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Making Halo 4: A Story About Triple-A

April 26, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

The video game industry in 2012 was marked by the rise of the individual video game creator. The small teams, the new ubiquitous, accessible platforms, development tools that put a paintbrush in the hand of anyone who is moved to create, and crowdfunding that put money in the pockets of anyone with a good idea and a knack for marketing. New kinds of video games are coming along, attracting new kinds of audiences. The long-talked-about "democratization of game development" sure seems to have finally arrived.

Halo 4 is the antithesis of all of that.

Whereas this new breed of game developer is zipping around on a motorbike or gallivanting about town on a penny-farthing, there are games like Halo 4 that are veritable tanks; tanks assembled by hundreds of people, tanks made with specialized, proprietary tools, made with headset-wearing men in mind, and created with millions and millions of dollars under a giant, monolithic corporate entity. The tank is heavy, has lots of moving parts, and gets to where it wants to go by brute force.

Halo 4 represents high-budget, high-production, totally unapologetic, proper "A-A-A" game development. Whether you love the Halo franchise for its expansive lore and emergent gameplay, or hate it for its sci-fi marines vs. aliens video game-ness, it's difficult not to be intrigued by Halo 4 developer 343 Industries: a group of true believers who didn't even really have a studio when development of the game began.

"I'll just play the first level, and see how it goes"

It's not totally unheard of for a studio to develop a game within, or even take over, a popular universe that it did not create. Treyarch did it with Call of Duty, People Can Fly did it with Gears of War, Ninja Theory did it with Devil May Cry, for instance. 

But Kirkland, Washington-based 343 Industries is a bit different, as it was founded for one sole purpose: to take over Halo after series creator Bungie left former parent Microsoft in 2007. The studio simply would not exist, if it weren't for Halo.

Josh Holmes (@JoshingtonState) is creative director on Halo 4 at 343, but he did have a life in game development before he arrived at Microsoft. He started as a game tester in 1995, working for another game industry giant, Electronic Arts. Holmes moved up the ranks to producer and designer, eventually working on sports games.

"One of the ideas there that took flight was the original NBA Street, which I was lead designer on," recalls Holmes. "We went back into incubation and worked on a couple of concepts. Then I was pulled into kind of a brainstorm think-tank about how to save a dying project that was in trouble. It was a wrestling game at the time, where they lost the WCW license. That rapidly became a game, because I made a mistake with my creative partner of brainstorming the concept of 'urban culture meets fighting and wrestling.' 

"It became Def Jam Vendetta. The marketing team was like, 'That's a brilliant idea!' and we were like, 'No, that's a terrible idea! Don't make that game!' But we had a lot of fun." Holmes actually ended up working on a sequel to Def Jam before leaving in 2004 to co-found Revolution Interactive, which would be purchased by Disney a year later under the studio's final name, Propaganda Games. Shuttered a couple years after Holmes left, it was known best for 2008's Turok reboot and a Pirates of the Caribbean game that never saw the light of day.

He eventually found his way to Microsoft in 2009, when he joined the company's internal Halo team, which at 20 people was relatively small. Holmes' interest in the Halo franchise had already been simmering for years, even during the Def Jam days at EA.

"As a designer, I've always been interested in complex systems interacting with one another, and the emergent gameplay that can come from those interactions," he explains. "I've been a long-time fan of shooters. I grew up playing games mostly on personal computers -- Commodore 64 and the Amiga. I never wanted to be a 'PC guy,' because I was this die-hard Amiga fan. Then I remember seeing Doom for the first time on a friend's computer. I went out and bought a PC the next week [laughs]. I converted immediately. I spent a lot of time doing PC gaming with shooters."

When Halo: Combat Evolved came out for Xbox in 2001, his first encounter was the same as with many who experienced the game for the first time. There was a purity in his early experiences with Halo. Like most everyone else, he experienced it as a player, with no real expectations.

"Halo was that first title that really convinced me that shooters could work on a console," Holmes says. "I remember going and buying Halo, buying an Xbox, and bringing it back to EA where I was working crazy crunch overtime. I plugged it in and thought, 'I'll just play the first level and see how it goes.'

"I ended up staying up all night and finishing the game, because I was just so completely enthralled by the universe, and the sandbox systems that were at work. I was enamored with this idea that you could have a shooter with systems of a sandbox nature working together, where different solutions were possible, and emergent gameplay would come out of that. That completely captivated me.

"I finished the game, and I remember finishing it at nine in the morning or something, and I hadn't slept, and I just started it all over again [laughs], because I wanted to go and have that ride a second time. So ever since I had that experience, it really changed in my mind what a shooter could be, and in a lot of ways, what an immersive game experience could be.

"It influenced a lot of my thoughts as a designer."

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Ryan Samms
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This is an ironic article with the creative designer of halo 4 talking about an immersive game experience.

Nick Harris
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I still don't understand why 343 wrecked the physics of the Mongoose and Warthog.

Halo 4 even messed with the control scheme sufficiently for me to hate it.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Great read.

