Halo: Reach Interview with 343 Industries Studio Creative Director Josh Holmes

By Xav de Matos, Sep 10, 2010 6:00pm PDT Bungie's Halo: Reach is arguably one of the biggest video game releases of 2010. Over the last week we've featured multiplayer tips for newcomers and dusty veterans alike and a detailed storyline primer of the events leading up the the Fall of Reach.

Yesterday we caught 343 Industries studio creative director--and Halo: Reach executive producer--Josh Holmes in our crosshairs and grilled him on the future of the Halo franchise.

Covering everything from the popularity of Master Chief versus the Halo universe itself to how 343 boss Frank O'Connor could be kicking himself for past trash talking, we hit as many topics as we could surrounding the Halo brand, before being shuffled into a room to play the retail build of the latest Spartan-starring adventure.

Shack: Most people know 343 Industries as the team that brought us Halo Waypoint, the application was recently updated for Reach. What can you tell us about some of the changes coming to the app in the future alongside and following the launch of Halo: Reach.

Josh Holmes: Waypoint just came out with the update, I think today. That raised the level cap on the Waypoint Career, introduced some armor variants that are specifically unlocked through Waypoint that are tied to achievements in Reach and across the franchise, and introduced some new functionality. Now we have the ability to search through related articles and things like that. It makes looking for content a lot more smoother.

Later this year we're bringing Waypoint out on both the mobile Windows Phone 7 as well as on the web. You'll be able to get all the same--or much of the same--Intel content that you get right now on the console.

Shack: What about content development for Halo: Reach itself? How does 343's involvement in that content work?

Josh Holmes: We continually create and source content for stuff all across the franchise. When Reach is released we're going to be really heavily "Reach- focused." There will definitely be content that the team is creating around that.

(Ed. Note: A Microsoft representative has asked us to clarify that any mention of "future content" for Halo: Reach in this interview is specific to Halo Waypoint only.)

Shack: When I talked to Bungie's Joseph Tung at X'10 in Toronto, we discussed what happens when that team is finished with Halo: Reach. The game is done. It's gone gold and now it's going in giant boxes with Todd McFarlane statues. From what I understand, there is still a small team of people at Bungie who will take care of balance issues and--presumably if it happens--additional content. Does 343 oversee everything that Bungie does related to the Halo property? What is the structure of Halo, post-Bungie?

Josh Holmes: 343 oversees everything across the Halo franchise. We work closely with partners, like Bungie, in development of a variety of different things, such as Halo: Reach.

Bungie has some stuff they'll be continuing to do to support the community for Reach. They'll be continuing to work on some content we may release at a future point in time. We'll be partnering closely with them on that as well as looking across the other aspects of the franchise that we're tending to.

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Shack: So far, there have been just as many Halo titles featuring Master Chief as games that have not stared the surviving Spartan. (Halo 3: ODST, Halo Wars and now Reach versus Halo 1, 2, and 3.) What do you think is the most important element to the Halo franchise? I won't be silly in asking whether the franchise can stand on its own without him, but is Master Chief necessary to strike gold? Halo 3 was better received, commercially, than Halo Wars and ODST, for example.

Josh Holmes: I definitely think that Master Chief is important. I mean that was everyone's first view into the universe. That said, the universe is incredibly deep and rich and can support a variety of different stories and characters and I think we've seen that and continue to see that with Reach.

For me, it's hard to break down what is the single most important aspect of Halo to just one thing. One of the things that I think is absolutely core to the experience is the spirit of creativity that flows throughout everything and the commitment to empowering users to express themselves. That could be giving people the tools to create community content--new maps--customize their experience, share that with friends, create screenshots and machinima. Also, it's the very nature of Halo's gameplay. It's all about allowing people to be creative within the combat sandbox and decide how they want to express themselves using the coolest tools of expression: weaponry.

If I had to speak to one core theme that cuts across everything Halo, I think it would be that creativity.

Shack: Something that I asked Joseph Tung during our discussion was whether or not it would be difficult to get fans of the franchise roped into the narrative of Halo: Reach considering everyone knows it doesn't really work out for any other Spartans other than Master Chief. Is it a challenge?

Josh Holmes: I guess there's a "meta story" there that everybody knows. Reach falls. It's right there in the title of the book. No one is expecting a great, happy ending from that meta perspective. What Bungie has decided to focus on is a more personal tale, this story of Noble Team and the story of their personal sacrifice and heroics that ultimately keep hope alive for humanity.

