Jacob Benton: A Fan on a Mission

A game interview article by: Laura Akers

 

In 2009, after an extended bout of unemployment, something wonderful happened to me. I was hired to work on Halo Waypoint as their editor. It was the strangest interview of my life. From the team leader’s incredibly laidback style and the fact that everyone wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie to being asked to play Halo 3: ODST in front of them (during which I spent most of my time running like hell from a Hunter—oh, the shame!), you’d think I should have had some insight into what this job would be like.
 
But nothing prepares you for working at 343 Industries. Nothing.
 
There’re the full-size Spartan statues everywhere. The guys who turned their work space into a machine-gun bunker, complete with camo-netting and machine-gun turret (plastic full-size gun attached to a file cabinet). The unbelievably intense arguments over every geek show/comic/movie/book/meme/etc. out there. The way homemade food left in the kitchen unleashes a Flood-like frenzy (hardly surprising considering the sheer number of young, unmarried men at 343 who, apparently, can’t cook). And you’re working on Halo. There is nothing better.
 
But the best part of all of this is the people. When I started at Halo Waypoint, there were just a handful of us. There had never been anything like Waypoint (a website-like presence on a console), and none of us really had much experience creating daily content. But there was a love, a drive, a work ethic unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was like being constantly in battle-mode in the war of fun. Long nights and living in each other’s laps, trying to get content out to the world at midnight every night: we were manic, stressed, and having the time of our lives.
 
Working together like that reveals a lot about those involved. And the one thing we all had in common was passion. Some of us were fans who were excited about working on Halo in any capacity. For others, it was, and continues to be, the culmination of years of devotion and hard work. Over the next few days, I am sharing interviews with three of those superfans who helped to build Halo Waypoint. Two have moved on to other important positions at 343. One has stayed precisely where she belongs. All are my friends, my fellow soldiers and Spartans, and people whose love of and passion for Halo still takes my breath away. And I wanted to share them with you.
 
 
 

 

As the editor on Halo Waypoint, I basically had two roles: one, to make sure all the text we used was grammatically correct and Halo-appropriate, and two, to test our content and then push the button that would send it out into the world. When you’re at the end of the pipeline like that, it means a lot of late nights. Luckily (for me, anyway), I was rarely alone. Most nights, I had the company of our first video editor, Jacob Benton. Jacob was, and remains, a jack-of-many-trades. In addition to editing together our videos, he -- along with Jeremy Patenaude (check out Jeremy's interview here) -- was our Halo fact-checker. He spent months working with our people on the backend to get the forums just right. He helped host Halo events. And eventually, he became a mission designer on the long-awaited Halo 4. From super-fan to one of the creative minds behind Halo 4, Jacob remains one of the most grounded, humble, and kindest people I know. He also possesses the ability to have played Halo, for over a decade now, without swearing. No joke.
 
 
CB: How did you and Jeremy get together to start writing Ascendant Justice?
 
Jacob: Originally the way we even met each other was that Halo 3 had come out, or was going to come out, and me and him had gotten early copies of it. So we had this group of people forming that had wanted to play it together, but we were trying to find who else had it. Right? Because it was like five days before it launched. Somehow through some forum, I don’t even remember now. I guess it was Neogaf, maybe? There was like a list forming of “Send a friend request to these people because they all have the game early,” and we got together that way. There was another guy I think that said “Hey, I have a guy named Jeremy who’s got it, same with Jacob, so let’s all get together” Then we met each other kind of for the first time, and then, from there, we started to play together. 
 
CB: You didn’t actually meet?
 
Jacob: No. We didn’t literally meet. 
 
CB: You guys didn’t meet for years.
 
Jacob: No, yeah. We on-the-internet met. So that’s how we started playing Halo together. I remember me, him and Drew playing through the Campaign co-op I think two or three days before it came out and that was the first time we ever talked about Halo and talked to each other and stuff. That was how we met, and then the Ascendant Justice-thing happened. The website already existed. Not the blog part of it, but the forum. The community already existed long before I was around. After me and Jeremy became friends from playing Halo and stuff, he invited me there. So I kind of started talking with him, and posting on that forum. 
 
