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Employee Spotlight: Andrew Witts

Iva LindstromBy Iva Lindstrom -

Andrew Witts watched the Bethesda/E3 Halo Infinite reveal as both a Halo megafan and a creator. As Lead Multiplayer Designer, he has guided his team of designers as they created the features fans are raving about (and ones that haven't been announced) using his literary mindset, deep respect for fun, and player experience-based design focus. Here, Andrew shares his insights into being a fan, leader, and gamer.

Iva: Please share your name, pronouns, and job title.

Andrew: My name is Andrew Witts and my pronouns are he/him. My job title is Lead Multiplayer Designer.

Iva: As Lead Multiplayer Designer, what do you do here on a daily basis?

Andrew: It's my job to guide and mentor a team of designers as we all make Halo multiplayer modes and systems. That means we get the honor of working on classic Halo modes like Capture the Flag, Slayer, Oddball and Big Team Battle, as well as new modes that bring more variety to Halo Infinite. It's our responsibility to make sure that modes are fun, clear, comprehensive, and competitive. My team also gets to work on awesome MP systems like Weapon Spawners, voice over messaging systems such as the Classic Halo Announcer and new Personal AI, and the Mark System, which is a feature where players can mark a spot in the world that lets their teammates know vital information, like an enemy position or weapon location. Essentially, I work collaboratively on the vision of Halo Infinite’s multiplayer with Tom French (Multiplayer Associate Creative Director) and then work with my design team to bring that vision to life for our players.

Iva: Tell us your Halo origin story.

Andrew: I've always been a very big Halo fan. I didn't have an Xbox when it first released, but I went to a friend’s house to play Halo shortly after I had heard the news that he got one for his birthday. I think we played through the first half of Halo: CE in one sitting. When I went home, I couldn't stop asking my family what I could do to get an Xbox. My mother got me one for Christmas and, once I had an Xbox, I played Halo constantly. I became obsessed with the game and my Halo fandom went through the roof from there. At one point in time, my original Xbox had an issue, and I got the special edition Halo Xbox, the transparent green one, which was my favorite thing to brag about as a high school student. When Halo 2 came out, I was in the line for the special edition at midnight with my older brother at our local GameStop. My mother was very kind and let me take the next day off from school, because she knew that I was going to play the entire thing from when I got home in one sitting … which I did. The next morning, I woke up and started playing multiplayer regularly with friends for years. The story is the same for Halo 3. I just would grab the games day one and play the hell out of them.

Iva: Who's your favorite Halo canon character and why?

Andrew: I was going to say it’s between Chief or Jorge, but Jorge is just a character archetype that I really like. I like big tank-like characters with the heart of gold. And Jorge’s armor is really awesome. When I first saw Halo: Reach, it was like “Who's the big man with the Gatling gun? Can I play as you?” The mission with Jorge really sticks out to me, and the moment Jorge says goodbye to Noble Six. I just think it’s a really awesome sequence where he's preparing to drop you from orbit and you think that he's going to be right behind you and he says that this is his last stop. That scene has always stuck with me because it was very unexpected when I was playing it. The characterization and personality is just really my jam.

Iva: What’s the most surprising thing about that Halo community you've learned since you've been here?

Andrew: I love the Halo community and how they give back to developers in a cool way. When MCC came out on PC, pizzas were rolling into the office. Fans in the community had been speculating for a while about whether MCC was going to come to PC and someone declared that if 343 made this announcement, they were going to send pizza to the studio as a token of their appreciation. 343 made the announcement ... and then the pizzas arrived. We had to tell the fans not to send as many pizzas. We couldn’t eat them all, so the fans started donating to food banks. I was really taken aback by how much the community gives back to developers, and not just in pizzas, but just saying thank you. It's not often when you work on any kind of game that you get that kind of gratitude and that appreciation. It goes back and forth because we make the game not just for ourselves, but we make them for our players, right?

Iva: What's your favorite thing about working at 343?

