Catching Up with Bungie's Frank O'Connor

Recently, I took a visit to Bungie's offices to play through Halo 3, and while I can't talk about that particular experience at this time--check back for our full review on September 23--I was able to sit down for a short chat with content manager Frank O'Connor.

In many ways the public face of Bungie, O'Connor is responsible for many of the updates on the studio's official site and is one of the company's best-known employees. He spoke on how Bungie's internal development processes have improved over the course of the Halo series, how the company deals with its hardcore fanbase, downloadable content for Halo 3, what's next for the studio, and more.

Shack: So how does it feel to be done?

Frank O'Connor: Well, as you can tell, I'm not done yet. [laughs] It feels weird seeing the game finished--I mean I'm so used to playing it in sporadic bursts and broken chunks. It's fully assembled very much at the last minute; you get all the individual pieces working first.

I still haven't seen a packaged version yet, even though they're in some stores, but it feels good. As a studio, we're happier with this game and also more nervous than with anything else we've ever done.

Shack: Why is that specifically?

Frank O'Connor: Part of it is that we've gotten better at certain things that most gamers don't care about, like production, time management, and initial planning. When we first started planning Halo 3, we had all these lofty meetings--"We're going to do this, get this feature by then, finish the game by June then polish and polish." Literally, people laughed out loud at that meeting--"We'll see when we get to June."

When we got to June and we were feature complete, we said, "Whoa, we kind of did it." Certainly I look at the features on our box, and I worked with some of the marketing and PR people, and they said, "What are the most important things in the game," and I started reeling off topics: "[map tweaking feature] Forge--no, campaign co-op--no, the films."

We really fulfilled our promises we made to ourselves with Halo 2, and then some, some big ideas above and beyond that. And they're pretty polished; it's not just stuff we stapled on at the end.

Shack: It was well known that Bungie wanted some more time for the Halo 2 development cycle. You didn't feel that pressure this time around?

Frank O'Connor: The pressure was always there, but the thing was getting ourselves into a position where we didn't have to make those tough decisions, we made the right hires, and we followed through at every stage.

There were milestones, like finish campaign co-op by this date, but there were also specific feature milestones. It came down to hours, like these people had to be done by 3:00 pm on a certain Saturday. They were hitting those milestones and hitting them correctly, and that's the only way to do it.

Shack: Bungie obviously has a massive and dedicated and vocal fan community, and in your job you deal with them often. What's that like, and how much as a studio do you have to separate yourself from feedback and suggestions during the development process?

Frank O'Connor: There are communities within communities. If I look at the whole community--the Halo nation--broadly, it's great. As a body politic, they're supportive and loyal and friendly.

Within that you have camps, like the fiction fans. They mainly talk amongst themselves, because they'd rather wait and see what fiction we put in. Some people say, "You should put this weapon in or that weapon," but fiction fans never make suggestions. They just wait for the final form and know they'll digest it. The fiction fans are the simplest to deal with because we just observe them and they observe us.

The multiplayer guys are a different beast, because some like specific maps, some just like CTF, some are the MLG [Major League Gaming] types. Some like Halo 1 the most, even though they play Halo 2 more. We do take their feedback, but you can't filter that--you can't collate that type of feedback, because it's often juxtaposed against itself.

One of the things our designers joke about is that if we get five thousand emails saying the energy sword sucks, and five thousand saying it's awesome, then we know it's balanced. But it's hard to take anectodal feedback like that. We'd rather do the playtesting to fine tune the decisions we made.

Shack: How long do you think it will take before you start seeing things made with Forge and the gametype editor that you had never planned for or anticipated?

Frank O'Connor: Specifically about 23 hours ago--when those guys made [a] baseball [gametype] with rockets and gravity hammers--and that was their first pass at something!--and they even got bases in, we said, "Okay, all bets are off." We had no idea.

I think one of the problems we do have with Forge is that we do very extensive testing, but since we explain to testers the parameters, it's a very different set of expectations. These guys came in a few days ago and had no preconceptions. They said, "We should make baseball," and they did.

Shack: As the creators of Halo, what's it like seeing others work on the property?

Frank O'Connor: I don't know what it would be like seeing a studio we hadn't fully approved of and been excited about work on it. Ensemble, when they came to us with a Halo RTS idea--well, we were going to make an RTS in the Halo universe back in 1999.

In my mind, one of the best RTS makers along with Blizzard is Ensemble. I thought, "How would AOE be with Halo stuff?" and I was really excited. Then they showed up with the prototypes, and they were better than that.

We haven't done much work with other software developers--we've done some fun stuff with Team Ninja--but as long as we're working with someone we respect and they're staying within the canonical aspect, it's fine. It would be different if they were lazy developers and we had to baby them, but they're not.

Shack: Is that what the Team NINJA-engraved katana display in the lobby is about?

Frank O'Connor: That was a thank-you gift from [studio head Tomonobu] Itagaki for the assets we supplied for DOA4. We shared some technology and the Spartan model, and that was his way of saying, "Thank you."

Shack: What's next for Bungie?

Frank O'Connor: Very specifically, we're working on downloadable content for Halo 3. It'll be multiplayer stuff--the kind of things people expect, the kind of schedule you can guess. Unfortunately some people are already back from their post-ship vacations and working on that.

DLC is never based on scraps we swept away from past games, it's always new maps we decided would be good for specific reasons. For example, we already now see there will be a need for more smaller symmetrical maps.

We have meetings--what would be a cool environment, are there any ideas from old maps we could use. We just treat it like making a new game, with concept art and storyboarding. We're already doing some geometry, but there's a lot of polish left to do before those become real maps.

Shack: Biannually? More often?

Frank O'Connor: Xbox Live Marketplace gives us a much better system to distribute stuff [than Xbox Live on Xbox]. With Xbox it was cool that we could tinker, but it wasn't as easy. Now, a lot of the stuff that was difficult for us is gone. I think it will be, if not more frequent, more predictible and smoother.

Of course, after that we're working on the Peter Jackson project. Not much more to say about that, except that it continues on pace. [Bungie producer] Curtis Creamer and [Bungie cinematics director] CJ Cowan were just driving a Warthog around New Zealand and one crashed into a wall. [laughs] They're built tough in real life too.

Shack: What about your next full Bungie game project, your next massive undertaking?

Frank O'Connor: Our next massive undertaking is the thing with Peter Jackson, but beyond that people are asking what we're going to do. Will we go back and do Myth, will we go back to Marathon? The honest answer is we don't know yet, but we're prototyping. We have some choices, and we have some cool ideas.