Then Jeremy found out that I like to write, and I found out that Jeremy was a really good writer. Jeremy had stuff that he had written and posted long before the blog was around. There had been things he had done on the internet. I think he would always post them anonymously, like he didn’t want people to know who he was. He found out that I wrote, and I found out that he wrote, and so we kind of just got together and started writing about Halo and made the website and stuff. The third guy, Ivan, paid for the software and had everything set up so me and Jeremy just kind of edited the template a little bit. He knew some HTML; I knew like a smidge, and we just kind of built it up. Started writing. It just kind of happened.
 
CB: In writing on Ascendant Justice, what did you want to say to the folks at 343? 
 
Jacob: So when we originally started doing it it was before 343 even existed. I literally think it was before it even existed. I want to say I think it was before Frank [O’Connor] left Bungie. So once 343 started coming online and seeing our writing, we really wanted to make sure they understood Halo, and that they were going to take it in a direction that at the time we thought was the right direction. So that’s what we were trying to do. We wrote mostly about Campaign and stuff, but we did write stuff about Multiplayer. Just kind of hoping that 343 would read it. Not even hoping they’d read it, really. We were just kind of putting our ideas out there. So I should say that we never really wrote anything intending for 343 or Bungie to come read it. We just put the ideas out there, and hoped people would read it and if they agreed with it, then cool!  If not, then, you know (shrugs). We definitely put our ideas out there thinking “This is our idea of Halo. This is how we think it should be.” 
 
CB: So how’d you get the gig?
 
Jacob: At 343?
 
CB: Yeah.
 
Jacob: Hopefully I don’t contradict Jeremy’s story, because it’s three or four years ago now.
 
CB: I did not ask Jeremy this question.
 
Jacob: Jeremy was already working here. I think he had maybe been here for four or five months. I’m not sure how he got it; I think it had something to do with Frank knowing who Jeremy was through his writing. I basically just rode Jeremy’s coat tails. Everyone thought Jeremy was awesome. 
 
For the record, I can’t write. I really can’t write that well. Or…good. [laughs] See? I don’t even know which words I’m supposed to use. [Jacob, as with so many things, gets it right initially.] Basically everyone knew how good Jeremy was, and Jeremy recommended me for the position. I was blessed because it was a unique combination of events that they needed someone that knew a lot about Halo. They needed someone that could do some video editing and stuff because Waypoint was a video web-service that needed someone who could write, that needed someone that could do all these tiny things that I just happen to fulfill each of those requirements. So Jeremy recommended me; I guess he just said “I know this guy; he’s cool.” 
I came up here to be interviewed and got offered the job. I was coming up here anyway for PAX, and it all happened in the span of, like, 48 hours. I was coming up here for PAX, and Jeremy told them, “Hey, I know this guy; he’s going to be up here anyway. We should interview him!” So I got the phone call for the interview a day and a half before I left to come up here. I didn’t even know it was happening. It was totally unexpected, and I had to scramble to get together my resume and all that other stuff.
 
CB: So, people will never be able to tell this because they won’t ever be able to see this recording, but you’re from the deep South.
 
Jacob: Yes.
 
CB: So moving here to Seattle--literally the opposite side of the country while staying in the contiguous forty-eight states… What was that like, and also what was it like walking through the doors here?
 
Jacob: Well -- so the first part of the question -- moving from there to here, like you said, it’s from the opposite side of the country and it’s the opposite side of the world culturally. It’s just totally different and foreign from anything I’d ever experienced. I mean, you sit down there in the South, and you sit in a restaurant, and it’s just taken for granted that everyone there hates liberals, and are super-conservative, and that’s just the stuff they talk about. Up here, it’s the opposite. Everyone just sits and takes that for granted, and I don’t really do politics, so I don’t really care. It’s just that sort of thing you just sit in a room and there are just certain concepts that people take for granted. There’re certain concepts that everyone around you just assumes that everyone else around you feels exactly the same way as you do because you’re grown up here. That’s just how everyone talks, and coming up here I was now feeling like this is totally just weird to me, that people were talking about stuff that is just very different from anything I’ve ever heard. 
 
