When people think “Halo developer,” the first name that comes into their heads in undoubtedly Bungie. What those people should have figured out by now, though, is that the Halo franchise has been handed off to 343 Industries. But that doesn’t mean 343 is the only studio on the Halo games; these kinds of massively popular triple-A games take enormous amounts of people to make.
Enter Certain Affinity. This Austin-based developer has been contracted to do work on Halo 4’s multiplayer. Obviously this is no small task; Halo games live and die by their multiplayer, after all. But Certain Affinity is no slouch when it comes to co-development. They helped out Treyarch with World at War and Black Ops, and did some work on the console version of Left 4 Dead. They’ve even dipped into the Halo ink with their work on Reach and Combat Evolved Anniversary.
But it’s Halo 4 that we’re all thinking about right now, so I talked to Certain Affinity President and Creative Director Max Hoberman and VP of Product Development Phil Wattenbarger to see what they could tell me about the revamped Forge and the multiplayer elements of Halo 4. First of all, they wanted to clarify what their specific role was on the project.
Hoberman told me, “We certainly did a lot of work on Forge, but honestly, that wasn’t even the majority of what we did. We were involved with multiplayer development and the War Games mode—you know War Games as the wrapper for the competitive multiplayer. We were involved across the board. But the bulk of what we did is we actually created a bulk of the multiplayer maps for War Games. We also created a whole bunch of multiplayer game modes for War Games, including Dominion, which is the most sophisticated game mode. And we redid some old game modes also, like King of the Hill and Oddball and whatnot.
“We did this as a co-development with 343. We had a ton of input. We were actually completely integrated with their team. We’re set up now as a remote offsite location for Microsoft, so we’re actually on their internal corporate network and everything. So we were highly integrated with them. We had a ton of input, certainly, into the core systems—the sandbox, as they say—of controls and weapons and things like that. We didn’t hands-on develop that stuff, but we certainly had a lot of input.”
Needless to say, Certain Affinity was deeply ingrained in Halo 4’s multiplayer, and their influence will undoubtedly resonate through just about every aspect of that. So I was curious as to their design philosophy, or the motivations behind their particular decisions while designing the game’s multiplayer maps.
Hoberman’s response? “Certainly, the collective goal is, how do we make this familiar yet new? Or, how do we make sure this still feels like Halo?” After the brief time I spent with Halo 4’s multiplayer, I can see what he means by this. Halo 4 certainly feels like a Halo game, though the controls seem to be slightly smoother.
To elaborate more on where Certain Affinity’s map ideas originate from, Wattenbarger piped in: “One of the things I think is exciting about Halo 4 is how we’re pushing a lot of things, and there is a lot of innovation. And also, it’s sci-fi, and it’s great to have the Halo universe to draw from. Oftentimes, at the beginning of a map creation, we’ll collaborate with the Halo franchise team and talk about different places in the station and in the universe where we might get inspiration… It’s either a specific location that we get excited about, or it’s a specific visual, or an image we saw in the single-player campaign.”
To get a better idea of how this creative process plays out, we talked about the Halo 4 map Longbow.
Wattenbarger continued: “I think [with] Longbow, we just had a simple idea… this planet had basically this big mechanism—I forget what we called it, Particle Accelerator or Package Accelerator—to shoot packages with this rail up into the atmosphere. If there’s a moon colony or there’s a moon station, they’re shooting supplies from the planet off into outer orbit.
“That’s just science fiction; that’s Halo lore. Once you have an idea or a theme like that, it just fuels everything we do. We come up with small stories that might happen, then we tell a story with the imagery; we tell a story with the maps we’re making. And that’s just kind of on a visual side. On a gameplay side, we’re always trying to stretch what we’re trying to do.
“With Longbow in particular, that was really fun infantry-mixed-with-vehicle-combat, which, you know, is kind of the signature touch of Halo.”
“That’s actually one reason I’ve always gravitated toward multiplayer,” Hoberman told me. “In some ways, when we’re not as bound by the in-game and the linear storyline and those sorts of things, you’re more free, in a way, to explore whatever crazy location you want. It’s kind of cool. Whatever you can dream up.
