Interview: Bungie's Lars Bakken on Halo: Reach and the franchise

Following my extensive hands-on preview of the Halo: Reach multiplayer beta at Bungie's Seattle area offices last week, I spoke with Lars Bakken, lead multiplayer designer, to discuss how Reach fits into the studio's long term strategy, how community feedback affects design decisions and the future of the Halo franchise.

Joystiq: What did you learn from how you conducted the Halo 3 multiplayer beta? What are you doing differently for the Reach beta?

Lars Bakken: I think one of the things we learned from the Halo 3 beta is that we want to keep this thing focused and that might mean less playlists initially. But that's really to keep the people focused and keep them playing the same thing, so we'll be turning on things and turning off other things as the beta progresses. And that's something we really learned from Halo 3, because we wanted to make sure that we were getting all the relevant information that we needed to get -- all the data -- and make decisions and changes on the final game.
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Will Reach become a platform for Halo multiplayer?

I would say yes, in the same way that Halo 3 was. It could be argued that Halo 3 was a platform, because we had things like saved films and Forge, and player-made gametypes and things like Griffball making it into official playlists in Halo 3. The same way that Halo 3 is still supported to this day, almost three years after it came out. Yeah, absolutely, our plans haven't changed in terms of that.

Like, in terms of supporting the game, long term, you will see ... well, things we can't talk about yet. But you should expect the same kind of customizability that you've always had in past Halo games that will keep players happy for a long time.

What about DLC? What's your DLC strategy for Reach?

Halo 3's DLC really taught us a lot of cool things. We learned a lot of really good things from Halo 3 for DLC. We're not really ready to talk yet about DLC for Reach, if there is any.

How important has the feedback from the Halo community been over the years? Are the new elements in Reach's multiplayer a reaction to that community feedback?

You know we absolutely listen to our fans. It's super important that we're taking in feedback. Not just from our fans but all over the place. People are very vocal. They love their Halo, and we don't want to screw that up. You're gonna see a lot of things that are similar but have changed.

Matchmaking, for example, has undergone some significant changes, and part of that is just the lay of the land and the way that we like to make games. We're constantly looking at where Halo 3 performed and underperformed. Maybe that's a bad word to use but we're our own harshest critics. We'll look at the game afterwards and think, "Man, I wish we could have done this or that."

I'm thinking specifically of the voting system in Reach. It's not going to be just a veto decision anymore. There are actual choices.

Voting is a direct reaction to the fans and the way we saw Veto work in Halo 3. Now players actually get four choices when they vote, and one of those choices is "None of the above." But the three choices are cool and unique, and we can change what those are at any given time, just like updating a playlist. There's going to be a lot of variety there, and majority rule wins.


How do you decide which players' feedback is important and which isn't? How do you know you're not customizing the game for a vocal minority?

I think part of being a good designer is being able to take every piece of feedback and correlate it and look at it. But then you also look at hard data. So just because people say they don't like "Map X," well, okay, let's look at veto data. Were people really vetoing that map?

So it's about listening to people because there's definitely a very small minority that are extraordinarily loud on the Internet. We don't just say, "Oh, everybody's complaining about this because there's one particular forum or thread where people are talking about this." That's not everyone -- that's just one particular chunk of the fan community. They may be bringing up a good point, and we'll take that in and look at it.

But we'll also look at the data, and also internally discuss it and say, "Hey, is this really a problem?" We don't immediately see one person being angry about something and change the whole direction of the game. That's not the way it works, because we'd never get anything done that way.

How dynamic is Halo: Reach multiplayer going to be? In Halo 3, things were being changed quite a bit after release. That's still a part of the long-term strategy for Reach, right?

Sure. I think you can expect at least what people got from Halo 3, if not more, in some cases, for its long term capabilities. We're definitely building Reach to be a game that you'll be able to play and modify and keep feeling fresh for a long time after it comes out.

Player Load Outs are a major new feature of Reach's multiplayer gameplay. Is this addition a reaction to more "modern" first-person shooters? How do you feel you've improved upon what's been done before?

I think we're handing that kind of thing differently. It's not necessarily a new thing for a game to let you choose what you're going to spawn with -- that's been around for a while. Really what we did was take a look at how that system worked in a lot of different games and said, "What works well here and what doesn't?" And also, "What doesn't go against the core tenets of Halo?" -- which is that everybody spawns on a very level playing field. So that's how we came up with Load Outs.

