Talking Chief with Kiki Wolfkill and Frank O’Connor
[Originally printed in games™ 186]
343 Industries studio head Kiki Wolfkill and franchise director Frank O’Connor sit down for a candid discussion of the past, present and future of the Halo franchise
It’s interesting to be able to catch up with you between major game releases. What do you get up to in gaps like this where you’re not directly promoting a new title?
Frank: It kind of depends on the release. We both obviously have really different responsibilities, but typically you’re just working either on sustaining marketing for this one or the actual production of the next one.
Kiki: I think we have the big ‘tent pole’ projects and then we also have a lot of smaller things going on both in terms of internal studio infrastructure and also a lot of our ancillary storytelling programs. Frank, for instance, has a whole franchise team, which works across the studio in terms of shepherding the universe and canon across all of the things that we’re doing. So they’re pretty much busy every single day of the year.
Frank: But it’s nice to get months and months at a stretch and this is going to be a slightly unusual year. We’re going to be interrupted by multiple future-facing projects, but this year we get to go pretty deep on our mainline items without being distracted for at least a few months. E3 is always a distraction, but this holiday we don’t have a huge triple-A individual game coming out, so this year can be a good year to get our heads down on the next big things.
Kiki: There are always things that we are incubating and exploring and concepting internally. That’s always an ongoing
process for us.
And you’re coming up on the tenth anniversary of 343 this year too?
Frank: Well, I guess we didn’t know and you’ve reminded us and if you could tell me when my wedding anniversary is, I actually forgot [laughs]. I know the date, but I don’t know which year it is. I hadn’t even considered that. Maybe that means I’ve been here longer than I was at Bungie, which was a really long time as well.
Kiki: It’s funny because we had a sort of rolling start so it’s hard to pinpoint the exact day.
Frank: A combination of people here were a melange of Bungie and Microsoft at 343 as a continuative entity. I’m with Kiki; I don’t necessarily think of a specific start point. You’ve given us a project for this afternoon.
Kiki: We will forensically try to figure it out.
Frank: And we will pretend that we knew all along.
What do you think has been the greatest lesson that you’ve learnt as a studio?
Frank: I have learned multiple lessons, but I don’t think there’s a single one that beats the combination effect of all of those lessons. I think that the most important thing for me, spread across multiple learning, is about building teams and having those teams function together properly. There are lots of things that we’ve learned about the game. Lots of things that we’ve learned about the universe, but those tend to be little incremental things. For me, it’s about building a studio and building a team that is focused on the same goals.
Kiki: I think, as a studio, a lesson for us has been to never stop learning. I think it’s a combination of the environment and the landscape changes so quickly and there are so many different inputs in the entertainment world. And equally we always need to be looking forward and organically thinking about our plans relative to how the environment is changing around us. And also we started as a studio building a game together for the first time as a group of people and I think there are different phases of learning. The first was how do we work together, how to be a team and make a game together. Then it’s, ‘How do we find our voice?’ I think that’s something that’s been a very organic process over the last …
Frank: Ten years? [Laughs].
Kiki: Ten years [laughs]. There’s no world where you can sit back and say, ‘We know how to do this and we’re just going to march forward’. It’s a constantly evolving and learning environment and I think that’s been the biggest lesson, to be comfortable with the fact that not only should we be learning, but we will and that means successes and failures in moving forward from all of those things quickly onto the next.
Looking back on these ten years, do you consider there to be a particular high point for the studio so far?
Frank: Getting games out is always the biggest high point. I think that, as with any release, we tend to concentrate on keeping things going and fixing issues. We tend not to sit back and bask. There’s no time for it. Any triple-A game nowadays doesn’t really have a final ship date. There’s always sustained content and support that has to happen after that. I’ve got lots of high points; the music on Halo 4, the campaign Halo 4, the multiplayer in Halo 5. There are other stories that we’ve told, and we’re going to get into this in our conversation, but all of the products that we ship have a certain yin/yang effect on their audience and we have to figure out the balance of the good and the bad. Mostly, shipping games is the high point to me and then finding what my favourite aspect of that game is and honestly hoping that it aligns with what the audience’s favourite aspect of the game is. Because at least then you know that your tastes and your ideas are pulling in the
Kiki: I think the studio has grown and, as with any studio that has been around for a number of years, it has changed and shifted, so it’s hard to say what was the high point for the studio. I think you can point at a number of high points and, to Frank’s point, shipping a game always qualifies. I think there was definitely intense emotional resonance when we shipped Halo 4 because it was our first big outing together. As a team, it really became the foundation of how we built moving forward. All of the games we shipped had been an accomplishment for us, back to the original point, because we learned from every one. It makes us better as we move forward.