Even just profanities. The way we use profanity up here is very foreign to me from what I’m used to. Coming from where I come from, it’s not even a conservative thing; it’s just a cultural thing. People just don’t curse as much down there. And coming up here you sit in a room, and there are all of these things happening that you have to get used to, and you have to learn that this is just natural up here. This is just how it is. So that was the culture shock, I guess, for me. Just the act of eating dinner with people here. Just the conversations that happen, and the things you talk about are just so foreign from what I grew up with. In the middle of nowhere, on Robert E. Lee Drive.
 
CB: Really? You lived on Robert E. Lee Drive?
 
Jacob: Actually it’s Robert B. Lee Drive, and for the life of me, I don’t know who Robert B. Lee is [Me either. Couldn’t find anything on him], and I don’t live on it. It’s just around the corner, but it’s kind of a good way to explain. I was there a month ago, and I almost wanted to take a picture. There was a giant Confederate flag flying off of I-75, and it was just massive. It was the biggest flag I have ever seen. I wanted to take a picture and put, “Well, I guess I’m home!” Giant Confederate flag flying. Yeah, so the culture shock of just how different everything is up here. Just even on the day-to-day basis, having the conversations with people. 
 
Now I’m feeling like I kind of regret how we’ve probably made some people feel like outsiders back home. Like for us, when someone would come down from Canada to visit, it was a really big deal. There was a girl here from Canada. She’s staying with our friend Lori, and we all had to go and see her. We’ve all got to go and see this girl from Toronto. She would come every summer to visit or whatever. I guess she was cousins with or knew my friend Lori somehow. That was a big deal for us. Or the one time we had this German foreign exchange student. It was a really big deal to us. It was the only German person I have ever met in my entire life. I realize now that we’ve probably made them feel a little strange. Sitting there saying stuff that felt very normal to us, but to them, they were probably really taken back by the way we talked and the sort of things we talked about and stuff. I don’t regret it, but I definitely understand now what that’s like to get transported into a new environment. I believe I would have acted differently, or said things differently. Been a little bit more polite to those people now that I know what it’s like to live in a foreign environment. So that was the first part of your question. 
 
The second part -- as far as walking through the doors -- it was weird. My interview here, I wore a tie and a button-down shirt because that’s what you wear when you go to a job interview. That’s what you wear, right? It’s a job interview.
 
CB: [speaking to the audio recorder] I have never seen Jacob in anything other than jeans and a t-shirt to this day.
 
Jacob: Which is what people wear around here. But at the time, I borrowed a nice shirt and tie from a friend of mine named Scott who dresses really well. I was like, “Scott, man. Tell me what to wear, dude. Tell me what I need to wear.” He said, “You can borrow a shirt and tie from me.” I walk in, and within seconds of walking in I knew: “Well, I’m dressed wrong. I’m overdressed.” Everyone in here is wearing jeans and t-shirts. So that was funny. That was the first thing I thought when I walked through the doors. 
 
Probably the second thing was that it was surreal to be around people that were obviously really talented. I could just walk through the hallways and see concept artists working. Which back then, I don’t even know if we had but one concept artist. That second thing was “Wow, I’m around so many people who are so talented!” and there’s no way they’re going to let me in here. They’re going to look at me and go “Wait, who are you again? No, get out.” That was the second thing that struck me. Yeah, it was just a very surreal experience going from literally the middle of nowhere and having never been in anything like a game studio to this. Never really had that kind of experience before. It was definitely interesting to just walk through the doors, walk down the hallways, and see that these are the movers and shakers. These are the people that make it happen. 
 
