Prima Halo 4 Collector’s Edition – Developer Interview
Coming to the End of a Journey
Prima: How are you feeling right now?
Kiki Wolfkill: Definitely feeling a little tired. It’s so bizarre to be at the end of such a long process. You shift from the anxiety of trying to figure out what the game is going to be and nailing down all those details, to the anxiety of executing on it, and over the last year, making sure that we could get it done.
Now that anxiety is shifting to “oh my god, we’re going to release”, the game’s going to be out there. Is it going to deliver on that vision we all wanted for it? We all have this picture in our heads of the game we want to deliver, and there’s always some trepidation as to whether that will come across to players.
P: Other than anxiety, what do you feel about coming to the end of this journey?
KW: It’s hard to get too excited yet, because there’s still so much left to do even though there’s a short amount of time (before launch). It’s funny when you finally see that very concrete light at the end of the tunnel, time definitely stretches as you’re getting up to it. Like anything that you’ve spent so much time on, I think it’s really going to be launch day where we see all that coming together and the excitement will be unleashed.
You definitely get moments of that feeling, like when you go to PAX (Penny Arcade Expo), or when you hear from the fans – you get glimpses into what it might be like to be done. It will be incredibly emotional.
P: How long has this journey been for you?
KW: We’ve been developing Halo 4 for about three years. Obviously we’ve been building the team for a little bit longer than that. So it’s been a robust cycle.
P: There were huge challenges with this project. Building a new studio, new team, new game, and new technology. How did you take that on?
KW: Some might say it was ill-advised. (laughs)
P: They might say that.
KW: Seriously though, I think we all went in to it – and I certainly went in to it when I was asked to do this – with the feeling of, “Wow, that just seems like an impossible challenge”. Thankfully I’m a risk taker, so I looked at it as a really exciting challenge. And I think there really are very few places where you could have done something like this. Being able to build up a new team and have that startup mentality, but then also being able to work with this incredible intellectual property, and have some resources behind you. It’s a really unique situation. And so looking at that made it seem like it might be tenable to take this challenge on. But yes, there was risk on so many levels. And we just sort of tackled the risks as we went along.
The first thing was just trying to understand what our Halo would be, and what was really important to use to maintain and to grow, and then figure out where we wanted to push and do some things differently.
Another layer of that was really starting to open up a dialogue with the community, and while we were working on defining who we were, talking to the community to understand what they needed, both from us as a studio and from Halo. I think those two things in parallel worked as an organic process that worked out really well. The community was able to see us as we grew, and hopefully felt like they were able to contribute to how 343 Industries came together.
The challenge of the public perception that Bungie was the only studio that could make a Halo game – we knew that dealing with that came down to showing something. It came down to what we could create that they could touch and that would reassure them. That one was hard because we knew that until we had something that we could put out there, rightfully so there was going to be heavy skepticism. This is why we waited quite a while before we put something out there – because we wanted to be sure it had the impact that it needed to.
We know that innovation is one of those core features of Halo – something the fans expect. So, we asked ourselves, what does that innovation look like for us?
Making 343 Industries’s Halo
P: How did you strike the balance between having an awareness of what Halo was, and what you wanted it to be as a 343 Industries game? A lot of other developers inheriting an existing franchise would be tempted to change it to “make it their own”, often breaking it in the process. How did you avoid this?
KW: It came down to a careful balance, a combination of very deliberate analytical work and very organic creative work. In our team, we brought together a range of people with different connections to Halo – some were huge Halo story fans, some were huge multiplayer fans, some weren’t huge fans but really believed in the future of the franchise – and those people together reflect the diversity of the Halo audience, and audience that is incredibly diverse in terms of tastes and play styles.
So we brought a core group together and did a deep analysis on Halo – what were the things that people loved, what were the interesting features, etc. And then in a world where you can’t just to everything, we analyzed what tradeoffs we felt comfortable making.
And in the end we came up with the things we knew were important – the sandbox (a key differentiator for Halo) for example. How the controls feel. The ability to play through encounters multiple times and have a different outcome each time. Water-cooler moments that lead to those conversations with friends about “oh my god did you see what I just did?” It’s a competitive market out there, so we had to identify the things that make Halo unique, both at a high level and at a micro minute-to-minute gameplay level. And carrying these forward was critical to our ability to develop a game that was a Halo game.
And then there were maybe elements of the Halo experience that the franchise may have lost along the way, things that we all have a nostalgic emotion around. Like the emotion we all have around our first experience of Halo: Combat Evolved. And so a lot of our focus was on how to get that feeling back again.
