Halo 4 is the first title in a new trilogy of Halo games. The previous three titles were developed by Bungie, but the next three are being made in-house by Microsoft's own Halo studio.
Halo 4 won't be out until late 2012, and today, one of the game's creative directors, Ryan Payton, is not only leaving Halo 4, but also Microsoft's Halo arm, 343 Industries.
"I had a great run at Microsoft," Payton told Kotaku. "I don't regret one day of it. But after a few years, there came a point where I wasn't creatively excited about the project anymore."
Continuing, Payton added, "The Halo I wanted to build was fundamentally different and I don't think I had built enough credibility to see such a crazy endeavor through."
This doesn't mean Payton thinks Halo 4 will be a bad game. The core team is top flight, and they are there because they want to make the best Halo they can. It's just not the Halo Payton wanted to make.
A few months ago, Payton woke up, unable to move and unwilling to get out of bed, just staring at the ceiling. Payton was diagnosed with severe depression. "For somebody who loves this industry as much as I do and know how lucky I've been, I never thought I'd get to a point where I was so drained," said Payton. "That was when I knew I had to do something else."
Payton's NDA prevented him from talking in depth about what he did on Halo 4. He was very much focused on the story, working hard with Halo franchise director Frank O'Connor and the creative team on developing the fictional Halo universe. He also hired MGS4's audio director Sotaro Tojima as Halo 4's audio director. "There's no doubt that his Japanese sensibilities will bring a lot to the new game," said Payton, "and I'm confident the game is going to sound epic."
Payton arrived at Microsoft via Kojima Productions, where he was, for many Western gamers, one of the key faces of Metal Gear Solid 4. Payton worked on updating that game's controls, which resulted in one of the most playable MGS games in years. He also worked on balancing the game and story for international audiences. "It was all a crash course on AAA game development," said Payton. "It was an experience that prepared me for a big budget, high risk project like Halo."
"The Halo I wanted to build was fundamentally different and I don't think I had built enough credibility to see such a crazy endeavor through."
When Payton's mother came down with cancer, he knew that he couldn't stay in Japan, that he needed to be back in the States. "This was earth-shattering," he said. "The decision was made for me—there was no way I would return to Japan for the next project, so I set my sights on finding something closer to home." Payton interviewed at several US studios, but settled on Microsoft. They were kindred spirits. They spoke the same lingo. And Payton was going from one huge franchise, Metal Gear Solid, to another, Halo.
Back in 2008, Japanese games were still burning as bright as ever. This was before Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune started blasting Japanese game development. This was before Western gamers began turning their nose up at Japanese games en masse. What was originally an asset was viewed as a liability by some. "People who didn't know me would just assume I wasn't up to speed with all the latest design trends because there were seeing those problems with recent Japanese games," said Payton. "As somebody who prides himself on keeping up with new design trends, this was frustrating."
There was more that Payton wanted to do. A world beyond Halo and beyond Metal Gear. Earlier this year, Payton was at Jake Kazdal's house, watching him work late into the night on Skulls of the Shogun, a game Kazdal left EA to make. A seed was planted. You can make the games you want to make, and it doesn't have to cost a hundred million bucks to develop and doesn't need to retail for $59.99.
"Some people say I'm crazy, but I want to make a game that one billion people play at once, and it's something that hits them harder than a great book or film," said Payton. This isn't something that we can do right away, and Payton knows it's maybe in twenty or thirty years away. But he wants to start on that path.
Payton's started up his own studio, Camouflaj, and he's already working on two new titles.
About Halo, Payton has no regrets, saying that it solidified who he is as a game maker and what he wants to do with his life. For that, Payton said, he is forever grateful.
"I think time is the most valuable thing we have," said Payton, "and I've decided that I'm not going to waste one more day working on something that doesn't speak to my values." Some might say leaving Metal Gear was crazy or that leaving Halo was crazy. For Payton, it wasn't being crazy, but honest.
Update: Regarding Payton's departure, a Microsoft spokesperson stated, "343 Industries has assembled an all-star cast of talent working on Halo 4 under the design leadership of Studio and Halo 4 Creative Director, Josh Holmes. We're excited to tell the next story in the Halo universe with Halo 4 as the first game in the Reclaimer Trilogy. Ryan Payton, who left earlier this summer, served as Narrative Designer on Halo 4 for 15 months. Armando Troisi was hired as the Halo 4 Narrative Director in March, having formerly served as the Lead Cinematic Designer on Mass Effect 2. Ryan has been a great friend and colleague during his tenure at 343 Industries and we appreciate his contributions to the team. We wish Ryan the best in his new game development venture."