In the final installment of my three-part Halo 4 interview series with creative director Josh Holmes, we explore the game’s refined tactics and deadly new enemies, illumination through death, the new episodic content and why Microsoft isn’t charging for it, and how Master Chief is still the man despite lagging technologically behind Halo 4‘s new breed of Spartan super-soldiers.
The alien Covenant in Halo 4 still feel very much like the Covenant, but the new enemy, the Prometheans, as promised, are playing a very different tactical game. What inspired their tactical design?
That was one of the biggest bets we decided to make almost from the very beginning. We knew players had been fighting the Covenant for a decade — more than a decade by the time the game came out. With familiarity comes predictability, and we wanted something that would breathe new life into the Halo sandbox and really challenge players in new and exciting ways.
The obvious addition was a new class of enemies. That really made sense as we were honing in on wanting to explore Forerunner culture and going to a new location that would be the core of much of our story. That led us to explore Forerunner enemies. From the beginning, one of the concepts that resonated with the design team was the idea that the enemies would be collaborative, that they would represent a certain level of challenge individually but when you put them together, they would complement one another on the battlefield.
That was a core concept, and we started out prototyping simple behaviors, like the Watchers’ ability to shield other enemies. Then we added the Watchers’ ability to resurrect the Knight. And we looked at the Knight and the different ways it could move around the battlefield to dramatically shift your focus as a player. Those core behavioral components stuck from the beginning, and we just kept iterating and iterating. We knew we had to get it right, to make them feel very different from the Covenant, yet still feel like they fit in a Halo game. It was a very long process, almost three years of development and iteration.
On the visual side, we explored totally different concepts for the Prometheans. Again, we knew we had to get them right, to make sure they could stand up to the Covenant and hopefully become as well-loved an enemy to fight. We went through literally dozens of different concepts. We built I think probably six versions of the Knight before the final one that stuck, and that was painful for the design team. The team wasn’t happy with any of the previous versions, and yet people were asking, you know, “How many times are we going to throw these guys away?” For a while it felt like we really weren’t getting anywhere.
It wasn’t until we had a bunch of the core behaviors finely honed and polished, and we had this core visual style that was informed by a lot of the work on the Forerunner aesthetic, that it came together and we had animation going on that brought these characters to life. That’s when people started to see the light at the end of the tunnel and realized we had something special. But it was probably one of the most painful aspects of the Halo 4 development process, because of the amount of rework and the high bar we held ourselves to.
I’d argue dying is a winning strategy in Halo 4, especially if you’re playing at the higher difficulty settings. I actually prefer to play on Legendary, inch by inch, iterating the most difficult scenarios, not just blowing through the campaign in a dozen hours.
I think that’s one of the things that sets the Halo games apart from a lot of other shooters, the dynamic nature of the A.I. — that you can die over and over again and feel like the battle responds, that there’s an ebb and flow and almost a musical nature to the way the battle unfolds.
For me, at least, it doesn’t get old. I’ve played through the campaign hundreds and hundreds of times at this point, and I’ll still have fun each time, which I can’t really say about a lot of other games. I think that’s really the dynamic A.I. that comes through, challenging you in new and different ways. You’re able to try different tactics and see how the A.I. responds. Is it sometimes predictable? Sure. But there’s always a layer of unpredictability, you know, “How are they going to respond?” that keeps it fresh.
You’re doing something interesting this time with the online content, releasing a kind of secondary campaign, playable solo or co-op, almost like a season of television.
That’s how we approached it, like a season of a television show. We actually looked at episodic TV as one of the major influences on the design of Spartan Ops, just thinking what are the things about episodic TV that cause you to come back each week and want to engage and experience that next chapter, and how does that play into the social element of sharing stories. Like “Oh man, did you see the latest episode of Breaking Bad?” and “You’ve gotta see it, this happened.” It gives you that shared experience people can then relate to. It’s kind of the water cooler moment that we all have.
We thought about how you’d apply that to gaming, how do we take one of the core strengths of Halo, which is storytelling and the depth of the universe, and really play that up as part of this new social, cooperative experience. That influences a lot of the design for Spartan Ops.
