Halo PC update

Gearbox's Randy Pitchford talks about his studio's progress on converting Bungie's Xbox shooter to the PC, adding Internet support in the process.

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Bungie's Halo was originally intended for release on the PC and the Mac, but that was before Microsoft bought the studio, formerly based in Chicago, and released the game on the Xbox . As the top Xbox launch game, it would go on to outsell such PS2 exclusives as Metal Gear Solid 2 and the recent Final Fantasy games. So it was to the great surprise of Gearbox's Randy Pitchford when Microsoft told him last June that no one had been working on the much anticipated PC conversion of Halo.

Just shortly thereafter, in June or July, Gearbox received Halo's code and content and started working on Halo for the PC. That was also just around the time Gearbox stopped working on 2907463Counter-Strike: Condition Zero . At a recent workshop at the CPL's Winter Event in Dallas, Texas, Pitchford recounted that Gearbox quickly discovered why Microsoft hadn't already been tackling the conversion project, saying that it involves some tough problems that would have distracted Bungie from Xbox .

The PC game isn't intended to change the single-player campaign in the slightest, so the challenges aren't creative, but technical. The first major hurdle has been to port the game engine to run on a PC. Although many think of the Xbox as a modified PC, Pitchford notes that the Nvidia graphics chip in the console is highly specialized, and since Halo was a first generation Xbox game, it doesn't deal with the hardware as elegantly as it could have.

Pitchford said that the project is about 40 percent done, much of which includes a successful port of the graphics engine. The port required Gearbox to move to supporting DirectX 9 and completely rewrite all the pixel shader effects. Part of what that rewrite means is that the PC game will have some enhanced effects for PCs with the latest graphics cards--Pitchford mentioned that Nvidia was helping with optimizations for the GeForce FX--that are more capable than the Xbox hardware. The game will also support cards down to the GeForce2 MX, and that has required designing some alternate effects. In particular, the flashlight effect had to be redone for low-end cards in order to keep the gameplay intact.

Gearbox is still planning its approach to the project's second major hurdle: support for Internet multiplayer. The Xbox game can handle up to 16 players in multiplayer, but only when four Xboxes are connected on a local network. The nature of the Internet means that action games with online multiplayer have to be designed to work with varying degrees of latency. However, the Xbox game's networking code sends data synchronously, which is only practical on a LAN. As a result, Gearbox has had to completely rip out the networking code and start from scratch.

Gearbox's creative focus is on the multiplayer, and the developer plans to include new maps, and may also add weapons and vehicles. It makes sense to design new maps considering that the PC game will more often be played with larger numbers of players in a server. It's likely to support 32 players per server. Pitchford mused that it might be possible to release a mod pack that would allow fans to create new levels for Halo, but said it's too early to tell. For various reasons, it's unlikely that PC and Xbox players will ever face each other in the game.

The PC version will feature a faithful port of Halo's acclaimed story-based campaign that won't be changed in any substantive way. However, conventional mouse and keyboard controls give PC players an advantage that would make the game too easy if the difficulty settings weren't rebalanced somewhat. Pitchford mentioned that the harder settings might need the most tweaking, since the legendary difficulty should still be terrifically hard. Bungie is working closely with Gearbox and has provided some insight on how to maintain the game's balance.

Gearbox has been involved with a number of smaller projects and conversions in the last year, including the PC versions of Xbox and Xbox . According to Pitchford, this is a part of the studio's long-term strategy as it's been "gearing up for primetime," referring to a major unannounced game project. He mentioned that only 25 percent of Gearbox's staff is working on Halo. Nonetheless, the game is undoubtedly important for the studio, and Pitchford says it's scheduled to be out in the middle of next year.

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