 
CB: So one of the things you did early on was what we used to call “fiction videos.” I was talking to Jeremy about them as well. Video editing always sounds fairly unattractive, right? It always sounds really boring -- sitting there and looking at the same clips hour after hour -- but you always looked like you were having a really good time. 
 
Jacob: I really liked it. I really enjoyed video editing. I mean, I haven’t done it in a long time now. I was never that good. I guess I was good for what we needed, but we have people now like Dan Chosich who are just unbelievably talented. Anyway, it was fun. I enjoyed it. 
 
CB: But Dan couldn’t do the videos that you and Jeremy could.
 
Jacob: I guess he couldn’t. Dan makes multi-million-dollar-Hollywood-high-quality videos. 
 
CB: Dan is very good. Amazing, in fact. But he didn’t come in with the depth of experience with Halo that you guys did.
 
Jacob: I guess probably one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much was that it was lots of things I enjoyed. It was all of my hobbies mushed into one pot. So I was getting ready to shoot video for interviews. I really liked getting to shoot video and to edit. I really enjoyed editing, and well, it’s Halo. I’m getting to edit clips of Halo stuff. Plus me and Jeremy would get to play the gameplay clips that we had to edit together. So it was like, “Well, we got to play 'Truth and Reconciliation' twenty times today!" I do that anyway in my spare time, so that was really fun. It was just lots and lots of things that I enjoyed all mixed together. That was probably why I enjoyed it so much. Plus, just anyone who edits video -- anyone who gets into it typically -- you get into something because you like it. I got into it because I liked it. I don’t know. Maybe after a couple of years, people get sick of their job or whatever, but I really enjoyed video editing. When you combine it with playing Halo, editing games that you’ve been playing of Halo or editing together cut-scenes is just fun.
 
CB: Something Jeremy had said was that he never had to give you notes. He would just have to say something like “Yeah, it’s not really working here, and it needs a little bit of work there” and you would come back with exactly the video that he had imagined. 
 
Jacob: Man, it was so much fun! Plus, me and Jeremy were friends. We would sit in the same office back-to-back. He sat on the right side of the office; I sat on the left. He would type or script out what he wanted to happen in the video. He would script out the narration, and he’d add notes for “Maybe you should use a shot of a Wraith here; maybe you should use a shot of the Beam Rifle here.” He would script it out and hand it over to me, and I would go play it (to get the clips). Sometimes I would play it by myself. Sometimes, I would need him and we would co-op. So we would play it and record our gameplay, and then I’d edit it together. What’s funny is it wasn’t all too dissimilar from what me and him did on Ascendant Justice; where he would sometimes write out a lot of stuff and I would go review it. We have this one part of the forum where me and him would post the stuff that we had written. So it wasn’t too dissimilar from that, as far as us reviewing stuff that each other had done, and making notes and comments on what each other had done. So it was an interesting transition from doing that informally, just as a hobby, to now he’s writing stuff and I’m looking at it and kind of bouncing ideas off each other on a professional level. That was an interesting transition. 
 
CB: Still to this day, the fiction videos are my favorite. 
 
Jacob: I’ve watched some of them. Some of them I cringe when I watch them because I’m like, “Wow, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” as far as video editing. But some of them are still really fun to watch. 
 
CB: So you started out doing mostly video editing, and now you’re a mission designer?
 
Jacob: That’s right. 
 
CB: So how did you go from one to the other? 
 
