Interview: Bungie on Halo 2
18th Sep 2003 | 20:11
While the rest of Europe's gaming press danced across the South of France sand to an X03 beat, we sat down with Bungie's studio manager Pete Parsons to talk Halo 2. Since the amazing E3 showcase, Microsoft and Bungie have played cards extremely close to chests, preferring to beaver away at the title in private, ahead of its intended release next April.
The X03 press conference played host to a brand new "Making of..." piece on Bungie's massive FPS, featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes insight, although disappointingly there was scarcely any new footage aside from the E3 material, and certainly nothing of great significance.
So why no new footage? And why wasn't the game playable? And what does Bungie think of Half-Life 2? And why won't they just tell us something new, goddammit? All this and more is revealed in our lengthy chat with Pete Parsons:
Presumably you're aware of the amusing speculation on the Internet suggesting Halo 2 is finished, and that you're holding back on it to help drive Xbox Live renewals. Thoughts?
Parsons: [Laughs] I thought it was funny. I guess it's always great to see that fans care a lot about Halo 2. Firstly, it's not true - we're working on Halo 2 on both single-player and multiplayer. I suspect this came out of Halo PC having gone Gold; it's miscommunication or rapid-fire speculation.
So what is left to do? What are the key areas you're working on right now?
Parsons: Exactly what I think fans would want us to be working on. We know the story we want to tell - we've known for a long time - the technology is where we wanted it to be, and the team's in full production. There's tonnes of work left to do, create, design, put sound to... But in terms of basic building blocks, that's all been done.
I play every night; people see us on the webcam playing multiplayer. It's just that long process of putting all the pieces together and making sure its fun.
Can you tell us anything more about the storyline?
Parsons: I wish I could but I can't. We've probably said about all we're going to say - at least for a long time. Other than that, if you haven't realised already, the story is really important. We thought a lot, all the way through the process, about how whatever you do has an impact on the story.
Do you foresee there being a two year gap between the Xbox version of Halo 2 and the PC version?
Parsons: I really don't have an answer for you. The reason for that is we haven't really thought about it yet. Mainly because both sides need a lot of work. Even though Gearbox did Halo PC, it required a lot of work from our side. The thing we're focused on right now is making Halo 2 a glorious successor to Halo and once that's done we'll think about what to do next.
Whether that's working on PC or working on the next game, I don't really have an answer for you. Which is probably the answer you ultimately want to hear, that the team's thinking nothing more than getting a great game done for Xbox.
Do you think you'll be working on another Halo game after this?
Parsons: Who knows? Bungie has lots of stories and, yes, I think the entire team loves Halo so who knows? Once again, we're singularly focused on Halo 2.
What about downloadable content?
Parsons: Downloadable content is possible, but we've nothing to announce on that. I think downloadable content would be cool, but that's about all I can say. I think the entire team loves Xbox Live and what's possible.
The most important thing is to make sure the single-player experience and story is fun and the multiplayer is really cool. After that, we'll see what the right thing to do is. But downloadable content is great; I love it and I'd love for us to do it.
Would it be an option for stuff that maybe doesn't make the final cut but would make a cool downloadable extra?
Parsons: We're getting everything into Halo 2 we want to. Every game developer makes trade-offs, but there's nothing like that we would need to do with downloadable content for Halo 2. There'll be nothing left undone. If there is any downloadable content, it'll be cool new stuff we want to do.
When Halo was nearing completion, there was another project you were working on. Has that been permanently side-lined in favour of Halo 2 or is there another project in development?
Parsons: All I can say is we're just 100 percent focused on Halo 2. No news on what's next.
So the game that was in development prior to Halo 2 is no longer in development?
Parsons: We always explore a lot of ideas and that was an idea that didn't work out. There are two teams at Bungie. One team focused on one game and one focused on our community - that's what we spend our time doing. We'll see what happens after we're done with Halo 2.
Are there any new details you can give us today?
Parsons: Unfortunately, probably not [laughs] I think no. I can tell you that every day I'm having a blast playing Halo 2; I think people will really enjoy it and it will do exactly what people want it to do, which is to tell a really good tale, to be great online and to not change a lot of what was great about Halo.
I think it's an ambitious game and there are certainly new things we've added, and things we haven't done before. We want to make sure that when you pick up the controller you think: "I'm back as the Master Chief!" That's something that's really important to us.
