the numbers are so small, that's obviously not a reason for us to do it. The reason for us to do it, bluntly speaking and honestly speaking, is just to give a cohesive place for the existing community to find out more about the universe that they're engaged in and hopefully grow that community. But I don't think we planned for Waypoint to be selling games. I imagine it's going to sell a few more Halo Wars, and push up some rentals as people realize there's a couple of Achievements that if they got, they'll get some kind of reward within Waypoint's career. So I expect us ... the one thing I kind of have my fingers crossed for is, that Halo Wars will creep back into the top 20 or 10 on Xbox Live for multiplayer as people sort of try to get those last Achievements that they've missed and complete their Waypoint career.

So, you mentioned Waypoint as being something that you access from the couch, obviously something a little bit more, I don't know if casual is the right word for it, but obviously trying to expand the Halo universe a little bit. Do you think there's room in the Halo universe for kids? Do you think that a game for kids is something that you'd be interested in?

Halo inhabits kind of a weird place. It's rated Mature in the U.S. because of the way the ESRB deals with shooting things with guns, but anyone who's played Halo understands that the emphasis is more on big sci-fi than it is on any kind of carnage, right? So, kids have got to be the right age to play these games and parents have to control that.

Of course.

But there are a lot of things in the Halo universe that aren't rated mature. The books aren't rated mature, although, they're sometimes under that umbrella, that ESRB umbrella. Ancillary products aren't rated the same, and we have, for example, one of the episodes of Legends that's coming up, it's off canon. It's created by Toei, and it's definitely for kids. There's no two ways about it. Adults will enjoy it at a slightly different level, but it's absolutely kid-safe. There's literally no ... there's no gun violence in it at all, for one thing, and there's lots of corners of the Halo universe that are perfectly safe for kids to explore, it's just that the games are rated Mature and parents have to be on top of that one, honestly.

That makes sense. So, moving on to Halo Legends, that's going to debut this weekend. Do you think this is maybe sort of a foray into more long form entertainment?


Will this become a series, or is it going to stay sort of just a small project?

It's designed as a one-off. We did an almost identical thing a while ago with Marvel with the Halo graphic novel. We used the exact same technique. We made a list of our favorite artists in a genre, in this case it was anime, but back then it was comic books, obviously, and we contacted them, either directly or through their agents and said, "Hey, how do you feel about interpreting the Halo universe through your talent and through your specific skill set?" And we, again, we lucked out this time and we got the people that we asked for pretty much the first time, so the Legends collection, it's designed as a one-off. I'd love to do more. I love the genre. I love the way that you can tell stories in our universe very quickly and very directly in a way that is difficult in a video game, where you have to keep the focus on the action. You have to keep the focus on the player. It's much easier, for example, to describe the Master Chief's character in a paragraph of text than it is in any amount of gameplay, right? Because you're imprinting yourself on that experience, so that's, I think, one of the reasons why the Halo universe is successful outside of the game is that there's a lot of corners to explore, and a lot of character and a lot of, obviously, a huge number of events. It's a big universe with a big timeline.

Assuming Legends takes off, does fairly well, would you possibly consider looking back at that [shelved Halo feature film]?

It's possible we do something else in that vein, but we just got off of more than a year solid of frantic production on seven different episodes with five different studios, so I want to have a week off.

I'm just curious, is 343 ... do you guys actually handle any development, or do you play more of a production role?

343 right now is concentrating on, obviously, the franchise proper. We do publishing support for Bungie. That's ODST and Reach and stuff like Legends, so it's ... we're very busy. That's what we're working on right now. In the future, the sky's the limit, of course.

So your role in the actual development is more along publishing, that kind of angle?

Right now.

Okay. All right. I'm just curious what your take is on the sales of ODST. You satisfied with them? Do you think they're in line with expectations?

I know that they're in line with expectations. I think they exceeded them as well, so we're pretty happy with it. It's definitely in an odd place in terms of the pace and the rhythm of Halo things. I think that Bungie knocked it out of the park in terms of the amount of content and the quality of content in there, and that's probably one of the reasons it's selling so well. But it's ... I guess your overarching point is that it's not Halo 4, right? And the fact that it's not Halo 4, it's Halo 3: ODST, and I think we're not only pleased with it but I think we're ecstatic with the sales and the amount and quality of content that Bungie got in there.

Last year, Microsoft confirmed that [former Metal Gear Solid 4 assistant producer] Ryan Payton was working on a Halo studio. Is he at 343?

Ryan Payton works in the same office as me, yes.

He works in the same office? Okay ...

Sure does.

Would his office have anything to do with Spawn Point [a mysterious studio mentioned by Phil Spencer earlier this year]? Just curious.

Not as far as I know [laughs].

Okay. I do have one more question for you, and my question is: Is 343 at all involved with the ongoing development of Pimps at Sea?

No, Pimps at Sea is definitely a Bungie IP [laughs]. I think they actually literally own it outright. But, obviously, the ownership of that IP is definitely in Bungie's heart anyway. I think they actually have it trademarked, if i'm not crazy.

[Laughs] Well, I think that'll do it, Frank, thank you so very much for talking to us.

Nice talking to you, thank you so much.

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