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343 Industries: Halo 4 and the untapped power of Xbox

This generation of consoles isn't dead yet, says Frank O'Connor. And his latest game will prove it

Walking across the floor of the Eurogamer Expo with Frank O'Connor, Halo 4 franchise development director, takes longer than you think. People stop him to talk about Fable, developers want to chat, and the odd dude clutching a Halo poster even wants an autograph.

O'Connor is polite but baffled, but it's a good sign. Halo 4 is the first original title from 343 Industries, and comes with a load of new features, including new episodic cooperative content, Spartan Ops. And as O'Connor explains below, in-between chat about the survival of this gen consoles and world wars, the internet isn't keen on change.

"There are 9 million people in the rest of the world that are the silent majority who don't know who makes the game. They don't play certain parts of it and they don't care"

Q: Are you tired of being asked about the pressure that comes from following Bungie's Halo titles?

Frank O'Connor: I'm not tired of it at all. I was obviously part of Bungie for a long time and it's a completely legitimate question. I think that Bungie was so innovative and so technically adept and so originally that when you put the number 4 in front of something people are naturally cynical anyway and they have absolutely no reason to trust or believe that this new outfit is going to be able to follow in those footsteps. So I'm not sick of the question, and I'll be answering it for years. And that answer is always going to be the same, it's a hard act to follow but I think we assembled a team that was capable of doing something really interesting in the universe and taking it forward in appropriate ways.

Because it's not going to be perfect, when the game comes out, there are going to be things as it was at Bungie that people don't like and complain about and that's the nature of gaming. Especially the nature of a game like Halo which has so many constituent pieces, and so many constituencies of players.

Q: The fan base seems to have some very specific ideas about what they want to see in the game, down to certain types of armour...

Frank O'Connor: And that's the beauty of the internet. Before when you had a subjective opinion nobody got to find out how wrong it was and now people instantly broadcast how wrong your opinions are all over the world, and again, Halo has got lots of different parts and so it has lots of different audiences and they all think they're the main target.


Q: So how much of that online chatter do you monitor and listen to?

Frank O'Connor: At a very high level you have to take a step back and say if ten million people are playing your game, and a 100,000 people are online talking about it, that is a representative sample for polling, but the kind of people and the kind of conversations they have tend to funnel down in a really narrow area. But that means there are 9 million people in the rest of the world that are the silent majority who don't know who makes the game. They don't play certain parts of it and they don't care. So you have to make the game for those people too since they're the bulk of your consumers. So respecting those constituencies and walking that tightrope between the features and making sure that you're giving enough love and attention to each of those features.

And as you mentioned the hardest part is changing things and evolving things. All change is viewed negatively immediately, and that's the nature of change. People have to try the experience. You saw the people out there talking to us after they'd played it, nobody came up and said 'I hated that.' We have to be confident with the decisions we make and hope that that reaction is universal.

Q: And how much of a legacy was there from Bungie in terms of technology?

Frank O'Connor: A huge amount of code. We inherited the engine, it's more of a continuum of code rather than a single engine. It's a lot of pieces and a lot of tools. We actually had the luxury though of being able to take it and experiment with and tear pieces of it out, rebuild pieces of it, so there's a lot of significantly different code in it, and there's a lot of familiar code.

Halo has a certain feel and a certain spirit that's directly connected to the engine content, sometimes you have to improve it but you can't change it or break it. So that's job one, everything after that is technology and evolution.


Q: The game look greats, was that a challenge on the Xbox 360, which is essentially at the end of its lifespan? Halo is a game you might have expected to see at the launch of next gen...

Frank O'Connor: The funny thing is I've been asked that question a lot, I think it's natural as we start looking forward to the next generation of hardware. But I would actually strongly contest the fact that the Xbox 360 is at the end of its life cycle, this has already been one of the longest generations and there's a really good reason for it, which is that current consoles are incredibly flexible and still really powerful. The reason that Halo 4 looks good is that that machine has an awful lot of untapped power still and it's going to continue to.

I think that looking forward into the future I can see years from now, even after next-gen platforms are out, that you'll have lower priced versions of the existing consoles happily living side by side and serving really valuable functions. Not just becoming the little brothers like cast offs, but still being your Netflix player, still being your DVD player, your Blu-ray player in the case of the PS3, and still doing really vital things around your house. And that means if people are still using it they're still going to want gaming experiences on it.

