Q&A: Reinventing Halo - The multiplayer future of Halo 5

At this year's E3, Halo 5 came out shooting with a brief campaign demo in Microsoft's press conference. That said, the meat of developer 343's presence was Warzone, a brand new mode to Halo that integrates campaign style spaces, Firefight-influenced enemy wave systems, and the PVP of Halo's competitive multiplayer into a cohesive yet frantic mode. In Multiplayer design director Kevin Franklin's words, "we just wanted to go as epic and as large as possible."

Based on my limited time with Warzone at E3, the description isn't off-base. Each 12 person team starts on opposite sides of the map, and their first task is to secure a base from AI-controlled Covenant or Promethean forces. Once that's complete, both teams will make their way towards a third base at the center of the map, where they'll collide with more Covenant and Prometheans — and each other. As teams fight to control bases to earn points, they'll earn requisition points that allow them to call in vehicles and access more powerful weapons, though, as with any Halo game, dying with a weapon is a good way to give it to the other team.

Meanwhile, AI units continue to spawn in, including powerful, legendary bosses, and killing them can heavily swing the battle to one side's favor. Between the 12v12 teams, the massive map and large alien presence everything feels bigger. It's more antagonistic than Firefight or Spartan Ops, Halo's previous PVE (player vs enemy) online modes, but the sheer scale and breadth of what I saw was enough to sell me. It's not the first shooter I've played to bring in elements of action-strategy/MOBA titles like League of Legends and Dota 2 that I've played, and not even the only one I saw at E3. But it does seem to get those ideas and fold them more organically into the core design ideas of the main game than anything else I've seen recently.

I was able to get an extended sit-down with Franklin to talk all about Halo 5 multiplayer — why Warzone is the mode that 343 has wanted to make for years, why he thinks Halo 4 lost its multiplayer audience so quickly, how the studio aims to make things right with Halo 5 and even how Warzone almost had MOBA-style lanes at one point.

"Halo Wars was a big inspiration for us"

Polygon: You have your pillars and talking points for Warzone about what it is, how it's PVE (player vs. enemy) and PVP, but what is the space in Halo that it's trying to fill? Every Halo game over the last few years has had something — we've had firefight a couple of times, and we've had Spartan Ops, and now we have Warzone. Why this, and not those things?

Kevin Franklin: I think we always wanted to combine all those elements together. Even when I started at 343 five years ago, we wanted to make a mode that had everything in it at once. We wanted players, AI, all the vehicles, all the weapons. But we just didn't have the tech ready for it. So that's why those things splintered off into so many different experiences. And we always looked at how we could transition players to campaign, to firefight, to multiplayer. With Warzone, we wanted to go directly from campaign into Warzone and feel really comfortable. Also, the scale of it. We just wanted to go as epic and as large as possible.

Practically speaking, why is it possible now? What makes this something that you can bite off and chew?

We're running on dedicated servers, which made a really, really big difference. We've got beefy four core servers that are able to run all our AI simulation and leave all the rendering up to the Xbox. And this is the first time we've built a game completely from the ground up for the Xbox One, so that made it a lot easier.

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From a tech standpoint, is it still the same roots and skeleton that's always driven Halo?

It's the same engine, it's just very heavily upgraded. We could never leave some parts of the engine behind. You would just never get those things back. Also, our team has been together for years now — our lead multiplayer engineer and I have been working together for five years. So we've got a team that's really hitting the ground and hitting our stride and knowing how we work together.

Halo 4 was generally well-received. It reviewed well, it sold well. But the multiplayer community dried up more quickly than I think a lot of people expected. Do you feel like there are reasons for that?

I think we were trying to appease our long-term Halo competitive community, our eSports fans and our new players all at the same time. We ended up with an experience that made some compromises in some areas. Halo 5 has had the largest investment ever, and it was amazing for us. We were like, "wait, we can build two multiplayer experiences?"

"wait, we can build two multiplayer experiences?"

We got to build a four-on-four multiplayer experience that's incredibly competitive, built for eSports, doesn't have any compromises, has fair starts, has weapon pads which brings map control back. We've got pro players giving us feedback on it all the time. And then we still get to build this massive new experience, Warzone, which caters to our big team battle crowd, people who love vehicles, people who want the huge heavy weapons, campaign players that want to fight AI, and even MOBA players and players from other genres that may be interested in this style of gameplay.

Let's talk about DLC.

With Halo 5's DLC plan, we have 15 maps that are completely free. In previous games, when you went into multiplayer, you would have Slayer, and then you had Slayer with DLC, and we ended up splintering our audience. We didn't like that at all. We wanted to keep everyone in one place. And that's one of the biggest reasons we want to give away our all our DLC.

