Who was there: Bungie brought out some of its biggest guns for its 2010 Penny Arcade Expo panel devoted to Halo: Reach, including executive producer Joe Tung, creative lead Marcus Lehto, composer Marty O'Donnell, story and cinematics lead Lee Wilson, campaign lead designer Niles Sankey, sandbox lead designer Sage Merrill, cooperative multiplayer lead Lars Bakken, and community manager Brian Jarrard.
What they talked about: September 14 signifies the end of an era, as it will mark the conclusion of Bungie's involvement in creating new games in the franchise that defined the Xbox as a gaming platform. With that as a backdrop, the collected Bungie contingent held forth on the series for quite possibly the last time to discuss its latest creation, Halo: Reach.
Bungie kicked off the panel by discussing how a four-man team began planning out the initial concept for the game in October 2007--six years after the novel the game was partially based on, author Eric Nylund's Halo: The Fall of Reach, was published. The process largely began with a storyboard-style trailer, where a sun crests on a verdant, Earth-like planet, with picturesque snow-covered mountains towering over lush, green fields. The trailer then fades to white, as the word Reach emerges in black print.
Next, a pencil sketch of a Spartan soldier is shown donning his iconic helmet, before speeding off along a dirt road in a Warthog. An ATV with a second Spartan soldier then appears, and text at the bottom of the scene reads "Planet Reach, in the year 2552." The panel noted that the trailer was a very early previsualization of where it wanted to go with the project, and the sequence ultimately became the opening of the game.
The team then delved into the process of creating the world of Reach, which it described as a major character in the game and the site of one of the largest conflicts in the Human-Covenant war. Though many of the details don't appear in the game, the team mapped out such features as colonization history, geography, and economic and military centers. Other features, such as the planet's 27-hour day/night cycle and 390-day year were also built into the game.
The team also selected certain features of the planet itself that it wanted to focus on, including environments such as badlands or temperate zones, as well as architecture that ranges from rustic to hyper-urban. The goal was to give the planet a lived-in feel with a backstory all its own.
At the same time, the team was also building out levels. This process began, quite literally, with the team making a zero-detail sketch composed of circles and lines that offered a rough overview of a player's progression through the level. From there, the design advanced to a Post-it note phase, where pink notes represented gameplay moments; yellow was for sandbox, free-roaming areas; and blue signified story sequences. This phase was highly fluid, as the team hammered out the game's overall progression.
Then, the team used Studio Max to quickly build out the game before placing it in the actual engine. This phase was also highly dynamic, as the rough pencil outlines became visualized. The team also used this time to define such components of the game as base run speed and how players would actually navigate through environments. The broad-stroke approach was designed to be in its roughest form possible, so the team could quickly and easily see how a level would look and work and could make necessary changes as early as possible.
The panel then shifted to the characters within the game, specifically Noble Team, the six-Spartan squad at the center of Halo: Reach. (See first trailer below for an introduction.) A lot of work was put into fleshing out the group of Spartans that players will take up with, as the team wants each of the five Spartans (the player being the sixth) to come across as fully realized characters. They then showed early concept art, which emphasized unique colors and defined weapon loadouts. Apparently, more concept art was used in Halo: Reach than in all of the other franchise installments combined.
The team emphasized that all of the characters in Noble Team should feel believable and instantly recognizable, without resorting to stereotypes. They also initially planned for Noble Team to be made up of seven Spartan soldiers, having drawn much of their inspiration from Akira Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai and its Western remake, The Magnificent Seven.
Next, Bungie discussed how it went about conveying the story to players. The team wanted the story told as if players were truly embedded in Noble Team. To do this, they gave up "meanwhile moments" in favor of having players experience the story as if they were on a need-to-know basis like their Spartan companions. Therefore, the way Noble Team reacts to events became a central way in which the story is conveyed.
Bungie also said that for the first time, they utilized motion-capture technology, which helped make player animation and subtle body language more believable. Mo-cap also helped in cinematic design, as they began to see the camera as another player that would move in a believable fashion. It also gave the game a captured feel, as opposed to a staged shot. Even facial animation benefited from technology, they said, as the team used a special capturing mechanism to better highlight characters' expressions in-game.
Gameplay prototypes were also briefly discussed during the panel. The speakers ran an early-in-production reel in which gameplay was prototyped. This trailer showed the initial work put into space combat, as well as players' ability to mount and thrash large enemies and cruise around massive, open environments in a Warthog. The team also showed gameplay mechanics that were cut from the final game, including a boat-combat sequence on the high seas.
Quote: "It occurred to us while you all were walking in that this might be the last time we talk about Halo in front of an audience like this."--Marcus Lehto, on Bungie's exit from the Halo franchise.
Takeaway: Halo: Reach looks to be the culmination of everything that Bungie has learned about what makes the franchise the phenomenon that it is. From tried-and-true concepting to new technology, the team has gone out of its way to see that Reach lives up to the reputation of quality that its predecessors have set.