Thursday, December 13

Josh Holmes on making Halo 4

Here's a pretty sweet discussion with Josh Holmes who kind of ah a big deal in Halo... borrowed from BS Angel's Weekly Halo Bulletin. I don't think she'll mind.
Josh Holmes, Creative Director for 343 Industries, plays an important part in everything Halo 4. He had an intimate relationship with the making of the game and continues to maintain that closeness now that we have officially transitioned to sustain mode. I’ve noticed several threads in our forum from those curious about our general design philosophies, so I asked Josh if he would be game for a quick interview. He said yes, and then I turned it into a long one. Go me!

Hello, Mr. Creative Director. For those who aren’t sure what exactly a Creative Director does, please summarize your job responsibilities in a single sentence.

As the Creative Director for Halo 4, I'm responsible for setting the creative vision for the game. I manage all of the various creative teams (art, audio, design and narrative) and guide them to successful execution against the vision.

For the record, that was two sentences. What other things did you do in the gaming industry before landing at 343?

I've been making games for over 17 years. Prior to joining 343, I worked at Electronic Arts and at my own studio, Propaganda Games. I was producer, designer and creative director on games that included the original NBA Street, Def Jam Vendetta, Fight for NY and the Turok reboot for Disney. Since joining 343, I've worked with Bungie in a publishing capacity on Halo: Reach and then moved into the Franchise Creative Director role and Halo 4 CD.

What inspired you to make the switch to Halo?

I fell in love with Halo the first time I played Combat Evolved back in 2001, when I was a Lead Designer at Electronic Arts. I remember saying to myself at the time, "One day I want to design a game like this." Fast forward a decade and not only am I working on a game like Halo, I'm actually helping to guide the future of the Halo universe. It's like a dream.

I would pinch you, but I’d like to keep my job. Speaking of jobs, what was the best part about making Halo 4?

The best part about making Halo 4 has been working with the rest of our team, because we have so many incredible, talented people. And getting to shoot them all in playtests.

There are two sides to every coin, so what was the hardest part of the process?

The hardest part about making the game was bringing a brand new team together, most of whom have never worked with one another before. Everyone had different experiences and approaches to making games and we were simultaneously trying to build something as massive as Halo 4 while working with a new and unfamiliar engine. There were times when it felt as though we were trying to do the impossible, and it's a testament to the character of the team that we managed to overcome so many challenges to build the game.

It was a team-building experience for sure. What are some of the more memorable moments you had with everybody while making the game?

So many moments… At the end of preproduction, we had an overnight creative retreat where Pierre tried to start a beach fire with gasoline and almost burned down several nearby homes (and himself) in the process. There was a late night Kung Fu showdown between Chris and Tajeen at the bar after one too many drinks – thankfully no one got hurt. Over the course of the project, we moved the studio at least three times to accommodate growth, yet still wound up bursting at the seams with humanity by the time we entered the final stretch. One of the funniest moments happened when I was at the EB Games event in Sydney, Australia. When I was coming over, they told me that there would be a dramatic moment at the beginning of my appearance, with the Master Chief coming out of the cryotube to welcome me onto the stage. It sounded awesome. In reality, Chief turned out to be the tallest member of the PR team wearing a $30 Halloween costume from Halo 3 and climbing out of a cardboard box that someone had decorated with felt markers, all while music from Halo: CE played in the background. Oh, and he got stuck in the cardboard box and needed to be helped out. Not the proudest moment in the Chief's illustrious career.

Now that we’re covered pre-launch, let’s talk about post-launch. Have any of the responses to Halo 4 surprised you?

It's been humbling to receive so many messages from players who have enjoyed the game and being able to play the game in Matchmaking now that it's out in the wild. When the game was first released, I spent a week at home on my couch, playing the game online while reading reviews between matches. It's surreal to pour three years of your life into something and then finally be able to see and hear the responses from people playing it.

I was wondering where you were that first week! Now that you’re back, what are our main priorities in regard to sustain?

Our first priority is responding to any unforeseen bugs or exploits that are uncovered by the community. Beyond that we are continuing to monitor playlist population and manage the rotation of experiences in Matchmaking to make sure that the most popular experiences are made available to players.

What philosophy do we use when making these decisions?

Our sustain philosophy is to support and maintain Halo 4's online community by analyzing player activity and making measured changes when necessary. We want to maintain engagement amongst the active player population through careful management of the active playlists, taking into account which experiences are most popular and addressing critical bugs and exploits as they are discovered. We also need to infuse the experience with new content in the form of authored map packs and community created maps so that the experience feels fresh and exciting for months and years to come.

Is that why we’re doing weekly updates instead of monthly updates?

In the case of Spartan Ops, we chose a weekly cadence for new episodes because it felt like the right timing to keep people invested in the story over the course of the season. We approached Spartan Ops like a serialized television show, but with the added interactive component of missions. For War Games, the weekly updates to playlists allow us to monitor the community's response to different game modes and take that into account when planning. We're also able to address map exploits that may be discovered (like the hole in collision that was found in Complex and being exploited in Oddball). Going a full month between updates would prevent us from addressing these issues in a timely manner.

Another thing we’re doing differently with Halo 4 is rotational playlists. Why are we taking that route this time around?

We put new playlists into rotation to keep the experience fresh each week and to test the community's response to different game types. We limit the total number of active playlists to prevent the population from becoming too fragmented so that we can provide an optimal matchmaking experience and if a playlist fails to capture or maintain population over time then it becomes a candidate for retirement, at least temporarily.

We have some great stuff in the works for 2013. What can you share about the things we currently have up our sleeve?

The second half of Spartan Ops kicks off on January 21, featuring new environments and missions along with the conclusion of the season's storyline. We also have more maps coming with the Majestic and Castle map packs, as well as some community-created maps that we will be selecting to add into Matchmaking, which will include both smaller 4 vs. 4 maps and larger Big Team maps.

Sounds good! Before I release you from my interview death grip, I have some random, fun questions now that you’ve tackled all the serious ones. So, Battle Rifle or DMR?

DMR, because I prefer single shot to burst fire weapons.

Frag or Plasma?

Frag, because I like to strip shields and then finish people off.

Covenant or Forerunner?

Forerunner, because I love the look and sound of the weapons.

Red or blue?

Blue, of course! Red is too angry.

Frank or Kiki?

Kiki, because she makes the best margaritas and Frank only exists to drink them.

I am suddenly thirsty, so I think we can officially call this interview done. Thanks for taking the time to share some insight into the making of Halo 4 and our general Matchmaking philosophies, Josh, and I'm sure we'll chat with you again after the New Year!

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