Josh Holmes explained how his studio took on one of videogames’ biggest series and overcame what seemed like an “insurmountable challenge” to ship Halo 4 at GDC 2013.
343’s creative director Holmes began by recounting the studios’ spectacular growth in order to become the new ‘Halo studio’. 343 has expanded from the small core team that founded the studio in 2007 to over 300 staff today, effectively adding one person for every four working days.
“We wanted the skills, we wanted the talent, but more importantly we wanted the right chemistry,” said Holmes. “We pulled together developers from all across the industry, and as we added each new member of the team we knew we’d have to adapt and evolve.”
Holmes told the audience that one of the most difficult tasks that lay ahead was balancing the need to add something new to the series while building upon its strengths. 343 began with the narrative. “We wanted this to be a much more personal tale, to delve into the things that make Master Chief tick and force him to change as a character,” said Holmes. “Historically, Chief has been a vessel that you pour yourself into.” 343 set about delving into the surrounding universe of fiction that had been built up around the games over the years, the goal being to create a “marriage between player and protagonist.”
The plotline involving Cortana was perhaps the team’s biggest and, internally, most controversial decision. Holmes described colleagues “tearing their hair out” over the matter: “Tackling this kind of story in a game like Halo is difficult, because it’s a very action-oriented game,” he explained. “There were doubts within the team around whether we should pursue this.” But 343 forged ahead. Holmes felt a strong personal urge to tell the story of Cortana’s gradual deterioration as his mother had been diagnosed with dementia around that time.
To increase the focus on narrative but also retain Halo’s traditional all-action play, 343 produced what it called the narrative pyramid. It was intended to allow players to go as deep as they’d like into the Halo 4 story, from simply completing the game’s objectives all the way through to reading the associated novels. The end result wasn’t entirely satisfactory, said Holmes.
Post-release feedback suggested that some players were confused by the story, or that they’d missed key details along the way. 343 was also frustrated by having to remove the Terminals it had placed in the game to flesh out the narrative, as the studio didn’t have enough space on the disc, and had to place them on Halo Waypoint, the game’s companion app. This made it more difficult for players to find this information and understand the plot, said Holmes.
For future projects, Holmes said that it had learned to ensure that the narrative is “self-contained and satisfying in and of itself,” as it was all too easy to get a little ‘inside baseball’ with such a sprawling, detailed universe.
The scope of the project had also become a little too broad in its ambitions. “We allowed ourselves to get away from clear goals. When you’re entering into an iteration loop, you’ve got to envision, assert, verify and reinterpret. Every time we found ourselves skipping one of these steps we ended up just spinning our wheels.”
“There was a real reticence to put boundaries in place,” he continued. “What we really discovered is that we needed these boundaries and constraints. Great creative comes from rubbing up against those constraints and understanding what they are. Trying to find that balance between familiarity and reinvention and driving Halo forward into the future was a balance we really struggled with.”
The pressure was mounting, and it was affecting the team. “There were times on this project where it seemed like we had an insurmountable challenge, and we didn’t know the way out,” said Holmes. “It was the belief in what we were doing that got us through some of the darkest times.”
343 Industries has learned some difficult lessons during its brief history, but that will spur the team onto bigger and better things, he concluded. “In terms of where we want to go as a studio and where we want to take Halo, this is just the first step. We have a lot of work ahead.”