The Playbook: How to Improve Squad Commands in Halo 5 and other shooters.

A solution to issues in squad-based combat in Halo 5 using Quarterback playbook-inspired team and tactics forming.

Hi, my name is Adam, I’m a Game Designer.

What makes for a good Quarterback?

When CNBC spoke with Bill Belechick, coach of the New England Patriots, he talked about his five rules of leadership, of how a leader builds a team that is exhaustively prepared, can change their tactics in an instant, and has to be dependable and trust-worthy. The leader on the field in any football game is The Quarterback.

A Quarterback needs to be able to adjust to any given situation, with simple codes called out to their team. Often, Quarterbacks will wear a wrist mounted pad with a short list of formations, each with a special name, and each telling every member of their team exactly what to do with only a few words. These calls are never second guessed, and are always executed by the team. This small set of methods and tactics forms their playbook

But what does this have to do with a First Person Shooter?

Halo 5

Halo 5: Guardians is the fifth main series installment in the Halo franchise. It is a First Person Shooter with an 8 hour campaign and a full suite of multiplayer content. For this, we'll mostly be focusing on an element of the single player campaign, but multiplayer will be mentioned later on. 

The game puts you in the shoes of two different squad leaders, Master Chief, and Locke. This split isn't atypical of Halo, as they've done it in previous entries, but a new element is the addition of  a squad (or fire team, as the game refers to them), a trio of ai controlled allies that are meant to act as your subordinates, taking orders as you lead the charge into alien warfare. The main method of this control is the Squad Command system, which I'll refer to as The Pointer System. By aiming your crosshair, you can point out specific locations in game for units to move to, have them swap to a different weapon in the environment, or focus their attention on a particular enemy. It's designed to answer one of the game's pillars integral to the single player campaign Your Team Is Your Weapon.
A devblog post going over the game's design pillars and squadmate AI.

How Other Games Handle It

Games like Star Wars Rogue Squadron 3: Rebel Strike and other aerial/space combat games have been doing simple versions of these systems for years, and there’s something inherently magical and immersive about giving your squad a command and then having them act on it. Using Rogue Squadron as an example, the game had two basic formations and two mission-based formations, I’ll give an example of them below the two constants: 

  • (D-Pad Up) Form Up: your allies position themselves to your immediate left and right and fly in lock-step with you, firing as you fire.

  • (D-Pad Down) Flee/Stay: Essentially, spread out and fly independently from one another

Mission dependent ones on the left and right directional pad inputs:

  • Attack My Target: allowed your AI companions to free-roam and fire on mission objectives (whether they be other ships or structures).

  • Watch My Back: a formation that asked your AI squadmates to protect you from enemies that might be firing on you.

The icon in the top right lets players know which options are available on a mission. With some being solo missions and others having more dogfight-like objectives, it changed frequently.

The player presses the d-pad to bring up the formations menu, then can either choose a direction on the d-pad to give their allies an order to change their activity.

Some of these were echoed in games like Mass Effect, (A shooter-RPG hybrid) proving their universal use, while others were let go in favor of pointer systems and other strategies, like holding a position. If you continue to follow those design echoes, you can see what Halo 5 took from the Mass Effect series but failed to recognize with its own influences.

The squad system of Mass Effect inspired Halo 5’s decision to handle squads by focusing on the improvement of the pointer and focus aspect. The goal of these changes is to improve the player's intended experience, make the squads themselves feel more experienced in general, and to add a level of personality and strategy to squad command. 

A screenshot of the weapon wheel in the Mass Effect series. This would be boiled down heavily as the series went on.

The Issue

Squad based commands have always been tricky in games, whether it’s leading a small platoon, commanding a squad of fighter pilots, or in the case of Halo 5 Guardians: leading a small squad of specialized super-soldiers. Designing a clean system for these types of games can be difficult simply due to the nature of attention. In shooters, the player’s attention is often fixated on their cursor.

While The Pointer System worked better for the slower paced, cover heavy combat in Mass Effect, the more movement heavy firefighting of Halo is severely slowed down by something that requires a clashing use of the reticle from the player. It doesn't support the sort of brisk pace intended by the game’s opening cinematic.

Flying down into death and leaping across the battlefield has absolutely no connection to cover-based combat

In Halo 5, enemies needing particular focus must be pointed at and highlighted. As we can see here, in that same time, a player could easily take care of most foes on their own. Compare this slow paced design to the cinematic opener seen above featuring Blue Team.

It becomes even more cumbersome as a system when you account for the fact that it is the way to choose your allies positioning and their equipment, and the player has no real idea of who is likely to take these positions, or how they'll adapt to a situation. The player has no way of knowing how their teammates will perform basic orders, making this level of micromanagement a frustrating and awkward experience. With our problem clearly established, how do we tackle it in a way that gives the player a feeling of agency without making their job on the battlefield more tedious. How do we make them feel as strategic and experienced as Master Chief or John Locke are? 

The Playbook 

The Playbook is a simple idea: like Quarterbacks, every character has approaches and strategies that work for them. Having worked together over a period of weeks or months, these strategies would be something their teammates know, like a Quarterback’s playbook. So a simple command of “Delta Formation” would be enough for a team to understand where to go and what to do. At its core, this is the main premise of The Playbook, simple execution.

How It Works

With a simple press of a direction on the D-pad, players call out a command to their squadmate AI, and a series of behaviors are issued as generic commands. For example, in "Spearhead Formation”, the AI find the player and position themselves in close proximity, firing on the same target with focused intensity. In another formation, “Turnpike”, the AI use your general forward direction and lines of sight to find optimal flanking positions, with a goal of creating a ring around the largest cluster of enemies. As players explore areas and participate in firefights, their desired tactics may change and new strategies may become available.

