It doesn’t get any bigger than Halo. The game that carried a console, a developer and a character into gaming immortality is set to return on October 27, and we caught up with design director Kevin Franklin from developer 343 Industries to see what secrets we could unearth.
Halo 5: Guardians is the biggest game of the year for Microsoft and its Xbox One console. In fact, it could be the biggest game of any year. Exclusive to the Xbox format, it’s the showcase blockbuster that speaks to everything the machine does right. That includes spectacular visuals, epic storytelling and a huge multiplayer experience. All of these aspects – as well as the good and the bad of the game’s creation – are covered in this interview.
Regular readers will know that over the past week we have been releasing some parts of this interview in separate articles, but there’s plenty more insight to enjoy. In particular, Franklin goes in-depth on the development of the new game engine and what it is bringing to the Halo 5: Guardians experience. Enjoy.
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- Kevin Franklin is the design director at 343 Industries
- He was the lead designer on Halo 4's competitive multiplayer and is currently working on Halo 5: Guardians as design director
- Franklin recently made the 2015 Forbes 30 Under 30 list
I’m keen on starting with your perspective on the Halo audience. From your internal data, what can you tell me about the typical Halo fan? Who are they and how do they play?
KF: Oh, that's a great question. It's all over the board. We have some players that are really into the campaign and they will jump in and out of multiplayer. We have players that play almost nothing but 4v4 games without vehicles. And then we have another group of players that stick to 8v8 with lots of vehicles. We have players that like to play custom games - they pretty much only play with their friends in very specific modes that they create. We also have grifballers that almost only play grifball and exist in a completely separate community to other gamers.
I think it's really fantastic. You just look at how many diverse communities we have within Halo, and that's something we wanted to recognise with Halo 5 when we separated our Warzone experience from [the eSports focused] Arena, and tried to build two different multiplayer games.
...a lot of us go home and play Halo. So we know that the game we build is the one we're going to playing for the next few years
The Master Chief Collection has been a popular release and reminded many of why we fell in love with Halo in the first place. How do you handle the pressure of delivering on the expectations of hardened fans?
KF: Well we’re fans, too. That’s the best way. The team are all incredibly devoted Halo fans and they have really come together and focused on making a good experience. They don't want to make a bad Halo game. They all want to make an amazing Halo game. Everyone comes to work every day wanting to make the best Halo game they possibly can because a lot of us go home and play Halo. So we know that the game we build is the one we're going to be playing for the next few years.
Halo has become so much more than a game. It's a powerful weapon for Microsoft in its fight for the largest install base of consoles. How closely does Microsoft, the giant corporation, influence the development of Halo and define its journey from concept to release?
KF: I wouldn't say very much at all. I think the fans influence Halo more than Microsoft. Look at what we're launching this year, like Arena, our competitive mode that's built for e-sports. That's what the fans are asking for; our hardcore competitive community were asking for that, it wasn't Microsoft asking for it.
Warzone was designed by the fans in a lot of ways, too. I remember going back and reading hundreds and hundreds of forum posts, and everyone would make these bullet point lists of what they wanted to see in the next Halo game. Or people were starting big threads like, "what do you want to see in Halo 5?" And then they would post off things like, "giant vehicle battles” or “having the AI (artificial intelligence) in multiplayer." And we were like, "wow, these all sound like things the fans want to build, so how do we go and do that?" Microsoft has been supporting this goal, providing things like dedicated servers. Plus the Xbox Live platform has really been upgraded a lot, and the power of the Xbox One has been really awesome to build on.
In fact, as a designer, at first I was like, "well, what does that extra power even mean?" Once we started defining the actual 24 players [for Warzone], the dozens of AI and the dozens of vehicles, we were like, "okay, now we actually can build something crazy big and epic. How do we, as designers, make the best possible experience within those constraints?"
Is this why you decided to build a new game engine? If not, why did you feel the need to start from scratch on the engine?
KF: It isn't completely from scratch - it's a very heavily upgraded engine. When we moved to Xbox One we had a new network platform to build on, so we couldn't do peer-to-peer anymore. It was all about dedicated servers, so we had to rewrite a lot of our networking code. But there were some things that we had to keep distinctly Halo. We refer to these things as the “Halo feel” or “Halo magic,” and we would never want to lose that; so that's been maintained. I think a lot of the rewrites and different areas of the game we've rebuilt have just been to make sure that we're able to hit 60fps (frames-per-second) and able to realise these new experiences that we’re trying to go after.