What about low points for the studio?
Frank: Millions of them [laughs]. One of the hardest burdens we’ve had and that any studio would have in this situation (and I know the Call Of Duty developers deal with this) is that we’re not seen the progenitors of the franchise, in old-school fans’ eyes, certainly. One caveat is that we’re really talking about certainly your audience and online gaming enthusiasts are fully aware of the Bungie transition. The fact of the matter is that most of our audience isn’t aware of that. They ignore all of the logos that flash up at the start of games or movies, for that matter, and just judge the experience on its own merits. That’s the relief, but that’s certainly a little bit of a burden and a little bit of gravity that we’ve had to carry with us the whole time. The irony for me is I’ve been through that transition and unlike most of our staff I’ve been at Bungie when things have gone wrong at the start of a launch. I remember when we launched Halo 2, most people have forgotten this but the pistol and the grenade balance on launch day was widely considered disastrous, so there was quick work by Paul Bertone [design lead] and the team to fix it, but we had to live through that. There was literally a website called Halo2sucks.com, so I am pretty used to it and my skin is truly calloused at this point. It’s just a big honest knuckle and palm at this point, my entire body. The rest of the team at 343, especially the new guys, they are not used to the negatives that come with that. They maybe take it probably a little more personally, but in some way that’s a good thing because it drives them to better the game and better the experience and better their own skills. It’s kind of an artifice and game teams aren’t made up of three guys for 15 years. It’s multiple shifts and staffs and culture and behaviour. Thinking about these things as monolithic entities, I think, is a mistake. To me personally, it’s about a continuum of people, behaviour, culture and ability rather than a singular element.
Kiki: I don’t think it’s any secret that the launch of Master Chief Collection was a challenge externally and internally. It was really painful for a lot of reasons. From a purely tactical reason sourcing the issues after all of the testing that we had done, it was a pretty jarring moment. Just working through that with the team while at the same time working through all of the feedback and the valid responses from the community was emotionally difficult. We worked so hard to build trust with our audience and with the community as a new studio and developer for Halo that to lose that trust was pretty heartbreaking for us. There was certainly a lot learning in terms of testing process and how we move forward with real-world testing and simulated testing. But then on the other side, it was really starting to build the trust up again with the community and also being able to reflect on ourselves on how intensely emotional it was. I think we all get so tied up in the IP and our role as shepherds of the IP, so it felt personal, and not in a personal attack kind of way, but personal in a deeply saddening way. That was a big threshold moment for the studio I think in terms of how we go through something like that, both from an emotional and morale standpoint and from how do we learn and move forward and not have this happen again? On top of that is the really good game that rightfully had noise around its issues. And underlying that is a game that we do believe in. That was difficult as well.
How tough has the learning curve been from Halo 4 to Halo 5?
Frank: Moving from platform to platform is always a big leap. There’s always something that you find out. Just to follow on Kiki’s point, I think that if we’d expected it, if we weren’t seeing test data and good results internally, we would have been maybe less traumatised by it. If we had been seeing that data we wouldn’t have shipped it like that. It was a shock. But I think that the technical learnings on the jump between systems, between Xbox 360 and Xbox One and now PC, have been super valuable and have eventually let us scale test efforts across conflicting and complicated platform issues, which is kind of what tied us up in MCC. So certainly we’ve gotten better technically, we’ve gotten better at test discipline and test scale, more importantly. Just as a team we’re always hiring amazing people and it’s just about giving them the tools and ability to excel at the things we hired them for in the first place. I think that right now there’s a lot of forward-facing work that’s near completion now in terms of our tools and our ability to iterate as well as our ability to innovate and build good systems to begin with. That’s put us in a really good position for the future I think.