Even if Halo might stand for a lot the Indie-scene despises, I must admit the people behind this Leviathan have my utmost respect. The passion to perfect the Formula and to do their universe justice is more than I can say about the current montearization sell-out of a lot of small and middlesized mobile studios.

From the formentioned "Studio switches" (DMC, Gear of war, COD) is imo Halo 4 the one which delivered the best overall experience (Gears delivered the worst) and I seriously hope that next Years Arkham "switch" (from rocksteady to WB Games) will be at least on par with 343i version of the Halo-universe

colin wool
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Sorry, but Halo 4 doesn't belong in the series. It truly is a rip off of COD. It's simply not a fun MP experience and it saddens me that the best 343i could do was copy another game instead of creating a game that actually feels like Halo instead of just saying it does.

Check out to see the rapid decline.

Randomness is what creates frustration and not having in-game ranks takes away a reward that COD players and old Halo players have always enjoyed. 343i grossly exaggerates the negative effects of ranks in terms of boosting but everyone knows the MM experience was infinitely better in Halo 3 than Halo 4. Randomness is creates by AA's, ordinances, sprint, no weapons on map, terrible maps, and instant respawn. None of these things belong in Halo, they ruin the experience. You CANNOT have sprint and then have slow kill times. It means stupid plays like running into the middle of the map are not punished because you can just run away.

In the end, 343i is out of touch. Look at the current population, it's a joke. The game will be a graveyard in a few months. A halo game has never had even remotely close to the sharp MP drop off that Halo 4 has had. We just want to play an actual Halo game, please, please don't put sprint, AA's, and ordinances back in.

Paulo Henrique Godinho da Silva
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That's a gamer view, as developer the game is a huge success, either in sales and online population. The game is based multiplayer on Azure cloud, so the less players, the less the cost to maintain it will be.

Glen M
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What if I love Halo for its' sci-fi marines vs. aliens video game-ness but not sure I see the emergent gameplay :)

Good article devs are devs AAA or indie, Coexist <-- Somebody do this with a mix of indie and AAA game characters please...

Justin Richardson
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Whenever new leadership takes over a company or product, a lot of people are worried. The workers might be wary of what kind of new boss they get, the fans might worry about what kind of new product they will receive and this is something that the new power in control needs to be self aware of. Ultimately you only go scrapping and overhauling in large quantities when the company or product you are taking over is failing and in the same vein you don;t scoop water out of a sinking ship. However Halo was no sinking ship. So why so much change? If you made a list of Halo "features" in some spredsheet program you would realize most of the checkmarks are in Reach and Halo 4, because those two games have added the most "stuff" As Bungie's swan song Halo Reach had every right to try new things and be the most different Halo. As 343's first full Halo game (Lets not count CEA really) lets realize that they probably needed to be a bit more moderate when changing the formula that has worked so well for so many years. You know possibly test the water first. The "more traditional Halo" that they mentioned they scrapped was probably the thing they should have stuck with while increasing features and the features powers they had within Halo. Which if you notice Halo 4 has less technical features than Reach and Halo 3. For example things that come right to mind are Halo 4 scrapped campaign scoring, skull effects, campaign timing for speedrunners, campaign theater, and a visible ranking system which every Halo with XBL has had.

As another person already mentioned if you look at the games MP population you notice the sharp decline of players. Some decline is expected but you now have the game peaking at 30K. Many times if you are on at night its very very low. Last night while I was playing it hit 6K. This effects my experience through playlist search times and quality of the matchup I receive. As a knowledgeable semi-skilled Halo player the chance of me and my friends getting a quality game is very very low. We usually are just trying to see at that point how much we can beat the enemy team by, not IF we can. This leads to some very non-challenging games without a true ranking system. Alright stealth brag over. The reason is because this game has introduced elements of CoD, and this cannot be denied. Instant Respawn, More one-shot overpowered weapons to reduce the importance of Halo's Shield/Health player dynamic, Personal and Global Ordnance to introduce more randomness and take the focus off map control as traditional Halos have always rewarded map control. These things are inherent beauty spots of the game that have been removed to pander to the masses to get CoD sales. That may have worked looking at the sales figures and I will never mention Halo 4 was a failure as a product, not even as a game. It was a good game, just not a good Halo!

Now lets talk about change. Change is inevitable, in life there are factors that you cannot control. Death, the rising taxes, your gut getting larger with every night gaming session you know should be spent on the elliptical. However the gaming world is different, its a magical world where programmers can control every little knob and lever of the world we play in. You technically could release Halo 2 and just cross out the title and put Halo 3 and re-release it. While Madden adds new features, the core game is still football a game that hasn't changed in forever besides a small number of rule changes. So every year a new one releases and every year players buy the game for the new player changes, the graphical enhancements, and possibly a new feature or two. Or you have CoD, a game that's stayed sort of true to its core gameplay besides the CoD4 to MW shift, and even Blops tries to alleviate that gap. Halo has done nothing to alleviate the changes it makes, they try and shoehorn a classic mode in Reach and Halo 4 and always fall sort of flat. Mainly because the core is so warped and changed you cant set options to make it feel like the past Halo's.

