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'Halo 4' interview: 343 Industries on building a new trilogy

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Fan-favourite map Valhalla is reborn as Ragnarok for Halo 4

© Microsoft Games

After years in the making, the start of a second Halo trilogy is almost upon us. And with it comes a new developer built for the task, 343 Industries. Franchise development director Frank O'Connor talks about how 343 approached starting another trilogy, the new enemy threat and the co-operative Spartan Ops mode.

> Read our hands-on preview with Halo 4's campaign

Way back when you were first handed the project and you knew you were going to make Halo 4 and this new trilogy, what did you like about the first Halo games, what did you want to build upon and what did you want to change?
"Some of it's, you know, 'How do I make it better?' and so on, but... the thing I loved about the original Halo was [that] if you have played the first Halo game, you'll see we have kind of copied the first Pillar of Autumn, spiritually at least. It's definitely a different feel.

"Where Halo really opened up to me - where I realised Halo was going to be really special - was when you first crashed that bumble bee escape pod on the surface of the Halo and you spill out, everyone's dead and there's weapons laying around. But you come out of the escape pod and you look up at the sky and there's just this, well for me at the time, was [a feeling of], 'Man, I really wanna explore this place, this is amazing'.

"It wasn't so much about what kind of combat it was going to have, it was about, 'This game's going to give me the tools for me to deal with these technical problems, but I'm getting to explore this amazing sci-fi universe in a very literal and direct way'.

Fan-favourite map Valhalla is reborn as Ragnarok for Halo 4

© Microsoft Games



"We wanted to capture that feeling from the first game and I think as the series progressed, it actually got better and better in a lot of ways and tighter and tighter - but I think some of the flexibility that you had to explore was sometimes overwhelmed by the way the encounters played out. Don't get me wrong - in Halo 4, many is the time you're going to look at the horizon and think, 'I wanna explore that', and you've got other problems to deal with before you can do that.

"But that was the feeling we wanted to recapture of [a] very high level, was the feeling of freshness and wonder that you had the first time you played Halo. That's a fairly hard challenge and you know people are quite cynical and quite used to Halo at this point, but I think we did a pretty good job of rewarding people for exploring and occasionally giving them moments where they can sort of step back and smell the roses.

"But then the other big challenge was [that] there hasn't been a new enemy class effectively since the first game. When we added discreet components, we added the Buggers and we added the Brutes, but we never added a completely new way to fight, and so coming up with the Prometheans, they obviously existed in the fiction already, but coming up with the gamey part of that.

"How did they fight, and how do they behave and what did they add to the sandbox was a huge challenge, and it was one of the longest, most difficult parts of the development process; creating, engineering, designing and building a really compelling new set of bad guys for you to fight and the stuff that they fight with - that of course you get to use in both single and multiplayer - so a lot of interconnected challenges."

Fan-favourite map Valhalla is reborn as Ragnarok for Halo 4

© Microsoft Games



How did you approach enemy intelligence? Because obviously Halo is known for these different enemies and you've got these whole new different sort of threat.
"There's a lot of similarities, but I think the biggest philosophical difference is that the Covenant - if you look at it from 10,000 feet - are very tactical and very aggressive, they will attack you. They do clever things and they'll flank you, and their levels of aggression change depending on the scenario, but we wanted to make this villain, the Prometheans, feel smarter and feel clever and feel more sophisticated even than you as a player.

"You [are] going into this with some sensibility and a going on of how the games universe works, but we wanted to make them feel clever and... like they could outsmart and overwhelm you. So they're very strategic and in some ways they're quite defensive; if you go to the level you're playing, there's some spots where you can go and stand and watch them fighting the Covenant. Because you're watching them do that in third person mode, you can see how careful and diligent the various components that Promethean battles are.

"So you'll, for example, see a Knight open his carapus and spawn a Watcher, and the Watcher will fly up and basically summons our crawlers to fight these Elites, and the Crawlers will try and overwhelm the Elites, and if the Elites have some success the Watchers will start shielding the Crawlers. While the Watchers are shielding the Crawlers and the Elites are being distracted by that, the Knights are flanking them."

