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GDC 2013: Designing Halo 4's Prometheans

JAlbor March 27, 2013 User blog:JAlbor

Wikia's at the 2013 Game Developers Conference, where Design Director Scott Warner from 343 Industries and Project Lead Designer for Halo 4 revealed the birth of the new Promethean enemies. Check out the highlights below!

Why the Prometheans?

Early in the development cycle, the studio wanted a high-level creative vision that would let them explore the Forerunner backstory. A new race would have to lead that push into Forerunner territory. Additionally, Warner explains, "there was a lot of fatigue" and too much familiarity with fighting the Covenant. Although they knew they wanted to largely move on from the Covenant, they still wanted adhere to Bungie's classic "30 Seconds of Fun" approach to design and bring in new enemies while maintaining "that classic gameplay loop."


Several foundational approaches established 343's first foray into Promethean design:

  • Lots of inspiration from the design of creatures in the existing Halo series.
  • Every enemy race is unique.
  • "Enemies support experimentation."
  • "Leader/Minion" concept is valuable to the series. In this case, Promethean Knights take on the Leader role.
  • "The Halo Encounter". 343 studied past encounter designs, breaking them down into "plan, take them by surprise, beat them back, break them, mop them up, repeat" cycles.
  • The Halo Approach to Difficulty: Letting players still understand how to shoot things, how much damage enemies can take, etc. But enemies become a bit smarter, faster, have a higher-rate of fire or increased evasion rates, etc.
  • "Must use existing content creation tools."


Promethian Knights

The team has several sources of early inspiration: Voltron (yes, the giant robot), T1000 (Terminator 2) and his ability to change shape, The Thing (John Carpenter's organic monstrosity), Cranium Rats (from Planescape that grew smarter as they grouped together and dumber as they were separated).

As a result, they knew they wanted to create an adaptable race that could change their form and function. This same logic carried into the artistic design of the Forerunner world and technologies. Everything could change.

They also set an early goal of creating an enemy that combined something familiar and alien, creatures that cooperate with each other to defeat threats and can adapt their form and the environment.

The Promethean Knight was the first creature they knew they wanted to create. A primary, bipedal, relatable and understandable enemy, going through at least six variations of the character before finding what they liked.

Next came the Promethean Crawler, and the Promethean Watcher, which they wanted to fill a support role. They wanted the Watcher to change up combat encounters with special abilities.

The team also planned out the creation of several characters/roles they were forced to cut, including what they called the "Rook, Queen, and King". It's very likely these will make an appearance in future games.


Several early prototypes showed expansive features that never made it into the game.

  • The team first prototyped the Watcher with early abilities that included: Shielding, resurrection, deflections, spawn in pawns, focus fire, physics impulse (when destroyed), "junk attack" toss environmental stuff, and others. Not much changed between this early version and its final behavior in Halo 4.
  • Knight Prototyping took longer and the team has several early ideas, including intelligent squad tactics, the ability to enter and leave battlefield through the environment, dismemberment of the Knight, and a deadly melee attack. The Knight could also originally transform into a ball, allowing it to roll around the battlefield quickly, very much like roller droids from Star Wars.

Problems and Solutions

Promethian Crawlers

The following problems arose during the design process:

  • Pipeline: Getting characters into the game took far too long. To solve the issue, 343 added more engineers and reduced their scope down to three Promthean types, cutting the "Rook, Queen, and King".
  • Who are they?: The story of Prometheans was not fleshed out early, which led to gameplay features feeling random. Thus, the team cut features that didn't fit into their "vision" (including the ball form) and centered gameplay around the Knight.
  • Model Disconnect: The Knight model, with a giant carapace behind it, didn't work well with militaristic behavior. They opted to drop its adherence to cover and let is stand and dominate in the field of battle.
  • No Pawn Love: The early role of the "Pawn", now filled by the Promethean Crawler, was a bipedal creature and it felt too close to the Covenant Grunt. The team then experimented with a four-legged creature, eventually birthing the Crawler, which 343 then allowed to walk on walls and conduct "pack-behavior".

Post Mortem

Warner settled on several things the company did right and wrong in designing the Prometheans. Wrong:

  • Early team communication was slow, partially a result of building a team from scratch.
  • Absence of high level vision for too long: The team went off on some tangents they should have avoided, such as the roller-ball form.
  • The Watcher often encourages a one-dimensional solution: The team underestimated The Watcher as a game changer. Feedback was mixed, and players would often target the Watcher first because it was so annoying.
  • Damage tuning too bullet-spongey: Across the board, Warner believes the Prometheans were too hearty and difficult to take down. They knew they wanted them stronger than Covenant, but erred into making them too healthy.
  • Prometheans devoid of emotion: As Warner sees it, this is the most important lesson. Halo AI is lauded as some of the best, not just because they're smart, but because they show a lot of emotion. They show what they're thinking, elicit anger, seem surprised, show pride or fear or lack of group moral. Prometheans don't do this well, and it's something 343 wants to improve moving forward in the series.


  • Early constraints and foundations allowed fast prototyping
  • Created enemies that people enjoyed
  • Created enemies that were different than the Covenant and the Flood
  • Strike team model within 343 let people work quickly and collaboratively.

While I personally enjoy the gameplay Prometheans bring into Halo 4, I feel like I understand far better why they felt alien to the world and never quite worked as well as the Covenant. In the Q&A afterwards, the team also conveyed that the design team was specifically asked to design Prometheans without a lot of foreknowledge related to the narrative. This was clearly both a constraint and a benefit.

What do you all think of how well 343 pulled off the Prometheans?

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