[Kenny Magnuson, Lead Lighting Artist] can take a standard scene or a standard bunch of geometry and make it look completely different
Every developer I speak to at the moment always raves about the next-gen lighting in their new game engine, which feels so generic. What is it about lighting that impacts the final product so much
KF: On the multiplayer side, it impacts whether or not you can pick out players on a map. That's a big part of next-gen lighting. We have an amazing lightning team led by [lead lighting artist] Kenny Magnusson at 343 Industries, and they can take a standard scene or a standard bunch of geometry and make it look completely different. Whether it's figuring out the time of day or making a match for the skybox. As multiplayer designers, we're working with them closely to make sure the players pop out and that red and blue are evenly balanced. You're able to see who's shooting at you. You can pick out things like grenades and explosions. You can see if a guy fires a sniper rifle at you. You can see the tracer fly through the air. It's all related to lighting in some way, so we spent a lot of time working with them on that.
A new game engine is always a likely culprit for delays. Would Halo 5: Guardians have come out sooner if Xbox One had stayed in its original “always online” format?
KF: I actually really don't know; I wish I could answer the question, but I'm not sure. At first, we were really focused on getting our beta out and that was all online, so at that point we were thinking we were completely online. And that was a big deal for us because we wanted to make sure we had the beta out so we could actually make changes to the game. It was the earliest beta we'd ever done, too. Outside of that, I don't think that there was a lot of things that pulled us back from launching it earlier other than the fact that we wanted to spend more time on it and make a bigger investment to make sure it was right.
Since the Xbox One was stripped of its originally intended “always online” landscape during Halo 5’s development, do you think the game is now a different product to what it was going to be?
KF: There’s no difference I can think of. Obviously for the multiplayer team, we knew we were going to be online and it was a natural transition to go to dedicated servers. That was really big for us. One thing our fans have been asking for - particularly our grifball fans - is making sure that when they run their custom games, they get to use a dedicated server, which we're going to be providing for them. It’s a really big deal as this way they get a really awesome experience using the dedicated servers, whether they're playing on matchmaking or whether they're playing their own game with their own settings.
It sounds like a lot of the new engine's general design was led by the multiplayer modes as opposed to the campaign?
KF: Well the biggest features and biggest Spartan ability changes – like Spartan charge, ground pound, thrust and sprint - we really wanted to make consistent between the campaign and multiplayer. So there was a lot of back and forth and a lot of trade-offs, but eventually we found a way to make those abilities consistent. So if a player goes into the campaign, they have a set of abilities. If a player goes into Arena or Warzone, they have the same set. And that was the biggest upgrade. Aiming, shooting, spark length and so forth are the same, all upgraded into 60fps to make them consistent. There's a couple of abilities in campaign that aren't in Arena or Warzone - tracking and revive specifically - because we didn't have the time to get them right and didn't want to make any compromises on those experiences.
Do you think tracking and revive could be revisited in multiplayer in the future?
KF: It's something we’ve thought about and talked about, but we don't have any plans for it currently.
I was just reading through these massive Spartan missions in Covenant factories and stuff like that, thinking, "gee, wouldn't that be awesome to play?"
Warzone makes me think of Halo Wars - how much did that game impact the way you thought about creating this new mode?
KF: Great, great question. Halo Wars impacted Warzone a lot, actually. I have a big blown up picture of one of my favourite battle scenes from Halo Wars, and that helped us define and really scale out what a 5v5 scorpion battle could looks like. Our lead producer on Warzone, Brian Lemon, worked on Halo Wars quite a bit, so we had his perspective available to us as well.
Halo Wars is actually your first taste of the epic Halo battles that you got from the books, and the novels were a big inspiration for us, too. I was just reading through all these massive Spartan missions in Covenant factories and stuff like that, thinking, "gee, wouldn't that be awesome to play?" Halo Wars and the Halo books were a huge inspiration for Warzone, at least on the scale side.
Can you give me any examples of just how big the technical challenge was to execute Warzone?
KF: It was massive – Warzone took three years of development. We started with a very, very small prototype that was just a Red and a Blue team of four players each, and we just did weeks and weeks of work just to put the AI [third team] into that mode. Eventually we got the AI to defend the flag, which led to the really, really simple little demo where it all started. We were like, "okay, let's give this AI some properties to defend the flag and have two teams go after that flag at once." And when the Red team picked up the flag, the AI would go after them, but then the Blue team would let the Red team pick up the flag sometimes and try to sneak off with it after the AI had killed them. In the meantime, the AI was just wrecking hell on anything. So we had this really cool game that was different every single time you played it because the AI was such a wildcard.