Andrew: I really enjoy the passion for Halo that's at this studio. When you talk to anybody in the hallway or work areas, you learn how Halo means different things to different people. They love playing, whether it’s on their own or with their community. There is a huge amount of respect for the franchise at 343 and there's such deep reverence for Halo that we constantly talk to each other to see if something is the right thing for Halo. We have honest discussions about this on the multiplayer team. It’s just organically a conversation we have together after we playtest. We usually kick off conversations around an early version of something with “How Halo is this?” And that is very important to ask, in my opinion.

It has not escaped us just how important this franchise is to our players, but also ourselves as developers. We’re constantly thinking how something could improve Halo. Does this do something better? Is this going to land the way we want it to?

Iva: What parts of the new game are you most proud of and why?

Andrew: It's twofold. The first part is that I'm really proud of the multiplayer team. I’m not shipping the team to our players, but when you're making a game as big as this, it's very important to maintain team cohesiveness. That's been a challenge during COVID, to maintain our culture as a team while we’ve worked from home over the past year and a half. But the thing I’m most proud of is my design team’s work -- their work ethic and how we have chosen to very specifically iterate on systems of Halo multiplayer. So, what does that mean? That means we've looked at a few problem spaces that we have data on about Halo multiplayer on Halo 4 and Halo 5 and we've tried to approach very specific problems.

One of those problems has been the importance of level design knowledge for players to have fun. If I'm playing multiplayer and I play it for the first time and I've never played a map, I don't know where weapons are spawning. We wanted to make it a better experience for players, and we invested into what we call Item Spawners. The Item Spawners are assets like Weapon Racks and Equipment Spawners. It's nothing new for Halo in terms of what players expect, but we wanted to call out where weapons spawn in the world. We developed these awesome Halo 2-inspired weapon racks, a callback to the Halo 2 announcement trailer where the gun comes out of the wall and Chief grabs it. We put the weapon racks on the walls because we wanted to develop a visual language around scavenging in the game so that players can make split-second decisions around where to find a weapon. Map knowledge is still an important skill to maintain but we wanted to find a way to ease the burden of developing that knowledge by creating assets that pop off the environment enough that you can make quick decisions on what item you want to fight for next.

Another reason why I think this is a cool system is that we looked at adding new content into the game. With the game being free-to-play now, we really looked at how we could inject content like new weapons or equipment. We wanted it to be possible to spawn a new weapon on weapon racks across all the maps versus needing to wait for that new map to be in the current playlist rotation to come in. So that's an area where I think we've done a really good job of iterating.

Mode-wise, I am really excited for players to jump into Big Team Battle. BTB is BACK! I mean, who wouldn’t have fun designing that? I remember after our first playtest for BTB, there was a resounding “Hell yeah!” that emanated from a late-night playtest. That was an incredible moment on this team – where we were gaining confidence in our big bets for the mode.

Iva: What parts of the game do you think the fans are going to love most and why?

Andrew: I think that they will really latch onto how much multiplayer feels like a celebration of Halo all up. We've done a lot of things to bring iconic Halo campaign moments into multiplayer. When we were designing anything, we were asking ourselves how this could be a treat for people who know Halo’s history. An example is in Big Team Battle, we have weapon pods that fall from the sky just like the Halo 2 mission Delta Halo. As we were describing what the “feel” of these things dropping into the world should feel like, we referenced the satisfying weight of the Ordnance Pods from Halo 4. They had the very crunchy, awesome, weighty sound when they smashed into the environment, and so we added a little bit of that in terms of how they land.

Then we looked at a Halo 2 mission. Delta Halo is one of my favorite missions, as well as that of many members of the MP design team. Over the course of the mission, pelicans fly overhead and they drop weapon pods that land in the environment, so, as you're walking through the environment, you see weapon pods -- boom, boom, boom, boom, boom -- land throughout a combat space, and that's usually when you know the Covenant comes around the corner and then you have an engagement with them and you’ll have to use the weapon pods to your advantage. We wanted people to play BTB and see those weapon pods incoming and hear that crunching crash in the ground with a Halo 4 impact but have the excitement of combat of the Halo 2 mission. That's just one example of the kinds of things that we've tried to put into multiplayer. There are tons of references to past Halos, including how we go inside the player’s helmet in the match intro like the opening cutscene from Halo: CE, to the designs for Eagle and Cobra Team’s logos like past Halos, to maintaining certain design language of our game mode objects like the Flag has a Skull on top and the Oddball is this sci-fi skull from hell.

