343 Industries opens up on Halo 4, The Reclaimer Trilogy

PAX Prime 2011: Microsoft Studios label discusses Master Chief's role in the next sci-fi shooter trilogy and how the franchise is evolving.

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Who was there: With PAX Prime playing home to Halo's 10th anniversary party, 343 Industries trotted out some of its franchise leads to part the curtain on Halo 4, calling it the first game in The Reclaimer Trilogy. Moderated by content producer David Ellis, the panel featured franchise director Frank O'Connor, marketing director Kenneh Scott, executive producer Kiki Wolfkill, creative director Josh Holmes, and audio director Sotaro Tojima.

Master Chief will play front and center in The Reclaimer Trilogy.
Master Chief will play front and center in The Reclaimer Trilogy.

What they talked about: Ellis started the panel off by asking O'Connor about the history of 343 Industries, with the franchise head responding that the studio technically launched three years ago. 343 was tasked with publishing Halo 3: ODST initially, but they knew they needed a team to continue the Halo franchise.

Holmes was then asked why Halo 4 was announced as the first in a trilogy. He said that it was important for 343 to signal to fans that the studio is committed to the franchise. When they first started a little over two years ago, they knew the story they wanted to tell. A lot of what this trilogy will focus on is exploring the character of Master Chief, he said. "It's a little bit about getting closer to that character than we have in past games," he said.

Wolfkill was then asked about building the team from the ground up. She said there were two goals: build a team to create Halo 4, and build a studio with the right culture for moving beyond that game. It was difficult, because they had to find talent with the level of technical and creative expertise to execute. And then there was also the challenge of finding people with the maturity to take on this long-term challenge.

"From a studio and culture perspective, how do we find that deep talent that has a collaborative spirit and a craftsman approach, so that we could build a studio for the long term?" she said. She also emphasized the amount of passion that's necessary to be in this game for the long haul.

O'Connor was then asked about the Halo universe that expands beyond the game. "Everything we make in that franchise, whether it be comic books or action figures, they all feed into the games," he said. "We just want to make a richer and more meaningful experience for them."

Asked about the visual style of the game, Scott said that when he approached the look of the game, there were a lot of creative inputs. "We wanted to take all of these inputs and bubble it up through the art," he said. There is also the desire to convey the emotional notes that players experience through the art, he continued. "The art needs to mature along with the audience."

He went on to note that the Master Chief people saw in the teaser shown at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo is not the final iteration. In fact, Scott said they are on the fourth iteration of his look at the moment. The focus, he said, is to sell the fantasy that Master Chief is an 800-pound hero that is part tank, part jet fighter.

Scott was then asked what types of places Master Chief will be heading to in Halo 4. He said that with the Chief headed toward a mysterious new planet, the team is investing heavily in the look and feel of the Forerunner civilization. O'Connor chimed in, saying that players have seen inert, abandoned Forerunner structures in the past, but now they'll see what that technology looks like when it isn't completely dead.

Tojima was asked about how he plans to provide audio cues to players. He said that it's hard, but his main goal is to achieve music and audio design that's well synched with the story. He started audio production by writing down the emotional connection that the player should be feeling. Wolfkill noted that with every piece of audio that the game has, it's telling a story.

As for how Tojima and his team create an otherworldly sound that is grounded in reality, he said that the audio team is focused on creating something unique, but also believable. "Exciting, realistic" audio is his emphasis, he said, and in the galaxy of the future, Master Chief's experience should sound something a little bit different.

So to provide the types of sounds they were looking for, he said they frequently traveled abroad to places like Tasmania, as well as operated "in extremely dangerous conditions to capture just the right audio." They then rolled a trailer of a handful of audio engineers in an open field in Washington, firing off potato launchers and other explosive items that were surrounded by microphones. Some of these misfired in unexpected ways.

Holmes was then asked how Halo 4 would play. "Well, it plays like Halo," he quipped. However, he said it's important to take risks and evolve the feel of gameplay. He said it's all about the question of balance and maintaining the core feel of Halo while also adding in new weapons and abilities. The team also wants to provide new experiences that players haven't had before. He said that it's important to give players options to solve problems in a variety of ways.

The question of Cortana's role in Halo 4 was then brought up, and Holmes said that Master Chief's personal artificial intelligence definitely has an important role in the game. Though the game is largely about Master Chief and his story, Cortana plays an important role in the character's development. Wolfkill followed that by saying the two have a unique relationship that hasn't been addressed in other games, so continuing that and fleshing it out further is important to the team.

But is there ever a question about holding back with new ideas? Holmes said that it's a struggle, because as fans, they want the game to remain true to its roots. However, they also want to push things forward. "It's something that we will continue to wrestle with until the game launches," he said.

O'Connor continued that sentiment, saying that they've prototyped a number of things that were good and fun, but they were ultimately shelved because they weren't appropriate for this game. "They were awesome, but they weren't Halo awesome," he said.

Asked about Halo 4's multiplayer, Holmes said that it's important to the team to represent all of the different play styles, from casual to competitive. Wolfkill then noted that the diversity in Halo fans is reflected in the team itself, saying that there is a lot of debate from within to strike a good balance.

Halo 4's story is still being closely guarded, but O'Connor did emphasize that the game will be a direct sequel to Halo 3 and that it deals with the fate of Master Chief and Cortana. There's a lot concerning the relationship between those two characters, he said, and then there's also exploring this new, mysterious world. The world, he promised, will have "incredible grandeur and scope."

Plus, he continued, it's a luxury to commit to a trilogy from the start, which is something they didn't have with the original Halo trilogy. It lets them build a big epic story from the get-go, he said.

Moving to the Q&A portion of the panel, the team was asked whether 343 Industries is planning any other spin-off games similar to Halo 3: ODST. "We're heads down on Halo 4," O'Connor said. O'Connor also addressed speculation that there will be Halo 4 multiplayer beta access codes packed in with Halo: Anniversary, saying, "There definitely will not be."

Later in the Q&A session, O'Connor addressed Master Chief's wealth of backstory that can be found in Halo novels, saying that it's his past that sets him apart from other military heroes. He said that they'd like to further explore this backstory, but he wouldn't commit to whether that happens in Halo 4.

Quote: "There's 200 or so people working on Halo 4, and they've been doing so for a couple of years now."--Frank O'Connor, on 343 Industries' commitment to the future of Halo.

Takeaway: With the original Halo trilogy, Bungie was limited by the uncertainty of whether the franchise would find an audience. Now that the audience is known, 343 Industries is able to commit to a more far-reaching and ambitious scope with The Reclaimer Trilogy. And to the delight of fans, Master Chief and Cortana will play a prominent role in this new expansion of the Halo universe.

For more on Halo 4 and Halo: Anniversary, check out GameSpot presents The HotSpot with guests Frank O'Connor and Dan Ayoub.

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