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Halo 3: ODST

Platform(s): Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Bungie
Release Date: Sept. 22, 2009

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'Halo 3: ODST' (X360) Developer Interview

by Adam Pavlacka on Sept. 16, 2009 @ 5:27 a.m. PDT

Halo 3: ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) is a new chapter in the Halo saga that lets gamers experience events leading up to the epic story told in Halo 3 through the eyes of a new hero in the Halo universe. The stand-alone expansion extends the Halo 3 experience with hours of new campaign excursions and multiplayer gameplay.

Halo 3: ODST is a new game in the "Halo" saga that lets people experience events leading up to the epic story told in "Halo 3" through the eyes of an ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Trooper), as they search for clues leading to the whereabouts of their scattered squad and the motivations behind the Covenant's invasion of New Mombasa. The release adds a new dimension to an all-encompassing universe that gamers around the world have known and loved for close to eight years.

WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank, and occupation!

I'm Brian Jarrard, and I'm the community director at Bungie.

WP: Tell us a little bit about your involvement with Halo 3 as community director. Were you involved with the game from the start? Did you get in on the end? How did you come to work on the ODST project?

BJ: I've been at Bungie over six years now, so my role's fairly broad. My responsibilities tend to change drastically as projects sort of ebb and flow, but really, as the person on the forefront of the community, my job is to act as the chief liaison with all of our fan base, and that involves everything from how our matchmaking experience in Halo 3 plays out to making sure that we're getting critical feedback from our fans and passing it back to the development team, and, like today, going on the road and making sure that we're representing our games and trying to just raise awareness and get people excited about our releases.

WP: Let's start out with the multiplayer experience, or, as it's called, "the second disc" in ODST. Was that always planned to be a second disc? Was it originally going to be one disc with single- and multiplayer and it just grew too big? How did you guys end up saying that you need to pack it on two discs?

BJ: Well, there was definitely no way to fit that multiplayer content onto the ODST disc itself. From a practical standpoint, they're actually two totally separate games. They're two different title IDs so the Live service, for example, recognizes Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST as separate games. They each have their own Achievement base, so you can't really blend those two together. It just wasn't possible, so really, that and the space is kind of what warranted that second disc.

As far as the origins of that second disc, it definitely wasn't envisioned at the outset. We had created some additional maps for Halo 3, and as discussions sort of happened about when and where and how we would actually release those maps, everybody just sort of landed on this plan that we should put them on a standalone disc and make them widely available to fans who maybe don't have access to Marketplace to download content, don't have the means to get it. For us, it was really cool to have just a way to get this new content into a much broader distribution, let more people experience it.

WP: So when you pop in the multiplayer disc, you basically have the Halo 3 multiplayer engine and every single expansion pack. The only thing that it doesn't have is the single-player Halo 3 experience.

BJ: That's right. It's standalone Halo 3 multiplayer, 24 total maps, which is every map ever made. So it's all the original ones we shipped, all the DLC that's come out since then, plus three maps that are brand-new to ODST: Citadel, Heretic and Longshore.

WP: Are those three maps going to be available via DLC for people who may have already bought the other maps and aren't picking up ODST? Or do you need to buy ODST to get those three maps?

BJ: It's possible that at a later date, that content might come to Marketplace. At the moment, there are no firm plans to do that, but I'm sure anything is possible. Eventually, it probably would be the case, but right now, there are no firm plans to do that.

WP: Going back to the single-player game, ODST drops in between the end of Halo 2 and the beginning of Halo 3. What was the impetus for doing a side-story like that? I know there was the original E3 New Mombasa trailer that impressed the hell out of everyone. Was that it? Did you guys want to expand on that gameplay experience, or was there some other reason you went back to revisit New Mombasa?

BJ: Well, I mean, several different ideas were initially sort of kicked around the backstories that we had. We had a small team that had a preset window of time to work on a project, and eventually, after exploring some other ideas, they did land on the ODST as a central character and the city of Mombasa as the chief backdrop. A lot of it is, like you say, Mombasa has an important role in the whole Halo trilogy. We know our fans were very vocal through the events of Halo 2, where they were quickly taken off the planet and they didn't really get to sort of defend Earth like they thought they did. Even in Halo 3, those were kind of fleeting moments, so we definitely knew our fans had a lot of interest in sort of playing out events from Earth and sort of trying to defend their home turf against the Covenant. I think that, along with ideas that we had to go back to the city, it was a really interesting, sort of pivotal point where the story splits off. It was an interesting challenge for us to reimagine that city and tell a new story in it.