Then it comes to new features, and areas where we wanted to express our own voice. That’s where the process was a little more organic. We had a very story-heavy experience that we wanted to deliver, so storytelling was a big focus for us, and there were some new things that grew out of that. We know that innovation is one of those core features of Halo – something the fans expect. So, we asked ourselves, what does that innovation look like for us? A lot of those innovations are in multiplayer in particular. There were a lot of parallel efforts to help us define that stuff. And when I talked about anxiety about coming to the end of development, earlier – that’s really what I’m talking about. You have all these ideas and plans and features, and those things don’t necessarily glue together early in the project. How is it going to turn out?
P: And you can’t see the game like a first time player anymore either, so kind of lose a sense of what that first impression feels like.
KW: Yes. The development cycle is so staggered in terms of when systems come online, and it’s always uncomfortably late in the process where you first see the big picture and how it’s all coming together.
P: You mentioned trying to reclaim some of the feelings of Halo1. We all remember the fight off the Pillar of Autumn, the first time you land on Halo, etc. One of the things we’ve missed most in Halo has been Master Chief. What does it feel like to be able to bring him back?
KW: It’s funny, because people have asked us why, as with Halo: ODST and Halo: Reach, why we haven’t explored different chronologies. Is it an easy “out” to just focus on Master Chief? The reality is: we missed him. And from a storytelling perspective and an IP perspective, we got really excited about exploring his character a little bit differently, and about really fleshing out what his next journey was. So he was a creative catalyst for us. We definitely took the responsibility very seriously. We wanted it to be meaningful.
We live in a world where Halo is ten years old and there are people out there who are too young to have played Halo when it came out. We want Halo to be a multi-generational experience. And the feelings of nostalgia a parent has over Halo: Combat Evolved, they may bring to their child’s experience of a future Halo game. But we want that experience to have the same kind of impact for the generation who may be new to Halo. And it’s not a simple case of just copying what Halo: CE did, because games have evolved. But it’s about capturing that feeling.
Building the Team
P: Let’s talk about the process of building the Halo 4 team, a diverse group of developers brought to 343 Industries from many different studios and with many different backgrounds. But first, share something about your background.
KW: I’ve been working at Microsoft for…forever (laughs). Almost 15 years. I came up through the art side. So before taking on the Executive Producer role at 343 Industries on Halo 4, I was the studio art director for Microsoft Game Studios. So I oversaw the art on many of our first-party, externally developed titles. I worked on a lot of racing games for a long time, and oversaw art direction for the racing studio. And then took on a broader studio role – on the publisher side -- on Mass Effect, Crackdown, Gears of War, and also did a bit of work on Halo 3 as well.
P: Did that work prepare you in some way for what you’re doing at 343 Industries?
KW: I think leading creative teams is a really unique leadership challenge. That prior experience gave me exposure to leading and managing creative teams, and also in having a stronger connection and understanding of some of the challenges in doing creative work. It’s not typical for people to come into an EP role from outside production. So the situation here was a little bit unique, but because it was about building a team – and not just managing a team – I think that previous work gave me a unique perspective.
Building the team was an incredible, incredible experience. Probably the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done. Bringing together such a talented group of people who I have so much respect for, and now after what we’ve been through, the caliber and integrity of the team just amazes me.
It was a very interesting challenge because in building the studio, the team would represent the biggest part, and so the team culture had to reflect what we wanted the studio culture to be. So that was a really cool experience, early on when there were maybe only 30 people in the studio. We sat down together and worked out what our core values as a studio were, what were the things we believed in, what were the things we wanted people externally to understand about the studio – and then we really set those core values coming out of this process. So a lot of the hiring we did was based not only on the talent and experience of the individual, but how they fit within that value system.
P: And so what are the team values?
KW: We had a saying early on, and I’m going to get it wrong now, but it was something like “the best ideas can come from the unlikeliest places”. We wanted to embrace this idea that you didn’t have to be an expert in a certain area, to have an opinion on it or an idea about it. We wanted the team to always feel really comfortable expressing opinions and ideas, and have that collaborative spirit.
One of the things I filtered for when interviewing people for the team was, are they of a talent level and do they have the personality to raise the bar on the quality of work for the people around them because of the example they set? Not someone who can come in and be a rockstar diva, and not raise the bar. That was important to us, and a key thing in attracting other creatives.
