The video game industry in 2012 was marked by the rise of the individual video game creator. The small teams, the new ubiquitous, accessible platforms, development tools that put a paintbrush in the hand of anyone who is moved to create, and crowdfunding that put money in the pockets of anyone with a good idea and a knack for marketing. New kinds of video games are coming along, attracting new kinds of audiences. The long-talked-about "democratization of game development" sure seems to have finally arrived.
Halo 4 is the antithesis of all of that.
Whereas this new breed of game developer is zipping around on a motorbike or gallivanting about town on a penny-farthing, there are games like Halo 4 that are veritable tanks; tanks assembled by hundreds of people, tanks made with specialized, proprietary tools, made with headset-wearing men in mind, and created with millions and millions of dollars under a giant, monolithic corporate entity. The tank is heavy, has lots of moving parts, and gets to where it wants to go by brute force.
Halo 4 represents high-budget, high-production, totally unapologetic, proper "A-A-A" game development. Whether you love the Halo franchise for its expansive lore and emergent gameplay, or hate it for its sci-fi marines vs. aliens video game-ness, it's difficult not to be intrigued by Halo 4 developer 343 Industries: a group of true believers who didn't even really have a studio when development of the game began.
It's not totally unheard of for a studio to develop a game within, or even take over, a popular universe that it did not create. Treyarch did it with Call of Duty, People Can Fly did it with Gears of War, Ninja Theory did it with Devil May Cry, for instance.
But Kirkland, Washington-based 343 Industries is a bit different, as it was founded for one sole purpose: to take over Halo after series creator Bungie left former parent Microsoft in 2007. The studio simply would not exist, if it weren't for Halo.
Josh Holmes (@JoshingtonState) is creative director on Halo 4 at 343, but he did have a life in game development before he arrived at Microsoft. He started as a game tester in 1995, working for another game industry giant, Electronic Arts. Holmes moved up the ranks to producer and designer, eventually working on sports games.
"One of the ideas there that took flight was the original NBA Street, which I was lead designer on," recalls Holmes. "We went back into incubation and worked on a couple of concepts. Then I was pulled into kind of a brainstorm think-tank about how to save a dying project that was in trouble. It was a wrestling game at the time, where they lost the WCW license. That rapidly became a game, because I made a mistake with my creative partner of brainstorming the concept of 'urban culture meets fighting and wrestling.'
"It became Def Jam Vendetta. The marketing team was like, 'That's a brilliant idea!' and we were like, 'No, that's a terrible idea! Don't make that game!' But we had a lot of fun." Holmes actually ended up working on a sequel to Def Jam before leaving in 2004 to co-found Revolution Interactive, which would be purchased by Disney a year later under the studio's final name, Propaganda Games. Shuttered a couple years after Holmes left, it was known best for 2008's Turok reboot and a Pirates of the Caribbean game that never saw the light of day.
He eventually found his way to Microsoft in 2009, when he joined the company's internal Halo team, which at 20 people was relatively small. Holmes' interest in the Halo franchise had already been simmering for years, even during the Def Jam days at EA.
"As a designer, I've always been interested in complex systems interacting with one another, and the emergent gameplay that can come from those interactions," he explains. "I've been a long-time fan of shooters. I grew up playing games mostly on personal computers -- Commodore 64 and the Amiga. I never wanted to be a 'PC guy,' because I was this die-hard Amiga fan. Then I remember seeing Doom for the first time on a friend's computer. I went out and bought a PC the next week [laughs]. I converted immediately. I spent a lot of time doing PC gaming with shooters."
When Halo: Combat Evolved came out for Xbox in 2001, his first encounter was the same as with many who experienced the game for the first time. There was a purity in his early experiences with Halo. Like most everyone else, he experienced it as a player, with no real expectations.
"Halo was that first title that really convinced me that shooters could work on a console," Holmes says. "I remember going and buying Halo, buying an Xbox, and bringing it back to EA where I was working crazy crunch overtime. I plugged it in and thought, 'I'll just play the first level and see how it goes.'
"I ended up staying up all night and finishing the game, because I was just so completely enthralled by the universe, and the sandbox systems that were at work. I was enamored with this idea that you could have a shooter with systems of a sandbox nature working together, where different solutions were possible, and emergent gameplay would come out of that. That completely captivated me.
"I finished the game, and I remember finishing it at nine in the morning or something, and I hadn't slept, and I just started it all over again [laughs], because I wanted to go and have that ride a second time. So ever since I had that experience, it really changed in my mind what a shooter could be, and in a lot of ways, what an immersive game experience could be.
"It influenced a lot of my thoughts as a designer."