Halo 3: ODST PAX 2009 Brian Jarrard InterviewBy Patrick Klepek - Posted Sep 09, 2009
There was always a line to play Halo 3: ODST at the Penny Arcade Expo this year. But I wasn't there to play the latest adventure (and the first one not starring Master Chief) in the Halo universe. Rather, I wanted to speak with Bungie's community manager, Brian Jarrard, about the impending release of ODST, Bungie's presence at PAX 2009, understand the scope and importance of Halo: Reach (much bigger than I thought!), briefly touch on how Halo 4 relates to Halo 3: ODST and discuss reactions Bungie's reactions to the not-quite-a-Halo-movie, District 9.
G4: You guys don't have your own booth this year...
Brian Jarrard: Yeah, last year, we had one new multiplayer map available. This year we don't have our own booth, but…
G4: I guess when you have a brand-new game, as opposed to last year…
Jarrard: Yeah. You know, this year, it would have been an interesting discussion about whose booth gets to have ODST, right? Yeah, it just didn't really work out for us, didn't make a lot of sense this year, so we've got ODST here and we actually brought some of the new multiplayer maps out to the Astro Gaming booth -- new Midship, new Heretic, they're kind of working that for us. Lets us have more content available.
G4: Do you guys still do the Bungie Day thing?
Jarrard: Yeah, we did this past July -- on 7/7 -- we did have this huge Bungie vs. the world where we had a 24-hour matchmaking friend list that we turned on and we had teams of Bungie guys playing for 24 straight hours and everybody that beat us or did some mystery criteria we gave away recon armor too for the whole 24 hour period, so we gave away like 1,000 something sets of recon armor. We didn't have a free map to give away this year like we did in the past, but it was still a really fun community thing that we did.
G4: Is the game done at this point?
Jarrard: Oh, yeah. It comes out in two and a half weeks. ODST's actually been done since the spring, even before, right around E3 -- the whole game was already completely done.
G4: Not even applying more polish?
Jarrard: No, it was already handed off and the full force of the team had been rolled back into working on Halo: Reach. It was kind of one of those ship-and-hold scenarios, where Microsoft, as a publisher, decided when the best time was to release it and that time was September 22.
G4: That is sort of the thing that's happening next year. So many games got pushed back from this fall and all of a sudden in 2010, there's 2 or 3 major games a month before we even hit the summer period.
Jarrard: Yeah, it's kind of cool actually. I know we all talk about this as a gamer -- you can only have so much time and money in the fall, right? And then, come February, you're like, now what am I supposed to do? Maybe I'll go back and play the stuff I've missed, but I don't know, I hope it works out. I hope the industry can kind of break that rut, but you're always going to make your big bets in the fall.
G4: That's just how it works.
Jarrard: That's where the statistics show you the most sales come from.
G4: That's pretty impressive you guys were done in the spring, because the game was conceived as a 12-month project, right?
Jarrard: Yeah, it was just over a years' worth of work total, all the way through. It was ambitious. It was a small team, small development cycle, but what they were able to accomplish is pretty impressive, we're really happy with it. A lot of that has to do with the fact that it's built on top of Halo 3's foundation, so we didn't really have to reinvent all the tech. I mean, to be fair, we did actually make some targeted tweaks, we did actually make some upgrades to the graphic engine, just some subtle things to make the new tone and mode of the game work better, but it wasn't like that big, three-year process we generally go through.
G4: A reinvention of the wheel.
Jarrard: Exactly. Where Reach will be a full three-year cycle, it's got all-new tech, akin to the change from Halo 2 to Halo 3, not like ODST, which is just built on top of the Halo 3 foundation.
G4: So that isn't one of these smaller, intermittent things?
Jarrard: No, that's the might of the whole team. It's been in development since the end of Halo 3. It's been the first time in our studio's history that we've had multiple people working on multiple games. Pretty much, when Halo 3 was wrapping up, we had this core team that started pre-production on Reach, another small group started work on ODST and then we have another team that's working on some super-secret stuff that we're not quite ready to talk about yet.
G4: The impression I always got in the past, when you sort of became the Halo team for a while once Halo took off, was that you had iterative things going on in the background but it was more prototyping, as opposed to full-featured games that you seem to be taking those teams and doing now.