Iva: What's the biggest challenge and the biggest reward in your role?

Andrew: I would say it has to be keeping the team together and just being a manager in COVID world. It has been difficult, not just because of the logistics of it, but for our team culture. In the multiplayer quad, we were just known for being ridiculous. There was always something going on, some kind of laughter or shenanigans. A lot of us had a love for this thing we do and a good culture of hanging out together after work. There was that tactile nature of being next to people and enjoying the company and working on something.

Having that good camaraderie and going into COVID work from home, that was a bit of a shock to our system. That was the biggest challenge as a team leader -- keeping the team together, and not from a standpoint of what people are working on. I have a super hard-working, dedicated team. It's mainly about reaching out to each other to keep from feeling isolated. Working from home can be tough, especially when you miss having a good time together at work, too. Maintaining the culture we had in the office, but in a virtual environment, has been the biggest challenge.

My biggest reward, personally, is growth. I really love my team and investing in them. Seeing them grow as designers and teammates is the biggest reward for me. Having conversations with somebody about camera systems and getting a text from them later that day about how a camera system is used in a game they are playing and knowing how eager they are to learn and get excited about it – seeing that drives me to continue supporting their work. Making a good game is obviously a big reward and everybody wants that, but it’s a group effort. For me, personally, it's my team and every individual designer growing and getting better at what they do.

Iva: You touched on something that every employee I’ve interviewed has mentioned and that I’ve seen, myself, here at 343: people genuinely like their coworkers and have friendships outside of work. Why do you think that is?

Andrew: It is definitely a testament to how 343 functions. When you get a bunch of folks who are passionate about a franchise and they work together on something that is essentially a love letter to its history as well as a dedication to its future, it’s hard to not appreciate each other. I think it's just about getting enjoyment out of each other’s company as creatives, but also as people.

For example, I am a very big pro wrestling fan. I’m pretty sure all of Seattle knows at this point, since I scream it from the rooftops. Anyway, I’ll make a reference to a wrestling move or something in a meeting and then all of a sudden we’re not talking about Halo and we’re talking about German suplexes. Next thing you know, 15 of us are all going to a wrestling event together. When you get a bunch of folks who share a common passion for something, it’s easy to create connections with one another.

Iva: Multiplayer’s theme days are legendary. Tell us about those.

Andrew: There is a weekly dress up day, which Tom French started, called, “Tracksuit Tuesdays.” If he knows you have a tracksuit, he's very disappointed if you did not wear it to work on Tuesday. He has hundreds of track suits. I imagine Tom French has the closet from Clueless but, instead of different things, it's just all different track suits. So that’s one recurring theme day that we have. The big one is the fabled “Cowboy Day,” which takes place on July third. It's coming up soon. I don't know the origins, but I feel as though someone was just like “I'm going to be a cowboy on the third” or something. Cayle George, who's the Lead Level Designer for Multiplayer, made this full Wikipedia-like history and sent it out to everyone about how Cowboy Day was invented. So, on the third, we all dress up like cow folks from the Old West and we walkaround the office and respond to everything with “yep.”

Iva: How do you keep morale up over a long game build?

Andrew: I am still relatively new at the studio. I joined in 2019 and I was very cognizant of the length of time spent working on the game. So, for me, it was about empowering people to learn and to grow because, if you're working on something for so long, you're so close to something you're not getting that joy of getting feedback and appreciation. I mean, you get appreciation internally, but when you're working the game for so long, sometimes you can doubt whether the public will like it. I think investing in people's growth in what are they passionate about and then finding new ways to tap into that rejuvenates folks. I try to discover creative ways for investing more into a designer’s passions, like partnering them with somebody who is knowledgeable in that area for one hour a week or whatever for some knowledge sharing. We may not be making something that's in the product right now, but we are investing in growing collective knowledge on something by talking about something we’re passionate about.

