Interview with Josh Holmes, Creative Director for Halo 4 at 343 Industries
During the EB Games Expo 2012, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to sit down with Josh Holmes, the Creative Director at 343 Industries, and talk to him about all things Halo 4. We covered a variety of subjects, with Josh fielding questions on the Prometheans, the epic scale of Halo, cans of tuna and more. The full transcript of the interview is below.
As a creative director, how do you balance the desire to make the best game you can whilst also planning for a trilogy? Was there ever a moment in the development where you had to hold something back for the next game?
Not really. I kind of take the approach of focusing on one game at a time. We have a plan for where we see the Halo universe going and evolving but we really kind of focused on the experience of Halo 4 and what we wanted to tell from a story perspective, from an experience perspective and we never really felt like we had to hold anything back. I think if you do that you’re limiting yourself and ultimately you have to trust that you’re going to have a whole other set of great ideas when you start tackling the next one.
Halo 4 introduces a whole new enemy faction, the Prometheans. How early in development was it decided that you wanted to go with a new enemy?
Pretty early. I think that when we first started working on the game we took stock of where we thought there were areas for improvement or addition to Halo, and while we all love the Covenant, we realised that we and gamers like us had been fighting them for a over a decade and they had become very familiar and in some ways for those players who have fought them for that long maybe a little predictable. And so by adding a new enemy faction we have an opportunity to challenge players in new ways and force them to employ new tactics on the battlefield. And so that was really important and then by adding that faction you also introduce new tools to the sandbox. You’ve got new weapons, new abilities and so those become again another cool new set of possibilities for players. So from the perspective of trying to refresh the experience and create something that felt new and vibrant, a new enemy just made sense.
You mentioned the new weapons – do you feel they compliment what we’ve seen before? That they add something new?
Yeah. We tried to look at – from the perspective of the arsenal of weapons – we looked at what was in the existing sandbox. We looked at a lot of the classic weapons that existed in past Halo games and tried to bring back the things that you were most fond of – the fans – really were calling out for as well as expanding to include new weapons. And when we were evaluating new weapons it was always thinking in terms of ok, what are the opportunities that this might open up, whether it’s single player or multiplayer, how can this create new interactions within the sandbox that can lead to emergent gameplay. So that was the philosophy we took. On the Promethean side specificially we went through a lot of exploration around the weapons and tried to find ways to develop new, very sci-fi advance feeling weapons that were at the same time kind of recognisable enough that when a player picks it up they can say ok, i know how to use this. And that came out of a pretty long process of exploration and innovation. When we experimented with even wilder sci-fi concepts – we found that either players found them so unfamiliar that they weren’t willing to take the time to learn them or in some cases some of the new functions that we added really didn’t compliment the existing sandbox well. So that whole process of developing new weapons was a lengthy one – probably took us two, two and a half years.
For myself, one of Halo’s strengths has always been the sense of scale and the sense of awe you get when you’re playing the game. Is that something that’s very important for you to bring back for the next one?
Very much so. Halo has an incredible, epic scale and gives you this sense of wonder and awe that the universe is larger than you can hold in your head at any one time. And it’s really – throughout the series – had incredible vistas, breathtaking in their majesty and so for us, especially in creating a new world in Requiem we wanted to deliver on that same sense of scale and create those jaw-dropping moments. And we’re really lucky to have a fantastic team of artists led by Art Director Kenneth Scott and incredible concept artists led by Nicholas Bouvier of Sparth. Just world class talent that was able to create some of those amazing moments throughout the game.
Graphically, Halo 4 looks spectacular. How difficult is it to make a game that looks that good on hardware that’s now 7 years old?
People ask how do you achieve the look in Halo 4 and really it comes down to a combination of great technology and great art talent. We have amazing artists who are at the top of their craft and they’ve been able to create some stunning imagery. And that’s been enabled by some really incredible technologists and engineers who know the hardware very very well because they’ve worked with it for so long so they understand how to get the most out of it and how to squeeze every last bit of performance. And it’s that combination and marriage of those two things that has resulted in Halo 4.
