Gameplanet: You must be feeling happy now you're so close to finishing Halo 4?
Kiki Wolfkill: Yeah, it's kind of surreal. It's exciting. There's been so much anxiety for us, in terms of just getting it done, and making sure the quality was where we needed it to be, so it's weird to think that we're actually going to be releasing soon. I think yesterday it was like eight weeks from being on the shelf.
Gameplanet: Especially since you've been working on it since 2009?
Wolfkill: That's right, we started building the team I think in 2008, and started the concept work in 2009.
Gameplanet: Did Bungie leave a good platform for you to work with?
It was a pretty open door as where to go next, because Halo 3 ended with some ambiguity as to where Chief was, and we definitely knew from the beginning that we wanted to continue Chief's story. So once we'd made that decision, which was really early, then it became about looking across the next ten years to ask what do we want that story arc to look like. And as long as Chief and Cortana are intact, the universe has such a rich history. The forerunner had always been there as something that added to that, so it really become really fertile ground for us to explore.
Gameplanet: The fiction of the Halo universe has always been an important draw card for many fans, although much of it exists outside of the games. How is 343 integrating narrative more tightly into Halo 4?
Wolfkill: I have a personal passion around the storytelling, and it was definitely an early investment. We wanted to tell a great story, and we wanted to tell it really well. Part of that came from when we took stock of where Halo was, and what it was – it's such a precious thing to have this amazing universe fleshed out. I think for myself I've been such a fan of the fiction, the things that I learned about Halo through the books, and the fiction that didn't necessarily come through in the game. It became really important to think about how we get more of that into the game without distracting from the game experience. So how we told that story become a really early focus. And I do think one thing that is a core pillar of the studio, 343, and what we want to do is that we do want everything to feel connected. We don't want things to feel dependent on each other, but we want them to feel connected, whether it's the game, or a webseries, or a book. We want the whole to feel worthwhile, so for someone who does engage in all those things, they get a lot out of it without needing to have read, or played or watched something else.
Gameplanet: You mentioned core pillars – what are these, and how do they influence the way 343 put together the game?
Wolfkill: You can look across any number of games and they'll have similar pillars, but for us, when we sat down and started thinking about what Halo 4 needed to be, we looked at the whole breadth of things coming out over the next three years, we looked at player behaviour over the next three years, we looked broadly at how entertainment is evolving, and tried to think about those. So I think where we landed was that we needed to understand what is the key strength of Halo, and what are the key things that differentiate us. So rather than chasing other things, let's make sure we're really doubling down on things that are strengths and differentiators of Halo. And I think epic Sci-Fi is one of those, and a lot of people on the team – including myself – can clearly articulate how they felt the first time they played Halo 1. The first time they landed on that Halo ring. That became something that really resonated with the team in terms of how do we get back to that feeling? For people who have played Halo before, but also for people who haven't played it before, because there are people who were five years old when the first Halo came out. So how do we get that moment of wonder and awe and amazement that the player has been transported to this place that they want to explore. So that kind of gets back to that first pillar – we wanted to deliver this epic Sci-Fi adventure, and closely tied to that is the return of Master Chief. We wanted to make sure that felt meaningful.
The second pillar was really around delivering a very powerful and visceral campaign and gameplay experience. Our Halo sandbox is a really powerful and unique characteristic of Halo, so it's about how we build on that and add whole new experiences that can be gained by adding new tools to the sandbox. That's where the new enemy class came from, and all the things they bring with them. The other part of it is how do we ensure a good first-person experience? You're a 900-pound Spartan, you're heavy and powerful, but you're also very nimble and light – how do we make sure the player feels that a little bit more in the style of their movement, and the audio that they're hearing in their heads-up display? I think those became focal points around that pillar.
Then the third is that we have to deliver on innovation in multiplayer. For us that manifested itself in Spartan Ops, exploring this whole new delivery method and a whole new co-operative mode, and also the changes we made to the competitive multiplayer. Having this infinity multiplayer overlay, this idea that there is a narrative that connects you to the campaign experience, and this idea that the campaign and multiplayer aren't these completely disconnected game experiences. We want all of it to feel like it's part of a whole, and in multiplayer when you build your Spartan force, you have a sense of place and understanding as being part of that universe.
Gameplanet: How do you decide which elements of science fiction to include in the Halo series, and how to incorporate them with your own ideas?
Wolfkill: There's enough freedom in the universe that there's very few things we would want to do from a game design standpoint that we wouldn't be able to figure out how to fit within the fiction. You know, when I think about science fiction, I think about a world in the future which gives us the flexibility to be more imaginative about what the possibilities could be. Good science fiction really requires you to be grounded in human themes that people can connect to, so it's not like "oh, we're going to envision crazy stuff in the future". And I think that's why with a lot of things you see in Halo, it still feels somewhat contemporary in terms of objects. So you can still make that connection in your head of how we got from where we are today to that 26th century, and how human objects may have evolved to there. Science fiction allows us to create and explore worlds and species and events, but they're still very grounded in the real constructs of today.
Gameplanet: It's also possible to see that in the gender equality inherent in the game. There's lots of strong female characters. Is this something you're particularly invested in, obviously being a female game designer yourself?
Wolfkill: I think that one of the values when we came together as a studio and embraced wasn't to do with gender or anything like that, but did have to do with embracing a diversity of opinions, and embracing the idea that the best of ideas could come from the strangest places, and you don't need to be a game designer or in this discipline to have a great idea. So I think that has lead to a good, broad perspective on the creative. I think that part of why I've been a Halo fan is that I do appreciate the character of Cortana and other female characters in the IP, and that's part of what has made Halo a strong IP, and we definitely want to continue that.
Gameplanet: We've seen a lot of the cinematics here today, is there more of a reliance on these to tell the Halo 4 story, compared to Halo 3?
Wolfkill: I hope that there's little less of a reliance, and what I would say is that we invested a lot in the cinematics technology, process and artistry, because it's a really key tool for us. We felt it was a place where we could do better storytelling. That said, we've added a lot of other tools to our storytelling box, because there's types of stories that are better to tell through cinematics, and then there are stories that are better told through what the player explores, better told through a hint that may come up, or something that you might find. Or even through how the music is coming in, and the tone of that music and what you're seeing.
We wanted to be able to tell parts of the story in lots of different ways, so I think we went a little deeper on the cinematics in terms of the fidelity and what we wanted to get out of it. But I think we aren't relying on it to do more of the storytelling than maybe Halo has in the past.
Gameplanet: Being a flagship title for Xbox and Xbox 360, we'd get in a lot of trouble if we didn't ask you about plans Microsoft has for the next generation of hardware...
Wolfkill: I'd get in a lot of trouble if I told you anything! [laughs]
Gameplanet: Obviously, but can you say you're happy about what is coming up, and you're confident it will take Halo in the right direction?
Wolfkill: Yeah, I think Halo has always sort of been a great pioneer on any of the platforms we've released it on, and we look forward to doing the same thing.