Halo Q&A--Past, Present, Future
We talk to various members of Bungie about their experiences working on previous Halo games and the future of the series.
Amid all of the Gears of War, PlayStation 3, and Wii madness this week, a notable date may have missed your notice. November 15 marked the five-year anniversary of the original Halo release. The game hit streets in 2001 alongside the release of the original Xbox and quickly became the system's crown jewel. Developed by Seattle-based Bungie, the first-person shooter left an indelible mark on the FPS genre for consoles with its engaging mix of excellent gameplay and a truly involving story that drew players along.
Two years later, Halo 2 made an equally significant splash for the franchise with its wicked multiplayer experience that retained the gameplay fans quickly grew to love. It was also beefed up with fantastic player matching and stat tracking. The years that have followed have seen a highly anticipated sequel show itself on the horizon for the Xbox 360, as well as an equally intriguing real-time strategy offering, Halo Wars.
Though Bungie is notoriously mum on both projects, we thought we'd be sneaky and hit the developer up for a look back at the Halo franchise's past, present, and future with the hope that someone from the team might answer the Q&A drunk and spill some information. We pinned our hopes on potential loose cannons, community lead Brian Jarrard, Bungie writer Frank O’Connor, and Sandbox design lead Jaime Griesemer, hoping that at least one of them would slip up.
GameSpot: What can we expect from the expanded Halo universe in the future? How will Halo Wars, the novels, and other properties advance the overall Halo fiction?
Frank O'Connor: It's safe to say that the new additions to the Halo universe will expand it in different directions. The core Halo story, the tale told at the heart of our trilogy, will remain hermetically sealed from the other fiction, with only the occasional cross-reference, but plenty of guest appearances by Halo characters, locations, and hardware. It's a big place to explore, and frankly, players have a lot of questions about the outlying regions of the fiction--hence, the success of the Halo novels and the Marvel graphic novel. We have some pretty cool surprises coming up in those areas, and the reason they're kind of few and far between is that we always endeavor to make sure everything is tightly cohesive and true to the Halo feel.
GS: How much of that exposition are you taking into account for Halo 3?
FO: Halo 3 should be completely understandable by anyone who's played Halo 2. And if they haven't, there's plenty of context and background for the events that take place in it. That said--and without going into too much detail--events from Halo 3 may influence other fictional projects. Who can say?
GS: Can you give us a status update on the production and financing of the Halo movie?
Brian Jarrard: As was previously announced, the Halo movie is on hold at the moment, following the dissolution of our partnership with Universal and Fox. We don't have anything new to report on that front right now.
GS: Part of the Master Chief's mystique is that you never see his face, but we're pretty sure most of Hollywood's leading men wouldn't enjoy spending an entire movie behind a mask. Will the Chief break with tradition in the film and finally take off the helmet?
BJ: Considering that the movie doesn't actually exist at the moment, thus, there's no final script in development, it's hard to say. We agree, though, that the mystery of Master Chief's face is a big part of the Halo experience, and it's something we would want to be very careful with.
GS: With Halo, you've succeeded in creating a unique sci-fi setting and storyline in a rather overcrowded genre. What were the inspirations for the game's mythology?
Jaime Griesemer: That's tough. Halo was created by a group of people, all with their own personal flavors and influences, so the end product is the result of all of those influences bouncing around and ricocheting off everything else. If I had to pick a handful of the more obvious ones, though, the Culture books by Iain Banks had a lot of influence on the technological and historical parts of the universe. The Vang by Christopher Rowley was a big inspiration for the flood, and Armor by John Steakley and the original Starship Troopersby Heinlein (not the movie version) gave us lots of good ideas for the Mjolnir armor. For movies, obviously there is a big Aliens influence, but the Bungie team has a very wide range of interests, so everything from old-school Westerns to 1950s sci-fi to obscure Japanese cult horror movies and the latest Michael Bay flick is fair game.
One of the most unexpected influences I can cite is Bungie itself. Fully half of the team that worked on Halo were Bungie fans before they became Bungie employees. So this "second generation" would constantly use previous Bungie games, like Marathon and Myth, as inspiration for their contributions to Halo. Cortana's temptation when confronted with the incredible power of Halo's network, for instance, is very similar to what happened to Durandal, the artificial intelligence from Marathon. So I guess, we were our own biggest influence. (laughs)
GS: What did it take to create Halo's superb AI, which made the game's firefights so intense?
