In this interview originally published in Game Developer magazine
, Bungie gameplay designer Francois Boucher-Genesse discusses the process that went into the creation of Halo 3
's Legendary difficulty mode.
Continuing the discussion from Daniel Boutros' difficulty article printed in the February 2008 issue of Game Developer
, which dissects various elements of difficulty tuning, Boucher-Genesse looks at how Bungie tweaked difficulty for the top-selling video game of 2007.
Dan Boutros: What do you think are the issues surrounding difficult modes in games, and what do you think is behind some getting it right and others not?
Francois Boucher-Genesse: What players are usually looking for when playing on higher difficulty levels is a good challenge. But for a game to be challenging, you need to feel like it is fair, and that even if you failed you still had a chance at success.
The more you reward creativity with success, the more you encourage players to think differently, and the more your game is going to present an interesting challenge to them.
This is done at the core gameplay level, for example by limiting players to two weapons only so that they have to figure out the best possible combo for the job. But it is also done on a mission level, by strategically placing enemy turrets in positions that can be turned against them.
An easy mistake to make when trying to create a challenging game is to make one which is entirely predictable. When an enemy always has the same behavior, and always appears behind that same rock, the challenge is pretty clear. But how fun is that?
Players want to be surprised, and being suddenly put in extremely dangerous situations, like when a grunt decides to pull out two grenades and rush them. You just have to make sure that these situations have clear ways out.
DB: The difference in difficult mode design between Halo 1 and 2 alienated some fans, as appears to be well-documented on particular fan forums (NeoGAF, as one example). What can you tell us about the changes made between Halo 1 and 2?
FBG: I wasn't part of the team when they worked on Halo 2
, but I did hear a lot of stories about its development. Wrapping the game up in the last months was really challenging for the team, and since difficulty tweaks are mostly made in that timeframe, it is safe to assume that they just had less time to examine these issues.
I think the playtests from the usability labs were also less frequent than they were for Halo 3
, so that the designers had less feedback from players on which parts were difficult.
It is really hard as a mission designer to take a step back and look at how difficult your mission really is, since you already know the clever things to do when you play them. Playtest results can be painful reality checks for designers, but they're still really useful.
DB: What was changed from Halo 2 to 3 to restore that fan love for Legendary mode once again?
FBG: The first obvious answer is that the development cycle was really different for Halo 3
, and that we just had that much more time to polish the game, listen to feedback, and make it fun on every difficulty level.
I think you can understand how Halo 3
made a better game for Legendary fans by looking at its difficulty spikes. On normal, if you screw up, you can usually get out of the situation and reengage. When you play on Legendary though, if you get yourself in a bad situation, you're likely to die.
It is really important in that context that players feel like they could have avoided this defeat, that they understand "the challenge" and replay it, confident that they can try a different approach.
This requires encounters that are not totally scripted, and Halo
is pretty good about presenting players with many options. If a vehicle is engaging you, the game is not just about shooting it. Should you run for the rocket launcher? Or wait and board it? What about stealing a plasma pistol from a Grunt, and powering the vehicle down?
A lot of games try to offer you many options, but when you get to play them on higher difficulty levels you often feel like there is only one real way out of the challenge.
So on one hand you give the player many tools for the job, and on the other hand you make the player's job harder. As long as that player tries a different approach every time he or she dies, you know you've balanced the game properly.
DB: How about usability findings?
One of the interesting things we found out in the usability lab playtests is that sometimes, areas where most players die are still rated as the most fun.
An encounter with a Scarab is a good example of this - I couldn't believe the high fun ratings when I saw how often players were dying in the first playtests we did with the Scarab.
The game is also really different on Easy/Normal than it is on Heroic/Legendary. You probably won't notice it at first, but there will be an additional turret denying you the easy way out of an encounter. Or a stealth Brute will be waiting for you on the other side of that cover which used to be safe.
So it's not like we just cranked every enemy's health by 200% and called it Legendary - there was a good amount of custom changes that were made per mission as well. In that sense we encourage players with previous Halo
experience to play at least on Heroic, since they get to see the game in its full scale.
I spoke with the guys that tweaked difficulty on the other Halo
titles, and the conclusion is that a really similar "formula" was used for every Halo
What did make a difference was the time spent tweaking and fixing issues to make the game fun on every difficulty level. All titles had more bad guys, stronger and more accurate enemies with faster projectiles. And they used similar numbers for each of these parameters.
titles added new player options (like vehicle boarding, equipment), but Halo 2
didn't allow players to use them as much as on Halo 3
, since it lacked the polish time Halo 3