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Halo 4 received DLC pretty quickly, if I remember correctly. At what point did you realize that it was fragmenting the community? Was that an accepted scenario?

We did have a season pass, so it was a little bit mitigated by players who bought that. But you know, it's just something that kind of happens. We prepared for it, so we made a lot of modes and playlists that would work whether you had DLC or not. But some players will say "I just spent money on this DLC package, and I want to play that map right now. But my friends don't have it." It creates issues.

Halo is a commercial enterprise, it has to make money, it has expectations. When you make a decision to give away so much content, which is a pretty big revenue stream for multiplayer games, do you have to start thinking of other ways that you can offset that?

I think our main goal is to have our players play the game from one game to the next. That's a much bigger deal for us than worrying about whether or not there's a big burst of DLC revenue. I definitely feel that to maintain a really healthy playerbase, we want to keep all these players coming back for months and months. That's been our primary focus. And we're Halo fans too. We just want to make the absolute best Halo maps and modes that we possibly can.

As someone who played Halo 4 and enjoyed it, there was a definite sense, particularly in multiplayer, that it was trying to find a relevancy that had eluded the series for a while. Maybe since the launch of Halo 3. You've talked a little bit about going back to basics and making the game for the hardcore fans. But the relevancy seems like it's still important. So how do you balance that and give traditional Halo fans what they want?

I think we look back, really. We had our whole multiplayer and dev team spend a lot of time going back through old games. We were playing weekly play tests of the older titles, and making sure we were all familiar with it, making sure those were really understood.

"We're not going to try to make any compromises."

Also, we're in close contact with a lot of our community members that lived through the MLG summers of Halo 2 and Halo 3. That was sort of the golden age of Halo eSports. Once we got in that mindset, and we said that this is our goal for Arena (Eds. Note: the competitive PVP mode in Halo 5). We're not going to try to make any compromises. We want to build an incredibly balanced and competitive multiplayer experience. Once that was our philosophy, it was much easier to go after that.

Now, there's a lot players that might have a negative reaction to a crazy competitive Arena experience. They tell us they go online, and they say "I spawn and I just die." And we're hoping that Warzone will be a nicer place for them to spawn in, and if you have a base, you've got marines protecting you, and if you want to go after players you can, but if you want to go after AI that you're more familiar with fighting, you can.

Halo 2 and Halo 3 were made as multiplayer experiences, but that's not the same as being made as an eSport. They were adopted by the eSports community. What goes into making Halo 5 an eSport directly?

We wanted to make sure we had a level playing field for everybody. That's basically our philosophy. Map control is a big, big deal for us, so when we designed our maps, we iterated on them an incredible amount, especially with weapon placement. Interestingly, on one map, I think it was Fathom, there's a shotgun area. We actually designed the area for that weapon. We had to start thinking about that from the beginning, to build that incredible competition we were looking for.

On the other side of that, we added features like spectator mode, which is a big deal for eSports. We wanted to make sure people would be able to broadcast it, and everyone was asking for it. Our pro team in-house also has years of multiplayer experience, and they play the game every single day and give us incredible amounts of feedback. It's great working with them, because we'll change a value on a weapon, and they won't even know that we changed it, but they'll send us emails and IMs saying "hey what did you do to the magnum, what'd you do to the reticle range, is it two world units larger?"

We get this constant stream of feedback from them, coupled with the multiplayer beta that we did. We got tons of community and fan feedback from the hardest of our hardcore audience, the guys who are on the forums, who are really just obsessive Halo fans. On top of that we have the Halo Championship Series, which is different than a partnership with MLG. We've invested in creating a large scale competitive community and experience with HCS, and we'll have many more details to come.

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Every feature that you add to the game has a huge cost. Every online feature takes time to build, and resources to support. So why is something like Spectator mode, and not just for competitive games, but to watch your friends play, so important?

I think it's huge. If you go online and you want to play with your friend but they're already in a game, it's going to be awesome to jump in and watch them finish their game. And you're already in the same party afterwards, you're ready to go. It removes that little bit of waiting period, so I think it's great for those types of players.

The campaign mystery

Coming into E3, I had a lot of questions about Halo 5, and now that the show is almost over, I still feel like I don't know much about what the campaign is.

Sure, I know that the Master Chief is on the run with his remaining Spartan-II brethren, and that Locke and his new team of Spartan-IVs are hot on their trail. I know that there's some form of squad command system in the game as Chief or Locke issue orders to their Spartans. I know the campaign is being designed with four-player cooperative play in mind. I know that the game looks absolutely stunning, and that it runs at 60 frames per second.

