It's difficult to manage expectations, especially in this age of downloadable content, expanded universes, and cost-conscious (and tempermental) audiences who love you one minute and write snarky things about you on the Internet the next. Few development studios know this like Bungie, who when developing Halo 3: ODST made the bold decision to bench their All-Star character and start a team of rookies. But did that really hurt them in the long run? Is there value in making something in just over a year, even with the Halo name cranking up the pressure cooker? Are there lessons to be learned going into Halo: Reach? We asked the always-affable guys at Bungie these questions (and more). Providing the answers are:
- Joseph Staten, Writer & Creative Director
- Lars Bakken, Design Lead
- Curtis Creamer, Executive Producer
- Brian Jarrard, Community Director
G4: What did the omission of Master Chief give you the freedom to do in ODST?
Lars Bakken: It really opened up the storytelling in a way that we hadn't been able to do before. We didn't have to tell the epic universe-saving story of the last Spartan rescuing the entire human race. We could tell a more intimate story, with more realistic characters.
Joseph Staten: The Halo universe isn’t all ancient ring artifacts and parasitic plagues. Sure, it’s a universe that’s gripped by war. But not all of the human characters are focused on Saving the Human Race. Most of them are fighting for the man (or woman) standing next to them, which is to say they’re fighting for their own, personal reasons. It was really refreshing to let players experience Halo from these kinds of characters’ points-of-view. And even better: not all of these characters are soldiers e.g., Sadie and the Superintendent.
G4: How many gamers have e-mailed you asking..."where the heck is Master Chief?" Has the backlash -- or lack thereof, if that's the case -- been about what you expected from Halo fans?
LB: In all honestly, I don't think I saw a single message asking about the Master Chief. Maybe I was insulated from that backlash, but I never got the feeling people were upset by his absence. In fact, I think I read multiple reviews saying they were happy to have him sit out for a game, because the ODSTs were pretty cool characters.
JS: Actually, I’ve mainly heard that people were glad to get a break from the Master Chief. Not that they don’t like the guy. But I think players are pretty savvy about franchise burn-out, and understand that the Chief is enjoying some well-deserved, cryo-sleep R&R.
Curtis Creamer: The fans that I spoke to on the press tour were pretty stoked to be playing someone other than the MC, I don’t think there was a backlash at all.
G4: What was your reaction to the reviews of the game? What was the fairest criticism, and what did reviewers miss or misinterpret?
LB: Well, it's hard for me to judge. I'm too close to the project to really know if they were fair reviews or not. I was really impressed with what we pulled off in 14 months, but I'm also biased because I worked on the game. That said, it still seemed like most reviewers were quite fair with it, although I think the price tended to overshadow what was in the package in some reviewer's eyes, which is a shame.
JS: We got criticized, fairly, for doing a poor job communicating what ODST was, an expansion pack or a full-fledged, AAA release. It definitely turned out to be the latter. But, unfortunately, we didn’t know how much great work we were going to pull-off when we first announced the game. It’s impossible to know, but my gut says that if we’d never said the words “expansion pack” we would have seen an appreciable increase in the review scores. Alas, hindsight is 20/20. But foresight is pretty hard too.
Brian Jarrard: I’d have to agree with Joe -- If you look at the lower scores, they almost all cite an issue in perceived value based on an initial expectation that was set for an “expansion” and then a feeling that they were overcharged for the final product. For the most part, the gameplay and experience itself received a lot of praise with many saying it was the best of the series. Criticisms around the lack of matchmaking for Firefight and mechanics to add more longevity and community activity to the core game were fair and is something we would’ve done differently it if were possible within the scope of project.
G4: Do you think the marketing properly communicated "Hey, this isn't Halo 4"?
LB: Having Halo 3 in the name probably helped a great deal driving the point that this wasn't a sequel. Of course, it doesn't matter what we call it, if "Halo" is in the title, someone probably assumed it was "Halo 4." I didn't personally hear of anyone making that mistake, though.
CC: I never got the sense that people were confused about whether or not this was "Halo 4." Everyone I spoke to understood that it was a new campaign and new hero built off the Halo 3 engine. I think the marketing turned out great; the “we are ODST” commercial was brilliant.
BJ: I’d agree that from the outset, it was a big priority to very specifically position ODST as NOT being "Halo 4," NOT being a continuation of the trilogy. Despite some other messaging missteps along the way, this wasn’t something that anyone was ever confused about, in my opinion.
G4: Was there anything you thought of or actually implemented during development but ultimately had to cut because it made it too similar to traditional Halo?
LB: No, I don't think there was anything like that. I mean the core game is still Halo. We changed up the way the ODSTs played, but at the end of the day we didn't want to break the core Halo gameplay that has defined the series.
