Pro20: Interview with Michael Cavanaugh

Prior to the launch of 343 Industries’ highly anticipated Halo 5: Guardians, we were able to sit down with several employees to discuss not only what fans could expect from the newest edition to the franchise, but also the future of Halo eSports, and the people behind the game. Michael “StrongSide” Cavanaugh currently works for 343 Industries, and gave us 20 minutes of his time so we could get to know the man behind StrongSide.

Who are you?

My name is Michael Cavanaugh, also known as StrongSide in the Halo world of competitive gaming. I got into competitive gaming back in high school, and started competing at MLG tournaments. I made my way through the rankings there, and over the course of a few years made it to the top and became a household name. I kept competing for about 10 years and had some great times in those competitive years. It was really cool because it was like a Halo Family. I met a lot of cool people through Halo, some of my best friends now are from these Halo tournaments that I went to.

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How did you get involved with Halo?

I got brought into Halo 1 because a buddy at high school played Halo 1 and I’d played the James Bond 64 games, all the first person shooters. Perfect Dark, as well. Those were probably my two favorites. Played a little bit of Unreal on the Xbox as well. But yeah I played a lot of first person shooters, and my buddy played Halo 1 and told me “You know what, you got to buy an Xbox and you got to play Halo 1.” He said it was this awesome fast paced game. I ended up buying it; he got me hooked. And then, I’d say no later than maybe 4 or 5 months, is when we started hearing about tournaments going on across the United States. And we always talked about going to one. We were so young at the time (I think we were 15 or something) so we always really wanted to go.

Our parents were like, “Oh, that’s in California. That’s across the world.” Meanwhile we live in Kentucky, so getting out there was going to be quite a bit of money. So, once Halo 2 launched, there was a tournament in Philadelphia and that was pretty close by to where I lived. My parents were like, “You know what? We’ll go with you.” I was 16 at the time. They drove me out to the event and I just had a blast. Met a lot of cool people and that’s kind of what got me into it. I think Xbox Live, too, coming out and Halo 2, that really introduced the Party System where you had buddies in your hometown or just buddies around that couldn’t play, you’d just hop on Xbox Live and there’s somebody online that can always play. The ranking system made a big competitive environment where you wanted to be the best. You wanted to take the throne and be in that #1 spot.

How did you end up at 343?

Towards the end of my competitive career, I started realizing I wanted to make my way into the video game industry, and get a job whether it’s making video games or just doing something in the industry. Just because I have so much passion for video gaming. Not just video gaming, but Halo most of all.

Basically how 343 Halo Pro Team came to be about was Adrian Brown and Josh Holmes had this idea of bringing together these pro players to help design and create the next Halo to help keep that competitive side of Halo around; make the maps competitive, the weapons more competitive and have a very good balance. So, I was put in touch with one of them, and they offered me a position out here and told me what we’d be doing, and I said: “You know what. Count me in!” I packed up my bags, moved out here and didn’t look back. I’m extremely happy where I’m at, and I’m glad I made the move out here.

Our team has really got to make a big impact on Halo 5: Guardians because we’ve helped balance the weapons, we’ve helped balance the maps. We’ve even got to create our own maps that will be seen when the game launches. So we have a few of those. Can’t say too much more about that right now. But, we actually have some cool episodes in the sprint that you can check out on Halo Channel, and see some of the behind the scenes work that we’re doing on Halo 5: Guardians.

For my future, what I see is possibly being a producer. Having more of an impact on the game and being able to make new creative ideas designed for the game, and also still being in-tune with all eSports. Maybe a position opens up in the eSports side of Halo, and maybe I could do something with that. It’s kind of up in the air. I really just enjoy working on Halo, and really learning a lot of new things here being in the studio.

I want to see Halo eSports grow to be bigger than it ever had been in the past. And I think we’re slowly rebuilding. We’ve been working really hard to bring back everybody in the Halo community, and really bring in a lot of new faces at the same time.  We just announced our million-dollar Halo World Championship Tournament, so I think that’s going to bring a lot of people back to Halo, as well, for the competition and the money. With the money being there, I think that’s going to be a very big incentive for the players. They’re going to want to compete because that’s life-changing money. It’s what we need to legitimize the sport of Halo. Being able to compete with all these other games that have their eSport leagues going on as well. What’s better than having our own in-house tournaments being run by us? So we can make the best competitive settings. That’s kind of the run down.

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How does being competitive lend itself to what you’re up to?

I think having all of this knowledge, all of this history, with competitive Halo helps us use that to build Halo back. It helps us build our tournaments, and it helps us get things ready for the future. So we know what to expect, we know what we’re doing. It’s not just like a pop-up company running their first tournament. We’ve got myself and three other guys who have competed for at least 8-10 years. We’ve got Bravo as well, who has been around for another 10 years. So that’s about 50 years of competitive gaming we got here under 343. And we can work together to build Halo events to be bigger and better and bring Halo 5 back to the top.

What new strategies should players look for in Halo 5?

Halo 5: Guardians has a little bit of all the Halos in it. What I mean by that is we’ve really taken into account the feel and the core Halo playing experience and put them together into Halo 5: Guardians. So, when we talk about strategy, with map control and weapon control everything is there. Weapon control is really important. Map control is really important. And you really have to move a lot faster in Halo 5: Guardians, because there’s a lot of new abilities. And once you master these, you’re going to be zooming around the map and it’s going to be interesting to see where the Halo pros take this once they’ve got their hands on it for more than a few months.  I think we could see the strategy slow down gameplay in the future, where we see both teams kind of meet at the 50-yard line and there’s a lockdown on their side of the map.