Iva: Your team has done some monumental work. Can you tell us what makes your team so amazing?

Andrew: I just like the mindset of my every single one of my designers. I love that, as a collective team, we talk about things and we have very different perspectives on things, which is awesome. I love that we're all different kinds of players and different kinds of developers with different kinds of preferences, but we all absolutely love Halo. We all complement each other in a great way and we have immense respect for one another.

We collaborate and talk together about stuff even we have differences of opinion. Sometimes our opinions are beautifully spicy, but its most important to me that people can speak freely in safe environment. I'm just constantly impressed by my team in terms of their ability to think critically about their features and about Halo.

Iva: Do you have a philosophy about your work and managing your team? If so, what is it and what is its significance?

Andrew: Collaboration is the key to us succeeding as the multiplayer design team. Keeping things as collaborative as possible is my philosophy for my team. I want my designers to own the features that they're working on and come up with the goals for the feature. I want them to question their designs and ask themselves, is it Halo enough and is it hitting the goals that we expect a system or a game mode or anything like that to really be doing? It's my responsibility to keep on making sure that we're pushing toward hitting those goals, because, as designers, you need to habitually get temperature checks on where you think things are and what the road map of the feature is and how much time you have. If things are not so great, how do we turn a corner? I'm there to support my team through all of those moments and make sure that they have everything they need to hit the goals that they want to hit.

Top photo, left to right: Fernando Reyes Medina, Patrick Wren, Andrew Witts, Mickey Cushing, Zach Boyce, and Alex Bean

Bottom photo, left to right: Patrick Wren, Fernando Reyes Medina, Mickey Cushing (crouching), Andrew Witts, Alex Bean, and Zach Boyce

Iva: When you're interviewing candidates for your team, what things do you look for and why?

Andrew: The biggest thing that I look for is critical thinking skills. Are they able to analyze a game and its functioning parts and why things are there? Can they explain to me why this thing is in Halo? We all have our own thoughts on that, but what is their perspective on it? Essentially, I’m looking for critical thinking skills and how they express them, because that's the thing that we're going to be relying on a lot, as much as your ability to script a game mode or a system. I asked one of my previous mentors how I got my first job in the industry and he explained that I could think critically about games and could communicate clearly what I'm thinking and why.

Iva: You've been working on this game for years. What's it like to work so hard for so long on something and have to just patiently wait for the release date and not talk about it to anyone?

Andrew: I’ve had multiple projects in the past like this, but it’s always 50/50 in game development. You feel both ways about it. When you work on something that long, it kind of feels like you’re a little stuck in purgatory. What if players don't like it? What if they have a bad playtest experience? Thoughts like that can cause anxiety. Then there’s the other side of game development, when you have an amazing playtest and you’re wanting to queue up the cameras and get the marketing team in there to make the trailer and get the game out the door! It's ready, right? Those ups and downs are a rollercoaster. So, when a date is set in stone, like E3, or a big marketing beat or something where the world is going to be shown what you’ve been working on, that’s when the rollercoaster starts to normalize a bit in terms of how you feel about what you’ve made.

Once it's out there, that's where the fun begins.

Iva: You have an academic background in literature – a BA in English with emphasis in Creative Writing from University of Massachusetts, Amherst and you spent a year as a graduate student in Game Design at the University of Utah – and you approach video games from a literary position. What does this process look like and what are the results of this approach?

Andrew: Before anything, I ask myself what emotions do I want players to feel and understand? What kind of experience do I want to give to them? Essentially, we are in some way selling a fantasy or an experience: I'm a spaceman saving the world, or I'm a marine trying to get home, or something like that. What is the player-based fantasy that we want to give them? And from there, I break down that fantasy. If I'm going to be a spaceman saving the world, what makes me a spaceman? Is it the look? I could look like an astronaut, and someone would say, yes, that's somebody who's usually in space, but does it convey the fantasy? So, in my head, I start to break down the fantasy that I want to give players and associate them with verbs, “palettes,” I guess you could call them -- visual ways to communicate the kinds of things I want players to feel.