Jacob: Well, with a lot of help from a lot of people. Alison Stroll was my producer at the time, and I had told her that I was kind of interested in maybe seeing if I could learn how to do that stuff. So she connected me up with some people downstairs -- I say downstairs because we were on the floor above them. She connected me with some people down there who were really sort of constrained, as far as we didn’t have enough people early on on the project. We were really trying to ramp up. This was probably two and a half years ago. And they sort of gave me the tools and showed me, “Well, if you want to do this, here’s what you have to know how to do.” So my girlfriend, now my wife, Paige, was back in Georgia. Meaning I didn’t have anything to do at night. Basically for nine months, I would finish my work here, go home, eat dinner, whatever, and then come back and learn these tools. I was in a unique position because not everyone gets to learn these tools. Not everyone will learn the tools we use, but I was in that position where I could get it all installed onto my computer and basically for six to nine months spent every single night learning how to use 3D modeling programs, learning how to script, learning how to do all that stuff.
 
I guess I managed to learn it somehow. I managed to get pretty decent at it. So there came a point where they needed people. We were trying to ramp up hiring. We had all these really talented people coming in, and they basically said, “Well, come on down, and you know how to use the tools. So we’ll give you some work here to do, and you can help us out,” and from there it just kind of happened. I know it’s weird to say, and it doesn’t really explain it, but it just happened. Stuff would come up and they would need someone to do the work, and I was there with my hand raised. I was like, “I’ll do it,” and a lot of people made a lot of bets on me. Josh Holmes, Alison Stroll, Ray Almaden, all just kind of said, “Okay, we’ll give you a shot!” I guess the stuff that I did was turning out okay, because they just kept giving me more and more opportunities. They kept placing bets on me, and then, all of the sudden it’s three years later and I’ve designed one of the missions on Halo 4
 
 
CB: Explain what a mission designer does. What is the process of creating a mission? 
 
Jacob: The process happens in stages. The early stage is pen-and-paper design. Even before the pen and paper, it’s ideas. You’re coming up with ideas like “We want this mission to be X, or we want this mission to be Y. We want this mission where you drive a bunch of vehicles, and it’s a cool vehicle mission, or flying vehicles, or whatever.” That’s kind of the initial stages. From there, you try and come up with encounter ideas. Like, “It would be cool to have an encounter happen inside of a laboratory and they had excavated some sort of artifact. Some sort of alien artifact. That would be a cool idea for an encounter.” And then you could fight around the artifact. 
 
So we come up with kind of tent-pole ideas like that, and then from there, we’ll develop a mission. Like, okay, we wanted a vehicle mission where you’re in the desert and you’re driving around giant pieces of alien rocks. So let’s make that a mission, you know? So that’s kind of the way it goes. Ideas, a sort of pen-and-paper design of encounter spaces, and putting it all together trying to figure out what fits where. From there, that’s where you get into like 3D modeling, and we’ll actually model out the spaces, and we’ll build the spaces. There’s several stages of that where we’ll test out the spaces to get to see if our ideas hold up. Is this actually fun? Oh, it turns out it’s not actually fun to fight around an alien artifact ‘cause it’s too big. You can’t circle around it. So we’ll change the idea a little bit. Then after the 3D-modeling point, you hand it off to Art, and then Art iterates on it. 
 
I think that’s what starts to get into what people probably think is traditional game development, which is where you’re placing enemies. You’re dropping the player in. You’re fighting enemies behind cover. Then you’re sort of iterating on the smaller cover pieces, on the flow through the spaces, and that sort of stuff. I want to say that’s the fun part, but it’s all really fun. Especially in the beginning where you’re all blue-sky shootin’ idea’s out there. It really is all fun, but that’s where the rubber meets the road. It is like all these ideas we’ve had, we have tested it. We’ve dropped some enemies in, we’ve kind of played it, but now we’re actually building it. Is it fun? Does it hold up? And that’s where real iteration happens. You really have to grind on it and make sure it’s actually going to be fun. That’s where all the scripting, all the placing of enemies and that sort of stuff all occurs -- in the final stages. 
 
CB: You have the reputation, along with Jeremy, of being the ones who know Halo. You know everything. How does that play into you designing a mission?
 