I would say that I expect this generation will last a lot more years. Now you've got your hardcore fans who are going to look at that statement and say 'but I want new hardware.' We know new hardware is going to come, it always does, but I think the utility of the older consoles is going to last longer than ever before.

"Some people came to this generation pretty late. They're going to have a good experience and a pretty good selection of software for the next few years as a result of this long tail"

Q: And some people just aren't ready to spend another $500 on a new machine...

Frank O'Connor: Right, and some people came to this generation pretty late so if you think about it from their perspective, they're not the hardcore gamers and they're not the early adopters. They're going to have a pretty good experience and a pretty good selection of software for the next few years as a result of this long tail. It's going to be a healthy ecosystem for a while.

Q: With the TV show and branded consoles Halo is as much a brand as it is game, is that a curse or a blessing or a bit of both?

Frank O'Connor: It's both. It's really challenging but I've always thought about it like - and this is how we've built it deliberately with novels and extended franchises - the game always felt a bit like World War 2 to me. It felt like there was definitely a good guy and there was definitely, literally, a bad guy and you can't say that about a lot of wars. Wars are complicated and there are perspectives, but there was one bad guy and one good guy in World War 2 and they had different silhouettes just like a video game. You can recognise the square, angular lines of a messerschmitt plane versus the smooth round lines of a spitfire and it was this really weird, almost - and this is a terribly cynical, ignorant thing to say - but there was a game like symmetry about that period of time. And so I've always thought about the Halo universe as a piece of real history that we just simply had to fill in.

And so when we create this extended fiction we're creating history we can then pull from, and if you think about the number of different stories you can tell in World War 2, I mean you can tell anything from - and this is the wrong period of course - but anything from The English Patient to Pearl Harbour. Completely different types of story that rely on period sensibilities and content. We're going to create that in the extended franchise, and that's its main and primary purpose. We don't use that to tell stories that you need to know to play the games, we use it to create a universe that can make the universe in the game feel more substantial.

Q: And you've introduced episodic content this time, what was the thinking behind that? It's extra work for you after all...

"We know new hardware is going to come, it always does, but I think the utility of the older consoles is going to last longer than ever before"

Frank O'Connor: It's a combination of a bunch of things and some of them are maybe not that obvious. One of them is that half of our players play campaign, and don't ever touch multiplayer, and we have a significant number of people who play multiplayer and never touch campaign, and we wanted to kind of cross those streams and bridge that experience. One of the ways to do that was with a cooperative online experience that had some competitive and career elements. So everything you do in Spartan Ops feeds into the multiplayer career and will unlock some things faster. So if you really want a battle rifle, you'll get it quicker by playing a couple of missions of Spartan Ops. We're not going to force you to do anything, but it will lubricate your experience and maybe bridge that gap and maybe get some people who are multiplayers to try the campaign and vice versa.

The other thing is that in a game narrative people play a campaign for ten hours. We as narrative creators can't control how that content is digested and you can't manipulate people in the way that you can with a movie. In a movie I know it's going to last an hour and 40 minutes, as a director I can make you sad at the start, hopeful in the middle and joyously happy in the end, and you control that whole experience with music and timing. Can't do that in a video game that lasts ten hours.


Spartan Ops gives us an opportunity to tell stories and control the pace and cadence of the narrative experience by making these little discrete chunks of story that are episodic, so just like a TV show. Just as manipulative and controllable in terms of experience, but we can apply that same reasoning to the gameplay. They're little short chunks of gameplay that are about the length of a long multiplayer session and we know exactly how we can make people feel in that experience, and reduce boredom, increase variety and again, maybe then drive people from that experience into multiplayer if that's something they hadn't considered and again vice versa.

So it serves a lot of different purposes, and I don't think any of them are terribly obvious. And the other thing that you get as a result of that, and it grew organically out of those conversations and prototypes, but it's also a nice piece of value. It's free for anyone who buys the game and it's about the length of a whole campaign, so it's a win win for us in a lot of ways but you're right, there's been a tremendous amount of work and experimentation to get it where it is now.

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Latest comments (13)

Dan Howdle Head of Content, Existent8 years ago
Does enybody really believe the Xbox 360 has this supposed untapped reservoir of unused power?

Games like RAGE, Assassin's Creed III, Forza Motorsport 4, Gears of War 3 and others are all visibly scraping at the abrasive outer edges if its potential. To say otherwise is to attest that John Carmack, among others, has failed somehow to find this mythical reserve. And frankly, that's just a little ridiculous, isn't it?