Don't get me wrong. These are good things, nice things for a Halo game to have. I am a fan of those things.

But what is Halo 5? I've heard 343 say all week, and in Game Informer's cover story last week, that it's the biggest, most ambitious Halo game to date. But aside from sheer production values and some cool but not game-changing additions, if you'll pardon the term, I don't know where the big ambition is.

OK, that's not totally true. As you'll see from this interview, there's plenty of ambition in Halo 5's multiplayer suite. Warzone is a pretty big deal, and the competitive push in Arena is showing an assertiveness with regards to eSports that no Halo game ever has.

But what about the campaign? (continued below)

Also, if you're a follower of some of the big pro gamers like Flamesword, or you follow Strongside, you can go online and just watch their games live as they're happening. You can do that or watch through Twitch. It just gives you more options.

Are there plans to have featured players on the front page of War Games (ed's note: War Games is the catch-all conceit for Halo 5's multiplayer component.)

On Halo Waypoint blogs, we're definitely promoting these players. The in-game stuff I can't talk to you much about yet. But we do want to promote our players and when they win the HCS, I always like to think of how these players can get their pro card. How do we get them to be stamped Pro? And we've talked a lot to our community team about finding ways to do that.

I find that people tend to complain about the things in multiplayer games that keep them from winning, and I'm not immune to those criticisms with all the multiplayer games I play. You've talked about listening to feedback from the players of your games, but are there times where there are really visceral sort of pronounced complaints and criticisms of Halo that you feel like you can't listen to?

Absolutely. For a good experience, everyone's going to have a fifty percent win percentage. As you get better, as I get better, I'm going to climb up and play people the same skill level as me, and I should go fifty percent. When matchmaking is working, I should be fifty percent.

We want to make sure that whether you're winning or losing, you're having a good time and that's sort of our goal. But we do have players who think they should win a hundred percent of the time, and that's their perception when they go into it. They usually pick on features that introduce randomness, or random number generators, where they're saying "OK, I lost because that guy had better luck on his spread from his DMR, or from that grenade bounce." So we get a lot of that.

One of our philosophies was to remove as much of that possible, so our sandbox team is really thinking about how they can make sure that we don't end up with situations like that.

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Halo 3 is an example of a game that was pretty successful, that found an audience while competing with some pretty strong contemporaries like Gears of War and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and games like Team Fortress. Now, Halo is competing against all of the sort of entrenched console competition that it had, and also this surge of free-to-play multiplayer games with massive audiences. What does Halo need to do as a multiplayer game to stand out in that crowd, and find an audience?

With the the Arena experience, I always look at it as, "just one more game." When a player finishes a multiplayer match we have to get that feeling that makes them want to go one more, and it's almost like a rush where you almost forget your last game, and think "I just need to play another one."

"When we started working on Warzone, we were asking if the marines were just going to run into all the bases… one of our level designers started looking at it and asked if we wanted lanes"

For a multiplayer game to be successful, no matter how flashy it looks, or how interesting the characters are, how much art they have, it has to have that core retention loop of wanting to play one more game. So when we play our game, we're really critical of the stress level we put players through. Our spawning system is a huge deal — how far do players have to go until they engage somebody, how long until they pick up a weapon. We looked at all this stuff very carefully to try to make sure we're managing players' stress levels, we're keeping players on target, and overall, making sure we get that feeling of one more game.

On the flip side of that, we also gotta be innovative, push forward to new things, deliver new experiences. I like to say the fans designed Warzone, because I can't tell you how many times you go through forums or talk to players at conferences and they ask "why can't you just put AI in it? Why can't we have more than four vehicles on the map at a time?" There's a couple of screenshots from different Halo comic books and Halo: Reach had a cinematic where you had all the warthogs racing at each other. Halo Wars was a big inspiration for us, to see all those Scorpions on the battlefield at the same time. So that was something we just wanted to deliver, because we felt it was the players' fantasy come to life.

Are there games outside of the shooter space that you're looking at, not necessarily as influences, but as inspirations or sources of innovation you can bring into Halo?

All of our design team are huge gamers, so we play as much as we possibly can. We're big fans of other titles, and we get a lot of inspiration that way. But you know, at the end of the day, Halo is Halo. That's what brought us to it, and that's what we want to fulfill.

Campaign (cont.)

What I want to know, what I don't know after the limited information 343 has chosen to share regarding the campaign, is what the game's structure is. Is it a linear sandbox shooter, as with most of the Halo franchise? Or is it something different, something that stretches the basic understanding of what a Halo game is, much like 2009's ODST did?

I know which one of those I'd prefer.

