Not that we're keeping track or anything, but the release of Halo 3 is just 46 days (roughly 1,100 hours, or just over 66,000 minutes) from now. Yeah, OK, just like the rest of you, we're excited about the release of what is surely going to be one of the biggest releases in an already jam-packed year for games. To help assuage our anticipation of the upcoming release of the third game in the Halo series, we recently spoke with Frank O'Connor, writing lead at Bungie Studios, to get some insight into how the final stages of development are going for the game. We also dove in for some details on the recently announced four-play cooperative play for the campaign mode and found out how the Bungie team has been tweaking the game since the Halo 3 multiplayer beta program ended in early June.
GameSpot: How's development been going?
Frank O'Connor: I'd have to say, all things considered, very smoothly. You can attribute that to excellent planning and production, as kind of a general impetus among the staff to ship something special and ship it on time. The main challenges and pressures have been, as ever, internally generated.
GS: Why didn't you show playable at your E3 briefing?
FO: The gameplay demo that we did behind closed doors of a single, playable level was something we felt would work well in the more intimate setting of the meeting rooms. On stage, on a big screen, a lot of the nuance and impact of the combat we showed would have been lost and an important part of that demo was the chance for those smaller audiences to ask detailed questions--again--impossible during a live stage show.
We chose instead to run a "music video" of sorts, to paraphrase our composer Marty O'Donnell, and just give a taste of Campaign. In hindsight, I think we made the right choice. We knew we had plenty more to show and tell. We still do, as a matter of fact.
GS: What have you made of the rabid speculation going on around the Internet on the game?
FO: Same as any developer. We watched as misinformation, both hilarious and tragic, spread like wildfire. Not to mention the occasional guess where someone nails it.
GS: Is the single-player portion of Halo 3 finished? If not, what aspects of the campaign are you still working on?
FO: At the time of this interview, I would say 99 percent done. Right now, the only things we can do are polish difficulty, tune some minor gameplay items, and fix those lingering bugs.
GS: Has it turned out the way you expected? Or did it evolve into something else throughout the course of development? How much did player feedback affect it?
FO: Player feedback largely reflected our own internal criticisms of our game. With that in mind, we set about fixing the things we didn't like about Halo 2, reinserting some of the stuff that made Halo 1 cool, and inventing some new stuff that should ensure Halo 3 is everyone's favorite Halo--fingers crossed.
GS: The Arbiter showed up in the E3 trailer. How will he figure into the game this time? Will you play as him or--for that matter--anyone else besides Master Chief?
FO: We recently announced a four player co-op mode wherein one of the playable characters will be the Arbiter. When playing solo Campaign, the Arbiter will accompany you on many of your missions, this time controlled by artificial intelligence.
GS: How important was it to have co-op in the game?
FO: Very important. It's something we've always had in some form in Halo, and it was only natural to want to expand that feature to Xbox Live and throw in something extra: four player co-op.
GS: How did that affect the development cycle?
FO: Obviously, it has been challenging. A lot of development, design, engineering, and test work has gone into making it a reality. But it has always been in the plan, so it affected the development cycle as much as any other planned element.
GS: Why extend co-op to four players this time? Come on, four Master Chiefs?
FO: Nope. One Master Chief, one Arbiter, and two brand-new Elites: N'tho 'Sraom and Usze 'Taham, respectively. Only one player actually plays as a Spartan in co-op. And yes, that would be the host.
GS: How are you balancing the four-player gameplay? Will the difficulty scale increase with the number of players in a co-op game?
FO: We've actually included a whole layer of ways to make co-op more challenging. But the first and most important step for players is to forget that easy and normal even exist. If you have any chutzpa at all, you might as well forget heroic while you're at it. Real men (and ladies) play co-op on legendary. We'll reveal more about the other stuff later this month.
GS: What were the technical challenges of getting cooperative play to work online at all, much less with four players?
FO: Obviously, performance is a big deal. But the most challenging aspect is making sure that four separate consoles running four separate games are communicating fluidly and perfectly, so that each player enjoys a seamless experience. To keep the game in sync while tracking all that geometry and AI is a significant task.
GS: What kind of feedback did you get from the multiplayer beta? Did you make any significant changes to the game based on what players loved or hated?
FO: Although we gathered tremendous amounts of hard data to improve networking and matchmaking, we also made careful notes of trends, preferences, and techniques. As a result, almost every aspect of multiplayer has been touched to varying degrees. Some changes will be subtle and some very obvious--but beta players should at least feel at home.
GS: You've mentioned the multiplayer in Halo 3 is visually less complex and impressive than the campaign. What graphical corners did you have to cut to keep performance consistent in multiplayer matches?
FO: Actually that's a mischaracterization. We would never state that our MP levels look "less impressive" since they all look pretty darned nice. What we have said is that MP maps require a different, cleaner aesthetic as a baseline in order to achieve a good balance of visibility, playability, and clarity. We certainly don't go as bananas with atmospherics and cover as we do in Campaign, but the overall aesthetic of the game should not be jarring when switching from MP to Campaign; it should feel familiar and correct to Halo's visual style. So in fact, we don't cut corners at all. We carefully plan line of sight, elevation, and so on, and let our artists build beautiful new multiplayer spaces.
GS: Thanks for your time.
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