No new spicy details. In case you didn't see it, there was new footage. You also got to see the Prophet in the game for the first time.
Also, footage was shown from a level and you talked about the Forerunners in it. Can you elaborate?
Parsons: Er... [laughs] Sorry!
What are you general hopes for Halo 2?
Parsons: In short, hopefully it's a glorious successor to Halo. The thing that people know is that the Covenant has found Earth and it's under attack, and you are the only thing standing between the Covenant and the destruction of mankind. As we said in the video, we're going to take you on a galactic romp! [laughs]
What the earliest you think we'll be able to play Halo 2?
Parsons: This is sort of the same answer that I'll give for when it's going to come out, which is when it's ready. I think Bungie has already been good about getting as much for you as we can, when we can. I just don't know when that is.
Are you roughly on track for April?
Parsons: I think roughly. But, as I've said, the more direct answer is: when it's ready. That's what we all want.
What's been the major hold up?
Parsons: There have been no major hold-ups.
Didn't you want it out before Christmas originally?
Presumably Microsoft did... it was certainly on its schedule.
Parsons: I don't really know the answer to that. The main thing that Microsoft wanted and one of the reasons I liked about working with Ed Fries is he's like: "Make it great, and let us know when it's ready."
Has implementing the Live element been tricky?
Parsons: Implementing Live is not very hard. One of the great things about Live from a development perspective is that it's pretty easy to implement - certainly much easier than doing it on the PC side. What we want to do with Live makes it hard, but there's been no hold up with that.
It's just about taking a really big game and trying to figure out when you're getting it done is hard thing to do for any developer.
Why is it a hard thing for you?
Parsons: It is a huge game and we're trying to do an awful lot inside of that, whether it's telling a better story, making the visuals and AI better... Right after Halo was done the team started work on Halo 2.
We're in the position right now we want to be, which is full production. We're playing it every night, tweaking and tuning - but it's hard to tell when that end date is. All games that end up being really good are more about that rather than picking a point in time as to when to put it on shelves.
I think everyone here's played games that haven't been quite finished and it's that last 10 percent that really matters - we want to make sure that happens.
Have you cure the framerate issues Halo suffered from?
Parsons: I don't think we had a ton of framerate issues, but the answer to your question, I think, is that we know a lot more about how Xbox works now, which is why you can see the best expression of that is in the graphics, just because it's easy to notice.
With Halo we didn't know exactly what the box was going to be, so we were aiming at this moving target, whereas we now know exactly what it is. So the answer to your question is yes.
What does the team think are the weakest points of the original game?
Parsons: I don't think it's about weakest points, I think it's just stuff we'd like to make better. I don't think you'll find anyone on the team who will say: here's the bit that sucked in Halo.
But I guess one of the things would be making sure that all the environments we have are richer, more interesting, cooler, bigger - whatever that is. It's mostly about amplifying what was fun about it.
Halo was about making interesting choices: which weapon am I going to use and how am I going to use it. We're focusing on making it so that you get to make more interesting choices, and how those manifest themselves in the gameplay.
People like the idea of being able to carry two weapons. For us it's more about: how am I going to use those weapons in a way that forces me to make interesting choices. I love the fact I can hold a plasma rifle in one hand and a sub-machinegun in the other, and I can take an enemy's shield down with one and finish then off with the other.
We thread that new gameplay innovation into a dynamic that constantly keeps me thinking from moment to moment.
And it's still just two weapons at once?
Parsons: Yes, having two weapons is an important part of the game; it's not about having 47 different weapons of which I can carry 25. Having a new weapons conversation is always a hard one to have - it's easy to come up the weapons; it's hard to figure out how they manifest themselves in the game.
I get asked a lot about any new whizzy technology or innovation, and the answer is we've thought of a lot of innovations and new features - the hard part is figuring out which are the right ones to put into the game that serve to tell a better story, or to have a great online experience.
Post E3, the one FPS that everyone has been focusing on is Half-Life 2, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Has this in some way been a blessing for Bungie, taking the heat off to an extent? And also, what do you think of Half-Life 2 and has it had any effect on the development of Halo 2?
Parsons: No. Firstly, we all can't wait to play Half-Life 2 - the Valve guys are great and we're really excited about it. But we don't really think at all about what the competition is doing; we love looking at other great game developers and what they're doing but it doesn't necessarily impact itself on what we're doing.
