Frank O'Connor on the Future of Competitive Halo

Franchise development director at 343 Industries discusses outlook and focus on the competitive Halo community, the continuation of the Halo Global Championships, and the potential for spectator mode in the next Halo title.

Halo 5: Guardians

This weekend at PAX was 343 Industries' Halo 4 Global Championships. This was the first time 343 had put on an event at this scale, and the largest developer-funded competitive tournament the decorated Halo series has ever seen. More than $500,000 was given away over the course of the championships, and Seattle’s Benayora Hall was packed with spectators for the finals.

GameSpot spoke with Frank O'Connor, Franchise Development Director for the Halo series at 343 Industries, about the future of competitive Halo. Discussion includes 343's outlook and focus on the competitive Halo community, the continuation of the Halo Global Championships, and the potential for spectator mode in the next Halo title.

This is the first time you've hosted a Championship event. Why do this now…what is your intention?

From a very high level, it's just a good way to continue to sustain the game in the first half of its lifespan. As you well know, we've always had a competitive community, and a fairly gregarious and active one. I think one of the issues about that is, it tends to be Team Slayer, Pros only. We wanted to really provide the broader player base with a way to enter that had some meaning. And at the same time, maybe get them interested in the higher-end competitive scene. The basic premise being that anybody can enter, and that anybody has a shot at winning something. And of course they're going to watch the better players and the pros rise to the top here. I think the biggest difference is that this one is so broad-based, it concentrates more on individual play rather than team play. It's a significant hurdle for people to enter something as mainstream as this; getting a good team together [is] probably the single-hardest aspect.

Many in the competitive community were a bit put off by this tournament being Free For All, considering there's a 9 to 10 year history of 4v4 competitive play. Why not add 4v4 to the tournament? Why was the decision made to strictly do FFA and 1v1?

This isn't going to be our only tournament. I think people tend to think of tournaments as annual beats where you get one big event, and certainly the next thing we're going to do is obviously looking at teams. This was a way to get people who are out for the summer break, or maybe not even paying attention to this kind of thing, an access point to get them interested so that when we do stuff later on, maybe even later on this year, then we can have them be interested in an idea of competitive play period. As you know, the competitive community, while it's big as an idea, a concept, and a population, on a per-game basis, pro teams and good teams represent a fairly small fraction of the overall user base. We're trying to give a method of entry, an on-ramp on being interested in the competitive community to all of our players so that no one is being left out of this. From what we've seen in terms of feedback, is that even team players are really interested to see how some of their better players do individually in this kind of format. It throws people's habits and expectations a little bit.

"We're trying to make this more accessible, more widely available to everybody to enter. FFA was the first gametype you look at."

We're trying to make this more accessible, more widely available to everybody to enter. FFA was the first gametype you look at; the challenge with teams is that you have to get three extra players, which I think is no small feat. FFA allows anyone to just jump in. Everyone here is well aware that team play is where the really high-end competitive play is going to happen, and this is a single tournament, and you can think about the future as a place to see more traditional team-based modes. With this, we'll have introduced many players who don't really care about the competitive scene, and then they'll have way more interest next time around in doing something more strategic.

In the last two years we've seen developers Riot and Blizzard launch their own season-based events, the League Championship Series and World Championship Series, and Valve has an International event for Dota 2. How do you see this type of tournament growing? Where do you want to position yourselves on this event for the future?

We don't have any specific announcements for the next year or what that looks like, but we're basically internally building plans for how to keep this competitive activity going. I wish we could talk more, but we have partners and plans being built. I think also in the wake of some of the stuff we're adding with the Champions bundle, and you think about the new mode Ricochet, it's actually something we'd like to get teams interested in as well. We'll be looking at how we use the new content, how do we use a newly sort-of engaged competitive audience, and what's the right thing to do for them. We may not even have to wait till next year. This is a game we intend to sustain and promote for the foreseeable future.

Do 343 have a preliminary idea of where they want to take this, for example paying players salaries and holding control, or letting the community dictate what will happen?

I think it's always, especially when you're talking about emergent competitive activity, it's always better to let the community take some lead in defining what game modes that they're interested in, and defining what kind of tournament framework works best for them. This one is interesting in that it's a way to get people who ordinarily don't pay much attention to the scene, to actually get them paying attention, and that it's an enjoyable thing to watch. Just get them into watching these streams and getting into it as a sport, and then hopefully sweep some of those people up as we do more and more tournament engagement in the future.

