Talking Past, Present and ‘Halo 4′ with 343 Industries’ Frank O’Connor

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Master Chief said goodbye to his parents last November when Halo: Reach served as Bungie’s swan song. After months waiting to hear what exactly the future of Halo would be after its original creators moved on, this year’s E3 finally brought fans the news they’d been waiting for.

(More on TIME.com: The Halo Trinity)

Microsoft is finishing up Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary for a fall release and unveiled the next chapter of Master Chief’s adventures in a teaser trailer for Halo 4. Frank O’Connor is the head of 343 Industries–Microsoft’s Halo headquarters–which makes him the man steering the sci-fi first-person shooter into the future.

O’Connor talked about what a post-Bungie Halo is going to look like.

Techland: One of the most obvious things about Halo in its tenth anniversary year is, I think, we have to be honest and admit that it’s not quite as dominant as it was before. Halo titles used to be the games that everyone fired up to compete against each other in and now they’re not.

Frank O’Connor: We exist on a single platform and that limits the ecosystem. We mostly admire and respect our competitors. Call of Duty came in so strong in the last couple of games. They deserve everything that they have. But they have a huge advantage over us, in terms of just numbers, which is that they’re multiplatform. So ultimately, as a studio, the best thing to do is just to focus on what you do best, and you can’t be distracted by that kind of stuff.

What do you think that is? What is it that you do best? The property has obviously made a transition now. What are 343’s core tenets?

Our core tenets are to respect the franchise and to respect its foundations and its rules, and we know what some of that stuff is. Some of it is even in Anniversary, like you pick up that controller and it feels like a modern shooter because the strength of the basic game premise is so strong. The strength of the sandbox is so strong.

People still pick up that game and just tool around, and don’t do anything except play. But the universe itself is really big. There’s this huge sci-fi universe, and the sci-fi universe basically gives you more freedom to create characters, and create unrealistic and exciting scenarios. I always like to breakdown the Halo audience into components because you can’t pin down anyone.

Some people just like pistols on Hang ‘Em High. Some people like multiplayer competitive all up. Some people only play Campaign. Some people only make things in Forge Mode. Some people only like the fiction, and some people like the whole thing. It’s really hard to pin them down. I’m one of the people who likes the whole thing.

(More on TIME.com: From Pixels to Projectors: Hollywood’s Video Game Movies)

You would have to be, doing what you do.

Yes. [laughs]

You talk about respecting what’s come before. I understand and acknowledge that, but you also have to move it forward.

Sure. The elephant in the room is Bungie. Bungie moved things forward every single game. We intend to do the same thing. But Bungie also had very strong respect for their own success and their own invention. We’re going to continue that.

We’re not going to change anything fundamental about the game, but we are going to add, we are going to improve, we are going to layer, and we are going to evolve. You have to do that to A) stay on top of your game but B) to give people something that’s more interesting, and something that’s more and more and more. That doesn’t mean we’re going to get more complicated. I think that’s a dangerous situation.

But we’re definitely going to make additions, changes, and improvements to the game where we see fit but without changing the basic premise.

So, you talk about changes. In the context of Anniversary, is there a temptation to foreshadow stuff that happened in Halo 2, 3, and 4, because you’re going back to the original chapter?

Yeah. I think Anniversary is a more complicated beast than just a remake of Halo 1 because it contains elements from other Halo games as well. In multiplayer, it’s certainly a celebration of 10 years. So, it’s a little bit convoluted. We are foreshadowing Halo 4. That’s been hinted at in the Terminals. Guilty Spark’s narration in those Terminals is going to give you a lot of insight into the future direction of the game. But so are the books.

Are there more and more comics projects in conjunction with Marvel?

Yeah. Absolutely. We are still working on finishing up a giant serialized adaptation of the Fall of Reach novel. We have a great relationship with those guys.

Is that still going on?

Yeah. It’s nearly done but it’s long, yeah. Actually it’s all going in perfect cracker jack order, it’s just a big project.

Let’s talk about the Chief. Is there going to be a different way of understanding him through playing Anniversary than before? Obviously you’ve got to stay close to the original text.

So, yes and no. We’re leaving the dialogue in the story exactly as it was. We’re definitely redoing some of the cinematics. We’re doing the utmost to stay true to the nature of the game but there will be significantly improved animation models and so on.