After that we were like, "let's try to build a 24-player game." So we spent a long time upgrading the engine to 24 players. Then we had to upgrade our maps, so we had a new terrain tool built by our really talented technical art team, who just did an amazing job of creating these maps that were four times larger [than our previous maps]. We had a lot of challenges just on the scale and figuring out just how far the bases should be apart. When you build a map four times larger on the ground, it gets four times larger in the air, too, so you have to do it all with air vehicles as well.
So it was really an adventure for the team. We just focused on milestone after milestone after milestone, trying to break through our technical challenges, trying to drop more and more AI into the maps, and then trying to optimise it. Trying to get all the vehicles going, building the requisition stations and integrating those into the gameplay. We built a spawning system which was all new for Warzone, so you're able to choose where you want to spawn around the map. We got marines and we gave them awesome behaviour. We figured out how to do AI bosses and give them unique names per mission. So even just upgrading all of the toolsets so they worked when moving from the campaign into Warzone was a big deal. It's been a massive investment and I think the team is really, really, proud of all their hard work.
I was lucky enough to enjoy the Halo HoloLens demo at E3 2015; it was great, but it wasn't used in gameplay. Surely you’ve thought about how HoloLens could be integrated into Halo so I ask you, in a perfect world, how would Halo use the HoloLens?
KF: Oh, man. Designers always have a lot of ideas on this stuff, but we can't really think about it too much as we're so focused on building our console experience. HoloLens is really, really, exciting. It was great to see it at E3. Lots of ideas came up, but getting Warzone off the ground and getting the best possible console experience has been 100-percent of our focus, and we're all about sustaining that right now. We've actually got a lot more Warzone and a lot more Arena content coming over the next seven months and it's taking up all of our time. So we haven't been able to think too much about getting the HoloLens into Halo.
Did you know that Halo 5: Guardians has the eighth biggest install size of any Xbox One game? It’s 46GB at launch; what makes the install size of a game like Halo 5 46GB, and a game like Rise of the Tomb Raider just 20GB?
KF: I'd say just the scale. Not a complete technical answer, but the scale of the content in the game is just mind-blowing. We have different types of warthogs and different types of scorpions; when you get really deep into the requisition system, there's also legendary variants of all the weapons. There's a massive amount of ways you can customise the look of your Spartan character a well. So we've got a huge customisation system with everything from helmets, visors, skins and emblems, right through to actual animations. We actually just showed off the new assassination animation that you could get from the requisition system.
So that coupled with our very, very, large set of maps - we have 20 multiplayer maps that will be available at launch and then we're going to have 15 post launch. There's also hundreds and hundreds of Forge pieces that players can use to customise the levels. There's a lot of content and when I walk around the halls at 343 Industries looking at all the people doing hard work - building all sorts of stuff for the game - it doesn't surprise me at all that we have a large install.
Let’s get into the dirty laundry - what's more important, graphics or gameplay?
Dropping splitscreen was a really tough call but, unfortunately, it's what we had to do
Yet ditching splitscreen gameplay as an option feels like it's got a lot to do with prioritising graphics: how do you respond to that line of thought?
KF: Well, 60fps was a huge deal, but I feel like that's a gameplay decision, too. Yeah, the game has to look good. We want to make it look amazing, but we have a really good relationship that we built - especially over Halo 5: Guardians - with the art team so that we’re constantly going back and forth between art and gameplay to make sure it looks good, yet still plays really well. There’s still a technical challenge without splitscreen, as we need to make it look good and hit 60fps while making our release date. Dropping splitscreen was a really tough call but, unfortunately, it's what we had to do.
I know Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox at Microsoft, has come out and said splitscreen gamers are the minority, but they’re still hardcore fans and it means a lot to them. So can you give them anything? Has there been any talk about splitscreen internally? Any thought about delivering it in a patch or as DLC?
KF: Nothing I can... so I just want to make it really clear, I can't confirm that we're doing anything. I can tell you that I can relate to the way you’re feeling. I was a hardcore splitscreen player and I don't really want to make any assumptions on how anyone would want to play. I'll just tell you, splitscreen not appearing in the game was a decision that the team didn’t take lightly. It was a really difficult one and I'm sorry to see it go. But we do really feel like we have an amazing offering. We've built the largest multiplayer game ever: I think we just have to remind ourselves of that when we play.