Fan-favourite map Valhalla is reborn as Ragnarok for Halo 4

© Microsoft Games



"So you can actually watch the combat play out in a completely unscripted, organic and emergent way and constantly be surprised by it. Of course, sometimes that is happening to you, you can't always sit back and observe and it's only really on [the third mission] where you get that opportunity to watch how they fight, otherwise you're fighting them and this whole thing changes.

"When I play it, I'm never quite sure how I should be approaching these encounters. Should I take out the Watchers first so they're not continuously shielding the Crawlers? Or should I try and get the Crawlers first because they're harrowing me while I'm trying to concentrate on taking out some target?

"So they just feel smart and they feel sophisticated, rather than sort of ruthlessly aggressive all the time... and of course they team up against you - the Covenant and the Prometheans will actually finally team up against you - and that creates another complicated matrix of behaviours and systems.

"Once you get the muscle memory down, these encounters become second nature, but Halo doesn't…it's not one of those games that tries to fight you, or you get stuck in a corridor with a thousand bad guys coming at you. It wants you to succeed, but it wants you to be clever about how you do it.

"That's the pacing and that's how the AI kind of lures you in a combat situation that you will eventually excel on, but you should be challenged first instance."

Fan-favourite map Valhalla is reborn as Ragnarok for Halo 4

© Microsoft Games



When I played and came up against the Prometheans, I was hiding behind a rock because I didn't know how to approach them. I suppose that's the point, you want to surprise players again.
"You know the scenario you just described, that's Halo muscle memory. 'My shields are down, I'm gonna hide behind a rock until they regenerate'. But a bunch of crawlers can see you go behind a rock, will crawl up and over and down the rock to get you, so it definitely changes the way that you think about the 3D space.

"You now have to think about vertical planes as well as horizontal planes in terms of where they can attack you from, because obviously Watchers can fly but because Crawlers can literally run on the ceiling. You're gonna be in levels later on where you think you're safe, and suddenly Crawlers come from a platform above you and they will come running down and under and crawl across the ceiling to get you.

"Fundamentally they're not stupid and they know that you're a threat - you get that feeling. But in that [third] level I love it, [as] I'll use the Elites fighting the Prometheans as a chance to do some assassinations - because it's one of the rare times where they're going to be distracted enough to let you do that.

"But if they catch sight of the Chief, they hate you and they will illogically abandon their fight with the Prometheans at that point just to get you, because they sort of have this vengeance mentality that this is the villain of the AI. It feels personal."

Fan-favourite map Valhalla is reborn as Ragnarok for Halo 4

© Microsoft Games



Between the combat and the elements of the story, was it challenging to find a balance to make it feel familiar and then make it new again?
"Of course it's challenging and the practical execution of that is the most challenging part, but for the mind state of the development team - no - because they know, they all approached it the same way.

"Everyone came to work on Halo because they loved Halo and they loved the core of what makes that game good, but they came from different studios. We have people from Metal Gear Solid, people from Call of Duty, people from all over the industry who have their own ideas and their own philosophies and, more importantly, perspective.

"Sometimes change and evolution is the hardest thing to do, because you're so used to certain sets of principles that it's sometimes hard to shake off that layer of reflex, but bringing a new team together with all these new ideas - and not just new ideas, [but] new skills and new approaches - was actually one of the coolest things about this development process.

"Because people were approaching things from directions we never considered - because we just got used to doing things in a certain way - that was one of the coolest parts of the development process."

Fan-favourite map Valhalla is reborn as Ragnarok for Halo 4

© Microsoft Games



There's always pressure when you're releasing a game, this in particular because it's a new trilogy to an existing one. How does it compare to other games people have worked on, that pressure?
"There is certainly some external pressure because we're going to be compared with Bungie and previous Halo games, that's one thing. But the internal pressure to just make something amazing and surprising is probably the greatest pressure of all, and you know, sometimes it can pretty competitive.