WP: Going along with that, how do you come up with a side-story when you know the ending isn't necessarily going to be happy? You can't say that you've repelled the Covenant because you know that you still have the events of Halo 3 coming up. You know that New Mombasa is going to get the crap beaten out of it. What kind of storytelling challenges did that present?

BJ: You know, I think Joe Staten, our creative director and writer, did a really good job because it was a side-story. It did kind of give him freedom to move in a direction that hadn't been defined before. All we ever saw was the events from Master Chief's perspective, so I think what ODST shows is that there were a lot of small, pivotal battles that were taking place on Earth that actually had a pretty big impact on the Covenant-UNSC conflict. Sure, you ultimately know where the series is heading, but I think it adds a lot of rich background and insight into that conflict that you wouldn't have otherwise. In many ways, we view this game as sort of our tightest, best narrative yet in the whole Halo series.

WP: Story-wise, the presentation is definitely up there, due in no small part to Nathan Fillion, who plays one of the title characters. How did he come to be involved? Anyone who's a fan of "Serenity" is going to recognize his performance right off the bat. Was that something where he approached you guys? Was Bungie a big fan of "Serenity" and decided to pursue his involvement? Tell us a little bit of the backstory.

BJ: It kind of goes both ways. Marty O'Donnell, who's our composer and audio director, he handles all of the audio stuff with his team. He often jokes that the casting director for "Firefly" and "Serenity" just did an awesome job so we should just copy what that person did, but Nathan actually had a role in Halo 3 as well. He was a Marine, and he wasn't really widely credited for that, but typically, any voice actor who's ever been in a Bungie game, we've sort of ended up mutually coming in contact because they've been huge fans of our game, we've been huge fans of their content, and it just sort of works out from there. I believe we had just sort of heard that Nathan was a huge fan of the Halo series, and through our talent agency, our people contacted his people. We wanted to hire him to work on Halo 3, and from there, a really good relationship was formed. It just made perfect sense. His character Buck, the squad leader of the ODSTs, was really written around Nathan from the get-go, and clearly, he brings an awesome performance and really makes the character who it needs to be in the game. Nathan has come to visit us at Bungie. He's actually a legitimate, real fan. He's really good at the game, he loves to play Halo in his spare time, and it's just really, really fun to work with him.

WP: You guys even went so far as to model the character in-game so that it looks like him.

BJ: Yeah, I'm not totally familiar with the decision behind doing that, but I think the artist and Joe Staten, the writer, described as sort the dialogue was coming to life and as Nathan and Tricia Helfer — who you might know from "Battlestar Galactica" — as they were in the booths reading their lines, I guess just more and more, people started gravitating toward these characters really are these people. It just sort of materialized that way in a digital form as well.

WP: What about the timeline? We understand that this came together a little quicker than the average Halo game.

BJ: Yeah, ODST was really just about over a year of development for us, with a much smaller team than we typically have working on a Halo project. It really was happening in parallel to the Halo Reach project, our next big, full game. That's our more traditional three-year cycle, so it was definitely a smaller team and smaller cycle, but due to the fact that we're building on top of Halo 3, we didn't really have to build an engine at the same time as building content, and that's what allowed the team to focus on, really first and foremost, having great gameplay and great art and great content and a lot of polish. This is the first time we've really had a game where we haven't had to build the engine and the tech as we're building the game itself. I think that really afforded the team a lot of luxuries, the ability to do such a great job with such a short time to work with.

WP: From a tech perspective, does the game have any major upgrades from the Halo 3 engine, or is this the Halo 3 engine running the show with all entirely new content?

BJ: It's definitely the Halo 3 core engine. We've made a couple of targeted tweaks to it, mostly to facilitate the film noir atmosphere and mood that we're going for with the game, so there have been a couple of different graphical upgrades. Our engineers talk about some new shaders and things that were integrated specifically to allow things like the VISR mode to work. A lot of the visual fidelity upgrade, though, just comes from having a lot more polish time and knowing right from the get-go that we had a stable engine to work with and the artists could just sort of go nuts and not have to worry about this moving target of performance and frame rate. Typically, over the course of development, you're always kind of going back and forth with that battle. It's definitely all-new content, and the core of that technology is the same, but we were able to make a few upgrades just to make the game presentation better.