When I'm designing something, it helps me come up with what the button presses on the pad are. What am I searching for when I'm building something? If I really want people to feel like, in the case of Halo, I’m a super soldier who can use anything to my advantage at a moment’s notice, then I want you to feel you’re Neo from the lobby scene in The Matrix. When I'm designing, I think about what happens when someone presses forward on the thumb stick. Does the movement of the player make them feel like a walking battle tank or a floaty astronaut? And there's a bunch of things that guide that process. I might want the animation of walking to be very robotic and tank-like. But it isn’t the look that means everything: it’s a super soldier in a suit.

I try and breadcrumb everything and basically I build a razor, a razor for everything. Having a razor is like setting a goal: what do you want people to feel when they play? Then, when I build something, it’s a categorical thing to see if I succeeded in creating this thing and if I did not, then I cut it apart again and try and rebuild it. That's where I start from in terms of thinking about game design.

I'm a very input-driven designer. I love pressing buttons and seeing how they feel when a new game comes out. Whenever I start a new game, I always wiggle the movement stick. I do that to see if I can tell what their input model was. Because it's kind of like when you're reading a good book or watching a movie and you go, oh, they use this lens here. Then you can break things down to a pure development standpoint and you get surprised sometimes. Oh, this is interesting. They did it that way. Why do they do it that way? Oh, because they want you to feel scared or they want you to feel powerful or they want you to feel weightless. It kind of goes back into my process of starting a design, I guess.

Iva: Aside from Halo, what games are you into?

Andrew: I play almost everything. My favorite genres, besides first-person shooters, are character action games. I love character action games. I'm a very, very loud fan of Devil May Cry. I love that series so much. I like horror games a lot, too. I find horror games to be quite clever in terms of how they use very simple designs to be highly impactful. It's amazing how, in some games, just slow walking down a corridor and having the environment react can be immersive and terrifying. I play RTS games a lot. I didn't have access to a Windows PC growing up and I had the Apple version of Age of Empires, so I would play that with the cheats on everything because it's hysterical. And I'm also a very big fighting game fan. I play every fighting game that comes out. I played an unbelievable amount of Super Smash Brothers Melee when that was out – probably too much in college.

Iva: What’s your earliest gaming memory?

Andrew: I was a very small child, and it was the first time I saw a video game console in operation. I have an older brother who's much older than me and we shared a room when I was growing up. He had a Nintendo Entertainment System and he was playing it by a window on a desk and he had a small CRT television, and he was playing Double Dribble. I thought it was just magical machine or something and I became obsessed with video games from that point on. My brother encouraged me to play games and I got to play with him a lot, so we got a lot of mileage out of the games he had. I don't think I would be in video games if it wasn't for my brother constantly supplying me with games.

Iva: Outside of work, what activities are you into?

Andrew: The team would yell at me if I did not yell it from the rooftops -- I'm a very big pro wrestling fan, so much so that I’ve actually taken the team to local wrestling promotions in Seattle. I've spread the bug of professional wrestling to many people, so now, every week with new wrestling shows on TV, we share GIFs from the most ridiculous segments from that week. It’s become like a shared meme language on the MP design team. Even my producer has made a joke that you know it's a good day when “Witts starts to communicate only in wrestling GIFs in chat,” which is true – I do that a lot.

I also love watching movies. It's where I go to find inspiration. Additionally, I've reconnected with comic books in a big way and I have read 13 series since being in lockdown, including really long ones like Invincible by Image Comics, which was great. I thought to myself, “If I'm going to have this extra time where I don't go out with friends or anything, what do I do?” And I decided to invest in reading a lot more comics.

Another hobby is that I like to make games in my spare time. I have a large stack of game ideas in notebooks and hard drives. I have a hard time putting my game developer brain to sleep. I will watch something and then think, “Wow, that'd be a really cool game!” and before I know it, I'm texting some friends and getting their take on it.