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Five Minutes Of... Halo: Reach's Firefight Menus
In the latest installment of her "five minutes with" column, developer and former Edge magazine editor-in-chief Robertson delves deeply into the complicated and rewarding menus of Halo: Reach's Firefight mode, explaining how they shine through design.
December 7, 2010
11 Min Read
[Five minutes with... is a series of investigations by former Edge magazine editor-in-chief -- and current development director of social game developer Hide&Seek -- Margaret Robertson into what five minutes of play reveals about a larger game, stepping back from all-encompassing reviews and doing some hardcore design drilling into interesting moments from interesting games.]
When I started this column, I got a lot of feedback from people who assumed it would only ever be about the first five minutes of a game. Others assumed it would be about the best five minutes, although lord knows who could ever be in charge of deciding what the best five minutes of any game are.
It was really only meant to be about five interesting minutes, and those five minutes aren't necessarily where you'd expect them to be. In Halo: Reach, those five interesting minutes aren't in the main campaign.
They aren't even in classic multiplayer, where my experience usually consists of being serially executed by contemptuous children. They aren't, to my astonishment, even in Firefight, where most of my hours are spent. No, they're in the Firefight options menu.
Firefight, as many veterans of ODST will know, is the backs-to-the-wall co-op survival mode, against pre-selected waves of Covenant troops
Reach lets you tweak almost every aspect of the experience, turning a fixed endurance test into infinite strategic pick 'n mix. On the face of it, that probably doesn't sound like much fun. Or, perhaps, even that interesting.
But that would be to seriously underestimate the fun that unfolds in these menus. Maps and spawn points are fixed, and the vanilla goal is to survive three sets of five waves of several squads of enemies, but within that everything is up for grabs. There are five two-slot gun configurations to customize, further modified by grenade and equipment settings.
The make-up of each wave and set can be fixed; skulls that modify enemy AI, physics modeling and saving rolls toggled on and off; drop-ships and hazards can be turned on and off. Literally hundreds of options, effecting every aspect of play. The result is a menu where you can spend a lot of time -- not out of necessity, but out of greedy indulgence.
Stop and think for a moment about how vast the possibility space is that this menu asks me to juggle. In Campaign, I'm making a million loadout decisions second to second, but with very limited parameters. I already have weapon A, and am facing enemies X at distance Y with cover Z. Do I want to swap weapon B with ammo K for weapon C? Finite, specific choices made under fire with no chance for reflection.
Eyeing up the different weapon loadouts, I feel like I'm contemplating a spice rack more than a gun menu. I go dead in my eyes for a moment, the way chefs do when you suggest a new flavor combination, and they briefly slip dimensions to a universe where they've already cooked and eaten your idea, before coming back with a judgement which isn't a guess, but somehow a report of a dish they've actually tasted.
In the menu, every option I look at sends a ripple through everything else. Fuel Rod Cannon plus Plasma Rifle? A quick dimension slip and my brain reports back that as a combination it's fun but silly. Useless as close range, a bit too splashy, unwise to hit the ground with two Covenant weapons I can easily harvest later if I want.
But as I think that, the massive train departure board in my head starts to clack as other options slot in to place around the idea. Silly but splashy? OK, so let's switch on Cowbell and Catch to triple the physics and double the grenades, let's have lots of grunts and lots of hunters. Let's make some mess.
And, of course, in Firefight, I'm not just choosing a static starting set-up. I'm composing a 30 minute symphony, building a score which accelerates and crescendos with lulls and climaxes -- hell, with an A theme and a B theme if I want, and reprises and reversals.
There is artistry in putting together a truly harmonious set-up, something where your choices act in concert with each other, rather than fighting amongst themselves. That's the reward you chase while playing with the menu: the creator's pride that will result from finding a uniquely well-judged combination.
But finding it isn't trial and error, can't be trial and error. There are millions of combinations, each of which would need be tested for several rounds, each of which takes half an hour or more. Most of the rest of the lifespan of humanity could be spent balance-testing Firefight configurations. Instead, you find it through fantasy. The Firefight menu is a place of imaginary games, of rapid conceptual prototyping, where you can play dozens of a rounds a second in the privacy of your own brain. And that results in a kind of pleasure that games offer all too rarely.
Firefight's menus ask me to use my imagination. In a game which otherwise does such a good job of rendering your imagination redundant, filling your eyes and ears and hands with extraordinarily accomplished facsimiles of battle, the menu forces you do it for yourself, to find out what your own processors are capable of.
Mainstream games, chasing ever-escalating hardware capabilities, have neglected imagination of late. We've gone beyond a devotion to "show, don't tell" to be a point where we're only focused on what we can display, not what the player can see.
It's the latter, of course, that in the end matters. It's not the square of photons at one end that counts, but the pattern of neurons at the other. Firefight's menus are testament to how much players can hold in their head, about how much knowledge and extrapolation they can juggle on their own.
That in itself is a pleasure - getting to feel your brain work well can be immensely rewarding. More narcotic is that Firefight closes the loop that its menus open. The results of all this imagination, of this brain-space prototyping, is a theory: choosing those settings should result in this kind of experience.
Playing the game lets you find out whether or not you were right. It's the meta-version of something which forms a big part of the pleasure cycle in games generally: when an "aha" -- the moment when you think you've figured something out -- converts into a "yay!" of discovery that your prediction was right.
