Who "owns" the narrative in a videogame? The writers and designers who orchestrate the drama, cast the characters, sketch out the trajectory, or the players who live and relive those things during the months to come, changing the pace, pulling against the script's efforts at crisis and catharsis?
The question has been bandied around by pseudo-intellectuals for years, but is all the more pressing now that established franchises are translating themselves into perpetual online services, grounding themselves in the same digital environment as fan-fiction sites and discussion boards - points of origin for such homebrew drama as Mass Effect 3's unofficial Indoctrination Ending and the great Skyrim bug jar conspiracy. Halo 4's Spartan Ops component is one such pioneering project, attempting to deliver a free 12-hour Halo campaign in the course of 10 weeks and 50 story-driven co-op missions.
Bungie veteran and 343 founder Frank O'Connor is the man with the last say on Halo's on-going odyssey; as franchise director, he's already laid out the broad strokes of the new Reclaimer trilogy. But O'Connor is also a man who understands the importance of taking direction from fans, even when it flies in the face of authorial intention. I sat down with him at OXM's recent Halo 4 community play session to discuss the implications of Spartan Ops, the rigours of episodic game development, free-to-play storytelling and what to do when your audience hates the ending.
How far ahead have you planned with Spartan Ops? What's already locked down and what's still to build?
We're still working on this wave of Spartan Ops content - the CG series that Spartan Ops revolves around is still in production, and that's just the way it's scheduled. It's just like a TV series where you actually start airing the first episode whilst the rest of the season is still in production.
The reality is it'll be almost finished when the first episode airs, and its mostly sort of tuning and polishing. But it's a really weird schedule for us because we're used to doing things a certain way, and we're used to the game taking you know, three years or whatever it takes to make the game, and then closing it out. This feels more like a TV model, more like a sustained model, and so we're still working on it.
Have you found the process more relaxing than the classic industry "crunch", where nobody gets any sleep for the last three months?
No, I think we've managed crunch pretty well this time - you do it in stages, you do it in phases. The best thing you can do for crunch so you don't end up with some appalling story about your awful working conditions online, is you just treat people with respect, and you manage them appropriately, and you manage their schedules with respect.
We have a bunch of really good producers - I don't think producers get enough credit for how much value they add to the project, and how much influence they have over people's quality of life. We have excellent producers. They not only make the game ship on time, but they can make the game much, much better - because when you have happy, excited, enthusiastic staff who are not being ground into a pulp by the crunch, you have a better game, and our producers have managed that process beautifully.
That's not to say there's not crunch, and we've had people when emergencies pop up working eighteen hour shifts to solve some problem, but that's not typical and while everyone works late, for most of the last half of the last year of the project it hasn't been ridiculous by any stretch of the imagination. It's been - easy is completely the wrong word, but it's been one of the smoothest crunches I've seen. If it was peanut butter it'd be smooth rather than crunchy.