At any point did you even get a technical demo of it running in splitscreen?
KF: I haven't played it since Halo 4: that was the last time I played splitscreen. I can't remember the exact [order of development]. When we were building our prototypes, we weren't really using splitscreen because in our natural development environment, we only have one kit. But with our designers we do something called neutral perspective scripting. So imagine you’re playing splitscreen on Halo 4 and four of you are in a game together - let's just say you're playing capture the flag and you've got a mix of Red and Blue guys. All of a sudden one of you runs over and picks up the flag, so the announcer would naturally say, "you have the flag."
Originally, the announcer on the Red team would then go, "enemy team took your flag." And then the other guy on the Blue team would hear, "teammate took the flag." So you would have these three voice-over lines that would play, right? That's just the way the game works naturally. So I spent over six weeks, just sitting there, every single day, going through all the different lines and putting in conditions and case scripting so that when someone picked up the flag, it would just say, "Blue flag taken." And lines like this are just called having a neutral perspective, so that way you wouldn't hear three annoying lines. It's the same thing with the ball getting picked up. It's the same thing with a team coming from behind with five kills to win. So we have to basically rescript the game and do a special presentation layer for splitscreen, and I did all this for Halo 5: Guardians. We did it again.
We were intending to have splitscreen from the multiplayer design side, and it’s something we put a lot of time and effort into. So I don't want you to think that it was abandoned early on. This is something that we spent hours and hours on – I spent months of my life working on splitscreen for Halo 5. So it's not something we were just like, "oh f--k splitscreen." It was a lot of work and painful to see it go.
Well here’s hoping splitscreen makes a triumphant comeback in the future…
KF: I wish I had better answers for you on the splitscreen stuff as I can tell you're passionate about it. I think it's fair to ask [these questions]. I’m a Halo fan, and I think it's frustrating, personally, that when I get in front of my Xbox there aren't a lot of couch games I can play.
Sadly there are many areas in Australia where playing games online is not possible, or at least predictable. Even in Sydney I cannot play online at night as soon as everyone comes home and turns on Netflix as the congestion gets so bad. They’re trying to fix it, but for these Halo campaign co-op fans, how should they perceive Halo 5: Guardian now that some of its key features – like co-op - may not be available to them?
KF: Well, it's a good question. I know we have made the investment to put dedicated servers here in Australia - we have local dedicated servers in Sydney and Melbourne. I was a huge proponent of it after the issues we had before. I was just in New Zealand and we had a 40-millisecond ping to the data centre, so I was overjoyed. I thought that was awesome for you guys to have that. But I can definitely relate to the concern. When I go home for my grandparents' anniversary in two weeks, I'm going to be using dial-up at their house because they live in the middle of nowhere. I grew up on a farm so I can definitely relate to that stuff. Ultimately, we all want to make as good of an experience that we possibly can.
We were like, "there's been AI in multiplayer before, but not this way and not on consoles, so let's do it." We need to lead the way with it.
Hopefully dedicated servers will prove the difference…
KF: Well when you were playing the campaign or Spartan Ops before, it was using a locked networking model, so you were always running it at whoever's ping was lowest. That’s just the way it was built, right? Now when you're playing, because you're using a dedicated server on Warzone, for example, if one person's ping drops because they start downloading something, they're not going to ruin the game for everybody else. Due to the dedicated servers, you're going to keep your ping and you're still going to have a good experience.
Halo has always had incredible network code. When there were games in Australia that you could not play at all, it was still pretty manageable…
KF: It blew me away. I came from Sony and EA, and when I started looking at the way Halo network worked, I was like, "oh my God, this is amazing." Halo was the first to do messaging; the first to do matchmaking on consoles. Halo always has to lead the way and Warzone is another part of that. We were like, "there's been AI in multiplayer before, but not this way and not on consoles, so let's do it." We need to lead the way with it.
Well we saw it at the start of the last generation of consoles, where a whole bunch of series that were classically splitscreen - like Codemasters’ racing games - ditched the mode for the first few years as the developer optimised its game engine.
KF: Another thing that did it was everyone switching over to 16x9 monitors so it was all widescreen, and widescreen is actually a weird way to play splitscreen. Going back to my favourite splitscreen games - Star Fox, Mario Kart, GoldenEye and Halo - you're on a square. And then all of a sudden, I'm playing Rainbow Six Vegas 2 with my brother and we're both seeing these weird stretched out worlds - it was strange.