Power-ups are back, we have Overshield. We have Camo. And timing those is going to be huge. We’ve seen in past Halos, teams will set up before camos come up. Or teams will set up before Overshield comes up. For example, take Beaver Creek Team Slayer: Overshield was a do-or-die. You needed your whole team going for this Overshield, and if your team didn’t get Overshield, it’s really going to hurt you for the next minute or so of the game. So, we still have that in Halo 5: Guardians. That was brought back. Power-ups are a big part of the game, and something that I’m really happy with is the maps, when we talk about how many maps we have for competitive Halo.

I know in Halo 4, we didn’t have as many as the competitive scene would have liked. But in Halo 5: Guardians, we made sure it was our mission to have so many competitive maps so that we have such a variety to choose from. We have a good amount of game types as well, so we won’t be playing the same thing over and over again. There’s going to be a lot of variety.

And also, to touch on the strategy as well with map control: it differs from map to map. Obviously, with a CTF game, you’re going to want to control certain parts of the map: where you want to run the flag, and follow your flag runner. All of that is still there in Halo 5: Guardians. When you look at a Slayer match as well, I think it could be a little bit faster. But like I said: maybe in a few months, once these top teams really figure out the spawns, and they learn how to spawn trap, and they learn where people like to go on the map, I think that’s when we’ll see the pace of the game slow down a little bit. So it’s going to be interesting where these players take it. I mean, we’re all excited to see where they take it because I’ve been playing the game for almost a year and I feel like I’ve gotten really good. And I know so much about the game, and it’s going to be interesting to see the pros and the public figure this stuff out over time. It took us time to figure it out, and we’re making the game! I think people are going to be pleased.

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Do you think the in-game experience of Arena is going to bring back competitive Halo?

The Arena experience brings the most competitive and top level experience you want to play. The Ranking System is going to be another feature that brings these top level players competing against each other game after game. In the past Halos, we kind of saw the ranking system turn into a community ranking system so you wouldn’t play people in your skill level. But for Halo 5: Guardians, we really wanted players to play with players at their skill level. So it keeps them competing and it keeps them having close, intense games. The in-game experience is going to be a lot different in the sense of abilities and playstyles you’ll be able to have compared to some of the other Halos, while keeping its core feeling. You’ve got thrust, which is going to be a huge feature in Halo 5. It’s going to be a good defensive move, and a good offensive move because you could be in the middle of a battle and then thrust. And that may make your opponent miss one or two shots, and then you can just hose them down and take them out. It works out well in a 1v2 situation as well: thrusting behind a wall, and getting to cover and wait for a teammate to come and rescue you.

We also have the new ability, Spartan Charge. Spartan Charge allows you to Sprint into a room and bash your enemy with a powered up melee but if the enemy hears or sees you coming they can easily Thrust out of the way. We have the new ability Slide which can be useful in the right situation. Sliding around the corner of a wall is when I use Slide the most. The enemy player is going to be aimed up a little higher, because they think you’re coming around the corner at a certain height, but in reality, you’re Spartan is lower to the ground so you slip under their aimer making them miss a shot or two, giving you the advantage. The in-game experience is going to be really cool to see how these players use all these abilities. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of ways these players find out how to conquer them and master them as the game goes on.

In Halo 5: Guardians, we have a wide variety of weapons in our sandbox. We’ve done an excellent job in making sure there’s a variety of weapons that are equally skilled and equally tiered. And each weapon has its pros and its cons and that’s what a player is going to have to figure out for each weapon. The Magnum is brought back: it’s actually a lot more powerful in Halo 5: Guardians. So were going to see it be the all-around utility weapon. If you matched up against an enemy who is wielding the Battle Rifle or the DMR, or even the Light Rifle, the Magnum can hold its own against them. We’ve got the SMG, we’ve got the AR, the Needler, Rocket Launcher, and Sniper Rifle.  I mean, I can go through every weapon, and it’s like: you want to pick up every weapon. Each weapon excels in certain situations. There’s a use for every single weapon. Players aren’t going to want to use just one weapon which as in past Halos. We’ve made it so players want to pick up all the weapons, and it gives the game more flavor. It gives the game a little bit more style because you can pick up the Needler, and you can destroy somebody with it. You’re going to see a wide variety being used and I think it’s going to be cool as well especially in the competitive scene. We’ll get to see more of a variety of these weapons used, and see these players conquer each weapon as well, because there’s so many weapons in our sandbox, I think as time goes on we’re going to see which players tend to use which weapons. You may even see players that would rather use the Magnum instead of a BR. Or maybe they’d rather use the SMG instead of the AR, or the Suppressor instead of the SMG.

How important will communication be in Halo 5?

HUGE. So, communication will be absolutely necessary in our game. Your team needs to be communicating. There’s a lot going on, people are moving around quick. So if you don’t have any team communication, your team is going to suffer. There is Spartan Chatter which is in-game call-outs, so if a teammate doesn’t call something out, there is in-game chatter to let you know where your teammate is fighting an enemy, and so if a player on your team misses a call-out, you’ll still hear that chatter go on in your headphones. Sometimes, that can save you. But when you’re playing at a high level, you need the call-outs to be quick, fast and now. Especially if you’re making a charge into a base, or rallying a flag-cap back. You need to communicate where they’ll be spawning. The game chatter does not tell you where a player is going to be spawning. That’s something a player needs to learn, and so I think if teammates are communicating that, that’s the route to go. But communication as a whole: if you want to be a top team, team communication is going to be necessary. And if you’re team’s not communicating, you’re going to lose and you’re just hindering your team’s performance overall.

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GG StongSide! See you on the battlefield!

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