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AusGamers Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Developer Interview
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 04:56pm 11/10/11 | Comments
AusGamers talks to 343 Industries about Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary and the Halo franchise in general

Watch the full video interview embedded above, or click here for the HD option

AusGamers: Ladies and gents, welcome back to AusGamers. You’re here with Stephen Farrelly and I’m here with Frank and Chad from 343 Industries, who have taken on the epic mantle of the Halo series from Bungie.

We’ve just run through Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, coming out November 15 -- day and date the same... ten years to the day that the original Halo actually came out.

There’s a lot to talk about and you guys have shown us a lot of stuff that I didn’t know was coming, but one of the first things I want to do -- and you touched on this in our demo -- is the whole bubble aspect, in that you kind of learnt that now that the series is ten years on and there’s all this expanded lore that you can run a little more with planning ahead for the future.

I guess one of the things that I want to know is -- at 343 -- a) is there a single entity that knows every single little branch of the entire Universe that’s been created so far? And the complexity of that -- with Star Wars stuff for example, the cannon is so complex that you have to be crazy to even understand it -- so how do you guys make sure that it doesn’t go over the top? And how do you rein it in without having that bubble that you were talking about earlier?

Frank O’Connor: So your question was is there a single entity? The real answer is no, it’s supposed to be me, but I can’t remember everything. It’s not like I know all the dates and specs and weights of the starships. We have a story bible, where we just record all of this, but we also have a fairly big franchise department.

I have two or three guys who’s job it is just to work on the fiction of the franchise. And you’re right, it is a big Universe. Your other point is that we try not to make stories that end anymore. We made a decision about two years ago, that every story we made from now is going to matter and have some connections and have some real resonance in the Universe.

So if you’re watching one of the terminals in Halo Anniversary or you’re reading one of the books or one of the comics in the next few years, they’re all going to have a meaning. That doesn’t mean you have to buy a novel to understand the game -- in fact we want to make absolutely sure that all of the stories are self contained; that they are fun to understand with or without the deeper resonances and connections -- but if you invest in the Universe, you will get a pretty good return on that investment.

AusGamers: Obviously the studio was put together to take on the Halo franchise and Halo 4 is your first tackle at it from an original perspective. Do you guys look at this [Halo: CE Anniversary] like a teething ground? What’s the philosophy internally? Where does all the talent come from? How big is the team? Give us that whole picture.

Chad Armstrong: Well back at home we have over 200 people at this point, working hard on Halo 4. So with Anniversary, we’re actually working with a couple of our very talented partners: Saber Interactive and Certain Affinity and we actually have a much smaller team -- just the publishing group actually, and a bit of franchise as well -- focused on the Anniversary effort.

So really, while I think the rest of the world should certainly see this as our first personal release from our hearts, our majority focus at 343 studios is with Halo 4.

AusGamers: How have you guys managed to steer clear of franchise fatigue? Because there are a lot of games out there now that really do pump through a kind of conveyor-belt type of development. And Halo feels like it could have been that, because it was, and is, as popular as ever.

But obviously Bungie kind of always have that mentality as well, but Microsoft being the powers that they are... was that always a controlled thing, from a development perspective?

Frank: More or less. I mean, you have to remember that Bungie was part of Microsoft for this whole ten year period. It was the name of the studio, but we were in a Microsoft building with Microsoft paying our cheques and so on.

The cool thing about Microsoft period -- whether it’s Bungie or 343 or Turn 10 or whoever -- they just respect what we do and what we think is best for the Universe. So I don’t ever have executives from Microsoft ordering us to do certain things or build certain products.

As for franchise fatigue, I think that people get bored of things when things get boring. If you look at a game... honestly, look at Super Mario Bros., there are literally more than a hundred different Mario skews -- videogame skews -- out there, and people aren’t bored of that.

So if these products keep bringing something fresh and keep bringing something new... you know, Halo’s got five or six games total, we’re not at a hundred game level yet. The real question is “Can you make a hundred games that people will continue to enjoy?” and if you can, then you aren’t going to get franchise fatigue.

We don’t plan to make a hundred games [laughs], but we always plan to make sure that we’re innovating and that we’re putting fresh story in and that we’re putting something new in there and that’s how you avoid franchise fatigue. I think if you start making boring stuff, people are going to get bored and that’s what you have to avoid.

Chad: I completely agree. Even in the way Bungie or 343 view Halo as a franchise or each individual project, there’s no such thing as phoning it in for us. We’re not simply like “you know, we’ve got seven different Halo titles out now, we don’t really have to think about it because people will buy anything with the name Halo on it”. No, every project, from the beginning up to the end, is something that people bleed for really.

We work really hard and do everything we can to make sure that quality comes first. Our primary goal is to continue to make great games. The fact that they’re all in one franchise just makes some things easier and some things more difficult, but they’re just more challenges that we try to overcome.

AusGamers: Now obviously we’re here to talk about Halo CE and you probably can’t mention anything Halo 4-related, but just from a development perspective and to touch on what we just talked about: are you guys... is there a particular cadence that you have to follow in order for the franchise to remain palatable to the fans and the people that know the series. Or can we see something as simple as iron sights being added to the next iteration? Which is a more modern shooter thing to do.

Or is that kind of like a “no, we have to maintain this, the reticule is the way forward”?

