Halo 4’s Castle Map Pack DLC is out April 8, and VG247’s Dave Cook has spoken with 343 Industries and Certain Affinity about what it takes to make the perfect map.
Founded in 2006, Texas studio Certain Affinity was formed by ex-Bungie staff and has worked closely with the Halo franchise since Halo 2’s Blastacular Map Pack.
The team also created many maps for Call of Duty: World at War, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Halo: Reach and more.
Certain Affinity also developed games Age of Booty, Crimson Alliance and Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
You can see a trailer of the Halo 4: Castle Map Pack here, showing off all three maps – Daybreak, Perdition and Outcast.
The DLC will launch worldwide on Xbox Live from April 8 at 800 Microsoft Points.
You may not have heard of Texan developer Certain Affinity but chances are you already know their work. Besides developing Xbox Live Arcade games Age of Booty and Crimson Alliance, the team has created many multiplayer maps for a range of triple-a shooters.
The studio was responsible for a great deal of Call of Duty: Black Ops maps, as well as the game’s ‘First Strike’ DLC. When you compare these maps to the frankly boring locales found in Modern Warfare 3, you can see the team has an eye for solid map-making.
Lately Certain Affinity has turned its hand to the Halo franchise, as it co-developed Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary and worked on Halo 4’s Forge Mode. Its next release is the game’s Castle Map Pack, due to hit Xbox Live on April 8.
It features three maps including the rocky terrain of Daybreak, the desert colony of Outcast and the evacuated city of Perdition. Each terrain tells a story and isn’t just a lazy patchwork of assets and building blocks. Best of all they have high carnage potential.
I recently spoke Certain Affinity producer Tom Potter, and map lead Ryan Mansfield to discuss the fundamentals of solid map design, and to learn more about the Castle pack’s vehicle-heavy environments.
343 Industries’ Dan Ayoub also spoke with me to about how the studio approaches the direction of each Halo 4 map pack, and what it’s learned from the community since the game launched in November.
“There’s really no one key to making a good map,” explained Mansfield. “The trick is that we do a lot of testing, and we’re fans of all the games we’ve worked on, like Halo. When creating the Castle Map we sat down to discuss it and in the end our finished project was nowhere close to what we started with.
“That’s because we constantly banged on our ideas – and I don’t mean the same five people – but the whole company. No matter who you are or where you’re at, you get to come in and play the game, then all ideas are accepted.
“An idea that some people came up with was, we had a good map in Daybreak for a while, and then somebody said, ‘Let’s just throw a Banshee in’. We put it in and the feel of the whole map changed, so we then altered the elevation of the terrain, the rocks and it became a new style of map.
“So there really is no one thing. It’s just a matter of listening to people’s feedback, playing the map, and letting people know if they enjoyed it or not. With designers, they subscribe to the idea of ‘Don’t fall in love with your idea’, because it could change on a dime.”
If there’s one thing the Halo franchise has been perfectly attuned to over the years, it’s the idea of community. Ayoub explained that each Halo 4 map pack was borne out of a gap in the player-base, which could be anything from desired features, unexplored mechanics and more.
The Castle pack was the team’s response to the community demanding more environments suitable to vehicular combat, where stunts, car-jacking and big skirmishes between Warthogs and Banshees could be made reality.
Although Certain Affinity had targeted this angle, it still had to carefully plan each locale. Many questions were raised throughout the process, as the team iterated on its ideas. Does a particular map lean towards a certain game type? Is there scope for emergent gameplay tricks? Is either side at a severe advantage? It’s all important.
You can never truly win them all, as Ayoub suggested, “I’m sure we get caught of guard daily. Whenever you’re designing something there are always things you think people are going to love, and the hope is that they do but sometimes they don’t. Then there’s things where you maybe didn’t go as far as you could have.
“I can’t think of anything particular but we’re constantly surprised by our community, especially when it comes to emergent gameplay or some of the videos that get posted online. They may show things that even we never intended, and I think the Halo community is fantastic for finding things that maybe we didn’t consider.”
Certain Affinity certainly learned a lot from its own maps after the developer got stuck into some seriously heated matches across each of Castle’s three locations. The team also employs ex-MLG Halo pros who have a tendency to own the payroll. Regardless, it’s all killer research.
“Take Outcast for example,” Potter explained. “That’s a large map actually built to support Dominion mode. Because of its size you’ll be dealing with a lot of power vehicles, so to stand a fighting chance you might want to try and get one of your own. All of the Castle maps support every game mode, but there’s usually one mode in particular that really shines on each.
“Daybreak is probably my personal favourite because Capture the Flag plays extraordinarily well on that map. We’ve had some ridiculously competitive matches here in play-tests where people goad each other, matches will restart and go on and on.
“Then Perdition leans towards Extraction Mode, which plays very well on that map, coupled with some really crazy vehicle skill jumps. There’s some pretty unbelievable gameplay in there and in the end I’m personally very proud of the work we did on Castle.
“The maps we’ve created scored very, very high in our user tests, and just seeing people play who weren’t involved in development agree with our intuitive notion that hey, these maps are great is really exciting for us to see.”
In the end map DLC really taps into the supply-and-demand mentality of customer relations. It’s a way to deliver new elements that the fan base is crying out for, while trying to make sure gamers keep coming back for more. It certainly isn’t easy, but it’s absolutely worth it.
“The challenge with any good multiplayer experience is how do you keep people coming back,” Ayoub concluded, “and a big way we go about it that is to look at our channels within the community. Halo: Waypoint is obviously big for us as we’re having those dialogues with players, listening to what hey have to say and that informs a lot of what we do going forward.
“That’s how we scratch the itch with map packs, and Certain Affinity has been a fantastic partner for us in delivering that.”
Halo 4: Castle Map Pack launches on Xbox Live April 8 and will cost 800 Microsoft Points, or will be free if you have a Halo 4 season pass.