When 343 Industries unveiled the new-look Master Chief this year, art director Kenneth Scott talked about how the character's look needed to convey an imposing mass and weight:
"A Spartan tossing his chest plate should feel like an anvil dropping," he said. The character's complete physicality needed to be stressed in the new design, along with the effects of years in cryogenic limbo.
The end result is a Master Chief who looks pretty fabulous, somehow tighter, meaner and more imposing at the same time. Game artist Gabriel Garza, aka "Robogabo," told us about the challenges of taking a major video game franchise and bringing it up to date.
"We had a couple of buzzwords when we were designing the Master Chief. Things like 'tank', 'heavy,' 'tough.' When you think 'tank,' there are certain colors, certain types of materials, reflectivity."
The iterative process is exhaustive. Multiple sketches are submitted of every body-part from multiple angles, in conjunction with surrounding parts and as a section of the whole. The team whittled away at rejected options and then focused on the favorites, adding and taking away minute details.
Garza has spent four years working on this project, and so he's pored over every inch of the Chief's design and spent hour upon hour figuring out the new look. "When I'm at home or when I'm driving, I'm thinking about it. When I started redesigning the Chief's helmet, if I began on the front I'd be worrying about how the back might look.
"The question I kept asking was, 'What could I add to it that adds more of a story to the Chief?' The little part of it at the back of his head where the Cortana chip goes, how am I going to do that?' It is about designing the character, but it's also about storytelling."
Work-flow is interspersed with input from other departments. The writers have a new idea, but it requires some changes. The animators and modelers have cooked up something, and that requires changes. Everyone at 343 is deeply involved in the universe and ideas are bountiful.
But Garza says that the intense detail that went into Master Chief was not the most difficult part of the project. That honor goes to the alien enemy race, the Prometheans.
"That, for me, was the toughest thing I did, designing all the new enemies. For the Chief, we had the past to work with. We had all these other games that we could use to start from. For the new characters, we didn't have anything."
He adds, "What we ended up doing was getting all the reference we could from past games for things like architecture, the colors, the light. The few things we had, we took them to the next level when we were doing those characters. We'd do pages and pages, go to meetings, and they'd say, 'This resonates with me here, number four, or number five.' I'd take those and do more iterations. We'd just keep going and going. There were several times that we started from scratch on those guys. It might look good, but if it's not what they're looking for it doesn't happen."
He adds, "It comes down to what we want to communicate. What is the story when the player first sees these characters? They needed to be ancient, for example. They need to be completely alien, out of this world. They need to be Forerunner-based [ancient pre-human race in Halo mythology]. Having those ideas, I'd be thinking all the time about lines, forms, colors, shapes. Maybe the teeth on the face communicates a little more terror. The lines on the back of the Knight, the three lines, indicate something military, a warrior. It was hard."
The artists create a lot of the early work in a project like Halo 4, but in the last year, the game's artists spent the last year on polishing, as well as marketing assets, including
>Awakening: The Art of Halo 4.
Garza says, "The book shows a lot of the work we did, a lot of iterations. If I take on page at random, it's a page for the Watchers and the Crawlers. This page has four types of Watchers that never made it into the game, and maybe eight types of Crawlers that we just brainstormed and didn't make it. There's a lot in the book that could have been."
Colin Campbell writes for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @colincampbellx.