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"Having the Halo franchise was burdensome in a lot of ways -- meeting expectations, for example -- but it was great for hiring," O'Connor admits. Many of 343's problems were big, practical, logistical conundrums having to do with growth and recruitment. The studio needed to attract top triple-A talent -- talent that was in high-demand, and probably already employed at other triple-A studios. All of 343's staff came from triple-A; the studio's staff now represents over 25 triple-A studios.
343 actually couldn't tell interviewees that the studio was specifically working on Halo 4, just that the studio was working on something involving Halo.
"We had people who we hired who hated Halo because of 'X,'" says O'Connor. "But what that really meant was, 'I feel like this game could be awesome because of 'Y input' that I'm going to bring into it. I want to prove it, and I'm passionate about proving it.' So we ended up with a bunch of people who were genuinely passionate about the product. That is a huge advantage, and that helped in hiring and forming our team."
The growing pains threaded throughout the development of Halo 4, as the studio came to terms with firing up an motor while trying to build up the rest of the car around it. For Holmes, the growing pains were familiar, and ones that he encountered when he co-founded Propaganda.
"As a leadership team, we'd go from being able to have everyone sit in an area or a room and organically talk about the experience we're building, because we were small enough to do that," says Holmes. "When you've got multiple missions, five missions in flight, and all of those teams are trying to rapidly turn things around, there's a point at which all of the feedback and interaction starts to bottleneck, and you're not able to move quickly enough."
In February 2012, just nine months before Halo 4's ship date, the studio had to address this bottleneck that was brought on by the rapid growth. Project directors found themselves handling too many line-level decisions, which was causing "inefficiency and frustration" within the team, says Holmes.
"To address this, we introduced a new production process and restructured the team around feature teams, which focused on creation of vertical game experiences, and foundational teams, which focused on game elements and experiences that support multiple features or vertical experiences.
"For example, the campaign was a feature team and the audio was a foundational team. These teams worked toward monthly goals as established by the project directors, but were empowered to make day-to-day decisions and adapt production processes to suit their individual team needs. The project directors checked in with the teams on a weekly basis and provided daily feedback on builds, but we tried to drive as much decision-making as possible down to the teams. This gave the feature and foundational teams a high degree of autonomy in pursuing their project goals, which was important in allowing our large team to remain agile, preventing the directors from becoming a bottleneck to decisions on the floor."
Finding the appropriate talent for Halo 4 was one thing, but getting everyone on the same page creatively and process-wise was a different challenge. With so many people from an array of different backgrounds, there were communication issues and cultural incongruities that arose that needed to be fixed.
"There are a lot of technical mistakes that you literally fix. There are cultural things too, but you can't fix your culture, you have to evolve it in a healthy fashion," says O'Connor. "I think we got there through this crucible process. We forged a culture, and a real one.
"We said, 'What are you like? Bring whatever you have to the studio. Bring the reasons we hired you into our culture, and form it naturally out of your persona, your contributions, and the atmosphere you bring into the studio. I think that's the healthy way to build a culture from scratch.
"Maybe 10 years from now we'll be a little less malleable. But I hope we remember that process as we grow as a studio, and remember that we are successful because of what new people bring to it, and not in spite of it."
One of the most interesting moments of making video games is when a developer or a team comes across those moments of epiphany when they realize that they are going in the right direction. Creating anything for an audience is in many respects a blind endeavor until you get to a certain point in which you convince yourself that you have something special on your hands.
These epiphany moments are uniquely interesting to hear about in triple-A projects that involve so many moving parts; sub-machines that are working in parallel with one another, which at some point need to come together in a Voltron-esque fashion and inter-operate seamlessly.
"It's during that time you're questioning yourself: 'How is this going to work, will it be as I envision it in my head?" says Holmes. For Halo 4, he says there were a few epiphany moments that helped boost the morale of the team. One of the earlier ones that Holmes recalls was when the team completed a small piece of the Halo experience that he described as a "very traditional" Halo. User research showed that people thought it was a lot of fun, and it showed that the team was capable of making a Halo game that was true to what the series was about.
343 scrapped it, Holmes says, as it was too traditional. But that first build showed the new team that this amalgamation of different studio cultures could work together and achieve a common goal.
A year later, 343 had finished the first mission for Halo 4. Later, the team injected the new enemy, the Prometheans, into the encounter space, displaying their new AI behaviors, representing a culmination of a year-and-a-half of iteration. Even later, online multiplayer was in place -- members of the team could play the game against each other from their homes. It was another morale booster, a tangible signifier that things were coming together.
But when I asked Holmes, Wolfkill and O'Connor what the moment was, when that enormous, collective sigh of relief occurred, all of them had the same answer. I had interviewed Wolfkill and O'Connor in person, together. When they replied, they looked at each other and replied simultaneously, "E3."
"At E3, at a purely production level, was the first time we were able to express our intent with what the experience was going to be, and have an entire segment of the team delivering on the experience as opposed to delivering on their pieces of the puzzle," says Wolfkill.
"On an emotional level, it was the first time we showed anything publicly, so it was sort of a validation of all the things we wanted to do, and the team really needed that at that point in the cycle."
At E3, Halo 4 was at last in the hands and in front of the eyes of a large audience, in front of press and in front of fans. Reaction was positive, and Bungie staff at E3 were able to relay the feedback back to the team in Kirkland.
Holmes concurred that E3 was the prime epiphany moment. "You have an idea for this experience, but you're not exactly sure how people are going to react to it. Yes, you're doing user research testing, you're having groups of people come in and play, you're analyzing the results, but those are really just small slices of people at different moments in time. ...We'd worked the last two-and-a-half years on this game, wondering how they would react. We think they'd like it. We hoped so. But we weren't 100 percent sure."