I think that story, that smaller story on a more intimate level set against the backdrop of this epic planetary scale conflict is really, really compelling. There's plenty of twists and turns and interesting things that will come out as part of that story that will be surprising and interesting to people and even though they know that in the end Reach gets glassed--sorry to ruin it for anybody that doesn't know that--I think that ultimately becomes a small part of the story of the game. Well, maybe that's overstating it, but I mean the guess the focus of the campaign is really on a much more intimate level and that is what's so interesting about it.

Shack: The way Joseph explained it was, it's like the story of the Titanic. Everyone knows it sinks but it's the story before that event that hasn't been told.

Josh Holmes: Yeah, it's the story behind that "meta-event." It's the most important point in the Human-Covenant conflict, a real turning point of humanity but we've never seen the personal stories on the ground that is behind that conflict.

Shack: Speaking of boots in the mud. "Deliver Hope" was very well received and a lot of Shackers want to see that on the big screen in a feature film. It was stalled then killed, any progress now that Halo is back in the spotlight?

Josh Holmes: What we can say and what we continue to say on multiple occasisons is "We'd love to see a great Halo movie." We're Halo fans just like everybody else. When the time comes and we feel like we have a great script, a great director and everything is aligning and it's going to be a movie that lives up to the standards of "Halo," then absolutely we'd love to do that.

I'm hopeful that oneday we'll be there but we just really want to be sure that we have the right movie before we pull the trigger on that.

Shack: So I read on Bungie's site that 343 Industries and Bungie are going to have a little Halo: Reach Hump Day Challenge.

Josh Holmes: Yeah and those guys are going to cheat! (laughs) They are setting all the rules, guidelines, and restrictions for the match!

Frankie [343 boss Frank O'Connor] is going to be in that challenge because they kinda challenged him and the whole thing is coming full circle to Frank because he used to do that exact same shit to everyone else!

Shack: Taking mess to other teams?

Josh Holmes: For sure.

Shack: And now it's going to bite him on the ass facing off against Bungie as the head over at 343 Industries.

Josh Holmes: (laughs) Exactly!

Shack: Do you think your guys stand a chance?

Josh Holmes: We will never give up, we are proud warriors. But it is there game. Man, I know for a fact that Luke Smith is running practices right now in the studio! So, I think we have an underdog's chance.

Shack: As long as you can guarantee second place. Hey, if you win, maybe you can force them to make another Halo game.

Josh Holmes: I think that should be the wager, but I don't think they would take it. Those dudes are kinda busy.

Shack: Yeah, they've got the next ten years planned out. Thanks for your time, Josh.

Halo: Reach hits stores on September 14 for the Xbox 360.

(Ed. Note: Josh Holmes' official title at 343 Industries is Studio Creative Director, his listing in his article as Executive Producer was specific to Halo: Reach. His listed position was changed at the request of a Microsoft representative.)

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  • "Partners." That sounds like 343 Guilty Spark makes the introduction, then leaves Halo at the mercy of the cheapest developer they can find. A la Crackdown 2.

    "Okay, ex-GRIN employees! Welcome to new employee orientation! We've given you EACH two bucks and a stick of chewing gum in your new employee handbooks. Chew it slowly and savor it. No more will be forthcoming. As you are aware when we conscripted you, your team has 12 months, including the month that you'll ship on our scheduled release date of September 5th, 2011, to develop, possibly bugtest, but most importantly give to us a gold master we can put to a disc that plays reasonably well and has a specific, continuous level to level progression.

    "Remember Crackdown 2. We don't care if you copy the levels from one of the pre-existing games, slap in zombies, throw in a tow-cable, and make the game virtually storyless. We just want to be able to say this is a new Halo game. Our suggestion? Take the levels from Halo Reach, change the time of day, throw in a couple of Flood, and call it, Halo: Reach 2: The Flood Cometh. Keep in mind, guys, we'll be hiring next year around this time for the next Halo game and you'll get priority placement if you're as great as Ruffian and can get the game out like we asked. If you don't, well... we'll ship it anyway. It's Halo. It'll sell. A lot."

    "If you fail to hit our stated goals, we will replace you with recent CS dropouts. However, all will not be lost for you because we've worked out a fantastic job transfer program with Bobby Kotick over at Blizzard-Activision. Our ex-employees will have their souls--that you willfully and perhaps unintentionally signed over as part of your employment agreement--transferred to the service of Kotick in his remade Infinity Ward called Infinity Ward Slave Unit. I am told that they run the A/C for one hour per day, they give you two minutes during that hour to eat lunch, and at the end of the year, they will provide you one hour of vacation time for Christmas.

    "Welcome to Microsoft! ...What are you all waiting around for? Halo: Reach 2: The Flood Cometh won't make itself! Let's hustle people! Move like you got a purpose!"