If you were an avid reader of video game journalism in the 90s and early 2000s, you probably came across some articles written by Frank O'Connor (@franklez). The former Official Xbox Magazine editor was one of the more prolific writers about games during an era that was largely defined by the "hardcore gamer."
He left the world of game journalism and joined Bungie in 2003. He lives and breathes Halo; he doesn't appear as a man obsessed, but his actions say he might be, just a bit. When the franchise went to 343, his loyalty was not with the talented creators of Halo at Bungie, but with Halo itself. Now he's franchise development director of the entire franchise. Speaking to O'Connor, there's a sincerity in his voice about his commitment to this fictional universe.
"I came into Bungie during the beginning of Halo 2, during a time when they were really resetting what Halo 2 was going to be. So I got to see the dark days and the good days, and the culture that they built up over the years.
"But let me be clear -- I came to Bungie because I loved Halo," he says. "So when we spun out, I knew the next thing was going to be incredible. My passion has been for the characters and the scenarios that we'd been creating all those years. That was ultimately where my loyalty lied -- and I think 'loyalty' is a weird word to use in your career. It's a strong aspect of how you should behave, but I don't become emotionally attached to a corporation, for example.
"I just felt like we were on the verge of turning it into something really special; mostly through the work that other people at Bungie had done, but that was the path I wanted to follow."
O'Connor was present during the entirety of the Bungie-343 handover. During the transition, he knew that Halo would soon have another home. He was already talking to people like Kiki Wolfkill, who would be executive producer on Halo 4 at 343, and Bonnie Ross, 343's general manager about the franchise's life beyond Bungie.
Ross, Wolfkill, and the small 343 team at Microsoft were already asking O'Connor, the Halo guru, questions about how they should take care of the franchise. "It wasn't the same as farming out your property to a stranger," says O'Connor. "[Bungie] knew where it was going, and they knew we wanted to do our own thing. Whether or not  would do the right thing or not, Bungie didn't know. But knew that was our intention. We cared about it."
"Look around you," says Kiki Wolfkill (@k_wolfkill), explaining the challenge the core team was taking on. "You don't have a team, at all. You don't have a triple-A studio. You have 12 people. You have 13 computers, and no office space."
By now, Wolfkill can probably be considered a Microsoft video game stalwart. She joined Microsoft Game Studios in 1998, serving as art director. After about 10 years, and shipping a couple dozen games, she embarked on the 343 venture.
"On top of having no studio, we had to solve that problem in tandem with dealing with the other challenge," she adds. "It just didn't look possible on paper."
That "other challenge" is the most salient one: making another entry in the Halo franchise that would live up to expectations that first took root more than a decade ago.
The way Halo 4 was made was unnatural, says Wolfkill. 343 started at around a dozen people, ballooning to about 200. With contractors, the number of people who put their hands on the game amounted to 350. That growth, and all of the problems that came with it, took place while developing the game.
"There were a lot of mistakes we made along the way in which we knew weren't necessarily the right way to do things," says Wolfkill of the steep learning curve. "But given what we had to deliver and our timeframe, we accepted that these are necessary mistakes, and we acknowledged and cataloged them.
"We started off with a number of people who had a ton of industry experience, and thought, 'We're going to do everything right! We've seen all these mistakes in the past, we'll avoid those, because we're smarter and we have the experience!' The reality is, circumstance forces you down a path, and your ambitions collide, and there will always be catch-up that you're doing. That's where most mistakes are made.
"There were production realities that made us build things inefficiently," she continues. "I think there was also the learning curve of understanding how to work together."
There was inefficient prototyping -- the team didn't clearly define and communicate the parameters of successful prototypes early enough in development, which slowed the process. The team also started to realize that Halo 4's narrative, rooted in volumes of sci-fi lore, was at times too inside baseball, and wasn't self-contained enough. It was an accessibility issue that needed to be addressed.
Sub-teams would get too close to a singular component of a game, such as a new enemy design, and not think of the design in the larger context of the game’s mechanics, lore and narrative, leading to inefficiencies in the overall development process.
343 also struggled with balancing familiarity with reinvention, as the studio wanted to please a large fanbase, but at the same time bring something new to the series. While the game received high scores, some critics pointed out a feeling of sameness.
Speaking to Holmes, O'Connor, and Wolfkill, there's a common theme, or tone in their voices, that recurred over and over again. For all the opportunity and potential they saw in this project, there was some mind-numbing dread of screwing up. Not just screwing up the game, but screwing up your team, your studio, your career, the franchise itself.
Wolfkill laughed, correcting me, saying it wasn't exactly "mind-numbing dread," but merely "mind-numbing fear." Luckily for 343, the studio happened to be working on one of the most recognizable brands in video games, and was backed by the substantial resources of Microsoft.