Developer 343 Industries has taken a different approach in making Halo 5: Guardians. The Xbox One-exclusive shooter was first announced in 2013, and since then the studio has taken ample steps to ensure the game will have a trouble-free launch, having already gone through several beta testing phases and even a competitive tournament. I spoke to design director Kevin Franklin about how the studio is gearing for launch after the controversial release of Halo: The Master Chief Collection, making the game viable for esports, and why it decided to make post-launch downloadable content free to all players.
GameSpot: After the issues with Halo: The Master Chief Collection, what are you doing to ensure Halo 5 has a smooth roll-out?
Franklin: Our biggest thing is that Halo 5 is built from the ground up for Xbox One. All the technology is really lined up. There's only one network layer, we're not trying to build three to four different games in one. That's given us a huge advantage. We did our beta almost a year ago now, that gave us a whole bunch of time to stress test our servers and make sure everything was running, and work through some problems. Lastly, we have a lot of base skill testing we're doing with thousands of players almost every weekend before launch.
What did you learn from the Halo 5 beta last year with the subsequent feedback and how has that changed the Arena's multiplayer as a result?
It was kind of crazy to have a beta that early. Normally you have them, and you don't have time to change anything. This time we had tons to change. We changed ground pound, the whole way that entire feature worked. We changed a lot of the little tuners around escapability. Things like thrust, thrust recharge, the way sprint worked. We also changed the map. Several of the maps have completely different sight lines and paths changed directly in result to the beta feedback.
On top of that, we've also taken feedback from a lot of the pros. Like hey, do you have confidence in shoulder charging, do you have confidence in ground pound, do you think we should be keeping these things even if we fix them, are you cool with thrust always on? A lot of the pros are giving us great feedback that we've carried through.
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Is that something you're doing so that Halo becomes more of an esport again?
It's definitely a goal for us. We want it to be like Halo 2, Halo 3, really show off the legacy of Halo within Arena. We really had to start that from the ground up. We want to say hey, we want to be an esport. We have built our own esport league--we're really inspired by the way Riot Games, Valve, and Blizzard built their own leagues in-house, so we have our Halo Championship Series we built in-house that is awesome. That really gives us a great platform to show off our new competitive experience.
We also have a pro team, a group of four competitive gamers that work on the game all day long and give us insane amounts of feedback. No matter what we change, what we do, they're on us. Keeps us really engaged with that pro side of the community.
We built a spectator mode into Halo 5 for the first time, which we're very excited about. The Halo Championship Series also has a great relationship with the pros and we're showing off tons of tournaments. We did a tournament already at Gamescom, before launch, which was crazy.
You're taking a unique approach to DLC by offering all maps free for the first year--why are you doing this and do you think it will become the norm in the industry?
I certainly hope it becomes the norm!
There's two reasons we're doing this. One, we decided from the get-go that we wanted to make a very big investment in our players. We didn't just want to release a game and hope it worked. We wanted to say okay, this is an investment in our players. So we're revealing two completely different multiplayer experiences. We're going at it big, we're giving them dedicated servers, so it really felt natural, when it came to the DLC question, to put all of our players in one place. With Halo 4, you could have the season pass, DLC 1, DLC 2, DLC 3, and all of a sudden you have six different buckets and players have to make decisions about whether they play new content or with their friends.
We just couldn't solve that in game design. The solution was to put everyone in the same playlist. The benefit of this is it's going to give us better match-making, because there's less buckets people have to filter through, everybody has access to the same content, it's going to give us a lot more focus on when we want to start adding things. So that was the biggest deal for us when we were making that decision.
I've been following the 'Hunt the Truth' campaign that is creating a lot of mystery surrounding the game. We still don't know a lot about the story, but what are the core themes of Halo 5?
The biggest theme is epic. That was written all over our whiteboards before we even started the game. You're going to see some very, very big things in the campaign that you've never seen before. The second one is the rivalry between Chief and Locke. I think there's a lot of mystery to explore. I can't go into too much detail, but I love that there's the two teams you can go back and forth between. Spinning out of those two teams we have co-op, which has been a huge focus for us. There's a lot of co-op mechanics like revive, tracking, and just the way the missions have been built, they've all been built with co-op in mind. So that's a big step forward. The team is very passionate about that on the campaign side. All the multiplayer developers, because we love playing with our friends, made it very natural for us to jump into co-op experiences on Halo 5.