Ultimately part of my job is ensuring the team doesn't focus on what's happening in the outside world, and that they focus on doing the best possible thing they can do. In terms of pressure, that just doesn't happen at all. The best pressure is the pressure the team has internally to achieve something and make something great.
In terms of taking the heat off with marketing and PR, it's not something I've really thought about.
How long will it take to play through Halo 2. Is it a far bigger experience that the original?
Parsons: Yes it is. But bigger doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be a 50 hour game. It's just bigger in every dimension. We're just trying to really flesh out a world that people already like.
Are you consciously planning to avoid the repetitiveness which arguable hampered a couple of the levels in Halo, like The Library, for instance?
Parsons: I liked the Library, but I think with Halo 2 we've simply had more time to do what we want to do. When you have more time, you have longer to craft more unique areas; I'm sure after Halo 2 ships you'll be asking us what we're doing next and how we're going to make it better.
How many players will you be supporting online?
Parsons: We haven't said yet. As many as possible! [laughs] The most important thing is to ensure the single-player experience is great.
Do you think it will be the Live killer app?
Parsons: I guess I hope so. But I think Live itself is the killer app; everyone on the team was surprised by how much people liked Halo multiplayer. What's exciting about that is being able to do that online. Live is not a bolt on to Halo; it's something we've been thinking about from the very beginning.
Have you had to make any compromises to ensure the experience is lag free?
Parsons: You always have to make compromises, but one of the great things about Live is that you have to make a lot less than you would with PC, because you have this broadband system that's not going to change. So you can spend your time ensuring the Live experience is really great.
From a bandwidth point of view it's more thinking about individual countries; and the rest of it's just how we can make it a great experience.
X03 is a huge event for Microsoft and a massive event in the European calendar, but we think in general people have been largely underwhelmed and disappointed by the lack of any significant announcements. Can you tell us something about Halo 2 we didn't know already?
Parsons: [laughs] Hmm... You know, probably not! I think we're doing exactly what we should be doing right now. At E3 I think we told people a lot more than they were expecting; we went in there wanting to show the world what this game was going to be like - and we did it with a real piece of the game.
It might be disappointing for you, but were just focusing on making the game really good.
When Halo was at E3 for the first time, it was clearly shown too early and received criticism as a result. Are you now wary of preview demonstrations as a result?
Parsons: No, I think it's more that every time we show it we want it to be great. That E3 was tough; we didn't know enough about Xbox and what it was to have a game on it.
It's hard to imagine a riskier scenario than saying: we're going to take a piece of the gameplay and do it over and over again 140 times during E3.
But in yesterday's video you said Halo's all about 30 core seconds of gameplay, so this should be easy to do?
Parsons: Yeah, we did it at E3. So now what we wanted to do was give you a little insight into the team. One of the questions I get is: tell us about the new features. What is most important to Bungie is telling a great story. But don't worry, there'll be plenty of stuff in the future and there's still a lot of time left.
How representative of actual gameplay is the E3 video.
Parsons: It was the game, although it was obviously created for demonstration purposes. It will look better in the final game; there's still tonnes of stuff we hadn't turned on. But it was representative of the gameplay.
Is this it now in terms of preview videos?
Parsons: I don't know the answer to that; that's a PR and marketing decision. We're just focusing on the game so they're going to let us know. But I'm sure their will be more opportunities for us to talk.
Xbox Live is the key addition this time, but it's a fact that the vast majority of people who buy Halo 2 will not be playing it online. How do you feel about that?
Parsons: We think that the most important thing is the single-player game. I think the reason people spend so much time carrying their Xbox to their friends' houses to play multiplayer is that they invested in the universe up front.
They like the Chief, they like playing as the Chief - all things grow out of the great story we have to tell. I think Live is going to be great.
There's a single-player team and a multiplayer team and they've both been working on their projects since the day Halo shipped.
Is there a definite 'end' to Halo's story, or is it a universe you can continue adding to as often as you like?
Parsons: I don't really know. We have a great sense of what this universe is. The team has spent a lot of time thinking about what the universe is like and what role Master Chief and the others play. If you've read the books you know that the universe begins several hundred years before Halo takes place and it extends long beyond that.
If you spend the time crafting and understanding the universe, it gives you the freedom to pick out great points. But that's no allusion to any sequels.