JG: One thing I think Bungie does exceptionally well is integrate all the different disciplines that you need to make a game. A great example of that collaboration is how the designers and AI programmers worked together on the Halo AI. We were able to iterate so quickly because we were sitting right next to each other, working on the same things in a very organic way. Chris Butcher (the AI programmer on Halo 1) and I did a talk at the Game Developers Conference that went into a lot of depth about how the AI technically works. I'm sure you can find it on the Internet somewhere, but the secret to why it works so well lies in that collaborative process.
GS: Was there a specific point when you realized this game everyone was slaving on was going to be something special? Or did you always know?
JG: I remember at one point, I was in the office at like three in the morning, working on the "Halo" level. It's the second mission in the first game, and you get the Warthog and drive out over these green rolling hills, looking for surviving life pods. It's one of those iconic Halo levels, and at one point, I was driving along this creek bed, running from a Banshee. My shields were down, and I was skidding around a corner, when a second Banshee zoomed down through some trees and started strafing me. My gunner opens up on it, and it explodes. The flaming debris crashed into the water right in front of my hog, and my Marine said something smart like, "He didn't see that coming," and it was such a great moment. At that point, I knew we had something special on our hands.
GS: Can you share something unrevealed about the game's development that would surprise people?
JG: I guess everybody already knows that originally it was going to be a third-person real-time strategy game. People probably don't know that the idea to make Halo a ring world came up pretty late in development. Originally, it was going to be a completely artificial fortress planet, which would have been really awkward because then the game wouldn't even have been called Halo. It might have been called "Spherical Fortress World" or something and probably bombed! Luckily, once we saw the ring rising off into the skybox, we knew that's the way it had to be.
GS: Why do you think it was so successful?
JG: Timing. Everything was ripe for Halo to be a hit. If we had slipped six months or come out on a different platform, it never would have got the traction that it did. And accessibility. People knock Halo as "just another shooter" sometimes, but that's only true if you take a very narrow view of what makes a game unique. Most shooters are about attrition, slowly running out of ammo, health, time, whatever resource, and trying to play efficiently enough so that you kill all the enemies before you run out. Halo has a completely different rhythm. All your resources are local, there are weapons all over the ground, your health recharges if you can take cover, the AI is constantly resetting. So you can take risks and try different tactics and experiment, without being punished. You can even die without losing anything or being punished. And you don't have to be obsessively efficient because if you survive at all, then you are back up to your full potency in a few seconds. So the game never frustrates you; it never gives you a good stopping point--even when it is really hard, and you end up playing on legendary difficulty until two in the morning without realizing it. Some games, every time you die, they send you back 20 minutes and then ask you if you want to quit! Of course you want to quit; you just got punished. So, that accessibility and smooth experience is why Halo works.
Well, that and the excellent art direction. Oh, and multiplayer map design. And really fun vehicles. And great music and sound and...actually, I guess there were lots of reasons.
GS: What do you see when you look back on the game now? Is it what you originally envisioned or did it change?
JG: I think everyone suffers from Lucas-syndrome to some extent. I can barely play the game without despairing about all the things we did wrong and the lack of polish in some areas. There's one tree on Silent Cartographer that is floating like 6 inches off the ground, and I see it every time I play! But at the same time, I'm really proud of the work we did, and I think it actually came out better than we envisioned. But I'm just a perfectionist.
GS: Halo 2 is still among the most widely played games on Xbox Live. Do you think the game design and balance have held up after all this time? Have you ever felt the need to make major balance changes?
JG: About a week after we released the game to manufacturing, I knew we were going to have to release a fix for the balance. When you are crunching and playing the game for literally 18 hours a day, it is really hard to keep things in perspective. You obsess over tiny little issues, but you are so desensitized to the game that you become myopic and can't see larger problems. So once we had a break (and some sleep) and the designers all got back together, we started to see that we had polished off some of the rough edges that made the game unique, like grenade timing and melee damage. And when we started playing the game online with the community, it became even more obvious because they played the game differently than we did around the office.