Frank: I think the question’s more complicated... I was actually just thinking about this this morning: how long does it take -- with 200 people -- to make a triple-A FPS? And in our case, it’s about three years -- that’s the cadence. But then you think “Why is it only 200 people?”, that’s because if it’s 500 people it’s going to become less of a family and less of an organic engagement.

So I think that’s our natural cadence. With regards to something like iron-sights, that’s something that’s... for starters, I get what you mean about it being a modern FPS thing, but it’s actually specific to one or two games and there’s been iron-sights in games for more than ten years. I remember playing older PC FPS’ with that.

So it’s really “What is appropriate for your game, and what is appropriate for your encounters?”. Halo has these slightly longer, more strategic encounters. I think if I was playing Call of Duty for example, and a good player got the drop on me -- came up behind me -- I’m dead. There’s nothing I can do about it, not a chance.

Halo has a different pace in encounters and if a good player comes up behind me and starts shooting, I’ve got a small chance of turning that encounter around. I’ll probably still get killed because I’m pretty bad, but it does have a different pace and it does have a bigger sandbox and I think that’s what makes Halo Halo.

I think we could add iron-sights and we could make the encounters shorter and all of that stuff, but the soul of what makes Halo and the soul of what keeps people coming back to it year after year is what’s at its heart and it’s that kind of encounter and that kind of sandbox experience and the sci-fi Universe that it exists in.

Chad: When you think about aiming down sights or iron-sights, you’re kind of talking about a bullet-point on a list of design features and that in and of itself is fine, but you kind of want to think about the entire experience: “What is an entire encounter like?”. With Halo, you tend to get recognisable pacing and something like iron-sights can have a dramatic affect on what that pacing is.

So if we took something like iron-sights and just said “alright, now Halo has iron-sights” that would be a pretty dramatic change and whether or not that would be for better or for worse would require a lot of testing and a lot of user-research to figure out.

But at the same time, it’s good to take a step back from what you’re working on; look at it with fresh eyes, as fresh as you can get -- especially if you’ve been working on something for two or three years -- and try to see if in the future if we wanted to experiment with something like that: What other things would we need to adjust to keep the encounters cohesive and coherent?

AusGamers: Alright, now I think I’ve got time for one last question and this one’s quite relative to Australia. For Gears of War 3, the guys at Epic and at Microsoft have made a decision to introduce dedicated servers for multiplayer, which is really good for us -- especially in the console space -- because peer-to-peer... if we get connected to American players and we’re on two little red bars, latency is a real issue for us.

Can you guys see yourselves doing that? Because you are spending a fair bit of time making sure multiplayer is as robust and as rewarding as ever. So I’d love to know your perspective on that.

Frank: First off, a third-person game has different latency problems than a first-person game and that’s not to dismiss the question. Right now, it’s not something we’re announcing or planning, but it’s not something that we sort of philosophically object to.

We’re trying to make peer-to-peer experiences as fun and smooth and latency and lag free as possible and that’s always going to be our main focus because right now that’s how most Xbox Live games work and certainly how Halo works.

But dedicated servers in the future? Who knows? There’s definitely some advantages to it, but there’s some disadvantages when you start thinking about really large populations. But I absolutely get what you’re saying, when you’re in a fairly isolated place. Even Hawaiian players in the US suffer from this, but we try to make sure our matchmaking, for example, uses geography to match people more appropriately.

AusGamers: Which is really important, because a lot of other games do that, but it [dedicated servers] just would help that little bit more.

Frank: It’s not something that we’re going to exclude for philosophical reasons, but it’s not something that we’re talking about right now.

Chad: I would say probably one of the most common pieces of criticism that we get about the concepts of matchmaking is the fact that it’s peer-to-peer and people are left with a slower connection when they’re trying to connect to others -- particularly if you’re from a country that might be farther away from where the majority is. Obviously the majority of Halo players are in North America, so you’re most likely to connect to North American players. We’ve certainly taken that in and are considering for the future, how best to handle that.

Frank: One of the funny things about server discussions though, is that people have very strange memories about what their server-list experiences are. Because my server-list experiences aren’t going to a wonderland of stability and happiness when I go onto a server -- sometimes it’s kind of a crap-shoot.

We’ve all had that experience where you go onto a server and are automatically kicked for a reason that you will never know.

Chad: Matchmaking was born specifically from this... if you’re a new user -- which was certainly the case for console players in first-person shooters on the Internet; it was kind of a new thing when Halo 2 came out. You think about what the server experience can be and you might find a server that only plays one map and one game-type so there’s no variety.

Or you might find yourself -- over time -- “well, I’m trying to find the one that has 15 of 16 players, so I know I’m going to get a full game”. Or you’re going to find one that says “team slayer” and it’s actually everybody starts with rockets...

Frank: But that’s ok! [laughs]

Chad: Well of course it’s going to be your favourite thing. But, the idea behind matchmaking was to streamline that and make the process of finding a game as simple as possible. But it certainly ends up having it’s own caveats, particularly once you get to power-users, who know exactly what they want and they don’t necessarily want to mingle with a user that wants to play team rockets.

So the melting pot kind of breaks down at that level and really, I think that it is something that can be solved, we just have to figure out the best way to solve it.

AusGamers: Alright guys, we’ll have to leave it there because I think some people are knocking on the door wanting to get in here, but thank you so much. November 15 guys. Frank, Chad, thanks so much for your time.

Frank: Thank you

Chad: Thank you very much

AusGamers: Cheers.
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