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The “Halo” Interviews: From Birth to Rebirth

Jason Evangelho

We interview Ed Fries and Frank O’Connor about the 10th anniversary of “Halo”

“Microsoft is building the biggest cannon in the world, and they’re pointing it right at Sony. And [Halo] can be the bullet in that cannon.” – Jason Jones, Bungie co-founder

An unlikely thing happened in 2001. Microsoft fearlessly released a video game console called the Xbox, mere months after SEGA’s Dreamcast failed and Sony’s über-popular Playstation 2 was claiming massive success. Despite years of experience in the world of PCs and Windows Operating Systems, executives at Microsoft were confident they could break into an industry dominated for years by Nintendo and Sony.

While the hardware itself boasted revolutionary features for a home gaming console at the time, the original Xbox was also called “Blunder of the Year” by Game Informer magazine in 2001, and countless media outlets criticized its massive controller and Microsoft’s inexperience in the console arena, prematurely dooming it to failure. Microsoft, however, is a shrewd business, and had two very powerful bullets in that proverbial cannon: A former Macintosh game developer called Bungie, and a little game called “Halo.”

Flash forward 10 years: The “Halo” franchise has sold over 42 million copies, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 is a resounding success, a staple of dorm rooms and living rooms alike. A new “Halo” trilogy has been announced featuring the venerable Master Chief, and Microsoft is releasing “Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary,” a painstakingly re-mastered HD version of the original Xbox classic shooter.

“Halo Anniversary” represents an important passing of the torch for the iconic franchise. Following Bungie’s departure to develop games for Activision, Microsoft assembled 343 Industries, a company whose only purpose is shepherding the Halo universe into the future.

College News had the unique opportunity to interview not only 343 Industries’ Franchise Director Frank O’Connor, but also Ed Fries, a former Microsoft VP who championed the original Xbox console and was instrumental in bringing Halo to the masses.

What was the first influential game you ever played?

My favorite game from the early days is called “M.U.L.E.” It’s a great multiplayer game that runs on some of the first home computers such as the Atari 800 and Commodore 64.

 What attracted you to Halo originally? What was the single strongest thing that convinced Microsoft to acquire Bungie and hedge their bets on a space marine shooter for the launch of the new Xbox gaming platform?

It wasn’t so much Halo that I was attracted to, but Bungie. I had played their previous games and was a fan. At the time I was trying to pull together a set of launch titles for the Xbox so when I got the opportunity to work with Bungie I jumped at it. Halo just happened to be the project they were working on at the time.

CN: A decade is undeniably an eternity in the games industry, but do you feel “Halo: Combat Evolved” needed an “anniversary” edition? Will gamers raised on “Gears of War” and “Call of Duty” be able to appreciate the experience “Halo: CE” offered?

 I’m not involved with it, but I like the idea of updating the original “Halo.” I look forward to playing through the game again. There seems to be more interest lately in looking back at the great games of the past and “Halo” has such a large fan base that I expect the game will do very well.

CN: What was your biggest surprise (or fondest memory) during your involvement with the “Halo” franchise?

Maybe not my fondest memory but my strongest memory of “Halo” comes from the press conference at the E3 show in LA when we first announced “Halo 2.” We had been practicing for the event all day in which we would be standing in front of more than 5,000 partners and press and announcing our new game lineup. “Halo 2” was the big finish for the event. Just before we let everyone in, we did a final run-through. When it was time for the “Halo” demo, Master Chief appeared on the big screen and then immediately froze. The technical guys scrambled to fix the problem while we let everyone into the arena. Then we got on stage and did the live presentation. When it came time for the “Halo 2” demonstration, everything went perfectly. What a relief!

CN: In your opinion, have any other shooters, past or present, managed to capture that same addictive essence of “Halo’s” multiplayer?

 Multiplayer was always an important part of the “Halo” series, going all the way back to the first version where you had to create your own LAN party if you wanted to play with friends, but for me what makes “Halo” special isn’t that. It’s really the tone of the game that sets it apart: the quiet moments between battles, the haunting soundtrack, the views of the Halo ring disappearing away and above you in the distance. It’s the struggle of fighting a hopeless battle against overwhelming odds. Kind of like we were doing trying to enter the console business against the giants of Sony and Nintendo. That’s what will always make it special for me.

On the other side of the timeline is 343 Industries, a company hand-assembled by Microsoft to resume control of all things “Halo” — whether it’s comics, novels, games, films, or industry events. Diehard fans of the series wouldn’t be out of place expressing their doubts. Picking up where Bungie left off is a monumental task, if only because Bungie established such a high benchmark for quality, fun, and replayability in all of their “Halo” titles.

From what we’ve seen of 343’s work remastering 2001’s “Halo,” there is plenty to be optimistic about. Just to be sure, we also had a chat with Frank O’Connor, the man now effectively in charge of guiding “Halo” into the future.

CN: What is the single biggest challenge you face in assuming control of the “Halo” franchise?

I think the single biggest challenge is yet to come – and that is living up to fan expectations of a game and a franchise that has been with us for 10 years. People have very specific likes and dislikes in the series and trying to create something new and fresh, while still respecting what it is that made the game great in the first place, is no easy challenge. The main thing we have in our favor in even attempting this is people and passion. Sure, we have the engine, the tools and the tech, but we also have a legion of developers, designers and artists who love the game and the universe and will pour their hearts and talent into making sure it’s right.

How will 343 make its own unique stamp on the “Halo” series after Bungie shepherding it for most of the last 10 years?

Innovation and evolution have been keystones of “Halo’s” growth over the years. We will double down on those aspects, even as we work hard to ensure this feels like a core part of the Halo franchise.

With the fast-rising popularity of “realistic” war shooters, why will people keep coming back to “Halo?”

I think you encapsulate the answer in your question. Forgetting for a moment that “Halo” is a very different game – an explorative sandbox FPS where you do a lot more than simply shoot the bad guys – it’s also set in a sci-fi universe with the scale, scope and variety that entails. You’re not stuck in the real world and there’s this real feeling that anything could happen and it often does.

Any favorite moments from your experience re-mastering “Halo: Combat Evolved?”

Honestly the best moment for me was playing through the game, ostensibly in test mode, and realizing that I’d forgotten I was supposed to be taking notes and looking for specific issues, and that I was just playing, lost in the fun. The game hasn’t dated and the core experience has aged beautifully.

“Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary” is out now, and Master Chief’s triumphant return happens Holiday 2012.

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