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Halo: Reach

Platform(s): Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Bungie
Release Date: Sept. 14, 2010

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'Halo: Reach' (X360) Developer Interview with Brian Jarrard

by Adam Pavlacka on Sept. 13, 2010 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Step into the boots of a Spartan III, as Halo: Reach charts the story of Noble Team in their heroic stand to defend the planet Reach, its people and secrets against a ruthless assault by an alien collective known as the Covenant.

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 how Bungie approached Halo: Reach. In Halo 1-3, you told the story of Master Chief. With ODST, it was the first time we jumped back. It wasn't really a prequel to the entire series, but it was filling a hole. Halo: Reach is a prequel to the entire event. What was your mindset when you started digging into the backstory versus going forward? How did the development process differ?

BJ: Well, the very first thing that we did after completing Halo 3 was to start talking about where we were going to go next. The immediate, obvious discussion was talking about a true Halo 4 in terms of continuing where we left off at Halo 3. That was the first thing we talked about at the studio, but there are a lot of reasons why that wasn't as appealing to us. Creatively, it was going to be a little more challenging, a lot of baggage to care for in terms of bringing all the story of Chief with it. It's hard for a new person to dive into that if they haven't already consumed all of the Master Chief adventures that have come before.

Reach has always been a really interesting aspect, fictionally, for us. Fans have come to know and love the story of the planet Reach. It's kind of a catalyst for the whole Halo saga from Bungie. It all began there, so that was exciting to us, but creatively, we got to do some stuff from a gameplay perspective, like introduce an actual squad of Spartans. Master Chief wasn't the last Spartan anymore. It's before that happened; there are more Spartans still around and deliver on that kind of gameplay, which we knew fans have been clamoring for since some of the books started to introduce new Spartan characters. We were able to now finally do that in the prequel setting and still make a game that was self-contained if you're a new fan. If you're an old fan, you can dive right in and have the same great experience. At the end, tie it up with a nice bow, and knowing that this was going to be our last Halo game, we didn't want to just leave everything hanging out there and maybe someday it would get resolved for players, maybe someday it wouldn't. So it was important to us that we had a clear beginning and a clear end and that we could do everything in between at a scope and scale that was different and bigger than what we had in the past.

WP: Did having all of the auxiliary fiction constrain you in any way while you were working on the story? Or did you guys say, "Well, books are nice, but it's no big deal if the game conflicts." How did that pan out?

BJ: It was a little mix of both. The only book that specifically has an impact on the game is the novel, "The Fall of Reach" by Eric Nylund, and it happens to be the biggest and most successful Halo book of all. It's my personal favorite; a lot of us at the studio are big fans because beyond telling the story of the fall of this crucial planet, half of the book also focuses on young Master Chief and his whole origin and uprising and backstory.

The challenging part for us was that book was written a long time ago, at a point in Bungie's development cycle where we were heads-down making Halo 2. We weren't actively, intimately involved with Eric during the creation of that book, and he did a great job, but he did a lot of that, to his credit, sort of off on his own. When it came time to make a game based on that space, it became challenging to us because that book did put some limitations on things that we could do from a gameplay perspective, most notably specific dates and times. It didn't offer a very narrow window to operate in, so we've had to be very careful in the game. We don't want to discredit the books. That would be doing a disservice to our fans.

Halo definitely has come to be appreciated for the attention to detail and consistency throughout all the mediums that we've explored, but we did have to take a little bit of liberty with just a little bit of the timing of some of the major events in the novel to afford us the flexibility to create good gameplay and tell a story that we thought would be compelling for fans. I think they have to live with that. They won't be too upset with us overall because the game's going to be awesome.

WP: What were some of the story challenges with having a full team? There was some of that with ODST, but you only had one character experiencing those flashbacks. In Reach, you've got characters interacting with each other throughout the game. What challenges did that present in getting that team-based dynamic across?

BJ: Yeah, we wanted to make Reach be a more character-driven story, but you're right. You can see the beginnings of that in ODST, which was a different type of story for Bungie as well. I think the biggest challenge for us was on a technical level because historically, characterization, character animation, lip sync, the look of faces — those haven't been strong suits of the franchise. We knew in order to pull this off, we were going to have to make some significant investments in those areas.

