Earlier this month 343 Industries announced an update to Halo 5: Guardians that will bring back the community-made gametype known as Grifball. You can watch the first footage in our exclusive video above. The free update, which doesn't yet have a release date, will include all the weapons, maps and matchmaking infrastructure to make the melee-based sport work.
But what in the world is Grifball? Where did it come from and how will gameplay change with the new mobility features found in the latest version of Halo? Polygon gathered a blue-ribbon panel to find out.
As it turns out, the origin of the name "Grifball" comes from a throw-away line that opened episode 59 of the now famous machinima series Red vs. Blue.
"Our character Sarge hates this other character, named Grif, who’s on his team," Rooster Teeth Productions' Burnie Burns, co-writer and director of Red vs. Blue, told Polygon. "Sarge is shooting at him one day and Grif is running back and forth on a cliff, almost like a duck in a shooting gallery, and Sarge just says, 'This is the best game since Grifball.'"
Of course, when the episode aired in September 2005 there was no such thing as Grifball. It took the release of Halo 3's Heroic Map Pack in December 2007 for Burns and the team at Rooster Teeth to get the tools they needed to make the game happen.
The real birth of Grifball came around because, Burns says, he's famously bad at Halo.
"When we got access to the Heroic Map Pack, we had it about a week early. There was no one else to play against on the maps because it wasn’t publicly released yet, and so we were all goofing around. We tried to come up with a gametype that we could play that didn’t require traditional Halo skills, and that's how we ended up creating Grifball."
Halo has a long tradition of community-made gametypes. Most of them, Burns said, used to rely on "honor rules." Prior to the Heroic Map Pack's introduction of Forge, a way for players to create and share their own custom maps and game modes, players had to mutually agree to the game rules before a session could begin. Then, each player was on their honor to obey those rules.
What made Grifball so unique was that it used all the existing Assault game mode's rules wholesale. Players merely armed themselves differently before the game began, and player nature sort of took its course once the match started.
"Grifball actually used all of the rules in-engine for Halo to where you didn’t need any explanation," Burns said. "You could keep score based on the game counter itself, and you didn’t have to have any honor rules at all. In fact, the less honor rules, the better."
Grifball is played with each player armed with an energy sword and a gravity hammer. The objective is to place a bomb — which acts as the ball — inside the enemy's base. To play Grifball, you just have to kill other players with the sword and move the ball around the court with the hammer. It's that simple.
Looking for a name for the game, one of the other members of the Rooster Teeth team, Gavin Free, remembered that throw-away line from season four of Red vs. Blue.
And that's how Grifball was born.
Frank O'Connor, franchise creative director for Halo at 343, remembers first hearing of the Grifball phenomenon shortly after the launch of the Heroic Map Pack, in 2008.
"My friends list was always a mixture of random people whose gamertags I thought I recognized, and people in the community," O'Connor said. "So, I was getting invites to custom games of Grifball probably a month or two after it had taken off and before it had really taken off. … It was one of those game modes where you kind of didn’t have to know what was going on to play it. You just grab your hammer and start swinging."
That's how Grifball was born.
O'Connor told Polygon that he sees many of those same design elements in the smash hit Rocket League, which is also now available on Xbox One.
"The easy way to understand Grifball, at least visually, is if you’ve ever watched Rocket League it looks like an even crazier version of Rocket League," O'Connor said. "You’re looking at similar-sized maps, a goal at either end, and instead of cars you’ve got Spartans running around with hammers and swords. So, the kind of vibe you get from watching it is that it looks a little bit like Rocket League.
"Or, rather, Rocket League looks a little bit like Grifball since we predate it."
Before long, the team at Bungie was actually building Grifball modes into weekly double-experience point events held for Halo 3 on the Xbox 360, further fueling the fire and helping cement the game's popularity.
What's truly remarkable about the story of Grifball, however, is the community that's sprung up around it.
Kelli "Goose" Dunlap is the co-owner of Grifball Hub, the largest Grifball community in the world. Even without the tools to properly play Grifball in the current version of Halo (the gravity hammer in particular is currently absent from Halo 5, as are the playable Brute characters that traditionally wield them), Dunlap says there's still a core group of several hundred dedicated Grifball players that keep the community alive.
But, Dunlap said, she expects the Grifball Hub to experience a surge in traffic once more now that 343 is adding what fans need to play Grifball back into the game. In fact, earlier this morning when Polygon first announced the Grifball update via video, Grifball Hub promptly crashed.
What has the community so excited, Dunlap says, is the new mobility features baked into Halo 5. They hold the promise of seeing players sliding and jumping around the map in ways that simply haven't been possible since Halo 3 or — in the case of the "ground pound" move — ever before.
"Our community has already decided to call a ground pound in Grifball a 'Shark Down,'" Dunlap said. "We've already named moves, and we don't know how it's going to work yet. It's all just speculation right now, since I haven't been able to touch it yet. But there are a lot of fun ideas ... The idea that maybe they could slide in some way to avoid a sword lunge or a hammer lunge, that's a really cool idea ... But to be able to self-launch, pop yourself into the air and then target somebody in a different corner and ground pound towards them, I think that's going to make for some really spectacular stops."
This year's Grifball world championships will take place at the Rooster Teeth Expo in July. Those interested in getting involved in the sport can head to Grifball Hub right now to sign up for an account. All you need is a team of four players to get involved in the Good Games League, also known as the GGL, which is kicking off March 4. You can also follow @GrifballHub on Twitter, where Dunlap says they're streaming games three times a week.
"We commentate them, and include motion graphics," Dunlap said. "The whole nine yards. Grifball is very special in that it exists because the community, through sheer force of will, has forced it to continue to exist. That, and through the benevolence of 343."