However simple the theory -- these enemies might be vulnerable to these bullets, this key might work in that door -- finding out if it's right or wrong gives you a buzz. Either the buzz of being right, or the buzz of learning something new, better to refine your theory and come back with something smarter. The Firefight menus are a banquet of these moments, not least because, these days, Halo is anything but simple.
At this stage in the series' evolution, that's fair enough, of course. Reach is not primarily designed, nor should it be, for people who've never played a Halo game before. A few of my friends, Halo-newbies but FPS veterans, have been lured to the game by some of our Firefight war stories. They're struggling a little, which isn't surprising. But there is hope. The best way to get better at Reach, of course, is to play it. But the second best way to get better, I humbly suggest, is to play its menus.
Playing Campaign puts you under continuous pressure, forcing you to make strategic decisions along side continuous skill judgements, milli-second by milli-second. It teaches you things you couldn't learn any other way. But it also denies you time to think.
It doesn't give you the opportunities to ruminate and consider, to reflect and revise your opinion of tactics or weapons or equipment use. Sitting for five minutes -- and, if I'm honest, for many five minuteses -- flicking through tabulated lists of options gives a different bit of your brain a chance to get to grips with the possibilities on offer, gives your rational brain as well as your reptile brain a chance to get up to speed.
For me, I learn as much when I'm not playing as when I am. Not just in the postmortems -- although Bungie's exemplary match-reports are ruthless masterclasses as well as cheery report cards -- but in the pre-match set-up sessions.
Thinking methodically about what different weapon combinations offer, and then edging that thinking out to explore what happens when that combination is integrated with particular equipment, and then assessing that loadout against different enemies, on different maps, brings to light not just things about those elements of the game, but about my play style and skill gaps.
"Sniper Rifle? But which map? Do I know its vantage points well enough? Paired with what? Shotgun? Makes me wary -- I'm bad at closing distance. Too much relying on a scoped DMR means my footwork is still weak. Maybe should bridge the gap by pulling in armor lock? Need to practice gauging EMP blast radiuses with that anyhow..."
And this is one of the wonderful terrors of the Firefight menus -- the apparently exhaustive range of options they display aren't the only ones you're considering.
Customization allows you to set up the perfect framework on which to impose your own goals and objective: this time it's about not dying, this time it's about headshots, this time it's about total kills.
Thanks to the power of the menus, Firefight becomes a skills laboratory, giving you a controlled environment in which to run experiments on your own abilities.
Not, of course, that the additional considerations end there. I spend a slightly embarrassing amount of time playing Firefight on my own, but planning set-ups for multiplayer nights are even more complex tests of imagination. Now it's not just finding loadouts which suit my skills and predilections, but those of my team-mates.
Even just thinking about what they'll want often helps me learn from how they play. Tweaking difficulty doesn't just become about deciding between Heroic and Legendary but about thinking about the impact of each player's ability and style -- this person's fearless about grenading Wraiths, he's good at smartly husbanding ordnance drops, someone else is a good shot but a bit gung-ho: let's leave hazards on, but up the lives limit.
As a consequence, saved gametypes become mementos of amazing nights, or tiny, subtle encodings of friends' personalities. You could show me a print-out of an optimized Firefight menu and I could tell you, four times out of five, which of my friends it was designed for or by. You can make people laugh with a nicely tuned set-up, embed it with little jokes and digs about how they play, or references to previous unforgettable matches.
It's worth reiterating for a moment: we're talking about a menu here. A screen full of lists, which -- thanks to the game that supports it, and the judgement exercised in what is and isn't available for customization -- operates all at once as a test of my imagination, an outlet for my creativity, a strategic study-group, and a strange multi-dimensional photo album of a particular bit of my social life. I'll admit to being pretty gob-smacked by that. It's a design feat in and of itself that often gets overlooked.
And that, perhaps, is the last bit of my obsession with Firefight's menus, and at the root of why I find them so fascinating and enjoyable. In principle, messing with these kinds of variables is a key component of what being a game designer is supposed to be about. Usually, though, you don't get to muck around with a complete and polished system. You're making these kind of design decisions against an evolving, incomplete, periodically busted framework. You're stretching your imagination hard, but with no easy way to close to loop, to find out if your 'aha's really are "yay"s.
And, to make things worse, you're calibrating for -- you hope -- millions of potential players, most of whom you didn't grow up with, or get married to, or give birth to. Those bits of game design are rewarding and challenging and fascinating, but they're often painful. Firefight's menus offer a different fix: a perfect, frictionless microcosm of game design, where each new idea is a button press away, the test loop is fifteen minutes of shooty brilliance, and your audience is three of your favorite people. I may never play anything else.
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About the Author(s)
Margaret Robertson is development director for Hide&Seek, a game design studio which uses public spaces and digital platforms to make interesting games for interesting people. Her previous role as an independent consultant enabled her to work on a huge range of projects, from AAA console titles, through download and mobile/ handheld games, to indie and art-house projects. She's worked with brands, broadcasters, and film studios to develop their game strategies, and was part of the team that built the BAFTA-award winning game slate which recently earned Channel 4 the Develop Publishing Hero award. Previously editor of Edge magazine, and part of the team behind the GameCity festival, she is currently a contributing editor for Wired in the UK, and speaks worldwide on game design theory.
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