Another piece of it was people being able to express themselves and work collaboratively across disciplines. That doesn’t mean we’re a democracy, but it means there has to be a measure of respect. People could have gone anywhere. The average number of years of industry experience of people on the team is high, because people had a choice. They relocated from across the world, from every game and movie studio you can imagine. And it’s a pretty amazing thing to bring those people together. So it was important to see a generosity of creative spirit in the people we were bringing together.
P: Creativity as a philosophy, not a skill.
KW: Yes. Now the challenge, of course, is you’re bringing people in from all over the world, and all sorts of different companies. Everyone has their own vocabulary. Everyone has had different experiences in what a production cycle looks like, and how long a game should take to make. And different studios have different priorities: whether it’s a dev (programming)-driven house, or a design driven house, etc. So people bring all of that with them, and even some baggage. So working through that and learning to work as a team is really hard. Because your first stage is “I like you, but now I have to understand what your communication style is”, and when you say something, what do you mean, etc. That’s a hard process to work through because there’s no handbook for it. And it takes time – it usually takes a development cycle, it takes being in the trenches together and going to war together, to build that trust and understanding. And we had to do that really quickly.
P: When you reflect back on the development of Halo 4, was there a moment where you felt you could stand back and say, “Now we’re a team. Before we were a disparate bunch of people, and now we’re a team”.
KW: I think it really happened almost about a year ago. It was the result of completing one of the first all-team milestones. We’d had big vertical slice milestones before, but those were about cross-sections of the team going deep into an area and delivering something. But this was the team as a whole delivering something. And the team delivered on it really well. And had we not hit that, there was no way the team would have been able to deliver our E3 demo this year, which was a pivotal moment for us because it was the first time the public saw the game. It was also the first time we as a team sort of lifted our heads up and took a step back to see what we were doing and see the fan response to what we were doing – and that was just incredibly intense. It was such an amazing moment – and that the first moment that we as a team acknowledged that were actually doing this. We were making Halo.
P: How big is the team?
KW: We’re on the downward slope of the peak, currently around 200 developers. We peaked higher than that, though.
Bringing it Together
P: Let’s talk about production methodology. You mentioned multi-disciplinary teams. Are you an ‘agile’ team?
KW: We’re agile, but it’s always depended on where we’ve been in development. We adopted a hybrid model, with really short sprints for a while. We went to two-week sprints because the scale of the team was just huge. We had been on six-week sprints before. And then we shifted out of that into focusing on locking down certain areas of the game, and finishing the remaining work. We’re going to do a lot of work on formalizing how we approach it next time. I’m definitely a proponent of a hybrid agile-waterfall process. The agile does a great job of helping us understand where we are, but not always where we’re going. So the combination of the two approaches helps put things more firmly in place.
P: What was your prototyping phase like?
KW: Because we had to build the studio and team as well as the game, our pre-production team was unnaturally large. In an ideal world, you have an R&D team and a concept team working on ideas, and you have 25-30 people who can work together to prototype the things that are important. Because we had to build and scale at the same time, we went through prototype with 50, 60, 70 people – as we grew. Which isn’t ideal – you have to keep people busy, the tech wasn’t all online, and so there are a lot of early struggles around not everything being in place when people need for it to be. So that was definitely one of the production challenges.
In the end we had a concept period that was a couple of months long, then built some pretty robust prototypes around the things that were going to be different. The very first thing we started prototyping was the new enemy (the Prometheans). Player movement was also an area of focus. And on the multiplayer side, we had people working on some of the cooperative features. At the same time, we were doing a lot of overhauling of the technology. We started with the Halo: Reach tech, and maintained it; that made a lot of the challenge of retaining the Halo feel much easier. But then made decisions to put resources into areas we wanted to completely overhaul. We completely redid audio. We invested a lot in the lighting and graphics technology, did some work on AI, etc. We tried to choose a few key places where we could invest more heavily.
P: What is it like to be at the head of a project of this scale? How do you deal with the pressure?
KW: It’s mostly frightening. But I think the reason why people were comfortable with me in this role is because I’m a pretty levelheaded person. I tend to internalize pressure and not let that be something that starts to pull on the team, and just be solutions-focused about the challenges that we face. I used to race cars, and I think that’s been a really interesting background to have in terms of dealing with pressure. Because racing is all about being able to rise above and perform. And for me, it’s about the end result. It’s about the win.
P: Do you still race cars?
KW: Not since I started this. But it’s definitely one of the first things I’ll be doing when the game is done.
The Halo 4 Prima Official eGuide gives you the very best tactics to get you through the campaign, MLG Pro strategy to dominate in War Games, plus weekly updates to coincide with the release of the Spartan Ops episodic campaign missions!