Jarrard: Yeah, it's true. We've always just put the might of the whole team behind it, but we've grown a lot more, we have a lot more people now, we're kind of able to -- we still do some of that, right, where we have really one big core production team but we're able to have pre-production and concepting going on on the side with other groups, as well, and obviously the goal is just to try to never really have a down moment, so people move right from one thing to another and we're able to be really efficient. In the past, I think the DLC content helped us kind of bridge the gap a little bit. So, Halo 2 was done, Halo 3 goes into pre-production, what are you going to do with the bulk of the team? Well, we were able to split them up and have them start making tons of new multiplayer maps, so that's worked out really well for us.
G4: And that's pretty cool, too, especially given that how long it takes -- I mean, Reach is a three-year project -- it's not often you can work on something that's a year, unless it's a downloadable game or an iPhone game these days. Just to have sort of a smaller project so you can move onto something else, I imagine creatively that must be pretty fulfilling.
Jarrard: Yeah, it's a first for us, I think we're super happy with the results, it exceeded our internal expectations. We've been pretty candid about having really small initial expectations for the project; we really wanted to be very careful coming out of the gate. We kind of tried to underpromise and we weren't sure where it was going to land, that's why you heard a lot of talk about expansion packs, 3-to-5 hours. Really, that was the initial thought about this game -- it's an expansion. Joe [Staten, creative director] and Paul [Bertone, design director] and the guys' [work] just kinda kept snowballing and the city itself kept growing and growing in size and all these flashback missions started to fall into place and now we're left with something that's pretty much a stand-on-its-own full, robust campaign, not even counting the whole second disc that we've thrown in the box, as well. I think it's a pretty compelling package for our fans.
G4: I know you said the game is expanded from Halo 3, but at least from the marketing buzz, it does seem it's not being treated the same way as Halo 3, so as not to confuse people -- this isn't Halo 4.
G4: This is a side thing.
Jarrard: It is.
G4: I'm not walking down the street and seeing giant Mountain Dew cans with Master Chief on it.
Jarrard: That's true, but I think as the game has picked up momentum, it's been showing really well, people are really happy. I think, in the beginning, Bungie and Microsoft, we just didn't quite know what the game was going to be, right? So we were hedging our bets, we didn't want to go out and be really bombastic and declare the pop culture phenomenon of 2009 with ODST, right? [laughs] But, I do think the game has been getting a lot of momentum, there is a really awesome live-action TV commercial that just started to air.
G4: I haven't seen it yet, but I've seen a lot of buzz about it on Twitter.
Jarrard: It's big budget, it's well done. It's definitely -- we're all happy with how it turned out. I don't know, maybe a year ago nobody thought there'd be something like that for this kind of game.
G4: And what's cool is that you get some of these little spin-off, one-year projects and I'm sure it makes you guys happy creatively and then also people get a Halo game in-between the next, major release.
Jarrard: Yeah, and the fact that it isn't Halo 4. It's different. From the very beginning, it was like, how do we make this game be something different that isn't going to burn people out on Halo, that we can take some risks -- whether it's through the mission structure or how we deliver the narrative, through the gameplay nuances in playing as an ODST vs. a Master Chief. I know the team was just really inspired to have the freedom to inject some new blood into the Halo formula.
G4: It seems like, at least with the art you've shown for Reach and the approach you've taken with the new side characters in ODST, you seem to be purposely doing Halo but not doing Master Chief. Is there an intentional getting away from that a little bit?
Jarrard: Yeah. I mean, I know when the guys sat down and started this project, the first question that they did ask was "alright, is this game going to be about Master Chief or not?" Just fictionally, timelines wise, it just really didn't work out and it just also wasn't very interesting for them because people had just come off playing Halo 3 and I think the character as ODST is something the fans have always been super…there's always been a lot of love for these guys. In the lore, they fight alongside Master Chief, they're these mysterious, shadowy spec ops guys.
G4: These guys are mostly stuff that's in the books.
Jarrard: Joe Staten will tell you that it actually just gave him a chance to humanize the Halo experience a lot more. Now you have these guys that are real guys, they're real characters, they have real voices, real personalities. Master Chief is kind of a nameless, faceless sort of empty vessel that's just a walking tank. It's super fun, but this is a very, very different story where you're going to jump inside the helmet of these richly casted characters, you're going to hear them talking through your ears and we haven't had that before in a Halo game.
G4: It always felt like with Master Chief it was this really iconic, interesting design but then, all of a sudden, you realized "oh, we need to make a character around, too." And then attempting to do that within the limitations of the design.
Jarrard: Yeah, I mean, surely the books really go into the a lot of depth and flash out his backstory, but we never really spent much time at all through the games trying to develop him as a character. I think there's some nuance there, but this is very different. From the very beginning, Joe wrote a story that had a bunch of hard-boiled [characters], lot of film noir inspiration -- we talk about that a lot, that was one of the biggest aesthetic [inspirations for] tone and mood from the very beginning, that was what we wanted this game to be about. Because at the heart, it's a detective story. It all started to grow out from there.