Virgin Gaming was announced to be the partner to run this year's Championship. Major League Gaming began with Halo, and was synonymous with the Halo community for a very long time. Some are surprised that MLG was not chosen to be running the event. Could you explain why MLG was not involved in this, and why Virgin Gaming was chosen?

We as Halo don't have an exclusive arrangement with Virgin; this is the tournament that we're running right now. The platform Xbox has a relationship with Virgin, and so obviously it made sense for us to partner with those guys since they were building tech and structure around Xbox. As for MLG, MLG always used Halo as the game they chose, so [we] let them use it free of charge and they build tournaments around it. I think as they've grown, they've become obviously a much more successful pro-oriented league. I'd love to work with MLG again in the future, and there's nothing actually preventing that. It's more about what they're interested in, what they want to get out of it. We worked with them for the launch of Halo 4 and it was really fun. We'd be happy to work with them again in the future.

Why did you decide in the end to go with Virgin as opposed to running it all yourself?

The honest answer is that Virgin scales better than we do and they know what they're doing. Whereas we know the game inside out, and we know the basics of tournament structure, but we have a lot of other things on our plate including a next-gen game. So working with a partner who can help share the burden of that work and provide us expertise that we don't necessarily have--which goes both ways--always makes sense.

One of the in-game features that's pushed eSports and competitive gaming the most over the years has been Spectator Mode. This is a feature that's absent from Halo, and has been requested by the community quite often. Why hasn't this been implemented?

We take that aspect of the game tech very seriously. The honest answer is that when you're building a game, you have finite resources, finite people; finite time more importantly. Sometimes something's gotta give. Spectator mode--a true spectator mode--is something that we took very seriously in development. Work continues to go ahead on several aspects of the game in terms of competitive play, but we just didn't have the time or resources to do everything that we wanted to do. Now that said, we're a fully formed team now. We understand our capabilities and scale of our operation a lot better than we did when we first formed to take over the Halo franchise. Competitive play, spectator mode, any kind of video-based or tournament-based activity is something we're taking very seriously for the future. Being careful not to promise anything, you can take it for granted that something we'd have loved to put in last time, should be applied to what we want to do for the next game in the Halo series.

The Halo engine is built on years and years and years of legacy stuff, and it's frankly not all that easy to make significant changes to it. We've done it in the past, but it's a tremendous amount of work, and in some ways the effort and invention that we want to apply to that type of code and features, is probably better spent forward-facing. It's not to say it will never happen, but bluntly speaking we should be spending our resources for the future and not for the past. I wish it was in there.

Something like spectator mode, that just wasn't feasible to do with current technology, what types of features, focused on competitive and eSports, have you been thinking for the next Halo?

I'm not in a position to talk about future features outside of a purely holistic perspective, and it's something we take very seriously. We're building both our staff and our experience and knowledge in that realm, and you should expect our support for the competitive community and the competitive scene will improve for the future.

The Halo franchise has such a rich competitive history throughout the years at Bungie up until now. eSports and competitive gaming has grown so much in just the last few years. How does 343 view this industry in its current state, especially with a game like Halo?

I think it's a combination of both ends of the spectrum. I think we want to make the multiplayer and the competitive game more accessible to people. At the same time, we want to take the core community much more seriously. Halo is lucky in a way that those things don't necessarily conflict with each other. We're able to create a vision and a version of the game on the far-end of the skill spectrum for pro players that works beautifully. If you watch it in a tournament when it's being properly narrated, it's a very elegant and challenging experience.

"There's a lot of first person shooters where it's like 'bang, you're dead' and then there's no exciting-looking engagement. I think that can be very difficult for players at the lower-end of the skill range in those games."

There's a lot of first person shooters where it's like 'bang, you're dead' and then there's no exciting-looking engagement. I think that can be very difficult for players at the lower-end of the skill range in those games. Halo on the other hand, I think anybody can watch an engagement by high-end players, and understand what the skill they're observing is, and see fairly exciting tense gameplay. I like watching competitive Halo more than a lot of other games.

To be honest, I watch something like StarCraft, and I can tell something awesome is happening, but I can't necessarily understand at a glance what's happening, and I think Halo is a little bit more like a fighting game in that regard. It's very watchable. We'll be thinking about that in the future too. We'll definitely always want to support the games' tradition of gameplay systems and playlists from normal to high-skilled players.

Beyond the gameplay itself, does 343 and Microsoft see the eSports industry with more importance than it used to?

I think we as a studio [have] a responsibility to sustain the game and keep its heart beating very seriously, and that's going to continue all the way up until the launch of our next game and beyond that. The 360 is going to be around for a long time and we want to make sure we're going to be supporting it properly.


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