WP: You've got the Halo 3 multiplayer experience, you've got the ODST campaign, and then there's also one new method of play, the ODST Firefight. How does Firefight come into play with all this?

BJ: Firefight is sort of keeping with our tradition of the rich, social multiplayer experience of Halo, but it's purely cooperative in nature. This is a game mode that's really about you and three friends just kind of jumping right into the heart of the Halo experience. There's no story wrapper. The objective is really to try and stay alive against the incoming waves of randomly generated Covenant, all the while trying to get high scores, medals and Achievements. Theoretically, the game will never end. It'll kind of go as long as you and your friends can last, and you have a fixed, shared pool of lives that you're sort of forced to work together and share. It just feels like it really complements the Halo sandbox and the Halo social lineage really, really well, and so far, fans seem to be really be loving it.

WP: Is it something of a nod to the Horde mode in Gears of War 2?

BJ: I'm sure the underlying premise is very similar to what you'd see in Horde or Left 4 Dead Survival mode. There are a number of games that sort of have these "survival" components to it. Obviously what makes ours different is the Halo sandbox that we have available, the fact that we have a shared pool of lives, random enemy drops, and then the skulls from Halo 3. These gameplay modifiers are integrated into Firefight. Every time you clear a fifth wave, a new skull will turn on, and the skulls dynamically change the way the game plays — everything from doubling the health of enemies to making them immune to projectile weapons — so you're constantly having to sort of adapt on the fly and find the right weapon for the job.

WP: Now, skulls have always been part of the Halo experience, usually as hidden items. When you're going through the single-player campaign, we noticed more than a few hidden items. You've got the audio clips as well as the skulls. What's the point of the audio clips, aside from Achievements?

BJ: Just to clarify, the skulls are actually all available from the beginning, all the Halo 3 skulls you can turn on for the campaign, so there are actually no new skulls that are being added for the ODST campaign.  The story you're talking about, we call "Sadie's Story," is an over an hour-long radio drama that plays out over 30 different sound snippets that you can find throughout the city. They're purely optional, but they do add a rich back layer to what's happened to the civilian population of the city. It's a different side of New Mombasa, and from our perspective, it's a really important way just to breathe more life into a city that's really devoid of life by the time you arrive as an ODST. Beyond Achievements, there are some bonus perks that will be rewarded to players who find these audio logs. I don't really want to spoil anything, but you know that the Terminals in Halo 3 were purely optional, purely hard-core fiction, strictly for fans, with no real tangible benefit to gameplay. That's not the case for these audio logs. There is a reward, if someone does choose to try and collect them all.

WP: Is there anything about the game that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?

BJ: I should just mention that one of the little awesome bonuses that we've included for fans is access to the Halo Reach multiplayer beta. This is, as we said, the next big game from Bungie. It's a prequel to the Halo trilogy. That game's going to come out next fall, but very similar to what we did for Halo 3, we are going to have a multiplayer beta on Xbox Live sometime next year, and the only way you'll be able to be a part of that is directly through ODST game disc, so we want to make sure that all our fans hold onto that disc so they can be there with us next year.

WP: Is that going to work the same way that the Halo 3 beta did with Crackdown?

BJ: Yeah, more or less. There's actually a menu item on ODST called "Extras" that right now will be grayed out, but when the game comes out on day one, we're actually going to be using that channel to deliver content to fans, things like the vidocs that we typically produce, behind-the-scenes materials, bonus materials, we might do some commentary and flythroughs, but our plan is to use that as a gateway to deliver content right to our fans through the ODST disc. Eventually, when the beta is turned on, you'll go to the Extras menu, you'll select it, and from there, it'll download and install to your console.

WP: One last question. Obviously Master Chief was the hero of the Halo trilogy, but given the character and style of Buck, is there any chance of seeing him reappear in future Halo games?

BJ: You know, anything is possible. At this point, I can't say for certain, but if you do play the game, you might pick up a reference here or there to the fact that — and some fans may have already picked this up through some of the viral activities — but we do know for a fact that Buck was one of the few ODSTs who had been on the planet Reach and did make it off Reach.
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