The Chief is a strange cat because people graft their own impressions of what he’s about onto him, and he’s become kind of an avatar for people’s heroic experience. I often have conversations with people about the Chief, and all of the things they are saying are true, but they’re not written down anywhere, they’re not actually recorded anywhere in the games.

So people just have a reflexive and instinctual understanding of who he is to them that is true to the character. Going forward, I think even in the trailer, we’ve seen this discussion a lot on the forums after we debuted the trailer. It’s a truism of our game that we want to take people on a journey with this hero, and see him evolve, and see him grow.

That’s going to be part of our storytelling in going forward. So people will graft those ideas onto this but this is a verbatim retelling of the original story. We’re not going to throw in easter egg lines where he’s going to be like…

“Someday I’ll meet up with my counterpart from the Covenant!” Is there going to be a different take on the Covenant? Again, if you’re going to foreshadow stuff in Halo 4, are there going to be different visualizations because I felt that some of the Covenant classes looked different as they progressed?

Yeah. We’ve redone the models a little bit and used some of the more recent models like in Reach and so on, and we’re tinkering with those. The funny thing is that Reach took the leads in the Covenant back, to their more kind of brutish nature–that’s almost a pun–so they’re more savage.

They took out the English language and made them just much more alien. You felt like this was a real alien species. Halo already did that, so, in a way, we didn’t have to retouch that because that’s already built into the fabric of the game. But it’s a truism going forward is that alien species should be alien. They should be understandable, they should be rich.

We don’t want cartoons. One of the things about Halo that always fascinated people is feelings of isolation and wonderment and exploration and alien. And those are really hard things to certainly put in a contemporary shoot-em-up like a Call of Duty, and really exciting things to put in a sci-fi shoot-em-up, so we’re doubling down on that.

Can you guys talk about engine or graphics tech at all?

What you’re seeing in Campaign Mode is mostly the original Halo code running under a second engine, which is a graphics layer we worked with our partner Saber Interactive on. There’s a lot of technology under the hood to enable things like switching, and to enable the simultaneous blending of that. We knew going into this project we absolutely couldn’t touch the basic gameplay.

People want to know if they can still do Warthog jumps. Yes, you can. People wanted to know if they could still do grenade tricks. Yes, you can. All of the gameplay is going to be identical. There might be tiny little changes that we just haven’t tested through yet, but you shouldn’t really encounter any major differences with this game and the original. But for multiplayer it was a much more complicated question.

Years ago we sat down and had lots and lots of meetings, and lots and lots of conversations about nearly everything. “Should multiplayer be the original code? Should we just put a netcode layer on it? This one we’re going to have to explain until we’re 100 years old.” It was a really complicated decision and a lot of factors went into realizing that the best thing for us as a company and for the health of the project, expanding on what Reach did was the way to go forward.

We didn’t want to split up the existing Reach eco-system. There was some modern elements in Reach that make it much more fleshed-out experience, things like saved films and so on. And so ultimately we decided to go with the Reach multiplayer engine. It just keeps moving forward.

So for support for Reach, I mean, is it going to be across different games?

Yeah. So what will happen is you get the retail disc and you just log seamlessly into multiplayer. You’ll have the seven maps that come with it from that disc or campaign. You won’t see any switch in engines, it will be effectively seamless. If you have Reach, we will make the other maps available for Reach players. If they’re not interested in the campaign mode for Anniversary, they will still be able to get the new multiplayer…

So the seven maps that come with Anniversary will be playable via Reach?

Eventually, yes.

But again, back to the engine, is this indicative of Halo 4 at all?

No. This is a very complicated project. Saber Interactive was a great partner for us because we needed something very distinct and bespoke to make these two engines talk together. But technically, the Halo Anniversary campaign doesn’t have any technological similarities with the Halo 4 engine.

What can we expect from that engine? As proprietary tech…

For Halo 4?

Yes.

We’re not going to talk about that for a little while. We are going to have some people from 343 Industries at Halo Fest at PAX this year and we’ll start talking a little bit more, but don’t expect a huge flow of info out on Halo 4. But will talk a little about it, and probably have some of technology guys there as well.

You mentioned for Halo Fest that some things are being shipped out from New Zealand.

Yeah.

Will those be from WETA?

That’s a fair guess, yes. [laughs]

And would those be props from the movie that was in development?

Not from the movie. These are from the Neill Blomkamp live-action shorts. We made a lot of real-life things, so we want to kind of build a museum at Halo Fest.

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