Halo 4 was a fantastic interpretation of that classic Halo structure, of set pieces and sandboxes and big explosive moments. It had everything you'd expect from a Halo game. But we're in a new console generation. The last time Halo made the jump from one generation to the next, series creators Bungie blew out the combat environment, adding greater vertical sophistication, more enemies, bigger sandboxes, huger challenges.

Halo 3's defining moments, for me, were the scarab fights, encounters that essentially added levels within levels, which demanded and rewarded experimentation and improvisation in combat like no previous Halo had. It forced an evolution of my understanding of the series. It was more than just, well, more.

Right now, what I'm seeing of Halo 5's campaign feels like more of what Halo 4 was. And while I have an inkling I would enjoy that quite a bit, I would be disappointed if 343 didn't take the opportunity to push the series beyond more of what it already does well.

It's almost been a mission for us sometimes when we look at features in other games and we think "OK, we could just borrow that, but how do we make it Halo," or "is it Halo" or "does it fit in our universe?" And then we look at what our world has going for it. We have space and sci-fi, and that's something we can really leverage as much as possible. So it's kind of interesting to think "can we just grab that feature?" but we have to make it fit within our universe.

I was really into MOBAs, and you know, we play a ton of League of Legends and Dota at the studio and asked "how would this work in Halo?" So when we started working on Warzone, we were asking if the marines were just going to run into all the bases. Where are your lanes? One of our level designers started looking at it and asked if we wanted lanes, and our artists said no, you can't just build canyons, the Warthog has to drive around.

I wouldn't say we failed at it, but we just looked at it and thought "this is a failure if we just try to take Summoners' Rift and drop it into Halo." That was one of the biggest challenges with Warzone. We knew we wanted bases, we loved those. And a lot of people kind of think those are like towers, but they're bases. We had to make them feel unique, and part of Halo, so they're pre-assembled UNSC structures, and each of them is a little arena combat space. So instead of a tower that shoots at you, we've got almost a mini multiplayer map, just inside of Warzone.

That's actually been tuned to fit with our golden triangle of melee, grenade, rifle combat as well. It was really cool going through all those exercises and solving all those problems as we tried to take some MOBA features. You might recognize power cores. We really hope players who have played LoL and Dota [2] can relate to those and understand them and figure out how that mechanic works. But we had to design something that was unique to Halo, because without lanes, you can just fly your Banshee right to the power core. So we had to make it so that shield doors come up when you capture all the bases.

"This is a failure if we just try to take Summoner's Rift and drop it into Halo."

What kind of ripples in the game's design has the 60 frames per second change made?

There have been a ton. Melee feels a lot different. In Halo 2 and Halo 3 there were all sorts of issues with peer-to-peer networking and melee, where you weren't sure which one landed first, and players would always be arguing over that. And that's cleaned up an incredible amount. The vehicles play a lot differently. If you're in a Banshee, you can do a lot more tracking, and the bombs work great. The biggest change with Warzone was more airspace, since we went so much bigger. And 60 fps was a challenge to get working with all that. Our engineers did a fantastic job of focusing on all these different problems with making something look amazing if you're on the ground, and still having it look amazing running at 60 when you're up in the air. So it was cool to see dogfighting become a big part of Warzone.

Going back to the Master Chief Collection after playing previous Halos, everything felt not slippery but very fast. Almost a little disconcertingly fast.

It definitely does. One thing we noticed right away was that at 60 fps, grenades were being shot out of the air. Players were throwing grenades at each other, and at higher framerates your bullets actually have a better chance of connecting, so we had to go back and retune that.

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Is there a discussion in the studio when that happens whether or not that becomes a mechanic? Or is that something so anathema to Halo that it has to be fixed?

We wanted to make it feel more like Halo 2 or Halo 3, so it had a better predictability, to make it more familiar. So we tuned around it happening too often. The pro team is a great guide for that. We moved the slider and changed the way it worked, and they'd try it and say "OK now it's better." It still works.

The obsessive level of detail we had to go into on our debugging tools before then handing those to the pro team was incredible too. When a bullet's fired, if they say "oh I don't think it hit that guy, it can't have hit them," they can pause the game, go back and rewind and evaluate that in debug, which is super helpful.

Do you expect the Halo 5 that releases to be the state of the game for the foreseeable future, or is Halo 5 a platform for evolution over time? There's a difference between a retail game and a service.

There absolutely is. We've been working a lot on our post launch content and we have a lot of people who are really looking forward to expanding the boundaries of where we started. So with Warzone, what we're launching vs what we're going to have post-launch, I think you're going to see a lot of interesting surprises and changes. We want to make sure we're pushing ourselves.