Halo Nation


GDC 2013: Halo 4 Postmortem

JAlbor March 29, 2013 User blog:JAlbor
I am here in San Francisco, wrapping up the 2013 Game Developers Conference. Luckily, the folks at 343 Industries know how to wrap up a show. Today, Josh Homes, 343i Franchise Creative Director, gives a talk titled "Halo Reborn: A Postmortem on the Creation of Halo 4." Here are some of his insider-thoughts on the creative process of taking the beloved, genre-defining franchise, and making it their own.

Design Beliefs

  • Heroism: Halo lets people tap into all of our potential to be heroes.
  • Humanity: "Humanity is something with a promise worth fighting for,"
  • Wonder: Capturing that sense of curiosity and awe in their work.
  • Creativity: "We believe in the creativity that exists within our core gameplay," that gives tools to players to express themselves on the battlefield.

While these four frameworks are used constantly to hone Halo 4 and their work moving forward, Homes adds, the team also has a belief in stories. Homes then honored his father for sharing the value of stories with him at an early age, as well as introducing him to games on the Commodore 64, birthing his interest in game stories.

"Story is something that is innately human," Homes explains. It explains play, can act as a form of escapism, and as a way to learn, to experience things we cannot normally do in ours regular lives. They can also help us empathize with the emotions of others. In games, we closely identify with the characters we play, particularly in first-person games. With this in mind, 343 knew they wanted to tell a great story.

Creating the Story

There was an early decision at 343 to allow John-117 to change and grow. The call was, of course, controversial, as traditionally in the games, the Chief acts as a vessel for the player. To explore this new pathway, 343i decided to delve into Chief's relationship with Cortana. "The Chief, for the first time, is faced with an obstacle that he might not be able to overcome," Homes describes. Even in this regard, "there was a lot of skepticism within the team." As Homes sees it, Cortana's crumbling mind is one of the highlights of the game. As he was working on the game, his own mother was slowly succumbing to dementia, which deeply informed his decision and appreciation of telling Cortana's stories.

In many ways, Homes describes, Halo 4 is like an onion, or what they call a "Narrative Pyramid", with Mission Objectives at the top, followed by the Primary Storyline, the Secondary Storyline, Supporting Structures (collectibles and easter eggs), and Deep Fiction (things like the novels or Forward Unto Dawn shorts).

Setting the Stage

When 343i created the first story experience, the level was crowded with story and content, from the first covenant fight to the new planet. The result was cluttered and incomprehensible. The team alleviated the clutter by moving around content, minimizing the important of some features, and focus the first area on the arrival of the Covenant fleet.

Another example took place in the Forerunner mission in which Chief and Cortana enter a portal and find the curved world. Unfortunately, visually, it was hard to get the sense of a curved world. Despite a lot of work, players never quite got a sense of spatial awareness. To fix the problem, they created a central platform, which they use multiple times, to show the world from a higher point-of-view. They also used the location for storytelling moments.

Tying into Deep Fiction

The team wanted to, early on, tie the game into the wider fiction, which they both succeeded and failed in at different point. As Homes sees it, the Lasky storyline from Forward Unto Dawn continues, in a way, into the campaign story. Lasky, as he states, was a "well definied character" with a "simple, compelling character arc."

The Didact, he continues, failed in many of the ways Lasky succeeded. The Forerunner trilogy by Greg Bear explores The Didact, providing some texture outside the game in books, games, and comics. But many players also didn't find his motivations clear. The story, Homes states, was "not self-contained," featured "complex character motivations," and moved the motion-comics off the disk and put them online, which made accessing them too inconvenient for most players.


Creating these new enemies "was a big deal for us," Homes explains. "We wanted them to be as compelling to fight as the Covenant," but still feel likely a unique type of enemy. The Promethean Knight went through numerous iterations. "We had a conflict between the narrative aspects of this character, the mechanical aspects of this character, and the visual aspects of this character," Homes describes. It wasn't until the team honed in on priorities that the character design started feeling better. The overall creative process for this character was a long and arduous process.

Adding new weapons was also an exciting opportunity. Initially, Homes pushed the team to go towards sci-fi heavy designs. But they also needed to veer towards weapons that were familiar in a way. Once they visually fit the feel of the universe, players began to actually use them far more often.

Infinity Multiplayer

"This was another big change for Halo," Homes states. The team wanted to incorporate story into multiplayer to wed the two audiences of players, those who primarily play single-player and those who primarily play multiplayer. They also wanted to tell episodic stories in Spartan Ops, tying a bevy of missions with a larger story arc. It was "designed as a co-op story," and "balanced for 2-4 players," which the team found unfortunate considering how many players experience Spartan Ops as a single-player experience.


  • Make sure your world is a "Self-Contained Narrative."
  • Clear Goals for Prototype: The team deviated from this lesson and wasted a lot of time on prototyping unnecessarily. "We found ourselves spinning our wheels and not making the progress we would have liked."
  • Boundaries Are Not Bad: The team wanted to keep things open as possible, but found that they needed constraints to make creative works.
  • Familiarity vs Reinvention: The team struggled to find "delicate balance" between creating a new experience and satisfying old fans and their expectations.
  • Perfection is Worthless in Isolation: 343i takes polish and perfection very seriously, but too often, the team focused on small components without thinking of the "larger whole." The Promethean Knight experience captures this fault.
  • Belief: Despite moments of incredible self-doubt, the team learned to support each other and believe in their vision.

"We have better and brighter days ahead, but we have a lot of work yet to do."


Q: How much creative freedom was Greg Bear given? A: 343i wanted to give him a lot of leeway. So they established things they knew they wanted to include in the game, but also remain open to his ideas and incorporating them into the game design.

Q: I found the addition of quick-time events strange to the series. What was the decision like to add them? Will there be more in the future? A: The QTEs, and things like it, was an effort to connect Chief to the world. "They were really about wanting to sell an immersive moment" with something more than a cutscene.

Q: As a producer, how much work was done towards the scrapped classes? A: 343i cut the scope on many of the ideas very early, knowing how much time it would take. They existed "more on paper, and no so much in prototype form."

Q: Even though Halo 4 is about shooting aliens, "deep down it's really a love story. Was that a tough sell?" A: "There were times where members of the team were skeptical." Finding the space within the game to make those moments emotionally impactful was a difficult undertaking, but Homes was adamant about that part of the story.

Q: Was there a deliberate design decision to create a story for side-characters in Spartan Ops? A: "We had a lot of discussions around this. It was an interesting compromise."

Q: The Halo cross-media experience is interesting. In Japan, cross-media is very common, usually with one person who has power over the total universe. Who is controlling the Halo Universe? A: "At 343, that's Frank O'Connor." Homes then partners with O'Connor for the game, while O'Connor ensures all the stories are working together and "fitting into a grand plan."

Q: How much of a discussion happened regarding changing the appearance of the ship of the FOrward Unto Dawn. A: Any of the changes to canon, from ships to weapons, was made knowing they had a new team that needed to experiment and change things "to allow the artists and designers to mold the experience they wanted to create in Halo 4. I know that is controversial for some people," Homes explains.

Q: Bungie never wanted to have a progression system in multiplayer. How did discussions go about whether to maintain that decision or not? A: Fans gave feedback that they were looking for "gameplay impacting progression," so the development in Halo 4 of that feature was an effort to balance impact with fairness.

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