Episodic content in the world of video games isn’t a brand new invention, with some developers having tried, and admittedly fewer having found success, in a regular-release schedule. But with Halo 4, developer 343 Industries is trying something completely new.
Not just in bringing the format to the Halo series, but by combining a playable, segmented campaign driven by a story delivered alongside a standalone animated series. That formula may sound like a massive risk on top of the already lofty hopes for Halo 4, but it’s what 343 is betting on. Not just to be successful, but to bring player investment to an all new level.
In an interview with Xbox 360 Magazine UK, the developers elaborated on their hopes for the cooperative campaign in Spartan Ops, and the types of challenges that forging such a unique path offered. Never ones to back down from pressure or high expectations, it seems that an entirely new race of enemies, a completely overhauled approach to multiplayer and ‘mind-blowing’ story just aren’t enough for a single game (even if the lead multiplayer designer claims their system is deeper than Call of Duty‘s).
According to 343’s Frank O’Connor, Spartan Ops means an entirely different style of storytelling, hoping to utilize the advantages of both gameplay and good television. It’s a risk, to be sure, but one that could change what a ‘gaming experience’ means as the next generation of consoles begins:
“You have to dump it all in one eight-hour playthrough and ignore the act structure, because people are playing it over weeks […] It’s more predictable how people will ingest the story and it gives us more control and cadence over the narrative. And when you’re doing this over a narrative and campaign that’s spread over 8-15 hours, we can direct it on a granular level of detail and you know that person is going to be surprised and remember that thing you told them one level ago.
“But really, I’m more interested in social experience. Do people go into work the next day and say, ‘Man, Spartan Ops was cool. I liked it when that thing happened that was pretty exciting’? And then you continue that conversation: ‘Oh, I loved it when you flipped that Warthog over and we all fell to our deaths because you’re a s**tty driver.’ Have players combine the narrative and the interactive experience like when they’re talking about Lost or Breaking Bad.”
O’Connor explains that the missions won’t simply be churned out on a weekly basis, but that players will form relationships with the characters, loving or hating them as the series progresses. Describing the mixture of story and gameplay arrived at as ‘a TV show you play,’ Spartan Ops will ideally combine great TV with great gameplay – a novel idea.
To suggest that Bungie cared more about the ’30 seconds of fun’ game design than providing the best window into the expansive Halo universe may be seen as sacrilege, but 343 is intent on improving the work of their predecessors. That’s already been proven with the first episode of Forward Unto Dawn, but the developers promise a more concise, clear emphasis on story as driving the events of both the singleplayer and Spartan Ops campaigns.
Layering Spartan Ops on top of a dense campaign and multiplayer may seem like an unnecessary level of investment into an unproven delivery scheme. But for Creative Director Josh Holmes, the decision is already paying off:
“It’s the thing I’m most excited about with Halo 4, honestly because it’s just so different […] We want to see whether fans will invest in this world, its characters and Infinity. Will they come back every week and will it spark those water-cooler conversations? […] We hope it will and we hope people will keep talking about the story, but because of the sandbox aspect they still have a part of the story that they own. i’m really excited to see how people respond. I think it could point the way forward for how we experience games and entertainment, but time will tell.”
From our time with Spartan Ops, there’s hardly any doubt that players will keep coming back, especially since each individual’s respective multiplayer character carrying over. Story aside, the cooperative mode is an invaluable means of welcoming newer players (or those intimidated by multiplayer) into the online War Games. Group tactics and teamwork will be invaluable, and the popularity of Halo will increase the likelihood of finding a consistent group.
The time spent since the release of Halo 3 may have felt like torture, but it has certainly resulted in an already passionate fan base eager to play as much Halo as possible. The time spent on crafting such a massive and comprehensive experience is therefore more likely to pay off, barring some unforeseen developments.
Do you count yourself among those most eagerly anticipating the Spartan Ops campaign, along with Master Chief’s most difficult mission to date? Or are you most interested to see how the Infinity multiplayer systems function in practice?
Halo 4 will be released on November 6, 2012, exclusively for the Xbox 360.
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Source: Xbox 360 Magazine UK (via Reddit)