After going hands-on with Halo Infinite’s campaign we got the chance to sit down with 343 Industries to talk about being a spiritual reboot in a modern era, and take a look at open-world design. How the AI has evolved alongside combat, and just what the team has been focused on after last year’s delay.
Speaking from 343 is Paul Crocker, Associate Creative Director, Steve Dyck, Character Director, and Justin Dinges, Campaign Art Lead on Halo Infinite.
Let’s get to it.
When it comes to designing missions and keeping a narrative through line for Halo Infinite, how has the team approached the ‘open-world’?
Paul Crocker: “Open-world is an interesting term for us because it's really a genre and everyone has their expectations for what it means. From massive 200-hour collect-a-thons, RPGs, you name it. What we’ve always tried to do is make Halo Infinite’s campaign feel like a Halo game, but as wide as possible. The way we designed the world, the way we designed the story, the way we designed the gameplay, it’s all about keeping that spirit of Halo alive. We constantly have a main objective that is, maybe not easy to reach, but clear as to how. That’s what the story is doing, it's pulling you to your objectives and setting up new complications.”
”The way we designed the world, the way we designed the story, the way we designed the gameplay, it’s all about keeping that spirit of Halo alive.”
“For players who just want a huge Halo story, that’s there and it's easy to follow. But, we also wanted to make the game you think you played 20 years ago, set in an expansive world. So all along that main path you're being distracted by other content with the dynamic events, Banished bases and outposts, rescuing USNC. There's a lot in the world for you to go and discover, but it's all additive to the experience of the golden path. We know that one of the things Halo players will really want to do is go on that golden path and embrace the story. So we tried to give the best of both worlds in the way we've constructed it.”
What does that mean for the design of things that might be considered side-missions or side-activities?
Steve Dyck: “The additional stuff, the side-quest stuff, we never wanted that to feel grindy. Games that are more open and have deep progression systems you end up getting to a point where you feel like you have to grind away to level up before you can get to the next thing. You can do 100% of the main story without ever touching the side stuff and that's by design.”
“But, when we were designing the side content we wanted it to be compelling for players. There's Marines over there that need some help. What's that big base thing over there? The Weapon [Master Chief’s AI companion] didn't tell me to go there, but I'm curious what that is. You also learn more about each location when you get there and at the same time the reward for the player and doing side stuff is like our currency. Valour Points that you're obtaining to get better Marines, better vehicles, better weapons. You don't have to get that stuff, but ideally, it’s going to be enticing enough to players. That they're going to want to have access to better toys.”
The types of races and enemies you face in Halo have always been visually distinct, what elements of that have been expanded or amplified in Halo Infinite?
Steve Dyck: “The visually distinct enemies, that's something that we certainly, as far the spiritual reboot is concerned, took to heart. And we dialled back some of the choices we've made as 343 in past games around Elites and Grunts and Jackals. Bringing things like the Skirmishers back too.”
How does that play into what we consider enemy AI and battle tactics?
Steve Dyck: “Tactics wise, the player's ability to just kind of attack bases and engage the way they want, whether they grapple over a wall or bring a vehicle, we had to make sure on the AI side they're able to account for these types of things. We added a lot of behaviours around that stuff, we rebuilt the cover system from the ground up, enemy's now have the ability to grab weapons off of racks. So if you're sniping from a distance, enemies can go and grab a longer range weapon. If you're flying around in a vehicle they can go and grab a shock weapon and try to EMP you out of the sky.”
“The visually distinct enemies, that's something that we certainly, as far the spiritual reboot is concerned, took to heart. And we dialled back some of the choices we've made as 343 in past games around Elites and Grunts and Jackals."
“We also had to account for just these big spaces that could quickly become overwhelming and not fun for the player if we had every enemy immediately target Master Chief. You'd be dead in a hurry and you wouldn't feel like a super soldier anymore. Under the hood there's a lot of things going on around enemies choosing new firing points, things like bursts delays and cool-downs on weapons. Making enemies visually reload and stuff like that. Making sure there’s more breaks so they’re not just firing at you all the time.”
“At the heart of it all, it goes back to the point around the visually distinct enemies. We really tried to make sure that each enemy, each variant, has a good gameplay reason to exist. And ideally, present the player with a new challenge. The Jackals are a good example, they've got a shield so how are you going to get past that? Do you use your grapple? A plasma weapon?”
“One of the philosophies that we had with the character and AI design was to embrace the sci fi because we are a sci fi game. In my opinion that gives us an advantage that a lot of our competitors don't have, where we can do things that are out of left field or seem crazy. It's part of that legacy, that fun visually distinct look coupled with compelling behaviours that are different based on what species you're fighting. It really is a big part of the DNA of what makes Halo, Halo.”
Since the campaign debuted a year ago, the visual fidelity in terms of lighting and other stuff like draw distances seems to have been overhauled. Has that been a focus this year? Or has it mostly been a case of polishing the feel, the missions, the tempo -- because it feels great to play.
Paul Crocker: “I want to talk about the process of what we did post demo, because one, the game wasn't finished and two, we heard all the feedback we got. It wasn't just about the art for us. It was about looking at the entire game we had, and we were in a fortunate position to be supported by Xbox to have extra time.”
“It wasn't just about the art for us. It was about looking at the entire game we had, and we were in a fortunate position to be supported by Xbox to have extra time.”
“It was looking at an almost finished game and seeing what was working and what wasn't working and then breaking it down into the different elements. Not just art, was the story completely understandable? Were the mechanics explained properly? Was it too easy? Was it too hard? Pretty much everyone was involved in making decisions about where we should focus our resources, because it wasn't a case of let's just start again. We really wanted to focus on editing things that weren't working as much as we wanted to take things that were successful and then push them further.”
Justin Dinges: “For the visuals specifically we weren’t feeling great about showing [Halo Infinite] last year. And the fan feedback kind of reiterated that to us. We weren't ready, and while it feels like we recreated all the systems or tore it all down, we actually just kept building on what we had. The good news is that when it came to the visuals, a lot of it was stuff we wanted to do that we just didn’t have the time to do. We were fortunate to be given the extra time to work on that stuff. And with that we basically kicked into high gear. We didn't do everything right but we tactically picked what would make the biggest impact.”
“We looked at fan feedback. We looked at our own feedback. We're professionals so we kind of know what is generally good or bad. We had a list and we spent a good amount of time going through that list; let's hit this, let's skip this, let's hit this. And then we just worked really hard. I’m really happy that people can see the differences because the amount of effort that it took to get those differences in was quite large.”