If there were still some mythical pool of untapped resource we would have seen it used already. Or perhaps Microsoft put a secret second GPU in there whose sole reason for existing was not to ever be used, but merely to be alluded to when the Xbox 360 is gasping it's last few, shallow breaths?

I personally would like to see those inside Microsoft at least admitting it's been tapped out because, you know, claiming it's not is a bit like claiming black is white or espousing the clemency of the weather when it's clearly shitting buckets outside. We have windows. We can see that it's not true. So we wonder if you're being sarcastic.

If it's not sarcasm then it's a calming measure designed to placate the increasingly vocal, swelling mass jaded by the length of time Microsoft has allowed their favourite pastime to stagnate.

Still, Halo 4 is exceptional, so, you know, thumbs up there.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dan Howdle on 4th October 2012 8:14am

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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters8 years ago
I'm also not sure how another sequel in an old franchise is supposed to be an example of a console not at the end of its cycle. To be honest though, I've never seen the appeal in Halo. I've played all but Reach and thought they were awful games, so as far as I'm concerned 343 can't do anything other than improve it.
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John Bye Lead Designer, Freejam8 years ago
Developers might be approaching the limits of what current consoles are capable of now, but it's taken years to get here, so in a way what he says is true. Look at the step up in (particularly) graphical quality between Mass Effect 1 and 3, Assassin's Creed 1 and 3, Uncharted 1 and 3, Halo 3 and 4 etc. Upcoming original titles like The Last Of Us, Beyond, Watch Dogs and so on are looking really impressive too.

Better tools, bigger budgets from the larger install base, and more understanding of how the hardware works and techniques that can be used to get more out of them, have all combined to hopefully give the current generation a real swan song over the next year.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by John Bye on 4th October 2012 10:32am

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Show all comments (13)
Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 8 years ago
The thing is that I'm sure my ZX Spectrum had some un-tapped power left in it at the end of it's lifetime. The problem wasn''t that last dreg of power. The problem was that it would have simply produced a slightly better version of "More of the same colour clashing visuals".
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Julius Malco Freelance Blogger 8 years ago
This statement from 343 prompted me to ponder the new chip in the XBOX 360 SLIM when it was first introduced.

Ars Technica did a tear down 2 years ago and pointed out the FSB replacement block. According to the article, "This particular block essentially implements a kind of on-die "frontside bus" with the exact same latency and bandwidth characteristics as the older bus that connected the CPU and GPU when they were discrete parts. "

If I read this properly, combining the CPU and GPU on one die technically makes the chip faster than what was in the original XBOX 360 (where the CPU and GPU were 2 different chips) and they are using this FSB replacement block to slow down the CPU so older games run properly.

I'm just speculating here, but if Microsoft can turn this feature on/off on the fly depending on the game, then maybe Frank isn't blowing smoke here.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Julius Malco on 4th October 2012 5:45pm

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Steve Nicholls Programmer 8 years ago
Sadly consoles have held progress back considerably. Some pc devs try and push forward but the money grabbing publishers such as EA and the focus on consoles with now ancient hardware has basically stopped the graphical leaps in their tracks.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 8 years ago
I dont think its about power anymore, just art direction... achieving good aesthetics, style and atmosphere. To me graphics in terms of appearence have flatline. I think future generations can offer more in terms of physics and AI. I know these things are tied to graphics, however If you take a still picture of most AAA games, they look very good and at times mimic reality to a high level of detail. Current generation consoles can do alot. I just think that aside from the technical and hardware resources, a developer or game creators creativity, imagination and problem solving is also important. Sometimes as a creator, less is more. Because its not until you have reached the limit of your resources that you dont come up with unique ways off achieving the same results as if you had more resources.