They constantly talk about how to make Halo more accessible to players and new players. This ends up catering to the masses of casual players who will play Halo for awhile. They will play through the campaign maybe once or twice, play through it with friends maybe once or twice, and maybe play through it a year or two later before the next game comes out so they can remember more about the game. They will step into MP for an average of 24.5 games* (*this number is completely made up) and then they will stop after winning 20% of their games and never care to notice the intricacies of everything they've just played. Then they will say oh yea "that game was fun". Meanwhile you have hardcore players playing a game that wasnt designed with their needs in mind, and these players now probably make up a much higher percentage of the people who are still on your game night after night. The CoD players left the week after Halo 4 was released when Blops II came out, you can even see the sharp decline of players right after Blops release on the Halo population charts. You can see the Christmas spike that lasted a week and you can see other small bumps that are mostly weekend and DLC bumps, but besides these bumps its been a game of pure decline.

Another note now that players can choose loadouts with perks, AA's, and everything that is locked behind unlocks. You actually have to grind to level up and unlock gameplay altering abilities. This means a kid at SR-130 the highest experience ranking has every ability unlocked in multiple loadouts. You can switch loadouts throughout a game. So this person essentially has more things available to him in game than a player who just started does. Gameplay altering abilities should never be in Halo. The only thing keeping a player from beating another player is his knowledge and skill. If a kid comes home and gets to play eight hours of Halo 4 all week and I have to be at work come home make dinner and put the kids in bed and then I finally get two hours to sit down at night and play I shouldn't be penalized before I even pick up that controller. Unlocking of items needs to be purely aesthetic.

Also maps, because of the fact players can have two mobile AA's at once. Sprint is now default and then you can have say jetpack, you now have much more mobility and abilities all at once. This is too much. It makes larger maps feel smaller so Halo now has to have all these large maps, and what small maps are there Haven and Abandon? Then they released the first DLC which was once again all large maps!? Really!? Give us some arena maps like Halo has always had! Halo has always been about sort of knowing what your enemy can do and predicting and analysing what hes going to do based on that essential assumption. You no longer can do that though because there are so many abilities and variables players can have and you never know if they just got some random ordnance drop that gave them a sniper that can one shot even if they hit your body? Really!?, you are more playing rock paper scissors guessing what he has against what you chose at spawn. Nobody wants their gameplay that close to a gamble.

So lets stop catering to the casuals who leave because you've removed all depth and skill gap so they could play, let people learn the game figure out what works what doesnt let them evolve their skill and feel great about it, let them rank up to 50 and let them say "I am now good at Halo!" and feel proud of their accomplishment. Lets create a game with competitive players in mind. Lets release a game with a ton of smaller maps and maybe 2-3 large maps. Then your first DLC can be 2 small and 1 more large and continue in that fashion. Lets focus less on having the players fix your map problem by using Forge World and subsequently getting less than par maps into MM that effects everyone's experience when they play. Lets bring back campaign theater and scoring for communities like High Speed Halo. Lets get this game back into MLG so people can watch tournaments and play Halo professionally again. Lets have a HaloTV feature where when we dont want to play we can stop in and watch preloaded files of good games recently played, lets be able to chat about it too, lets be able to stream to JTV or Youtube from within the game. Let us remember that you can keep a game true to its roots and have great sales like Madden. Halo 2014, The next great Halo, HALO game, not CoD. Halo.

Also Hiring that Juices would be a great idea.

Andrew Wallace
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Is it just me or has the overall quality of comments on Gamasutra seriously degraded recently? Any time there's an article about a AAA game three fourths of the responses are "TOO BAD THIS GAME SUXX LOL".

Erin OConnor
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The good:
The site is starting to gain popularity.
Other sites like penny arcade have a pretty substantial following and many articles get linked.

The bad:
And then you have the internet fuckwad theory:

Camilo R
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Must be due to the new consoles coming out, that always brings out a certain crowd.

Articles like this are great for the community, these people don't even have to do this but they did it anyways, and you get people come here just to bash the game and not even address the article itself. They should at least abstain from posting, we have enough places on the internet where you can go and criticize games you don't like. Oh well.

Kyle Jansen
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I've started to see Gamasutra linked more often by the gamer-oriented press (eg. Kotaku). So they come here, and sign up to post comments, acting like it's a site for game *players* and not game *creators*.

I'm not sure whether this is a good or bad thing. On the one hand, it's great that Gamasutra is getting more popular and the articles are being more widely-seen. On the other, the comments on this site were, and probably still are, the best on the whole web - keeping the quality comments visible with this increase in low-quality comments will take some effort.

Ryan Watterson
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To become inspired by your analogy and offer another that I think fits: when the lake was barren, studios came and built big iron castles over time. Now the lake is filling with water and people in even the most rickety homemade boats float better than iron castles ever will. THQ couldn't float. Square Enix can't float. LucasArts couldn't float. And they've all invested heavily into more iron: more proprietary tools, more expensive production methods. They want to make the castles bigger and heavier. It amazes me.