Has the epic theme trickled down to design in terms of creating a level, where the team designs a level and the higher-ups say, "No, this is not enough. We need to make this more epic!"
I wouldn't say that the higher-ups will go back and say, hey this needs to be epic, or not. But what we have done, the developers will get together in a room and we'll start saying, "We want to see a Hunter kill like five Spartans at once in multiplayer," or "we want to see a map that's so big that there's a base in it that you could have an arena fight in."
We've come up with ideas like, we want to see five-on-five scorpion battles, or we want to have banshee dog-fighting. We've built a new vehicle, the flying Phaeton, and it's completely designed to wreak havoc on a huge battlefield. Epic was kind of synonymous with all of our thoughts for multiplayer, especially Warzone. We've got maps four times larger than we've ever built before, which is a tremendous challenge in itself.
Speaking of which, how do you think the fans will react to Warzone? What are you hoping to see?
We want to attract new players to Halo, who have never played multiplayer before, like on the campaign, because they can interact and go after the AI. We want to get Arena players into Warzone as well. We really feel like it's a great place for players to live a Halo fantasy of having a massive, massive, Halo battle.
If you've ever played Halo Wars (a real-time strategy game), there are these great moments where you can see like seven scorpions, five banshees, you've got wraiths on the battlefield, you've got three guys running around in circles in warthogs, and it created this controlled chaos. That was one of our visions for Warzone and when the team started, everyone was like, "That sounds awesome but you're insane, how are you going to do that?" The way we got there was a lot of controlled focus on what we wanted to build, simplifying the game rules down so that everyone could pick it up and understand it, and then just building it.
The team in Seattle is fantastic, they spent a long long time on Warzone. Lots of iterations; everything from tech, to scoring, working with the campaign team to bring AI and bosses into the mode. I think we've developed an incredible and new experience that people are going to love.
That sounds like it could get really chaotic. Any funny stories to share of when Warzone was still in its early testing days?
Yeah actually, that's a great question. We had one week where all the vehicles, instead of getting into them, you'd stand on top of them surfing! So it was even more of a motivator for everyone to buy vehicles. There was another week where some of the tuning broke on an A.I. boss who comes in halfway through the map Escape from ARC, and he just decided to kill everyone instantly. So the theme of that day, it wasn't like, hey everyone be careful, watch out for this player, it was "Stay the f*** indoors!" Another day, all the water you could just fall through, so we had to spend our entire day avoiding water, just jumping around.
These sound like they could be made into great GIFs!
Yeah, it's funny, our test team, they have a whole bunch of them!
When you announced details about the REQ system, some fans worried about how microtransactions would factor into the game. Can you explain how microtransactions will work in Halo 5?
Everything you can get in the REQ system, you can earn whether you spend money or not. There's no crazy special items that are only going to be reserved for people who spend a lot more money. Also, you get a lot of rewards whether you're playing Arena or Warzone, so you're always going to have a ton of stuff that you'll be able to use. The biggest thing for us the moment we started even talking about this system was that the game has to be balanced. At the end of the day, it's a multiplayer game. It's not a spend-more-to-win game. We wanted to make sure that if you spend a whole ton of money, and you thought you could get five scorpions just because you spent more money, it's not going to work. You're still going to have to earn the right to call these scorpions into the battlefield.
So we have a mid-session progression loop, which any MOBA player will be familiar with. You have to level your character up in-game, every game, by killing enemies, going after A.I., and contributing to your team. Then you'll unlock the ability to use these cards. So if you have ten scorpions, you can't just call in ten scorpions. You actually have an energy system, and that levelling system that will gate you and keep the end-game balanced. And that was really huge--we're multiplayer designers, we can't just make a really unbalanced game. It just wouldn't feel Halo.
How much pressure to do you feel working on Microsoft's crown jewel IP?
You know, from the day I started at 343 Industries we had pressure. That day, I was a Halo fan, and then all of a sudden I was a Halo developer and a Halo fan. So I knew if I was going to screw up Halo I'd be pissing off myself too. I think the entire team felt that pressure. It's not just pressure because it's Microsoft's crown IP, it's pressure because it's Halo and it's a worldwide brand. We're expected to lead. That's one of the reasons we took on a challenge like Warzone and decided to take on such an investment like splitting the multiplayer into two. It's awesome, and I think that drives a lot of the team.