Millennia of tending has produced trees as ancient as the Forerunner structures they have grown around.
It might not have taken Bungie’s King of Cool, Steve Cotton, thousands of years to twist the trunks around the branching multiplayer pathways players have waged war on in Halo 3’s Guardian, but it might seem that way as he leans in to get a closer look at the notes he transcribed on the map’s concept sheet. Guardian’s roots go as deep as 2005.
“These are bringing back memories.”
“When we started making Halo 3’s multiplayer maps we went off to think about the kind of maps we wanted to make, whether they were big, medium, or small, and where they fit within the game’s canon and themes. This one, Guardian, was inspired a lot by Lockout. I think people can appreciate that.
I wanted to support eight players, four on four. I wanted to focus on that small amount of real estate that offered specific routes that were implied, but still afforded some visibility between them, so the sight lines remained interesting. That’s what Lockout did well and I wanted to do the same thing with Guardian. You can be on one side of the map and see someone traveling in a focused path.
Floating platforms lend themselves well to that.
So, that was the goal. I remember sitting down and thinking about Lockout’s floating platforms and thinking about what kind of themes would lend themselves well to platforms and the Guardian Forest attracted my attention. Frank Capezzuto and Christopher Barrett had both done concepts of what that might look like and they inspired some of the platform shapes.”
Guardian Forest – as some of our regulars may recall – was a campaign space that didn’t quite make the final grade for Halo 3. Though it was excised from the Halo 3 single player experience, Cotton had obviously seen the original concept artworks and knew he could rely on that rich palette if he needed to.
But he wasn’t ready to lock Guardian Forest in. Not without some more carefully considered exploration.
“I did another concept myself that we sort of joked could have be taken right out of Harry Potter because it was a little bit more moody and a little bit more ethereal in its nature.”
Okay, so Guardian Forest was definitely locked in.
“I think the end result ended up looking pretty sweet. And because we never did Guardian Forest in the single player space, I was able to do whatever I wanted.”
That freedom in design translated directly over into Guardian’s architecture as well. Cotton executed his overall vision without as much as a single, major overhaul. That didn’t mean that Guardian’s design process wasn’t organic, Cotton had built a degree of design flexibility into Guardian’s branching pathways from the start.
“I don’t follow an exact blueprint from the beginning, I tend to react to what’s going on in the space and adapt to that. You can kind of tell in some of these 3D overheads that the general premise was always there, but whether or not a base had two levels or three levels was something we could alter. In Guardian’s case, I actually stayed pretty true to the blueprint, but it was always pretty flexible.”
Just one example:
“Guardian was originally a single, enormous tree stump in the middle of the space supported by other tree stumps with everything sort of interconnected via the various platforms. Giant trees are just cool to me. I eventually ended up combining the trees into one in order to weight the map towards a single direction and allowed players to travel through the tree itself -- a hollowed out stump and you could actually play inside it. Then the middle structure became the floating platform and not a tree in and of itself.”
Regardless of the aesthetic nature of the beast’s flora, Cotton remained concentrated on crafting a multiplayer offering that focused on the fauna of Halo 3’s ecosystem -- the players -- the whole way through. After all, what good is a multiplayer map without the players? If a tree falls in the forest…
“The important thing – especially in a map that has a circular center – is that players can orient themselves very quickly. You had to be able to call out each individual location. A lot of the locations became known by the color of the light that we placed in the area or the weapon that’s prominent there (there’s a yellow lift and there’s a blue room), but the stump, the central platform, was always gonna be dead area of the map – the no man’s land or the secret route to keep players oriented.
Cotton, it turns out, has a certain affinity for using circles in his designs.
“They’re harder to work with, but if you can get ‘em right I think they’re attractive and more visually interesting. But even the routes around the center circular platform are squared off. It’s just easier to think like that. Sanctuary and Midship were some other examples of maps that had a lot of curves. They’re just fun to work with.”
Also top of mind for Cotton, is how players would ultimately receive Guardian, knowing that it would be positioned as Lockout’s “spiritual successor.” And he was right to be concerned. On first blush, many players expected a perfect replica.
