Whether you’ve kept current with the weekly Spartan Ops episodes or keeping it pure multiplayer in Halo 4, you have to at least admire that the whole affair hasn’t gone up in smoke. Ten weeks and fifty missions later, the folks at 343 Industries are just warming up.
The second half of Season One starts January 21, and we got a chance to talk to 343 Industries Mission Designer David Ellis about the lessons they’ve learned so far, and where they want to go in the future.
“Spartan Ops is a great experiment for us,” Ellis said. “There’s no wise old man of episodic storytelling. We’ve done a lot of experimentation in figuring out how we can put out content quickly and rapidly. Nothing associated with our toolset is built around doing this, so we had to build a lot of things from scratch to support what we’ve done with the first half of the season and now the second half.”
Taking this small break in season one to reflect, Ellis is proud that they’ve fulfilled their promises to the players: “Ten weeks of content, fifty missions.” And they’ve delivered.
The players have responded in kind — 343 hasn’t seen the player drop-off they were afraid of. Possibly because the real Halo die hards have had to go so long without any kind of story that it’s great to get such frequent updates.
“In some cases, we’re doing some ambitious things with our story. When the season concludes, there will be fundamental changes to the Halo universe on a scale that people aren’t necessarily expecting,” Ellis said. “It’s awesome that we’ve been given the support internally to do some pretty creative stuff with the main story of Spartan Ops by the time we finish it out.”
Ellis also promises this isn’t a throwaway story. Spartan Ops will make canon changes that will pay off in Halo’s future, whether it be in books, comics, or games.
But not everyone is pleased as punch with how Spartan Ops has been going so far. Ellis is well aware of the content’s detractors… and is actually grateful they’re around.
“As long as we’re getting feedback, people are caring — they’re actually playing it. If people weren’t complaining, they wouldn’t care, and that would mean what we’re doing wasn’t having any impact or resonance with people,” Ellis reasoned.
One lesson learned by 343 Industries is that players prefer the large, open, vehicle-based conflicts. Naturally, they’re aiming to give people more of those trademark Halo battles in the second half of season one.
Another common complaint is that the separate storylines presented in Spartan Ops are a little hard to track. While 343 still wants to keep the storylines of the CG episodes and the in-game missions separate, they want to make the interaction between them more noticeable and meaningful.
“They’re still parallel storylines that don’t have a direct correlation one-to-one with one another, but we wanted to have moments where they did interact, moments were a mission will carry directly into a CG episode,” Ellis said. “We also wanted the inverse — something that happens in the CG episode that sets up an entire week’s missions. When they did intersect, we wanted them to be substantive, we wanted them to matter. When they did happen, we wanted people to feel they were special.”
The other elephant in the room regards Spartan Ops’ asset reuse. Many players felt that the first half of Season one retread old ground too often. Ellis doesn’t mince words on this topic — you will still visit the same areas multiple times in the second half of season one. However, they’ve become much smarter about how to revamp the space to make it feel new.
“We want you to encounter things you don’t expect,” Ellis said. “We want you to get a sense of familiarity and then do something that changes it, whether it’s an overt gameplay thing, opening up a section of the level you didn’t see, or just changing the types of enemies and what directions they’re coming at you from — whether you’re in the air or on the ground or flying a banshee. That’s one of the big changes, being smarter about how we construct these levels in a more modular way.”
Despite those complaints, and despite the fact that season one is only halfway over, many fans are already asking for a season two.
“We don’t have anything to announce right now, but we’re pretty busy supporting Halo and not just releasing the second half of Spartan Ops,” Ellis said. “We’ve released several title updates, balance changes, things like that. We have a whole other map pack coming after the Majestic [Map Pack], so we definitely have a lot of stuff coming down the pipeline supporting Halo 4.”