Half-Minute Halo: An Interview with Jaime Griesemer

"In Halo 1, there was maybe 30 seconds of fun that happened over and over and over and over again. And so, if you can get 30 seconds of fun, you can pretty much stretch that out to be an entire game."

Or maybe even five games. The succinct secret to Halo's success, that half minute of fun, has long been a mantra repeated by developer Bungie, repurposed by game critics, and presumably whispered by Master Chief himself before he tosses a plasma grenade into a gathering of grunts. It's inoffensive, catchy and it sounds about right. Doesn't it?

"Yeah, it's probably the most famous thing I ever said," says game designer Jaime Griesemer. "For some reason it really resonated with the community and got quoted and repeated to the point where I would hear it from people that didn't realize where it had come from in the first place! Especially with journalists." Like many of you, Griesemer has heard the phrase on podcasts (yes, including The Joystiq Podcast) and read it in several articles, such as Clive Thompson's examination of Halo 3 playtesting in Wired. "Some of the guys at Bungie were calling me 'Mr. Thirty Seconds' for a while ... heh."

If only we had paid attention to Mr. Thirty Seconds for about, oh, 30 seconds longer.

"All of which would be fine," he continues, "but the worst part is, everyone uses it to mean exactly the opposite of what I meant when I said it! They use it to say you only need 30 seconds of fun, and if you repeat something that is fun for 30 seconds over and over you have a game like Halo. There was a whole second half of the quote that got cut out of the Vidoc [video documentary] where I talked about taking that 30 seconds of fun and playing it in different environments, with different weapons, different vehicles, against different enemies, against different combinations of enemies, sometimes against enemies that are fighting each other. No 30 second stretch of Halo is ever repeated; the missions are constantly changing the context on you."

In the full version of the documentary, included with the special edition of Halo 2, you can actually hear Griesemer elaborate on his initial point. "Encountering a bunch of guys, melee attacking one of them before they were aware, throwing a grenade into a group of other guys, and then cleaning up the stragglers, before they could surround you," he said back in 2004. "And so, you can have all the great graphics, and all the different characters, and lots of different weapons with amazing effects, but if you don't nail that 30 seconds, you're not gonna have a great game."

But that's still not quite right, and not how Griesemer hoped to encapsulate what he saw as the unique strengths of Halo. To understand the origin of "30 seconds of fun," you need to go back to 2002.

"OK, so most of the 'Bungie design wisdom' that you hear or read about is originally from Jason Jones. He is the creative epicenter of the studio and an amazing designer; he really doesn't get as much attention as he deserves." Griesemer says Jones, who was instrumental in designing Halo: Combat Evolved and led the Halo 2 team, is one of the industry's best. "And he's the guy that taught me the craft, so sometimes I end up quoting him and don't even realize it." The "30 seconds" phrase had come from Griesemer, but the general philosophy had pervaded the studio long before it was committed to a documentary.

"It started back in 2002, [then Bungie programmer] Chris Butcher and I were working on a GDC talk called 'The Illusion of Intelligence: The Integration of AI and Level Design in Halo.' The premise was that he was the AI programmer and I was the designer working on characters and we were going to explain where we overlapped on Halo. To do that, we talked about how the AI handles all the decisions on the 30-second timescale; where to stand, when to shoot, when to dive away from a grenade. And the Mission Designers handle what happens on the 3-minute timescale; when to send reinforcements, when to retreat, encounter tactics. But in between, design and programming had to work together to come up with behaviors and a combat loop that would serve as the bridge between the 30-second AI and the 3-minute mission script. So that's where the idea of a short, repeated segment of gameplay first showed up."

When Griesemer was asked to capture and describe Halo's fun -- an amorphous quality that game reviewers can struggle to express in words -- Griesemer adapted the concept he presented in his earlier presentation, and created a "very sticky" shorthand for Bungie's biggest franchise.

"So really, the point of the whole quote goes back to the AI talk, where you have a 3-second loop inside of a 30-second loop inside of a 3-minute loop that is always different, so you get a unique experience every time," he says. "And that's the real secret of Halo's combat, but I guess it's too long to explain in a voice-over in a 'Making of' documentary."

