With 343 Industries’ Halo 4 only months away, I got chance to sit down with lead game designer Scott Warner to talk how his team has faced up to filling Bungie’s shoes, how 343 have looked to rise to the challenge of not only overseeing the return of Master Chief, but an all new enemy too, and how Halo 4′s next gen successors might shape up.
You’re the lead game designer at 343 Industries; I know people can get quite confused as to what gaming job titles actually mean so tell exactly what you’re main role is as regards Halo 4?
Scott Warner: So what it means is, on our project, we have two designers that are in our capacity. I oversee the main story campaign and all the game play mechanics. We also have a lead game designer who oversees multiplayer, and so between the two of us we take the creative direction from our boss, Josh Holmes, and we interpret that into the game. And so we develop the game mechanics, the game systems, we basically interpret the vision into tangible design; and then we manage all the designers and consecrators to make the game.
And are you former Bungie or are you new to the project?
SW: New to Halo yes. Not new in the sense we have been working at this for three years, but new to Halo in general.
So how was team spirit when you were taking over from Bungie; has the takeover been challenging, even daunting at times?
SW: Yeah I think it’s a multitude of emotions, certainly there’s a lot of reverence for Halo and what they [Bungie] have done. There’s stress that comes from needing to live up to the expectations of everything that has gone before. I personally find it all to be kind of an upside, I don’t think about it too much I just try to think about it abstractly as a game, and a game that’s been very inspirational to me, and I don’t think too about what I have to live up to; other that wanting it to be as good as it possibly can.
I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse, but you have come into the project able to bring back Master Chief for the first time in a long time so. How much pressure has that brought on to the team to feel like they have to develop something special, and do you feel like it should be a new kind of Master Chief maybe?
SW: With every game project I think most of the creators really want to try to put their own stamp on things, so that certainly was true whether it was Master Chief or Halo or anything else.
I think everybody felt really honoured to continue the traditions of Master Chief because the two previous games, they’d gone down a different creative route and they were interested to explore. I think fans also were really interested to explore continuing the story of Master Chief and we were really happy to take it on, so we always saw it as a very positive challenge that was really creative and inspiring to us.
Can you flesh out the story a little, I mean obviously we know there are the freshly introduced Promethean AI that Master Chief is now up against, but what can you tell us about the game’s story arc in general?
SW: Halo 4 takes place five years after the events of Halo 3, and the Chief essentially wakes from cryo on his ship, The Forward Unto Dawn, and discovers there’s an enemy threat that’s boarded the ship. From that moment on all hell breaks loose, and he discovers that he has to crash land on the surface of this, mysterious Forerunner world he learns is called Requiem.
There he discovers a brand new enemy threat called the Prometheans, there are three of them that we’ve talked about so far: the crawlers, the watchers and the knights. They are essentially a force that he finds on that planet that, for some reason or another, are not particularly friendly with him so he has to battle with them right away.
Obviously the Covenant have been so synonymous with Halo as the series’ long-running bad guys, and have become icons in their own right. So how do you go about creating a new threat to Master Chief to rival them?
SW: It’s an interesting and challenging process, we knew that we didn’t want to leave the Covenant because we thought that they were… well, I personally came to Halo deeply inspired by their AI, that was the number one thing that was really important to me. So from the very moment we started the project we really want to include the Covenant and continue to have them as a centrepiece of Halo.
But I think players really want to also have something new to fight against, and from very early on we came up of the concept of the Prometheans, built around that goal of trying to bring a mix of the brand new and the classic to the players so they will be able to go through a campaign and have a nice flow as they progress through it.
Halo 4 feels like a darker game that its predecessors, seemingly more violent like in the E3 trailer where the enemy kind of scream at Master Chief for example, and then the extra oomph of gun effects and so on. Was there an intention there to make it a scarier, or more mature?
SW: There are certainly those threads. I would say that, I mean in addition to trying to make a, I wouldn’t say darker, but rather more mature story, and just kind of thought through story, we have definitely tried to develop character in a way that we felt like could be improved upon, and so we wanted to try and really emphasise the character of the Master Chief and the character of Cortana and really try and play upon those characters and make them people that the players cared about.
