It’s a unique opportunity.
It's October 26. Brad Welch, the Design Director of Halo 5: Guardians, sits in front of me. Tomorrow the video game he has spent the last three years of his life building will be released, in its final form, to an expectant public.
That's a scary thought.
Millions of people will play Halo 5: Guardians. Hardened fans, cynical fans, pro players, game critics, developers, people who have never played a Halo game before, people who don’t even know what Halo is. People from all walks of life, across every possible spectra. They will play Halo 5: Guardians. Most likely they’ll have an opinion about it.
Brad is okay with this. He’s prepared.
“I have this countdown set up,” he says, referring to an alarm set on his phone. An alarm set to go off when his video game is released. A Halo 5: Guardians alarm. When he set this alarm he had no idea he’d be flying halfway across the globe. To another country, another time zone. Brad is in Australia. His alarm is all fucked up.
“I thought I had another day,” he laughs. “But I don’t.”
But Brad is no stranger to Australian Eastern Time. He was born here and started his game development career here, working in Melbourne and then at Pandemic in Brisbane, where he spent the majority of his time before moving to the US. Now Brad works at 343 Industries. Now he works on one of the largest and most important video game series currently in existence.
And Brad didn’t just work on Halo 5: Guardians. He played a large part in its creation. He played a large part in determining its current direction. At one point Brad mentions it offhand: if Halo 5 is a disaster — if it reviews terribly and bombs commercially — a large part of the ensuing blame will land on his shoulders.
“I was in those meetings,” says Brad. “I was part of that decision making process.”
How does that feel — the day before release? In the countdown to judgment day?
“I'm nervous. Excited. Nervously excited is usually how you feel at this point.”
Game development is a long process and everyone involved has a unique loop. Things are quiet during one stage of development and hectic in the next. The ramp down for someone like Brad, a Design Director, begins relatively early. At a certain point in the process the game is ‘finished’. It exists in a completed state. At that point the development process becomes less about design and more about polish — about identifying and eliminating bugs. The role of a Design Director is slightly diminished during that period.
But then, in the lead up to release, a realisation. Shit. This is really happening. The game you spent all that time working on is about to hit stores.
“That's when you get to see if what you helped create is going to resonate with people.”
Brad touches on the point of diffused responsibility. You get the sense that working at a huge studio like 343 Industries is a double edged sword. On the one hand there’s a pressure release: you're not the only person working on this game. In a sense you might be more personally invested in a video game if you’re making it by yourself, or alongside a team of three. That might result in a little more pressure.
Or it could result in less.
The flip side of that coin: the expectations for a game like Halo 5: Guardians scale into the stratosphere. The stakes are exponentially higher and on the eve of its release, there’s a different sort of pressure. Particularly for Brad.
I ask him if there’s any sort of diffused responsibility.
“Not for me as a design director,” he laughs. “But that does happen sometimes. People get hyper focused in one area.”
It’s a byproduct, he explains, of a diverse team. 343 Industries is a studio packed with talent, often that talent is hyper specialised. In every corner of the studio there’s a developer obsessing over the smallest details of character design, someone who can’t wait to find out what you think of the light bridge they’ve been working on for the last 12 months.
A different kind of pressure. A different kind of stress.
What if people don’t like my light bridge?
Brad’s perspective is a little broader:
“I worked across the whole campaign and the sandbox. I have a good picture of why things turned out like they did, why we made certain decisions. I feel more responsible for the end result. If things go bad: I was responsible for that decision making.”
That’s a little scary, but Brad has an ace up his sleeve: data.
Halo 5’s direction was steered – in part – by an 18,000 deep community survey across every possible group you could imagine. The goal: take the multiple different communities that make up the Halo fan-base and find the common ground. Appeal to everyone at once somehow without sacrificing depth in any area.
The word ‘tightrope’ doesn’t really cover it.
But in the lead up to the release of Halo 5: Guardians, the data has buoyed Brad somewhat. It gives him confidence in the final product. It allows him to look at that countdown on his mobile phone and refrain from hyperventilating. He and his team have navigated the juggling act that is Halo 5: Guardians on a combination of instinct, good design sense and cold hard data.
He’s not too worried about the reviews, which are now streaming in and are — broadly speaking – positive.
And he, alongside his team, set himself one more goal: surprise players. Provide that large, diverse group with the Halo experience they’ve come to expect, but give them something they didn’t know they wanted.
“I hope fans say that Halo 5: Guardians was true to the traditions of Halo but put a new spin on it. There’s a legacy we’re building on but we want to provide players with an exciting experience. We want them to be surprised.”
As he leaves the office, an observation: Brad Welch looks a lot less nervous than you might expect.
You might even say he looks quietly confident.