"We'll have the design team basically trying to impress themselves and each other and say, "I've got this cool idea for this thing, help me prototype it and we can make this kick-ass," so there's a lot of internal pressure to be excellent, and it's true [that] in any good development studios the greatest pressure comes from the inside to do amazing work, rather than fit some template or exceed some metric.

"It's about, 'How do I feel really good about the thing I've created', and how I want my colleagues and my teammates and eventually consumers to love this and really be addicted to it."

'Halo 4' War Games screenshot

© Microsoft Games



Why make Spartan Ops episodic in particular? Because you said it's more or less finished. So why decide to spread it out over time?
"It's not like we took a bunch of content and cut it up. The experience of the short piece... when you are making a campaign game, it's not like a movie where I can see that this movie is gonna last about an hour and 40 minutes and it has a beginning, a middle and end, and I can build the audience anticipation up to this point and kind of manipulate and control that audience at a dramatic level.

"We can't do that in a 10-hour campaign because people will pause it, they go to the bathroom, they'll save their game and we can't really control the cadence. When we're trying to make the Spartan Ops episodes - both the gameplay and the storytelling - TV shows can control and manipulate you in a really interesting way by forcing you to wait, right?

"They're like, 'Here's episode one; you loved it, you'll have to wait a week for episode two', and you build up the anticipation. That's kind of a well understood dramatic device, and also because the episodes are short that you can really control the narrative arc very well.

"Keeping the missions short has a really similar effect; if you think about how you feel after a short session on multiplayer - where a game will typically last, depending on what game you're playing, maybe five or 15 minutes - there's definitely an understandable predictable arc to how you feel about that.

'Halo 4' campaign screenshot

© Microsoft Games



"So making short bursts of missions gave us the same kind of control of how you feel about the game play as the episodic storytelling, and it gives us a really good amount of - our designers and narrative directors - a really good amount of control over how we can manipulate the player's feelings and excitement and tension in both gameplay and drama.

"To do that I think you can take a campaign and break it up like that, but you still wouldn't be able to control the pace at which players experience that... so it's kind of an artifice to the - [it] obviously borrows a lot from the TV model. To build tension and to make cliffhangers meaningful - and to be able to pay them off successfully in a way that with a sprawling 10-hour campaign - no matter how fun or thrilling that is, you can't control the player's expectations or pacing and so it allows us to do that.

"That's one thing it does, it's one of the most fascinating parts of how the episodes feel, because when people will be done with the mission and it's quick... they can immediately discuss how they did it. If you want, you can go back and play it again and play a different difficulty level and turn it into a totally different feeling and experience.

"This is one of those rare incidents where we can control the player's experience from beginning to end without impeding their freedom. You can do that with quick-time events for example in a game, but that's the brief moments where you're sort of completely controlling the experience.

'Halo 4' War Games screenshot

© Microsoft Games



"Halo is a sandbox game and in some ways it's quite open [compared to] other first-person shooter games, so people have a lot of freedom... we're able to have the best of both worlds, complete control over the narrative experience, and the player has complete control over how they address the problems the gameplay presents."

You also talked about watercooler moments. Is that something you feel games have been lacking?
"They do. I think that the people tend to have those conversations about games typically when the sequel comes out, so they say, 'Remember in Halo 2, I think it was cool when the Arbiter does this', and they think it's, again, how people consume games.

"Whereas with TV typically - I mean with DVRs and Blu-ray box sets aside - people are having this ongoing narrative discussion just like a football season - it's like you're watching this drama unfold over a set calendar period - and so it's a totally different type of conversation. Effectively the recaps that people have with a game conversation - and to lesser extent movies - typically people go and see movies about the same time so those conversations happen. With games, everything is spread out. I think they miss some of that momentum from that social experience."

> Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn Episode One review: Live action series debuts

Halo 4 will be available exclusively on Xbox 360 from November 6 worldwide.

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