How 343's changing Halo 5 after the beta

Put down your battle rifles, Spartan; the war is over. The Halo 5: Guardians beta is done and dusted. 343 Industries has found time to stroll round the smouldering battlefield, tallying up the casualties. And the results are in: Blue won the war, taking 52.55% of the victories across 20 million games played. Ferrari, Miss Scarlet, velvet cakes, London buses, strawberries – you took one hell of a beating.

Blue’s narrow vanquishing of Red was just one of numerous fascinating stats revealed in an infographic released by 343 in early February. Its numbers paint the intriguing picture of how players adapted to an injection of fresh game modes and Spartan Abilities. Spartan Charges were twice as popular as the much-ballyhooed Ground Pound, for instance – backing up our claim last issue that the Ground Pound’s long wind-up limited its usefulness.

As well as identifying trends, the infographic attempts to blind with sheer volume – did you know that there were over 11 million frag grenade kills, or just shy of 6.5 billion shots fired? – but public betas also offer more useful and nuanced feedback for a developer than simply keeping track of how many people got teabagged, as we discovered when we spoke with Josh Holmes, Halo 5’s executive producer.

“While betas are useful for stress-testing, what we were really looking for was different views,” he told OXM. “We particularly focused on how players interacted with the new Spartan Abilities, and anecdotal feedback on how they used them. We were also interested in their experiences of the map layouts – particularly, in how they flowed and how people moved around them.”

Interesting stuff – and the Halo 5 team has certainly left no stone unturned in its unquenchable thirst for feedback, scouring web forums, social media, Reddit and the newly launched Halo Community Feedback Program for player opinion. But collating this information is one thing; having the confidence to act upon it is another. We’re talking about an industry with a reputation for ignoring the advice of professional game testers, after all – so what chance does the average punter’s opinion have of getting heard?

To its credit, 343 Industries isn’t just listening – it’s willing to change the fundamental shape of the maps to address the concerns of its fanbase. “One thing we learned from the beta is that some areas have too many entry points,” says Holmes. “This was most keenly felt in objectives games in Empire – there were so many ways to get in and out of the bases that it was impossible to properly guard them all. So we made the decision to close some of these points off, so the game feels more deliberate and structured.”

That’s a deceptively telling change to make – one of the common criticisms levelled at the Halo 5 beta is that it felt a bit too much like Call of Duty, possibly because of the emphasis on looking down your sights. But wide-open structures with multiple access points are a staple of CoD level design, so 343 Industries has identified this very same design as a problem that needs fixing to douse fears that Halo is becoming too CoD-ified. “The main difference between Halo and Call of Duty is that in Halo, when you’re shot, you have the ability to turn around and fight back,” explains Holmes. “We want to give players better ability to control a zone, and that means not giving them more entrance points than can be reasonably controlled.”

User feedback will also reshape one of the new game types introduced in the beta – Breakout. The rules are simple – it’s Halo does Survivor Series, with the aim being to eliminate every member of the other team. But, Holmes contends, the community found the mode too simple:

“Our players told us the mode needs to have more of a sense of objective.” Everyone’s looking for something different from their online shooters, of course, but the consensus seems to be that with no concrete objective to aim for and to push people forward, games can be drawn-out and sometimes quite dull. “It’s especially a problem when you’re up against an organised team – they’ll be hesitant to engage, leading to very slow matches” says Holmes. Meanwhile, now it’s seen them be used in the wild, the studio is calling some weapons back in for rebalancing.

“It’s important for the primary weapons to be perfectly balanced, so each gun is as effective as it’s supposed to be within its own engagement zone,” says Holmes. “With secondary weapons however, there’s a lot more flexibility for us to play with the balancing… we want these to be cool things that you want to scrap to get control of.” One secondary weapon that courted controversy during the beta was the Hydra grenade-launcher. Its ammo has a tracking function that is initially tricky to use but, as we discussed last issue, it becomes wildly powerful once it clicks that you can fire a grenade into the air, where it’ll then lock on to target below and deliver death right to their door. Surely it won’t appear in the finished game in this form?

“Internally, the Hydra is one of the most divisive weapons in the whole game,” laughs Holmes. “Some of us love the trick shots, others aren’t so sure. It’s still up for discussion.” Other decisions were locked down quickly and unanimously, such as the move to reduce the gulf between normal walking speed and sprint speed. “The idea behind making the gulf so wide is that we wanted it to be a meaningful choice,” explains Holmes. “We wanted it to be substantial enough that you’d be willing to give up your weapons and ability to regenerate just to sprint. But in practice the difference was too much. We want to rein it in to make it easier for pursuing players to track their prey”.

These subtle but far-reaching tweaks will make Halo 5 a more exciting, better-paced game. And it’s further proof of the value of developers opening up their games, allowing them to gather fresh insight from passionate players who aren’t too close to the product. But one question remains: why does Blue have the edge on Red? Well, er, we forgot to ask. But they do say red’s a ‘come get me’ colour…

Alex Dale
Hello! I'm the former Deputy Editor of Official Xbox Magazine, and worked on mags such as NGamer, Xbox World and PC Zone, so I definitely have some idea of what is and what isn't a video game. Outside of gaming, my hobbies include birdwatching, canoeing, tennis, ice hockey and travel - particularly to far-flung parts of the world where nature still rules supreme.