Marcus [Lehto], our creative director, would always use the term, "We want these characters to have believable performances." I think we've done that by integrating motion capture into our animation pipeline. We want these characters to actually look and move lifelike in the game space. We've revamped all of our facials, graphic systems, lip-sync technology, so when you see these characters without their helmets on, which is very important to us because we want to humanize them, want you to get to know them, see that they have their own unique personalities and really create this bond with this ragtag band of heroes. We had to revamp the system so it isn't cringe-worthy to watch these people talking to you. They don't feel shallow and hollow.

Of course, we had to rely on our writing and had to find great voice acting and a great cast of characters to sort of fill those roles. I think all of those things kind of worked in tandem, but initially, hands down our biggest challenge was our old technology could not have allowed us to do that at a level that we thought was acceptable, so we had to start from scratch.

WP: When you're progressing through the story, why do your weapons and power-ups reset at the beginning of every level? Why not allow the player to carry a loadout that he enjoys from level to level?

BJ: That boils down to the decision of the design team to make sure that as they're creating encounters and building a mission that they can plan for an optimal experience. For example, if you're able to get the jetpack at one point and keep it throughout the game, that starts to put handcuffs, or limitations, on the designers because now they have to account for that extra variable that might technically break their mission or make them have to do things that constrain them and prevent them from doing other things that they would have liked to have done. The designers will dole out the armored vehicles and dole out the weapons in waves that they feel fits the flow of the mission and allows them to optimize each one, make its use special and purposeful, but also still somewhat predictable because at some point, we still have to have a game experience that is rock-solid and doesn't fall apart. We don't want fans to break it, so I think it just sort of snowballed from that point. It's about keeping a more consistent design experience that we can custom-tailor to the player.

WP: At its core, Halo: Reach very much looks and feels like traditional Halo. You didn't just add visual tweaks, but there are a few gameplay tweaks in there as well. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

BJ: Yeah, I think the biggest core gameplay change is the issue of armor abilities. We used to always refer to Halo as a kind of golden triangle where you have melee, your weapons, and your games. Now it's a golden square, I guess, because armor abilities have become a huge part of our sandbox. Whether it's in multiplayer or the campaign, deciding which armor ability to use and when to use it can radically have an instant, dynamic change on what's happening in the battlefield.

In the campaign, you're often presented with multiple armor abilities. You have to choose which one you want to use, and each one has a different path that results in a different game experience, so it's kind of interesting to replay encounters and try. "This time, I'm going to use my hologram and see if I can sneak by these guys over here and shoot them in the back," or "This time, I'm going to go invisible and skip those guys altogether, sneak over here and take this path."

I think armor abilities, coupled with more wide-open environments, definitely offer people to have more unique experiences, to replay it and have something different happen each time. But you're right, the core goal: Don't break what it makes Halo, build on that, refine it and try to boil it down to the most refined gameplay that we've had yet in the series.

WP: The Halo 3 multiplayer has been exceedingly polished over the years. When you first introduced the armor abilities into Reach's multiplayer, how much tweaking was required to get it to a playable state?

BJ: You know, as crazy as it sounds, every armor ability that we have in the game right now all worked pretty well and felt like they had been part of the sandbox from the very beginning. Some of that is because we had a similar type of mechanic in Halo 3 where you could pick up a shield or pick up a recharge, but it was a single-use item but it still had a similar type of game-changing impact that an armor ability does. Some of this is iterative; we'd already learned through the process, but remarkably, it just felt like an old friend. The armor abilities fit right into the sandbox.

Multiplayer is a super big, important part of our game and our studio. Each armor ability was always built, first and foremost, with an eye toward multiplayer. It's easier to back it into the campaign, to build the AI and encounters around that type of experience than it is to build in the opposite direction. We always had to start with a balanced multiplayer design and then go from there, so I think that also helped.

The only example I can think of is that in the beta, armor lock had some issues with it. Players very quickly got very good at it to the point where they could exploit it in ways that we never intended for it to be, so that armor ability got some subtle but big changes since the beta that will prevent it from being griefed, I guess, if you will. Maybe as a result, people don't use it as much as they used to before. I know nowadays, it's predictable. Someone armor locks, you stop, you back up, wait about five seconds, they come out of it, and then you kill them.