I think games can evolve in many ways, and this is why I dont buy all the mobile gaming hype. My main form of gaming will be on home consoles. Ive owned most verions of Nintendo and SONY handheld gaming consoles, and iPad and smartphone games just dont do it for me unless I wanna kill 3 minutes waiting for the bus. Id like to see better facial expressions, realistic clothing behavior and objects having different density, mass and volume. i would also like to see differant materials have different properties. Dust, snow move realistically through the wind and be altered by varius in game characters and objects pressence. I would like to blow up a building made of differant materials such as concrete bricks Iron Rods and wood. The concrete would give away in varying degrees according to impact radius, the iron rods would be left standing but bent and the wood would burn. However current generation technology allows developers to go around this in pre rendered or scripted actions. its not the end of the world its just harder. But im not too bothered because alot of things can be achived to simulate certain behaviors through other means. Uncharted 3 is a good example and the upcoming Metal Gear rising also is proof of what i say. The other thing Id like to see pushed foward is AI. I kind of got off topic. Like future first person shooters would be great if you got people inside a building shooting at you and instead of killing the people inside you can just blow up the building. More power is always good, however alot of these things I describe can simulate or be mimiced through other means. I was bloune away by squares luminouse engine. I found it more impressive then the Unreal 4 demo.Dammit I wish i can make games... :(

I never played a HALO game. Im not an XBOX or Microsoft guy, and with bungie leaving, you kinda figure HALO 4 is going to suck. But on the contrary, the current developers are doing a good job and Im very impressed with what Ive seen, even though its on 5 year old hardware. I may give the series a shot with HALO 4.

Edited 4 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 4th October 2012 7:47pm

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Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer 8 years ago
That's just BS, you forget that most of the pc gamers don't have the latest state of the art GPU's, they have midrange (by now lowrange) graphicscards. Yes a small diehard gamers have the latest highend computers..
It's also the older hardware that produces much better results with newer games compares to the PC-hardware, because no developer is ever gonna really optimize for the pc-hardware as they know that 3 months later there is another GPU on the market that's even faster, so why even bother.. Which in the end results in machines that run like shit even though it's much faster..
Just look at some tablets which run android, the hardware is state of the art, but android is slow as a turd. It's just that developers don't optimize anymore (or in the case of android, go for a sensible reason and just dump it, a good example of the performance difference is the Mono/C# port of android which was between 40 and 80% faster). And look at how HTML5 is taking on, even though really it's actually a perfomance nightmare compared to native developed software..
Having to develop on 'old' hardware means you're also looking for any way to optimize your code and workflow so you can get more performance out of it, it also means you learn the hardware much MUCH better..
But hee, when an application runs slow, just buy a better CPU and GPU and more memory, even though the application doesn't really do much more than the previous version...
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee8 years ago
The world is so full of cynics...

uNt4pPed PotEnTi4L is merely a metaphor. The flexibility of modern shader based and multi-core architecture means there is an almost unlimited range of inventive approaches that can be taken to improve graphics or experiences. It not about more or less power, its about how what's there is being used.

There are still many different opinions on the best ways to render things or the best way to use multiple threads. I don't see how throwing John Carmack into a discussion changes anything. You could argue that other technical directors are doing equally, if not more impressive things than what you see in Rage and you could argue that John Carmack could take different approaches in the future that better utilize the technology available and revolutionise the visual or game play experience.

Its quite interesting to think just how much better graphics on the original Xbox would look if we took modern approaches to global illumination and shading, that were never implemented. Despite being a super old architecture, there is a lot more that could be done with the sorts of techniques and knowledge we have now.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 8 years ago
In my opinion it doesn't need any secret untapped power. I am really enjoying the current slate of games on the 360(PS3 as well) and have a huge backlog of titles to keep me busy. And he's correct that each new iteration improves upon the last, which is why ODST looked better than Halo 3, Reach looked better than ODST and Halo 4 will look better than Reach.
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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters8 years ago
@Andrew Jakobs
That's just BS, you forget that most of the pc gamers don't have the latest state of the art GPU's, they have midrange (by now lowrange) graphicscards.
no developer is ever gonna really optimize for the pc-hardware as they know that 3 months later there is another GPU on the market that's even faster, so why even bother..
Didn't you just contradict yourself there? PC developers want to make sure their game works on as many customer's machines as possible.
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Bryan Robertson Gameplay Programmer, Ubisoft Toronto8 years ago
My intuition would be that it's still possible to raise the bar, if you have an engine that's been architected to really take advantage of the strengths of a particular platform. Especially if you don't have to worry about being cross-platform.
Look at games like the most-recent Uncharted for an example of what's possible on this generation if you take that approach.

There's always some scope to take advantage of the hardware just a little bit better than the last guy. There are certainly diminishing returns as you get further and further into a console generation, but there's no such thing as an engine that makes 100% optimal use of the hardware.
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Rodney Smith Developer 8 years ago
Untapped in its power to buttress an upright row of books.
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