Kiki: I think that a lot of the learning for us is internally driven. We talk about putting a team together for the first time with Halo 4 and learning how to work together and how to build a game together. Coming out of Halo 4 and going into Halo 5 it was, ‘How do we work?’ ‘What are the production processes that work for this kind of team and what are the creative processes that work for a team that’s made up of people from all over the world and all over the game industry?’. Then there’s the learnings along the way for us as we look at how we want to expand and how we want to connect or not connect story. I think there’s a lot of learnings along the way for us, ‘Do we have a light connection between experiences?’ ‘Do we have a tight connection between experiences?’. I think we’ve figured out that some things work better in different instances. Then in a world where our audience getting older and we want to think about how we want to introduce the Halo universe to new audiences. It’s different now than it was ten years ago in terms of making sure the universe feels inclusive to new people. I think that learning curve has all been driven by our own infrastructure and our own strategy and how we want to move the franchise forward.
How do you feel perception of 343 has changed over the years?
Frank: That depends on which set of the audience you’re talking about. I think that the multiplayer audience thinks that we finally nailed [it] and I don’t just mean for 343, but for Halo, that we finally made some needed changes to combat and mobility in a way that’s acceptable to them. We’ve also given them some amazing tools to build their own things. I think that Forge is genuinely come into its own. We took some digs for storytelling in Halo 5, but they were absolutely merited. We very much realised that people wanted Master Chief’s story of Halo 5. We definitely marketed it in a way that we hoped was going to bring surprise, but for some fans and certainly fans of Master Chief, it was a huge disappointment because they wanted more Chief. They loved Blue Team, they liked Osiris, but they wanted Chief. And that has been a big learning. Chief we tend to think of as kind of a vessel for your adventure rather than necessarily this major character in the universe. He’s really just your entry into the universe. But people have become attached to him over the last 15 years and they’ve started to sort of fill in the gaps that the character deliberately has for gameplay reasons with a genuine emotional attachment. We certainly underestimated that with Halo 5. I think that most fans know that we have the technical chops to do this and it’s surprising even when you’re reading negative threads about any of our games there’s significant optimism about what we’re capable of. We just have to deliver on that and keep delivering on that. We’ve done a pretty good job with Halo 5, sustaining it, and that’s the philosophy and that’s the talent that we’re taking forward. We’re making significant changes too.
Kiki: I just go back to however long ago it was and people didn’t know what 343 Industries was. I remember trying to hire for Halo 4 and we couldn’t talk about what the product was going to be and we were a completely unknown entity. We were essentially brought up as Microsoft. I think back to that time and I think about today and people understand with our successes and the things they like or don’t like, people understand that 343 is a game studio that stands for making world-class games and experiences. That’s a huge leap for us and certainly I can tangibly feel that shift in terms of our recruiting process and the people who come to us versus back in 2008-2009 when we were heavily recruiting, it was a challenge. That’s very different today.
Do you feel Master Chief is as relevant today as he was ten years ago?
Frank: As I was saying he’s weirdly become more and more relevant. I think certainly in Halo: CE he was deliberately almost an empty suit. He’s just this fantastic way to enter somebody into the middle of a conflict. The effect that the character has on his surroundings and the ‘fate of the galaxy’ has had a resonant effect on fans over the years. It wasn’t that surprising to me, but the volume of ‘give us more Chief’ at the end of Halo 5 was significant and so I think if anything weirdly slightly more important now than he has ever been, certainly to our franchise. Instead of focusing on bringing new characters into the world and expanding the playable characters we’ve sort of shifted the focus a little bit to making the world a little bit more realistic and compelling and, I would say, more fun for players who get to inhabit the Chief in the future, pretty much as they have demanded. There’s always a call and response element of shipping a game, you have to ship improvements, you have ship tweaks and you have to ship changes and sometimes you have to walk some of those back. Doubling down on the Master Chief story and the amount of focus on him was probably the easiest learning from Halo 5. That was a really simple thing to absorb and embrace.
Kiki: We do a lot of work outside of the games with our transmedia entertainment efforts and our toys and books and all of that. I think that Master Chief is the iconic representation of the [Halo] universe. He embodies the heroism and a little bit more now than maybe 15 years ago, the humanity of the universe and the idea of all that’s at stake. There’s hope and an ability to overcome. I think it’s easy for us to sometimes forget because we are living night and day with him and through the game development process that he is that thing for people. He’s not just a gameplay mechanic. So, I think that
getting back to that realisation has been important and something we certainly try and focus on in a lot of the work we do outside of the games themselves, just because he is such a rich character. There’s so much more to him that we can explore more easily outside of the games. He is so very rich for us there.