WP: Forge World. The Forge level editor was a big deal in Halo 3, and you expanded upon that. It's larger, there's more to play around with, and you can do more with the items. What are the highlights of what is potentially a level editor for the console?

BJ: For us, Forge for Halo 3 started off as an experiment. In the shipped game of Halo 3, Forge was pretty limited. It was some of the default multiplayer maps. All you could do was simple things like change weapons, spawn, drop new weapons in, change player spawns — things that were minor but actually had a decent impact on gameplay. More importantly, it allowed us in the community to re-balance maps. If a problem or a rocket launcher was now breaking the map, it was very easy to go in there and tweak that. That's kind of the origin of Forge.

Then we released these DLC maps that basically are just a big box. Rather than just have weapons you can drop, well, here's an entire wall that you can drop and here's a bridge that you can drop. It's kind of like a LEGO set. At that point, people started to take it further and further. They've done stuff that we never thought was even possible.

Forge in Reach was definitely about looking back at those things. How do we handle even more? How do we make it even easier and more efficient?

Forge itself is a massive environment, sort of the biggest space you've ever had in multiplayer. It's actually got five unique, distinct areas. You've got the return of Blood Gulch, this canyon that we've been able to rebuild and Forge it all up in there. There's island space, there's an interior arena space, and there's a big pristine waterfall space. Then we sort of have this flat patch of land and we have a rock spire. The rock spire happens to be the exact same geometry as the Halo 2 map, Ascension. We've let people rebuild that map on it. The patch of grass happens to be the exact same diameter as what used to house the map sanctuary in Halo 2, so now we've been able to reconstruct that.

All told, there are about 130 different pieces that you can play with inside Forge World. Build huge maps, small maps, complex maps, simple maps: We've tried to make it easier for people to not have their creativity hindered by the interface and complexity of making sure that your wall's straight and these pieces align. We've taken that part of the hard work out of the equation to allow people to run free and ideally make it even easier to share and find these maps throughout the community at large.

WP: One of the aspects of Halo is its rabid fan base.  All the prior games have leaked out early, but it's typically been the result of the manufacturing plant or a retailer shipping a copy early. A few weeks ago, Halo: Reach was downloaded from Xbox Live. What happened? Did they break Xbox Live security? Was there an oversight? How did the world hack their way into Halo: Reach and get a whole bunch of people banned from Xbox Live for life?

BJ: Honestly, it's not something that I'm really able to comment on or have been privy to. I just know that it's something that Microsoft takes super seriously, and they've been aggressively pursuing anyone who has somehow obtained a copy of Reach illegally or unofficially. They're going after these folks online and offline. I couldn't tell you exactly where things broke down, but if anything, it's just a testament to how passionate people are about this game and the lengths they'll go to get their hands on it. You don't really hear this about any other titles. As far as those details go, I'm not actually privy to that.

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

BJ: I don't think so. For us, I'm just excited that we're finally about ready to release this game. It's been three years of really hard work for the team. In a lot of ways, it's almost a decade's worth of work to get to this point: the culmination of all these gameplay ideas and features. We wouldn't be here without our fans, so we're just grateful and thankful that we've had such great support and hopefully, people will agree with us that Reach is the biggest and best Halo game yet!

WP: To add on to that, would you say that the team is relieved to finally be done with Halo and moving on to new projects, or is there a sense of sadness? Is there a mixture of both? What's the general feel about that around the company?

BJ: There are definitely some mixed emotions. There will be some sadness because we've come so far, and we've had such a strong relationship with our community over the years. Halo has meant so much to so many people and really defined who our studio is these days. It's going to be a little weird not being a part of that anymore and eventually see it go off in another direction with new people at the helm, but it has been very inspiring for us to now have a chance to spread our wings. We have a lot of artists and storytellers and creative people who have been doing one thing for a long time, and now, they have this whole unwritten future and this clean slate ahead, and we have a lot of really awesome ideas. I just think we're invigorated now, and we're poised to dive in and try something totally new and fresh and see if we can re-create the success that we've had in the past 10 years.


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