Jacob: Well, the most obvious way it plays into me designing a mission is I can reference past Halo games where they did things, where Bungie did things and I know they worked. Even as simple as Bungie had an encounter space that was a plane on a lower elevation, and a plane on a higher elevation, there was a ramp on one side and then you’d jump off the other side in a Warthog. So it’s like you do doughnuts around the space. That was one of the ways I was able to use my knowledge on Halo is to reference past encounter spaces. 
 
Then, of course, there’s sort of the broader things like “Oh, we know that nighttime missions are really fun.” So we want to do a nighttime mission. I’ll look at past Halo missions and go “Oh, ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ was really fun. That was a nighttime mission. What made nighttime fun in that mission?” Or “Two Betrayals” in Halo: CE was really fun, and that was a nighttime mission. So I guess that was an easy way I was able to use my knowledge past of Halo games in designing missions is to references times when Bungie did things that were really fun. I’ll just kind of look at that and iterate off of that and build off of that. That definitely helped me as far as designing missions. Being able to reference stuff they had done. 
 
CB: What advice would you give to somebody who wants to work for 343? 
 
Jacob: It would depend on what they wanted to do. If they wanted to get into game design… My route was, I guess, somewhat not the traditional way. 
 
CB: Ya think?
 
Jacob: Yeah, for real. [laughs] So, my route wasn’t traditional. My boss, Ray Almaden, who’s been doing this forever and is extremely good at it, would probably have better advice. But my advice, if you want to get into game design, would probably be -- and I know it’s expensive -- to go to an art school so you can learn how to use the 3DS Max and Maya, and stuff like that. Because that’s a skill that will really pay off when you’re trying to express your ideas. Because everyone can kind of have ideas about spaces, but actually getting in and being able to build it is a really good talent to have. 
 
And I would say even if you don’t go to an art school, learn how to use the 3D modeling programs and play lots and lots of the genre of game that you want to get involved in. But don’t just play it. Break it apart, try to think about why they did things the way they did. Read interviews; watch documentaries. ‘Cause anyone can kind of play games, but you have to really understand, why did they do this in the particular space? Why did they put cover here? Why are there changes in elevation here? 
 
So if you have the philosophical understanding of why they did things, and you can use the tools that they use to express their ideas, you’ve got a good start. Really from there the key to applying and getting a job is to have something to show that you can build. Because you’ll have people come in and they can talk game design, but if we’ve had people come in and they’re like, “This is what I’ve done” -- I’m talking about people who have never been in game design, it’d be their first job -- if they could just come in and show what they’ve built, something they’ve done, that just speaks worlds more than people who can just come in and talk. Learn the tools, learn the 3D modeling, learn how to express yourself, express your ideas and also understand the fundamentals of designing, if that’s what you’re going for. And you’ll be in good shape as far as game design. 
 
 
CB: So I know you have to be careful about this question, but can you tell us (generally speaking) where in the game to look for your work?
 
Jacob: So, I will not tell you. [Groans of agony from Laura] The reason why is because I want people to play the game first. It’s mostly for people I know, but I want people to play the game first. Then I will talk to them and figure out which levels they liked, and which levels they liked less. Then, that way, I can tell them. I’m afraid if I tell people now…I’ve had a lot of people ask me this question. Even my friends and family, and I won’t even tell my family. I want them to play it, and then give me their genuine feedback on the game. Then I can tell them which one I worked on. I really hate that I’m not going to be able to give you an answer. Ask me again after the game, after everyone’s played it and I’ll tell you. I want to know what people think first.
 
CB: Okay, but I’m gonna hold you to that now.
 
 
 
Thus ends our series of interviews with the amazing folks over at 343 Industries. If you haven't yet, be sure to check out the other two interviews with 343 Industries:
 

 

 


 

Laura Akers is a teacher by calling and a geek academic by nature. Her sporadic but often too-lengthy writing for Comics Bulletin (and her own personal musings) tend to revolve around issues of gender, sexuality, identity, politics, religion (and all the other things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation) in TV/film/webseries narratives. You can get topical whiplash and occasionally offended by following her at @laurajakers  

 

 

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