G4: You guys are clearly working something on the background and Master Chief isn't the face of these two games. Is Halo safe to you guys? Like, you say to yourselves, 'We want to work on something. We're working on this brand-new thing on the side but it's not ready yet, but we want to work something out and that we can push out fast. We know we can make a good Halo game.'
Jarrard: I mean, sure, I guess, even from a publishing perspective, it's a known quantity, right? There's not as much risk as a new IP. These days, that's a big gamble, right? People are pretty gun-shy about putting all that money behind an unproven IP or a new idea. I don't think we really rely on Halo as like a safety net, per say, I think we always make the games we want to make first and foremost. Even at the beginning of ODST, we just didn't know. There was a lot of internal, initially, just questioning, all the way up the chain, no one was really sure it was going to pay off -- not playing as Master Chief, this new, darker direction, different scope, different feel. We weren't really quite sure. So, we definitely feel like we took some risks, but building on top of that core Halo affinity and awareness definitely, I think, helps us out.
G4: ODST has a lot of buzz, it looks like it's poised to do really well, especially with the fans, does that give you guys confidence to do stuff like that again? Can you see this third team doing more iterative stuff, shorter projects?
Jarrard: It's possible, it's hard to say right now. Reach is going to be a tough project for us to wrap just because the scope is really big -- it's up there. It'll probably be our biggest game ever just in terms of the amount of people working on it and the expectations for it. I mean, it's a big deal for us. But our other team is already hard at work at a much different direction and hopefully that's going to keep progressing and moving forward and that might become our thing that follows Halo: Reach.
G4: So it's back to two teams again?
Jarrard: Right now, yes, technically speaking, the ODST team has, for the most part, rolled back into Reach and we still have another team that's working pretty hard on secret, future stuff.
G4: Is that a technical term?
Jarrard: Yes. [smiles] We've trademarked Secret, Future Stuff.
G4: So it sounds the secret stuff in the background's going to be after Reach.
G4: Is it possible we'll hear about it before then?
Jarrard: Yeah, I don't know. I don't really know where that's stuff's going to land, there's a lot of pieces moving right now. On one hand, we're very eager [since] we know we have a big fan audience that would love to know something that's not Halo that Bungie's working on. On the other hand, a lot of people are upset to think that we might not make more Halo. We also don't want to get people excited about Reach and then at the same time try and talk about something that's further down.
G4: It's a lot to juggle.
Jarrard: It is, but it's a good problem to have. Yeah, I don't know. I can't tell when we'll say more about that. I know just for at least the next year our hardcore focus is going to be on getting Reach done and awesome and hopefully getting people excited about it.
G4: 343 Industries was announced at Comic-Con. Having Frankie [Frank O'Connor, former Halo writer at Bungie] at the helm must be reassuring to you guys -- there's clearly a very steady hand to handle the future.
Jarrard: They've been…they're not fools. They totally recognize the value of the Halo IP and they know that we've already committed to this game and to Reach and things they're working on. It's in nobody's interest to screw up the canon or shit all over the Halo nation. They are definitely being very careful about it and Frank's really aware of that and we all have a pretty good communication channel to make sure that all of our stuff's kind of fitting together. I have confidence that they're going to treat the IP with integrity and make sure that they're always doing the right things.
G4: Did you get a chance to see District 9?
Jarrard: I haven't! I haven't seen it yet. I know. I've been doing non-stop promoting. I haven't, but I heard there were definitely some very Halo-esque nods in there, maybe even some props got reused.
G4: It definitely feels like a Halo movie not in name. It's almost kind of cool in a way because instead we got a new science fiction IP, which doesn't really happen these days.
Jarrard: I know a lot of the guys [at Bungie] obviously have seen it, I'm in the minority, but pretty much universally at Bungie people love it. We're really just happy with how it turned out. We've always thought Neill Blomkamp had a lot of talent and it's just awesome that he got this chance. In a lot of ways, I mean, like Joe was saying yesterday, it's kind of cool that it isn't the Halo movie, that he [Blomkamp] got a chance to -- this is Joe's line -- kind of give sci-fi a kick in the nuts and do something totally different.
G4: Damn right!
Jarrard: Maybe he couldn't have done that with Halo with all the cooks in the kitchen and all the creative sort of shackles that would've gone with that. Not to say there won't be a movie someday -- who knows? I would like to see one, but I think this actually worked out for the best.