Frank O’Connor knows everything there is to know about “Halo 3,” even though the game isn’t coming out until 2007. It’s hard for him not to, since he already has a copy of the latest version of the game on his Xbox 360.
Frank O’Connor also knows that the guy he gets coffee from at Starbucks every morning is aware of this. The Starbucks guy knows that O’Connor works at Bungie, the company that makes “Halo.” “You can tell he’s just itching to ask things,” O’Connor told MTV News. But the Starbucks guy doesn’t.
Sometimes friends come over to O’Connor’s house and bring up questions about the mightiest brand of first-person shooters on home consoles. “What’s a ‘Halo?’ ” he says every time. “My wife always hits me when I say that.” He doesn’t tell her anything about the game either.
The people who want to know the details about the next big video game greatly outnumber the Frank O’Connors of the world. Many of these anxious gamers would — and do — exert extraordinary effort to extract precious details, but the O’Connors of gaming are paid to keep quiet. Or at least almost quiet. Secrets and teases: it’s a game about games played by spokespeople and developers at nearly every video game company.
“I know literally everything about all the things that people want to know about,” O’Connor said. “So I tell them almost literally nothing. That’s definitely part of my job, to keep that stuff secret and to sort of eke out the information we can.”
As content manager at Bungie, O’Connor is very much the company’s public face. Every Friday he posts a news update on the company’s site that often offers a tease about the coming game. It wouldn’t take much to tell a whole lot about a game. “If we mention an undersea Martian cavern, right, that actually has fiction impact. People say, ‘Oh my God, they must go to Mars.’ ” For a game like “Halo 3,” that would be big. Mars is just a hypothetical example, of course. Or is it?
Gamers aren’t the most patient lot, and some folks won’t just wait for each tease. Some people impersonate reporters. A representative from Nintendo, which is as tight-lipped as Bungie, said one fan recently pretended to be Game Informer reporter Billy Berghammer and contacted a spokesperson. It didn’t help that the spokesperson knew Berghammer quite well. The ruse failed.
“I’ve had a couple of people call and pretend to be reporters and were just kids,” O’Connor said. Some offer gifts or bribes. Some people just show up in the lobby. “Scary people who were escorted away by security,” he said.
If it’s not fans pecking away, it’s game journalists. A former games reporter himself, O’Connor can deal with being interrogated by them. “When the garbage man comes outside in the morning and makes all kinds of calamity in the street and wakes you up … you don’t even think about that. He’s the garbage man. He’s just doing his job. Video game journalists are doing their job. And they have a certain routine that they follow.”
O’Connor is a cheerful sort, one who is confident he can bat away just about any attempt to breach his wall of secrecy. At Bungie that talent is highly valued: The company has a strong record of keeping a tight lid on “Halo” details. Despite the fervor surrounding 2004′s “Halo 2,” for example, the developer was able to keep a big twist secret right up until release: that the player controls one of protagonist Master Chief’s alien enemies, the Arbiter, in many of the game’s sequences. It was a secret on the scale of a Shyamalan plot twist, one O’Connor said he never even considered for his weekly updates. “We had some other things that were secrets within secrets. There’s an aspect of the Arbiter’s character that is still secret to this day and will remain so for good reason.”
Many video game companies are good at keeping their games’ secrets. Nintendo kept its Wii controller out of sight despite a year of intense fan interest (see “Nintendo On Unique Wii Controller: ‘Playing Is Believing’ “ ). Rockstar Games, the maker of “Grand Theft Auto,” is so airtight that the company’s recent best-selling Xbox 360 “Table Tennis” game wasn’t even announced until 11 weeks prior to its release. “Rockstar is amazingly good at keeping things to themselves,” O’Connor said. “I think of them like Apple.” Fittingly, a company spokesperson declined to comment for this article.
Secrecy is paramount to keeping a project moving along with minimal public interference, but offering the occasional morsel is key to ensure hard-core gamers are building a buzz. As a result, one of O’Connor’s responsibilities is to master the art of the tease. Every week he drops in on members of the “Halo 3″ development team, making sure features are confirmed for the final version of the game and that he can offer a hint on them. He picks a few words that will hint at a secret and then watches message boards to see who interprets the clues right. But he’ll never confirm when — as so often happens — someone gets it right.
Not everyone likes the teases, so threats are common. Serious threats. “We get a lot of death threats in this job,” O’Connor said. ” ‘You guys suck. Why don’t you spend less time with these stupid updates and more time fixing this game? I hope you die. If I ever meet you, I will kill you.’ The first couple of times you see it you’re like, ‘Wow!’ The next few times you see it you’re like, ‘Whatever.’ ”
There’s no formal training at Bungie for keeping secrets. It’s just something an employee has to pick up on. That’s a strategy fraught with pitfalls, of course. O’Connor said there was a serious breach in the “Halo 3″ veil of secrecy just two weeks ago. “One of our guys was being interviewed by a very, very, very attractive woman and he blurted something out because he was confused by her attractiveness, apparently.” It wasn’t a little detail. “He blurted out one of the biggest ticket items in the entire game.” The reporter agreed to cut the secret from her report.
O’Connor hasn’t been culpable for a big breach yet. What made him good at keeping his mouth shut? “I don’t remember ever keeping secrets as a kid,” he said, although he does admit to having a good poker face.
At this point he’ll need to use it. He is sitting on the mother lode of information he’s just not going to release. “We’re in a really, really secretive period right now. We don’t want to give away any features. We don’t want to give away any plot. We don’t want to give away any locations. We don’t want to give away any weapons. All that stuff is pretty much final. The funny thing is as secretive as we are now, everything is sort of carved into stone.”
But he will keep playing this game with the fans. “The funny thing about this conversation is that if you ran the entire interview verbatim … it would be transcribed on Halo.Bungie.org and dissected for secrets,” he said. “They would go back and look at the Arbiter section of our conversation and say, ‘What was he talking about? Wait a minute, I know,’ and come up with sometimes cockamamie — and sometimes startlingly accurate — theories.”
Just don’t ask the Starbucks guy what’s going on. He has no idea.