Interview with Game Design Grad Cory Hasselbach On Halo 4

Cory Hasselbach Mission Designer

Halo 4 launched on November 6, 2012, and quickly became the number one selling game in North American, receiving great reviews, with IGN declaring it “a bar-raising triumph for the entire first-person shooter genre.”

We’re certainly proud of the many VFS grads from different departments who worked on the project, including Game Design alumni Armando Troisi (Narrative Director), who we featured recently, and Cory Hasselbach, who we are featuring today.

Cory Hasselbach graduated from VFS back in 2005, winning the award for Best Multiplayer Game (for First Light), and now works as Mission Designer for 343 Industries, the producers of Halo 4. Cory talked to us about his experience at VFS, his role as Mission Designer and what makes Halo 4 such a great game.

Hi Cory! Could you tell us a bit about your experience post VFS, coming up to your role as Mission Designer in the development of Halo 4?

Cory: Over the course of my career I’ve been lucky enough to work on a number of properties that have made a big impact on my life at various periods. Right after graduation, I got to work on two Sonic the Hedgehog titles, which was an honor, as I grew up playing those games. Shortly after that, I moved into a Creative Director role for the Interactive Department at Vancouver based animation studio Nerd Corps Entertainment, where I helped spearhead, develop and design interactive properties for the children’s cartoons they were making. Then Microsoft contacted me, asking me if I would be interested in a role designing games on the ill-fated Courier project. Once that project reached the end of it’s life span, 343 Industries reached out to me, wondering if I would be interested in transferring to Seattle to work on Halo. Needless to say, I was excited beyond belief! The original Halo was a monumental event in my video gaming life, and I have crystal clear memories of the first day playing it — so, the opportunity to grow and be a part of such a rich and beloved universe was one I just couldn’t pass up.

My role as a Mission Designer, specifically, meant taking on the responsibilities of building, iterating on, and maintaining a campaign level throughout production, particularly the mission Forerunner. In addition, I helped out on a few other campaign levels, and near the end of the project, even assisted in the implementation of the Main Menu! Of course, I don’t want to sound like I’m a one man army, as the team of people at 343 are truly the most talented and brilliant people I’ve ever had the privilege to work with, and nothing I was responsible for could have even been remotely possible without the assistance and expertise of all the other disciplines that helped to make Halo 4 the blockbuster experience it really is.

In light of that, I’d like to ask you a bit more about collaboration. The Game Design program emphasizes that game development is a very collaborative process, and I’m curious to know how different elements are pulled together so perfectly. In particular, could you speak about the way you interacted with the Narrative Director (Armando Troisi) to integrate story and game objectives?

Cory: Nothing is more true than that statement: Game development is easily the most collaborative process I’ve ever experienced. Every discipline and department brings completely unique and unparalleled experience and talent to the table, and keeping everything organized and running smoothly can be quite a feat. In speaking to my role, I’ve always felt that my position as a Mission Designer was somewhat like the glue, holding the mission together. Every department brings these amazing assets and pieces to the level, and though I help implement them, I feel that keeping communication open and everyone up to date on the status of things is far more important. Specifically, working with Armando and his talented Narrative team was a fantastic experience, as we would constantly go back and forth on pacing, story reveals, and the implementation, addition or removal of dialog. His team was also incredibly adaptable, able to roll with the punches of an iterative process like Mission Design.

Halo 4 image of the Chief

What is it about Halo 4 and the evolution of the series that you think was the most challenging, interesting and rewarding for you as Mission Designer? What unique and innovative aspects of the game are you particularly excited by or proud of?

Cory: The most challenging, interesting and rewarding thing for me as a Mission Designer was learning, mastering and proving that I truly “get” Halo, and that I could truly be trusted with the creation of a mission in a game series as beloved as this. I’ve played every previous installment dozens of times, picking apart every encounter, moment and level, learning what makes Halo feel like Halo. Then I focused on truly capturing the same sense of wonder, excitement and challenge that millions of players have loved for over a decade. Finally, after reverse engineering the older Halo games, I then looked at the new weapons, enemies and armor abilities we’re giving to the player to utilize in the sandbox of Halo 4, and determined how we could retain the emotional response that players instinctively get when playing a Halo campaign level.

As for the unique and innovative aspects I’m excited about, in Halo 4 we’re not only providing new weapons and armor abilities for players to have fun with, we’re creating an entire new set of enemies for players to fight against. These enemies are no slouches, either — they’re smart, fast, tactical, and deadly. Battling against them on their own (or with Covenant around) provides new, exciting experiences for players. As the mission Forerunner is the first campaign level where you get to battle against these enemies, I had to work closely with our talented sandbox and enemy designers to ensure that these new foes would stand up to (and possibly surpass) the Covenant, while the retaining the core soul of Halo gameplay in the level.

The Chief and Cortana

This is a fantastic accomplishment on your part, creating something distinct from the original trilogy, and this is only the first chapter of the new trilogy. Do you see your process as a continual evolution for the next chapters?  

Cory: Naturally, everything we learned while making Halo 4 will absolutely be taken into consideration when moving forward, making future projects stronger and better as the story and universe continues to grow.

Thanks very much for talking with us Cory, and congratulations!

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People wishing to know more about Halo 4 should check out Industry Speaker Day at the Game Design Expo 2013 (Jan 19, 2012), which features Lead Designer Chris Haluke (and check the website for information about other speakers). Game Design Expo is hosted by VFS Game Design. Industry Day Tickets are now on sale.