It's definitely not as concise or catchy, but now you know why five sci-fi shooters can subsist on a mere "30 seconds."

Griesemer left Bungie in 2010, saying goodbye to his unintended "half-minute fun evangelist" role, and several nebulously bordered areas of expertise. "You've got so many people working on a game, making contributions; it's impossible to separate out who did what," he says. "Like, on Halo 1 my credit was 'Designer' and on Halo 3 my credit was 'Gameplay Design Lead,' but I did virtually the same thing on both projects. Weapons, vehicles, characters, AI, controls, camera, balanced multiplayer, tuned the difficulty, all the stuff we called 'sandbox gameplay.' And obviously I didn't do anything by myself; designers are very dependent on other people to get anything done."

The professional title that can't be disputed, says Griesemer, is that of "Lead Warthog Designer." As Bungie neared the end of development on Halo: Reach in 2010, he spent a few days giving the beast a tune-up and imparting the creator's wisdom of how it should handle. "The real moment of inspiration, for me, was linking the turning rate to the Warthog's current speed," Griesemer recalls. "We implemented that in Halo 2 and it made the Warthog easier to control at top speed, while also making it feel like it was going much faster."

Halo's roaring, unmistakable buggy (and reliable escape vehicle) has been an indispensable icon of the series since Combat Evolved launched in 2001, forming only one part of the design that Griesemer believes sets Bungie's shooter apart from others. And he can talk about that stuff freely here, now that he's no longer at risk of being prematurely diminished in a video documentary.

"I think the reason Halo feels different is because of how it is tuned. Most games have a single difficulty, or you know, maybe they have multiple difficulty levels, but at any one time you are only playing on one difficulty. And the AI does a set amount of damage and each encounter has a certain challenge, and you either are good enough to beat it or not, and if not maybe you learn or get lucky the next time and get through it. Halo is fundamentally different in that it lets the player set the pace.

"It doesn't do any magical dynamic difficulty; it doesn't make itself easier if you suck. But just naturally, how it is tuned, it waits to see what you will do, how hard you will push, and then it pushes back at just the right resistance. If you play carefully and pick guys off, you can work your way through a big encounter without too much risk, but if you charge in, guns blazing, it will push back really hard and probably kill you. But then if your shields go down and you run for cover, it backs off and lets you catch your breath. In most games, if you hide behind cover the AI comes around the corner and roots you out, but the enemies in Halo won't usually do that."

Critics in favor of Halo have remarked on the game's rhythm and dynamism in combat, and how things feel, but Griesemer's vocabulary is rooted in his role as designer. "I think that give and take, that dance that the game is doing with the player, is what gives Halo its flavor," he says. "So I guess I would describe it as 'precisely tuned.'"

His design acumen will likely find its way into another notable game in the near future. At the conclusion of our interview, Griesemer tells me that he's now working at another Bellevue, Washington-based developer: Sucker Punch Productions, the developer behind Sly Cooper and InFamous.

"When Bungie and I parted ways, I didn't really have a plan," he says. "I knew I wanted something different; I'm just not comfortable on an enormous team with a lot of process – it's creatively stifling. But I was at Bungie for so long ... I didn't really have a good idea how other game companies worked. I was fortunate to be able to visit several top-tier studios, sit in on their design meetings and just hang out with some world-class designers. It was a wonderful opportunity and I learned a lot.

"In the end, I found a great team and a fantastic opportunity just across the street at Sucker Punch Productions. It's a smaller team, very collaborative, they've got enormous talent and they are very hungry -- they want to take it to the next level and are willing to put in the effort it will take to get there. It reminds me of where I was ten years ago, only now I have a lot more experience I can rely on. It's a great match, and it comes with a lot of new challenges for me as a designer. Plus it's just great to get back to work making games!"

Stay tuned to Joystiq over the coming days to read the full, unedited interview with Jaime Griesemer. He discusses Halo's weaponry, game balancing, grenade trajectories, Lady Gaga's influence over rifles ... and why he spent $350 on a cake.