Bungie was infamous for leaving easter eggs and things in their games. Can fans look forward to hunting for similar things in Halo 4?
Yeah. Easter eggs are a big part of Halo and have been a big part of the series for years and something that fans really enjoy and appreciate. We’ve populated Halo 4 with many easter eggs. We’ve taken an approach where, when we have areas that are very open and players are able to explore those areas we’ve hidden little bits of secondary storytelling and little things for fans to discover throughout the game so those players who spend the time will be rewarded.
When the Halo 4 campaign is over – when it’s done and dusted – when the credits roll – what do you want fans to be feeling?
I hope that fans feel moved by the campaign. And it’s funny to say that about a shooter because there’s so much focus on action and excitement and adventure and hopefully there’s all of that too. But this is a more personal story for the Chief and I hope that fans will feel some amount of the emotional weight that goes with the story that we’re trying to tell and will be moved by it. And if we can achieve that I’ll be happy.
Warthog – gunner or driver?
For me? I’ll always run for the guns because I like killing things. But I have actually learned to appreciate driving, usually because I’m a little slow getting to the guns and someone always sneaks in there before me. And I’ve become a pretty decent Warthog driver over the years. So yeah, I’ll favour the gun but I’ll drive if someone gets there first.
Wraith or Scorpion?
Wraith or Scorpion. Scorpion.
Yeah. Always scorpion. Scorpion is so deadly like it’s just…and we’ve done some stuff in Halo 4 to kind of temper a little bit of the destructive power of the Scorpion, make it a little bit more skilled to land a shot by having some arc to the projectile but Scorpion just completely owns and its one of my favourite things to use. Although – the Mantis which is our new mech vehicle – I will take that over the Scorpion even though it’s nowhere near as powerful just because it’s so much fun to use.
It takes the crown?
It does. It takes the crown for me. I don’t know how other people feel about it, whether other people love it. But there’s just something so empowering about being in this giant behemoth of a wrecking maching, towering over everything on the battlefield. It’s pretty awesome.
I’m wondering if you can give us an exclusive here – you were the lead designer on Def Jam Fight for New York.
Is there any chance of seeing the Momentum Meter, Blazin Taunts, or a Method and Red cameo in Halo 4?
[laughs] No chance those are going to be in Halo 4. But a lot of the same approach to some of those system designs, those basic core elements, there’s some of them that do carry over to Halo 4. So we have Infinity Slayer where everything that you do in the game, whether you’re getting kills or assists or you’re helping out your teammates in different ways, all of those things are powering up your ordinance meter that allows you to call in ordinance drops from the Infinity in orbit. And that system at a core design level is not totally dissimilar to Blazin meter in Def Jam – just a little bit of a different reward at the end.
Final question – 343 Industries now occupies the same building that Bungie did when they were making the last Halo. Did they leave you any housewarming gifts and or booby traps?
…did they tell you about this?! How do you know this?! Yeah they did actually. So they hid two cans of open tuna under the floor that we know of, and also left us two beers, so that was nice. Also under the floor.
So they were warm then.
Yeah but they were beer.
Better than tuna.
Yeah. They were beer. We definitely appreciate that. And then Joe Tung swore that he was going to befoul our toilets but he didn’t. So we’re appreciative that Joe did not do that. But the tuna was a nasty trick that we gotta get them back for at some point.
How long did it take before you found it?
It was weeks. It was weeks. Yeah. And they told us some of the things that they were gonna do. But that one, it took a while for us to track it down. And it was the stench. I swear we have like a small family of rats that have lived under our floors ever since.
That’s amazing. Good for them. Hopefully they haven’t put anything else there.
No. We’ll get ’em back one day.
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Special thanks to Josh for taking the time to talk with me during the Expo. It’s hard to be more excited for Halo 4, but after speaking with him I’m practically buzzing for the release. Halo 4 releases November 6th.