JS: Well, for a while we were just using the Halo 3 health system i.e., shields only, no base health. We had a hunch that we needed to do something different with the ODST’s health to make him more vulnerable, and it turned out that going back (with adjustments) to the Halo 1 system just felt a lot better -- made you feel more human inside your armored suit. This was true for other systems as well such as jump height, movement speed, grenade throwing etc. We started with “traditional” Halo 3 designs, and adapted them to fit ODST’s unique player character.
G4: Bungie is well-known for advanced methods of gameplay testing and refinements based on user feedback during the development process. When the general public got their hands on it, was there anything about their initial feedback that surprised you?
LB: Well, we knew that the difference between the Rookie sections (at night) and the Squad sections would polarize people. That wasn't super surprising, but I was taken aback at how much some people hated those night sections. They were meant to create mood, but some people just want 100% action all the time. There was one thing with achievements in particular, however that still surprises me. There is at least one achievement (Heal Up) that everyone should get in the first 5 minutes of the game, but our tracking shows that only 91% of users actually have it. It really blows my mind. If you only played a few minutes of Firefight, or the beginning of the Campaign, you would actively have to try to not get it. Looking back now, there are ways we could fix this, but we didn't think of them in time for ODST.
G4: Halo 3: ODST had a much wider cast of characters, but many found it difficult to keep track of who everyone was, since you spend so little time with each. Did the ODST squad reach their full, intended character development, or was there more about them that you could have explored?
JS: Time willing, we would have of course loved to create more flashback scenes for each of the ODSTs to more fully explore their characters. But given the limited time we did have, I’m very happy with how much character development we were able to pack into each of the scenes. Also the 1st-person dialog (in the voice of whatever character you’re currently playing) was a great way to continue grounding players in their characters during Firefight. It was pretty obvious that this would help in the campaign, but it’s great to hear how many people enjoy hearing this dialog (or not; you can always choose to be the “strong silent type” Rookie) in multiplayer as well.
BJ: I’d just like to say that the vast majority of feedback I’ve read within the fan community was pretty positive towards what they felt to be the tightest story and best character development yet in a Halo game.
G4: One of the more common criticisms made about the game was New Mombasa's lack of activity, as compared to the more structured and action-heavy flashback missions. Did the open hub concept turn out like you first intended? Would you do anything differently in retrospect?
JS: In Halo games -- heck, in shooters generally speaking -- it’s often really tough to create effective pacing; to slow the player’s pulse, and give him a chance to take a breath before the next big fight. One of the nighttime city’s major functions was to serve as reliable pacing -- a regular change of tempo. In this respect, it worked exactly as designed. But I think we could have done a lot to improve the layout of the city to help with navigation. Again, time willing.
G4: You guys went with the film noir approach for the overall feel of the game. It was highly effective, but was this the only thematic approach you considered? Was it well-received by the hardcore Halo audience?
JS: Visually, we decided on noir very early in concept development. It made perfect sense given our desire to tell a mystery story -- to put the player, metaphorically, in the shoes of a lone detective, searching for clues in a dark and dangerous city. From what I’ve heard, most players really enjoyed this tonal departure from other Halo games.
G4: Did you consider weaving the "Sadie's Story" elements more tightly into the New Mombasa exploration instead of having them as findable, and therefore optional, segments?
JS: They’re pretty tightly woven if you ask me! But yes, technically, even though the city Superintendent A.I. is desperate to talk to you (ringing phones, traffic lights switching on and off, road barriers clanking up and down etc.) you don’t need to talk back to it. For players who do follow Sadie’s story, however, it does a great job of deepening ODST’s cinematic story.
G4: Did you accomplish everything you set out to do, or would the hypothetical gift of more development time have affected the overall plan?
LB: Well, first off, we really got an amazing amount of content into the timeframe we were working with. However, you always have more things you want to do if you have the time. When we first started toying around with what became Firefight, we all knew we wanted to have Matchmaking for it. We also knew that would mean some pretty heavy investment on the networking side, which meant more people, and unfortunately it was quickly shot down. The Halo 3 engine doesn't have support for Matchmaking in our synchronous networking model (which is what powers Campaign and Firefight), so we couldn't do it within the scope of this project. It still bums me out, but there are always things you can't do, and you just have to move on.
JS: We always imagined ODST as something we would spend a year (give or take) of our lives making -- and making great. It’s really hard to imagine what the game would have been like as a true, “Halo 4” release; the technology would be so fundamentally different. More resources (i.e., artists and engineers) would have allowed us to create more unique geometry for the nighttime city, add matchmaking to Firefight etc. But more time would really only have allowed us to add more polish to what was already a really polished experience, all things considered.
G4: As a developer of AAA, multi-year video games, what is your biggest takeaway from creating something like ODST?
LB: Making a brand-new campaign with an existing engine in a short time frame is possible, but damn is it a lot of work, especially when you're dealing with something like Halo. Also trying to make a huge overworld city in the Halo 3 engine was a monumental task.
JS: Bungie has always put a premium on technical innovation, but ODST was a really valuable lesson in technical stability. With Halo 3’s battle-tested but flexible code, we sure got a ton of quality work done in not a lot of time.