“Sometimes the inspiration is as simple as one line in one of the novels where they mention a cold colony on some planet, and nobody knows anything about it, nobody knows what it looks like or any other details. We get a chance to imagine it and flesh it out, which is really cool, one really awesome aspect of this franchise.”
I pointed out how it would be cool for a fan who decides to read one of the Halo novels after playing Halo 4, and is then able to mentally latch on to these environments that they had experienced in multiplayer.
Hoberman was quick to agree. “That’s always been a hallmark of the Halo franchise: the kind of subtle references and connections. I know we have a lot of fans here; we’re fans of the fiction and the franchise. We have a lot of them here that really get into that stuff. Halo’s great in that respect.”
Since Certain Affinity’s really predominantly known for their work on Forge, I had to ask about it. We talked about one of the new features that should make Halo 4’s Forge the best one yet.
“One [feature] we’re really excited about is Player Trait Zones, which is zones where you’re able to add a lot of different attributes. Basically, in the editor, what you’re able to do is lay down these zones, and the mapmaker has complete power to say what they want to happen in the zones. For example, you can control gravity, if you want positive or negative gravity and how much. You can control whether or not there’s damage resistance. You can give players an overshield within the zones.
“This is something you couldn’t do before. Map-wide, you could set these player traits as sort of rules, but now you can set up, let’s say, a room, and when you go into that room, only melee combat is going to work. You can set up multiple different spins like that on the map. You can set up a space where you can’t actually drive vehicles; you’ll get kicked out of a vehicle if you drive into this space. So it’s just all this wacky stuff you can do that we think will be really fun. We think the community is just going to go crazy and come up with some unbelievably awesome inventions, stuff you just couldn’t have done in any prior Halo game.
“And not only that, but one zone can have multiple traits, so you can layer on all sorts of crazy combinations of things. You know, you could play a game of CTF where when you go into the flag room, all of a sudden everybody’s super bouncy and can jump three times as high… Whatever crazy stuff people come up with. We’re dying to see what sort of absurd awesome stuff people come up with.
“It’s going to be really fun. I’m sure there’s going to be some really terrible game creations out there, but I think there’s also going to be some evil geniuses out there that come up with some brilliant things.”
“And we also made all the new game modes compatible with Forge,” Wattenbarger added, “and supporting some of the old modes also, like Oddball and Flood. But we made sure all those worked with Forge. So not only are people going to play in player gravity zones, but it now matches gravity with the mode modification. It’ll be great.”
To wrap things up, I asked which feature the team at Certain Affinity would advertise to try to get new players to try out Halo for the first time. You know, the things that will truly draw players who might not be sold on Halo 4 based on its namesake alone.
Hoberman had some suggestions. “I think that the loadout system that Halo has in multiplayer, and all the crazy things you can do in there are just awesome. The way you can have the Forerunner Vision that lets you see through walls and all the different equipment you can have, and the way that integrates with the loadouts. I think it’s really awesome, and it’s an experience you’re not going to get in other first-person shooters. That’s one of the niceties of being this kind of far-future sci-fi: You can be invisible, and you can have all these other kind of crazy things. So that’s definitely one thing.
“I would probably add Forge to that. Any time you have user-created content, both maps and game modes and everything else, I think it makes for such a diverse, rich wealth of content for people. There’s something new every day, just this wealth of new inventions and new creations that are constantly coming your way. So that’s kind of the things I would point people to.”
In closing, Hoberman briefly touched on the balance between creating something that will feel new, yet won’t alienate longtime fans. “You know, I will say multiplayer for Halo 4 is definitely evolutionary, not revolutionary. And that was just critically important, that it’s kind of a bridge potentially to future things, but at its core it’s still Halo, with all of the things that make Halo and Halo multiplayer especially great. All the attention to detail, the really brilliant map design, the care that goes into balancing weapons and combat and the sandbox and all that, the smooth movement and controls and everything else. Everything good about Halo, plus some.”
And that’s really the key. This isn’t “Old Halo” or “New Halo.” In a way, this is “Halo Plus.” And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
For more on our thoughts on Halo 4, check out Matt Walker’s full review.
Editor / News Director
Date: November 6, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*