As part of mission preparation or assigned equipment, the d-pad would be given 4 formations, or “plays” as we’ll call them. These plays are each given a dedicated direction on the d-pad, allowing the player to equip 4 plays at once. Should the player want to return to normal AI function, pressing in the same direction again will cancel any plays currently being given.

This system can easily be scaled in either direction. For now, let’s focus on scaling down.

Pared Down, but Not Watered Down

So let’s assume that the idea did well enough in prototypes to warrant continuing its inclusion, but it would be very difficult to get more than a handful of these working, or even just getting enough options that worked for Halo. Regardless, we can’t spend dev hours on it beyond getting the system running. Is it still worth it?


Even with a simple version of The Playbook, the idea still rings true, with players having a series of strategies their character has developed and will likely find ones that work in different situations. The goal is now to make 3 or 4 unique strategies, each with more basic designs that allow for a feeling of pacing on the battlefield.

The Basic Playbook:

  • Lancer: order squadmates to fire like the bullets are free, your squadmates will focus on your target and unload grenades and heavy firepower, with an emphasis on attempting to put out as much damage as possible, with little disregard for self or their surroundings. It’s a Hail Mary that’s sure to lead to some exciting and memorable moments.

  • Turnpike: Move up on the battlefield relative to the player’s basic direction and assume flanking positions.

  • Focus Down: Squadmates will find cover, picking off prioritized enemies (nearby, health, aggression), and slowly work their way across the battlefield, trying to use ammo efficiently and swapping out weapons as needed.

  • Vanguard: Squadmates will fire at the enemies currently shooting at you to try and keep you alive. It’s perfect for when you’re desperate to run through a risky position to reach a valuable weapon or vehicle.

  • A mock-up of how the playbook screen would look in the Mission Setup section. For the scaled up version, players would be able to press X in order to customize plays or create new ones.

Embracing Leadership

So let’s say this idea is going well, we’ve put some preliminary ideas into prototypes and the results with our AI are pretty satisfying. How do we take it further? Simply put, more choices.

Methods Of Your Own Madness

Instead of a list of plays, giving players categories that would work better with their playstyle would give each player the feeling like they’re truly running their own squad. For example, if I’m a shotgun style character who likes to run and gun around the arena, I wouldn’t exactly hope for my teammates to lob grenades at my foes. I might opt for “Vanguard”, a play that involves two teammates on sniper rifles, with a third acting as a midranged support for any enemies that get too close to their position. Internally, a simple area tagging system could make certain spots in levels seen as advantageous for different tactics, for instance a balcony overlooking a courtyard fight we’ve designed would be one of the spots the AI would seek out to fire from.

The Right Tool For The Job

The idea of this system would extend into weapon choices as well, with some formations giving certain characters’ access to heavy firepower, while others would give them more melee style weaponry. The great thing about this system is that these options won’t always work, because tactics shouldn’t always work. A risky play becomes exciting and fun when it pays off, when you decide to run “Batter Up” against a pair of Hunters, and watch your teammates somehow survive a head to head encounter with a towering foe. And should someone really find consistent success with “Artillery” in a small hallway, when explosions are as likely to help you as they are to harm you?

A condensed version of the Loadout menu. It would show squad synergy in the form of basic tags. Those tags would provide context for behavior, and allow players to choose how each squadmate acts in those formations. Further depth could go as far as to modify weapon loadouts or even add in utility tool features.

Taking the intricacies of formations even further, behavior could be tied to a series of menus where players could customize strategies and weapon load-outs (a relatively low-effort cost system could help balance out over-optimal strategies if that’s a concern, though one I would argue is misguided in the context of encouraging good tactics). 

All About Context

Narratively, the idea of a playbook would also be a great way to support character relationships. There’s a level of trust and professionalism that goes into giving someone your absolute, unwavering support. In any professional setting, you offer criticism (or in this case, barks “Not sure about this one”), but do your best to carry out your job. Players could unlock new plays after narrative beats, embracing the personalities of their teammates who they might resonate with (and enriching the characters in a substantial way). 

Multiplayer Opportunities

A big appeal for developers of multiplayer FPS shooters like Halo is always “How can we translate this to a multiplayer setting, how can we avoid building things exclusively for singleplayer”. As the system becomes more in-depth and affords heavy customization, a “fireteam” gamemode could put a player and their AI against another player and their AI in a simple 4v4, potentially objective based firefight. Players would design loadouts and test them against each other, offering a refreshing and new addition to the Halo multiplayer experience. And considering the capabilities of the exciting Warzone game mode, having a 3v3 (12v12 if you count the AI) game mode would give Halo a pretty unique twist and opportunity for every player count and type. 

Closing Thoughts

I’m a fan of Halo as a franchise, and I love the opportunities that shifting the game’s single-player to a squad-based shooter can afford it over other titles. And while I would happily devote another 100 hours of my life to the upcoming Halo Infinite, I think single-player squad shooters have really flat-lined in their innovation these past few years. 

One final thing to note is that The Playbook works for all levels of experience and interest. Casual fans looking for a quick getaway on the couch can rely on the premade formations catered to each level while Strategic players have the option of customizing their own tactics and truly creating a team that represents their personality and style of play. For a franchise like Halo (which has been so powerfully inviting to players of all kinds) I think it’d make for a welcome addition.

Thank you so much for reading my first blog post, and to everyone who I reached out to and offered me feedback. Nothing is ever designed in a vacuum and, in that spirit, I would love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment or email me with any concerns, questions or criticisms. Happy dev'ing.

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