So we were really happy that we got to do the one-on-one update. We didn't get everything we wanted in it, but it was a lot closer to what we had envisioned. Balance is an unending process; it can never be perfect because the players react to what you change. But at some point, you have to stop tinkering and move on to the next game. A lot of those changes that didn't make it in because they were technically risky, like depleting the energy sword in multiplayer, were the first things we did when we started working on Halo 3.
GS: Do you guys ever take a break from developing Halo 3 to go back and play some rounds of slayer in Halo 2?
JG: Would you? (laughs) Honestly, I prefer the new control scheme so much I have a really hard time adapting back to Halo 2. It's embarrassing. Lots of the team still plays, though.
GS: How much did the pressure of Halo's success affect Halo 2 development?
JG: The internal pressure we put on ourselves to make the best game we possibly can is so intense, I don't think we feel external pressure very much. Plus the studio management does a great job shielding us from a lot of that. Personally, most of my motivation comes from watching the other guys on the team pouring their blood and sweat into the game. What's that tagline? "They fought for their country, but they died for their friends." It's like that. Game development is exactly like trench warfare. Except if you fail, you don't die, and fascism doesn't dominate the world. You just have to go out and get a real job.
GS: Did you expect it to be as successful as it was, not just initially but since its release?
JG: Well, it was a little weird because Halo 2 was a success before it came out. We had so many preorders. At that point, we were just hoping it wouldn't be one of those situations where nothing could live up to the hype we had generated. With Halo, we could just enjoy the positive reactions of the fans, but with Halo 2, we were just waiting for the other shoe to drop. We took some risks with Halo 2. We could have played it safe and just given people more of the same, but we knew we wouldn't be happy with that. So we pushed the boundaries, especially with the story. Then we all held our breath to see if we had pushed them too far. (laughs)
GS: Why do you think it was so successful?
JG: No question, the multiplayer matchmaking system. There were so many people dragging their Xboxes and televisions to Halo LAN parties, we knew we had to tap into that experience. Some people complain that the Halo 2 system is too restrictive, but the benefits are huge. Instant access to games, playing with your friends, skill matching, having different playlists that we can change and keep fresh. It's a great system, and I believe that the reason Halo 2 is still the most played game on Live is because no other game provides the same matchmaking experience.
GS: What do you see when you look back on the game now? Is it what you originally envisioned or did it change?
JG: We're so immersed in Halo 3, all I can say now when I play Halo 2 is "I want to be spawning with the AR!" and "Where's my spike grenade?!" and "Why can't I...?" Oops, almost started talking about stuff we haven't started talking about yet. I better wrap this up. Halo 2 came close enough to achieving what we envisioned that we had to come up with a whole bunch of new things for Halo 3. How's that for an ambiguous answer?
GS: You've billed Halo 3 as the end of the original Halo trilogy. Is this the last we'll see of the Master Chief? Will the series move on to new stories after this installment?
FO: When we talk about a trilogy, we are strictly speaking about a sequence of events started in Halo. The further adventures of the characters are entirely dependent on two things: their fates and failures and accomplishments in Halo 3, and the imagination, dedication, and inspiration of the people involved in creating them. See? Laser-tight specific answer!
GS: So, uh, what will the achievements be like in Halo 3?
BJ: They will be cool. And achievable. That's all we can say right now.
GS: Where does Bungie plan to go after Halo 3? Have you considered handing the reins to another developer? Do you see yourself ever getting tired of making Halo?
BJ: It's hard to predict what lies around the next bend. Right now, our team is incredibly busy and focused on making Halo 3 the game we want it to be, and there's still a long road ahead. I imagine once we hit that big milestone, there will be a well-deserved break, and then we'll want to take advantage of Xbox Live and probably put out something like new maps for our fans. There's always more to do with Halo.
As for "handing over the reins," I think you can already see that in our partnership with Ensemble Studios and the Halo Wars real-time strategy game they are creating.
GS: Do you envisage a time when the Halo series will branch out beyond FPS games and the upcoming RTS game?
FO: Halo 3 will be an FPS. Halo Wars is an RTS. It's certainly possible to explore the universe from different perspectives--we already have a comic book, a series of novels, and a line of action figures. We are certain you'll see other perspectives if they're appropriate and cool.
GS: Thanks for your time.
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