Halo 4 played it safe. It’s an excellent game and 343 Industries should be proud of the work they turned in, but the bare fact is that the same game could easily have been birthed by Bungie. It’s not a mark for or against the long-awaited sequel, it’s simply a fact, and one that current Halo key keepers Frank O’Connor and Kiki Wolfkill carefully considered as the game came together under 343’s new management.
“I think we kind of looked at it as, we almost needed be able to earn the first step before even taking further steps from that,” Wolfkill told us in a recent interview with O’Conner. “There was a point at which… we needed to be sure we could make a Halo. Then it was all about how we could expand it and what are the things we wanted to do.”
“A lot of those things I think we started to seed and started to reveal in the game, and some of this won’t really come to fruition until later. Partially because earning that level of trust is so hard. Frank is probably closest to the community in terms of that dialogue. I think it was a hard balance for us [and] we would argue both ways. Are we playing it too safe? Are we risking too much? I don’t think there’s a right answer, but earning that right to take the first step is really critical. There isn’t another step after that if we don’t do it.”
O’Connor agrees with Wolfkill’s assessment, confirming that the conservative approach was indeed an intentional one. “We were very deliberately trying to make a game that mapped to a set of principles that people really understood, and that’s what we gravitated to in the first place. We had to learn how to make A Halo game before we could expect people to try our Halo game.
“I think you’ll see us being a little more adventurous in the future, but we really believe in those pillars and those principles. They’re still going to be at the heart of the game. You should be able to go from Halo 1… and pick up whatever the next Halo experience is and have a good idea of how to play and have some initial success.”
The temptation sat heavy on the team as the continuing story of Master Chief came together. Even working within the bounds of a well-established franchise, being the new boss in town brings with it the allure of putting a stamp on things. Wolfkill acknowledges that staying the course required no small amount of discipline, though that caution also had to be tempered with an awareness of where things could be improved for the better.
“We had to be disciplined about not doing that because it wasn’t the right way to approach it,” she said. “Even with all the passion we have for Halo, there’s definitely some things that were out there that we abandoned at certain points because they weren’t really Halo. They were interesting and innovative, creative ideas, but we’re about making a Halo game. What that means will start to change and evolve over time, but this is really the start of that.”
Try. Fail. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. This process of taking chances and trying new things went in different directions. Some of that made it into the game, even more was scrapped. All of it turned out to be valuable.
“At a more generic level, we did a lot of experimentation around movement. Movement and controls and how it feels to move Chief are something that are quite specific. It wasn’t really until we explored going way outside of that that it became clear. So we definitely did a lot of exploration that, ultimately, we threw away,” Wolfkill said. O’Connor chimed agreed. “We’re always learning. There’s things that we know we should actually try next time because we know how to solve for some of those issues, just as we know that things aren’t going to feel like Halo and they should just be thrown away for good.”
The pairing of Wolfkill and O’Connor is no accident. She had worked at Microsoft Studios for some time before 343 formed, even alongside the art department as Halo 3 came together. He, on the other hand, has been with the franchise since Halo 2 and is responsible for maintaining the franchise “bible.” O’Connor still had to be hired at 343, however, and it was more than just the Halo background that won him the job.
“When I interviewed with the studio, I think probably by the end of the interview day the team had realized that I knew about Halo and I knew a lot about our audience, but I’m also a pragmatist first and foremost. I’m very flexible on story,” he said. “You’ll kill story, you’ll throttle story, by not letting it grow and not letting it change and not taking input that other clever, smarter, more gifted people are able to bring to it. We have a small writing team and we’re going to let them execute on ideas. We’re not going to sit over their shoulders and say ‘No no, he’d never say it like that.’ We hire people because they’re smarter and better than us and we should expect that they’re going to do smarter, better things.”
“Frank was an amazing resource for us to be able to bring on,” Wolfkill chimed in. “As we were going through the period of understanding Halo and thinking about it from an IP and story perspective, even Master Chief specifically, where we wanted him to go and what that would look like, we worked really closely with Frank to start to design some of those mileposts.”
“Then we started ideating on what the actual story would be. That was a really good exercise in understanding what some of the boundaries were and where Frank and his team could be more flexible. If there were things the game design needed or ideas that we were really invested in, he and his team would make it work. Watching that flex and understanding how he thought about the franchise and the IP, in terms of establishing canon and adding new canon, was a pretty awesome experience.”