But also what we really wanted to do was build a sense of mystery back into Halo, because there are really great creative decisions to try and make gritty realism in Halo, to explore some backstories, and one thing that we thought that was really fascinating to us, really interesting to us, is always the sense of mystery.
The first time you showed up to the Halo ring you’re not quite sure what it is, why it’s been built, who’s there, what’s there, and we really wanted that back in the series, and so a large part of our creative emphasis has been trying to play upon that desire to want to have some sense of mystery in the game.
So for a long while we might not find out why these things are there, and what’s going on in the world?
I wanted to talk to you about the multiplayer because that’s been unveiled quite recently about the Spartan Ops the ship, The Infinity. You’ve already announced the episodic content you’re going to be doing, how is that going to work? Is it going to be something you’re going to commit to every week or every month say?
SW: Oh yeah, so from the very start when you buy the game there’s going to be weekly episodic content. What we mean by that is that there’s going to be a weekly live action show that you’re going to follow, like you would an episode of Battlestar Galactica (laughs), and there’s going to be a weekly series of missions, five of them, that you can play by yourself, or we encourage co-operative play with friends up to four, and so you can follow the story as it goes along and really get a sense of, you know, I’m buying a sixty dollar game, I’m getting this really great experience, what essentially amounts to two campaigns in one box, and it sort of continues on after you finish through your main story campaign.
So all aspects of the content will relate to each other, there’s a link between the single player and the multiplayer campaigns?
SW: Yeah, one big key thing we tried to do was to make all the threads tied together. So we didn’t want multiplayer to be a disconnected mode, campaign to be a disconnected mode. Campaign, BVB (Blue-versus-Blue) and Spartan ops, are now all inter-connected as one experience, one narrative.
The centrepiece to that is the UNSC Infinity which is the largest ship humanity has ever been made. It gets commissioned and sent out on a mission of peace to explore the galaxy and quickly gets side-tracked by the developments that are introduced in campaign. So Spartan Ops basically picks up six months after the events in the campaign as a further series of adventures that happen in that universe.
And then the BVB experience is essentially a combat simulation on the UNSC Infinity that trains up the player to then go on Spartan Ops missions; so it’s kind of a real attempt to not make multiplayer this disconnected thing, we want to put it all together.
Halo 4 is confirmed for Xbox 360 of course, but I’m sure it’s not too crazy to say that the next in the series is going to be on a more powerful console. So how are 343 going about the look of the game? Do you think there’s a risk that Halo 4 might look dated quite quickly as new tech is announced; is that something the team is concerned about?
SW: You know, obviously, we’re always attuned to new developments with what’s happening internally and externally. Our current development is all centred around the Xbox 360 and trying to harness everything we can get out of that box, so everything you’re seeing is sort of custom built for the 360 experience. Obviously depending on what happens and develops with our company, we’ll try to develop our technology and take advantage of it.
When Bungie leapt from Halo 2 on the old Xbox to Halo 3 on Xbox 360 there was something of an underwhelmed reaction, with suggestions that Halo 3 didn’t push the 360’s power far enough. Are you looking to Halo 4 as a means to show what the 360 is really capable of?
SW: It was kind of a non-starter from us when we started because we had hired all kinds of world class artists including the art director Kenneth Scott who has spent a decade in really pushing the boundaries of technical fidelity and art, so we really started off from the very get-go to try and, you know, have as much fidelity as we could in our artistic direction and technical capability as we could, so we’ve never kind of tried to settle for that, we’ve always wanted to make sure that when we came out the gate, that people looked at it as a very big step forward from what they had seen before. It seems like so far people are feeling that way so we are pretty happy about that.
If and when the fifth entry comes out on a new system, would you have carte blanche to blow everything else out of the water and create something that would be completely amazing for that console?
SW: I mean certainly as things develop, we have the advantage of working for a publisher and first party development, and if things happen we would certainly want to take advantage of those things. There’s always kind of a careful balancing act between what you decide to improve upon, what you have that you think is really good, what’s the great mixture of that to put you in the best position to be successful as a team. But certainly as things go on in development we have an advantage in the sense that we can cross those streams a bit.
So you’d be looking to kick some ass basically?
SW: Yeah absolutely, that’s one of the great advantages of working at a place like Microsoft.