Looking at the industry right now, how would you assess Halo’s place within it?
Frank: It’s certainly much more competitive. I think that in the early days Halo kind of had that market to itself. It certainly paved the way for FPS to become a de facto triple-A standard on consoles. It didn’t really invent anything, but it did manage to refine a bunch of systems and ideas so that to this day if you’re now holding a controller and you go to you muscle memory for what it’s like to play a FPS, you’re effectively holding the original Halo controls. So we’ve had huge influence on our competitors and given them some guide posts to go ahead and become as good as Halo in some cases, much better in a lot of ways. There’s this trading of effort and ability in the industry that’s actually quite collegial. We do actually talk to each other at GDC and while everyone is competitive it’s really built around passion for the art and the science of making games. That competition drives everyone, so that’s not a bad thing at all. I think we’re still highly important to Microsoft and the Xbox audience going forward. We always have that constant pressure and ultimate responsibility to not just make good games and make satisfying Halo games and satisfying Halo stories, but to innovate and push the platform forward as well. As we move into the console and PC space that gives us new challenges, but it also gives us some brand-new opportunities that we’ve never had before, so we’re very excited about the future.
Kiki: I think any franchise that 15 years in is naturally just part of the life cycle you have to think about, what has worked in the past and what will work in the future. To Frank’s point, it really is about pushing on innovation and the things that made Halo so popular and so iconic in those early Xbox days. We think a lot about what does it mean to think about bringing in a younger audience into Halo? I think that from a universe perspective it is multi-generational. We have parents who are now playing with their kids. And that’s a pretty amazing place to be in. So, we think a lot about what that means for the franchise and what does that mean as we think about that younger audience and how they ingest the world around them. Are there experiences that we want to think about in the future that help bring that audience in and really introduces them to the universe and all of the experiences we have.
What should we expect from the future of the Halo series?
Frank: Expect it to get better. That’s our number-one goal, always – and it always has been. I’d love to tell you what to expect from the Halo series going forward, but I can’t. We’re at a genuinely exciting point internally. A bunch of stuff that we’re working on for the future is coming together. It’s only 9:30am here, but it’s magnificent. It’s such a magnificent effort. I’m genuinely excited about it, I’m excited for playtests and for reveals that we have, even internally. I’m working on lots of bits of that, but I continue to be surprised by some of the ideas and the technology that we’re building. But I can’t, frankly, tell you what that specifically is. You’re free to guess and surmise based on normal industry trends and patterns and cadence.
Kiki: I feel like the studio and the teams have hit their stride in terms of how they work together and finding their voice. Being at a point where they feel comfortable. We’re shepherds of the IP, but we’re also responsible for what the future of it is and I think the team really understands that and has internalised it and is energised by it.
It’s a big year ahead for Xbox with Game Pass launching in Spring and Project Scorpio arriving towards the end of the year, so what excites you most about Xbox going forward?
Frank: I think Microsoft’s plans for Xbox and the platform actually unshackles us a little bit, because Xbox One, frankly, is our target platform for the stuff we’re working on next, but having the extra power that we have with PCs and extra infrastructure and with Scorpio coming, we can just make that game experience sing with the power that’s at our disposal. I’m a tech nerd and also a game nerd and I think the potential for the those things and the comfortable tools and flexibility that Microsoft gives us to make sure that those core experiences are still perfect means that we’re going to be able to feed into that ecosystem in really interesting and compelling ways.
Kiki: I also feel like the content creators and the game makers and platform are more aligned than ever in terms of us really focusing on the player. I think in the past we’ve had platforms delivering great features, but frankly with the pace of the hardware wars, there were sort of necessary turnovers, which is really hard on players, to reinvest in hardware. For us we have this long-term roadmap we develop to and it’s very culturally aligned with the hardware and the platform in terms of, ‘Let’s figure out the right thing to do for the players in trying to make it as frictionless as possible while still being able to add features that matter’. For us, from a development perspective, that’s incredible because it means we don’t have to focus on a lot of giant overhauls. We can focus on the features that are going to both light up the platform, but also make it a great experience for players. That alignment has felt really meaningful for us.