G4: Based on the experience, would you recommend it to other studios?
LB: I don't know that I would personally recommend it though there were really cool aspects of it. For example, it was great to have a small team working together on a project for a short amount of time, with existing tools and engine. But our ambitions always grow over the course of a game. We were our own worst enemies, because the scope grew, and we signed ourselves up to do more than originally planned. That meant a lot of long days/nights.
G4: Even today, some fans are still bitter about the price point. If you could have introduced this game to the public all over again, what would you have done differently?
LB: I'm no PR expert, but it's pretty obvious the game had a series of stumbles; from the naming, to the initial E3 2008 countdown reveal failure, and finally pricing. It would definitely be nice to have a do-over for the game introduction.
CC: Price point isn’t something we have control over. That’s ultimately a publisher decision. I think Bungie was always talking about ODST as exactly what it was, a new twist on a Halo campaign experience with a new hero, built off the Halo 3 engine, a new cooperative game mode, and we were going to throw in extras we thought people would enjoy into the package (Reach beta, all Halo 3 MP maps).
BJ: If anything the big takeaway for us is just to never comment on matters that are outside of our control. While it’s true that we did come out of the gate talking about the initial smaller vision for the project, which really did vastly grow in scope during development, we never should’ve gone so far as to equate that to a prediction of final price point. As Curtis points out, that’s just not something we would ever have control over. That said, we all feel that we ended up cramming an awful lot of content into the ODST box and it’s still a great value for Halo fans but unfortunately some people just never let go of the perception that it should’ve been cheaper based on the initial expectation we set when the game was first announced.
G4: As both a Seattle developer and based on Halo 3: ODST's turnaround time, did you sympathize with the fan backlash to Valve's decision to produce Left 4 Dead 2 in a single year? How soon is "too soon" for a follow-up…does the audience need time to breathe with the current game?
LB: Yeah, of course we sympathize. It's great to have fans, no doubt, but when they turn on you...whew, it's not pretty. Honestly, I don't know how soon "too soon" is. I mean, if you look at sales numbers you can argue both ways. Some games come out with a yearly offering and sell huge amounts, and others not so much. I think you do have to be careful with burnout though. I've seen many a franchise eventually get stale and completely tank after doing yearly offerings for too long.
G4: Was there ever any consideration made for releasing the game as a cheaper downloadable expansion for fans who had already purchased all the map packs?
CC: No, we never discussed that as an option. Though ODST was built from the Halo 3 engine, there were enough changes made to the engine that we could not have released it as an expansion in the way that you might equate with a PC game expansion pack. The ODST executable is not compatible with Halo 3.
G4: Have any plans changed to produce any downloadable content? Could we see any single-player expansion? New missions in New Mombasa?
LB: There are no current plans for any ODST DLC. The Bungie team is full steam ahead on Reach with a lot of work between now and the multiplayer beta and then final release next fall.
G4: Has the positive reaction to Firefight solidified its appearance in future Bungie games?
LB: Well, it was pretty well received, which we're happy about. Will Firefight return in a future Bungie Halo game? Only time will tell.
G4: Has the focused development of ODST affected Bungie's approach to game development in the future? Has it had a tangible impact on Halo: Reach?
LB: I think ODST has affected Reach, and not only because there are people that have worked on both. In terms of development practices, I can already see some influences that crept over to Reach.
G4: What is the structure teased in the "Legendary" ending? Is that The Ark?
JS: I can neither confirm nor deny that it’s a tunnel the Prophet of Truth uses to enter the Artifact -- the massive device in Halo 3 that opens a portal to the Ark.
G4: Are there any hidden Easter eggs that readers still haven't found that you want to spoil here -- or at least point everyone in the right direction?
JS: Players recently found the last big one -- and egg that changes a certain piece of music our Composer, Marty O’Donnell, likes to hide in every Halo game into something much more…danceable. But there are always smaller treats to find. Folks looking forward to Halo: Reach would be wise to pay particular attention to the license plates on New Mombasa’s “Genet” coupes…
G4: What about ODST are you most proud of?
LB: I'm most proud of Firefight. It was something we had been wanting to do for a long time, and we finally carved out the time to do it on ODST. I'm really happy with the game overall, but that is the highlight for me.
JS: The story structure, specifically the way we were able to flash-back to multiple perspectives to both streamline and deepen the experience, as well as Sadie’s story. I’ve wanted to explore the civilian side of the war for a long time, and I’m really glad we were able to do that in ODST.
CC: I’m the most proud of the way the team rallied together to take on a big project in a short amount of time, and the way the story and gameplay were changed up to make a more comprehensive and fun experience. Firefight was a blast.
G4: Have we seen the last of the ODSTs?
JS: I can’t comment on any future plans for our ODSTs. But it would be a shame if we made a game about the planet Reach -- a place where Buck, the ODST’s squad leader, was known to be -- and not have him appear in some way shape or form…