What they got was something rather different.
“I wanted to take a lot of things that were working well in Lockout, but I didn’t want it to be
Lockout. Scale-wise it’s very close. That’s intentional because the scale in Lockout worked well for the amount of players, but I think a lot of the connections, the circuits around the map, and the added lifts make it ultimately very different from Lockout.
I’m also a big jumper, so I spent a lot of time making sure that there were interesting ways players can jump around in the space. I feel like Guardian does that really well, though I would say that it’s a tiny bit simpler than Lockout. That may be a good or a bad thing. I wanted a simpler layout because the aesthetic was a little bit noisier than Lockout and I wanted to balance out the two.”
As with any multiplayer map, balance is key. If one section of the map is too easy to defend or too easy to assault, players will exploit it. Cotton wanted to make sure players stayed on the move, and never felt that they were hemmed in. The battle is between players, not the multiplayer map.
“The goal with Guardian was definitely that every space had intent – even the stump being the dead man’s area was important, that was a space that you could go to get away, maybe, that wasn’t really safe.
I think I’ve done my job if there’s not a lot of dead space in the level – areas that nobody ever wants to find themselves in. I also like to make spaces that people want to move around in a lot, and I hope it does that with the few exceptions – there are places you do want to get to and hold, but hopefully it’s fun to move around Guardian.
I remember playing around with the relationship between the stumps on the perimeter – at one point I took the stumps and mirrored them and set up several different versions where I wanted to see how that flow worked out. We could have easily been looking at a different layout, but the one we shipped worked out the best.”
Looking at our online heatmaps for Guardian, it looks like Cotton compelled many a player to explore the densely forested space.
“Yeah, we get those heat maps after the fact," Cotton notes, "you find out if you did a good job later.”
Cotton returns to the concept sheet. Halo 3 shipped in 2007 and he’s been busy working on other projects. It’s been a while since he poured over the finer details of Guardian.
“This is one of my favorite maps that I got to work on, to be honest.”
He’s grinning. Another memory’s been jogged. Cotton is wandering back to the beginning of the process.
“The other thing that was cool for me working on this map was that we broke up into teams and did stints figuring out what we wanted to do. After about two months, we collected all of the ideas and weeded through the pile to find the best ones. The first three that I pitched, and ended up working on, were Guardian, Valhalla, and High Ground. They were all very different – the palettes are different, the scales are different, the roles are different, and the types of games you play on them are different. Guardian filled a role that I hadn’t already gotten to work on yet.
I got a lot of flak when I first threw Guardian out there. Carney, Justin, and I would spend two weeks doing these. You would really kind of pitch them to each other, you know, ‘Oh, I’m gonna work on a small map,’ but by the time you came back it might be different, because we were just gonna throw out ideas until we had plenty to pick from. Then we’d figure out which ones we liked the best. But when I pitched Guardian, Carney put it up on a big projector and when I got up there to talk the next thing I know he started playing the theme song for the Ewok village.”
If you hadn’t already made the connection, now you know where the codename “Jub Jub” came from. Cotton laughs.
“I don’t feel like it looks like that anymore, but I guess it kinda did in its early incarnation.”
Jokes aside, there isn’t too much about Guardian that Cotton would do differently, even if this exercise could whisk him back to the beginning of the Halo 3 multiplayer map making process.
“This is one that I was really satisfied with, honestly. I spent a lot of time tweaking and trying to figure out how to connect some of the outer routes with the lifts to make sure people didn’t die when they used them. I also spent a lot of time making it feel organic without making it too complicated to navigate.
It was real fun, a nice marriage of organic and structural elements. It would have been hard to make an entire single player map that way. If it had been in campaign, aesthetically, I think it would have gone a different route just for gameplay purposes. There’s a lot of cool, custom stuff in Guardian.
Carney used to joke that on all of these original concepts I would always end up having ‘something cool’ actually written down where something cool was gonna go. I had no idea what it was gonna be. ‘This one’s gonna be good because there’s something cool in it.’
That’s how I sold him and he bought every bit.”