The other big thought process evolved around these two different audiences that we have in Halo. We recognize that we have roughly half our players who are really focused on campaign and story, and maybe they’re intimidated to go online and play competitively, or at least some number of players are. On the flip side, you have players who absolutely love the competitive aspect of multiplayer, but maybe aren’t as exposed to the surrounding fiction of the universe and the story of Halo.
So we were thinking, how do we cross-pollinate between these two audiences and give them an experience that both sets of players can hopefully love and play together, and feel like, okay, if I’m more of a story player, I’m going to go into Spartan Ops and be able to unlock new components of my character’s loadouts — rewards that I can then apply in the competitive space, since everything is consistent between both modes — and feel like I’m actually furthering my career and becoming more effective, learning skills, so I’m then able to jump into competitive mode and actually survive and hopefully thrive.
On the flip side, for those competitive players, it’s a chance to experience the story of the Halo universe along with their more story-focused friends. Those were the two things we thought about, but it was very experimental from our standpoint, and one of the big things I think I’ve spoken about before — if not, this’ll be the first time — for us it was a big risk in that a lot of different components of the experience took a lot of development time to get them to a point where we could stand them up, put them all together and see how that experience would feel. And we had all this other stuff in the pipeline, so when someone would say “How is it going to feel when all this comes together?” all I could do was try and explain, “It’ll feel like this, but I can’t show it to you until we’re almost done.” And so it was a big leap of faith for the team, that this would come together and be an awesome experience. We’re overjoyed with the way that it has, but it’s only arrived at that point in a way we could play in the last few months.
Speaking of all the surrounding material, like the Forward Unto Dawn live-action series, the updated Forge DIY multiplayer map toolset, the ability to still play through the main campaign cooperatively — given all of that comes with the game gratis, why aren’t you charging for the post-launch episodic content? Was that ever a consideration?
We looked at it in two ways. First, the community around Halo is vital to Halo‘s success. Keeping the community and ecosystem of Halo vibrant and people engaged and playing the game each week, even just for practical matters like the more people you have online, the better the matchmaking and play experience is. And obviously the better the play experience, the more people want to keep playing the game and stay engaged with the universe. So we looked at the big picture. Bringing people in, keeping them engaged, getting them to care about the characters and storytelling, in the long run, is going to be more profitable to us as a franchise than trying to look at every possible way to charge for individual pieces of content.
The other thing is that stuff like Spartan Ops is experimental, as is Forward Unto Dawn. This is stuff we haven’t done before. We looked at Forward Unto Dawn as a bold experiment in how we could tell a long form story in a live-action format, and could we use that as a way to seed characters that would play important roles in the Halo 4 story and in Spartan Ops and Infinity’s continuing story.
Will there eventually be pay-for downloadable content?
Yes. We have three DLC packs planned for Halo 4, out in the coming months, each with three maps. You can buy them as individual packs or you can buy a season pass to get them all, or if you pick up the limited edition of the game, the season pass is included.
Last question: How do you explain Master Chief, who’s a Spartan II class soldier. We’re up to Spartan IV soldiers in Halo 4. How is Master Chief still the guy who can singlehandedly take on these cosmic threats when he’s behind the technology curve?
I think that’s one of the core interesting questions that gets asked on a subtle level through the story of Halo 4. There’s a new breed of Spartans — have they managed to surpass the Master Chief, or is there something inherently special about him?
I think just going to canon, and without spoiling the exploration of that within the story, the Master Chief was part of a select group of individuals chosen based on their genetic makeup. They were the very finest, point-zero-zero-zero-zero-one percent of the population. And there was absolutely no expense spared in preparing them, giving them the technology they needed to thrive on the battlefield.
Spartan IVs are enlisted from the best soldiers in active duty, that are then augmented with much more advanced technology than Chief had access to, but they’re not nearly as hand-selected in terms of their genetic makeup. They haven’t gone through the same genetic modifications that Chief went through. So there are things in the canon that would set Chief apart from this new breed of Spartans, but it’s definitely a question. The Spartan IVs are going to have the attitude, “Hey, we’re younger, we’re better, we have better technology, what do you have to show us old man?” And yet at the same time, Chief is a legend. He’s accomplished things that no other Spartan or soldier has accomplished. Let’s just say you’re hitting on something that’s at the core of the story in Halo 4 and the Infinity series.