And they're customizable per playlist, so on the design side we can say, "You know what? Everyone only ever spawns with Sprint, AR and Magnum. That's your Load Out -- that's what you're playing with, and now there are weapons on the map."

There have been hundreds of hours of us playtesting and saying, "You know, the rocket launcher should be exactly here because this is a very good position for it, it takes both Teams A and B this much time to get there" -- just exhaustive playtesting to get to that point. But yeah, like you said, maybe it does feel more modern. It certainly still feels like Halo.

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ou talked about customizing Load Outs during the preview event, but it seems that Bungie is making the final call on what Load Outs will be available for a specific game type and map.

Yes, that's absolutely true, because at the end of the day, we want to make sure everyone's on an even playing field, so the guy can't spawn with a sniper rifle. A sniper rifle in Halo is an extraordinarily powerful weapon. Same with the rocket launcher -- or even the Plasma Launcher, to speak to some of the newer weapons.

The playlist designer will be deciding what makes the most sense with this particular game type. What weapons work well as a Load Out; what Armor Abilities work well with this particular game type. And yeah, it's definitely more on our side. Is that to say that eventually there won't be more customizable things?

Exactly. One of my favorite things about Halo has been the ability to take control of the game types and customization options. Listening to you talk about it now, it sounds like you could be narrowing the scope of player-controlled gameplay.

I wouldn't actually say that, because you're still gonna see the big weapons. When you're playing Powerhouse and Swordbase today, you're seeing that there are still power weapon spawn locations. And it might not be happening in the short time you guys are playing internally, but certainly in the beta, within the first 10 seconds of a game on Swordbase, that plasma launcher is picked up. It's about taking it to the correct position and holding up with your team and using it properly.

So that stuff has not changed at all. It may feel different now, because you're choosing Jet Pack from the start, or Sprint, or Armor Lock, but yes, the core kind of map and weapon control has not been taken away from Halo.


Will there be Save FIlms?

Save Films are coming back, fully supported, just like in Halo 3. They are fully usable in the beta too, so you guys will get to play around with that. File Share is back, too. There's actually a lot really cool changes that have happened to the File Share.

We have a tagging ability now, so now when you put your awesome rocket kill up to share, you can tag it with "rocket," "awesome," "cool," whatever. And people can do searches based on tags. So if you wanted to look at all the "rocket" screenshots anyone's ever posted in their share, you can do a custom search for "rocket screenshot" while you're in Reach, and it'll list every single shot.

You can even look through them while you're sitting in Matchmaking. Like, what are the top rated cool files right now? Bam, press the Start button, you're looking at top rated screenshots.

Reach
certainly seems like it's essentially "Halo 4." Looking at the series' progression, how do you guys view ODST at this point?

You know, ODST was awesome. It was a very small team; it was a short development cycle. Normally we get about 3 years to work on a game, and ODST was roughly a year, and a super small team. We felt really good about what we were able to accomplish with ODST, which was a really different play style. You know, you had the Rookie playing at night, and you had the high action, classic Halo levels that you were switching back and forth between.

But in thinking of how the multiplayer has progressed in Reach, do you feel like ODST might have diluted the franchise?

That's a good question. I don't know, I think ODST was almost like a side-project. There were people that were really passionate about it. We had an awesome time making it -- it was intense. It was a small group of people. But yes, while this small group of people were over in the corner making ODST, the whole might of Bungie has been working on Reach since Halo 3 shipped. So you've got a full development cycle.

These are all the crazy features we want to jam into the game, just like what we did between Halo 1 and 2, and Halo 2 and 3. It's very similar in terms of scope. And I think Reach is easily the most ambitious feature-packed game Bungie's ever made, and I'd argue the best game Bungie's ever made.

Is this it for Halo from Bungie then?

For Bungie? As far as right now, currently, yes. This is our last Halo Bungie game. Now in the future, who knows? You can never say never, because things change. maybe ten years down the line we decide to make another Halo game, but for right now, yes. This is it for us.


Cory Banks is a freelance games writer and co-host of the Gamers With Jobs Conference Call.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.