When I met with Bungie producer Curtis Creamer last week, I asked him what happened between the announcement of a Halo 3 expansion to the eventual (imminent) release of Halo 3: ODST as a fully-fledged standalone game.
Creamer told me that from the outset his team wanted to create an expansion to the Halo universe. They'd set themselves a deadline of one year, but they didn't know exactly what they could get done within that timeframe. At the very least they wanted to deliver an expansion pack worth of solo/co-op campaign content.
"But as we went along we got a better understanding of how much content we could create this way," Creamer says. "Normally a Halo development cycle is three years compared to just a year here. But we weren't going to make any changes to the engine so we had a more stable platform to work from and we were able to create quite a bit more content than we originally thought we would. That's how the scope ended up changing from being an expansion to being a full game."
"The name change happened when we were looking at Recon and thinking it wasn't giving people a good idea or understanding of what the game was about," says Creamer. "We thought ODST would allow us to better get the main character out into everyone's mind, like 'Who's an ODST? Oh yeah they're those bad-ass special ops guys dropping out of the sky.'"
I can sort of see why [people might think Recon is a better name]in the sense that ODST can be a mouthful when you say it. It was a Bungie choice to get people to understand who the main character was. Microsoft was totally on board with it, they were absolutely involved in that discussion."
I told Creamer that I've found the whole name change thing quite confusing. I asked him why they kept the "3" in the title once they'd decided to make ODST a full-priced game. I suggested it made it sound more like the expansion pack it was originally intended to be.
Creamer explains it's about setting people's expectations. It makes it clear this isn't Halo 4, but rather a new game built on the Halo 3 engine. However, this doesn't mean ODST is simply reusing old tech; Bungie has made a bunch of modifications to the engine.
"We changed up some of the gameplay mechanics because you're now playing as an ODST, such as the visor mode," says Creamer. "We had to make AI changes so that the Covenant could operate in an intelligent way in the more open-ended environment of the main city. So we made changes to it, but we were never going to go back and rewrite the graphics engine or anything like that. We learned through this process that if we give our artists more time with a stable engine they can actually get quite a lot more out of it."
He's right. ODST looks better than Halo 3. Of course, it still looks like Halo 3, but you can see obvious improvements in the lighting and environmental detail, particularly during the night sequences (pictured above).
As for how much of a full game it is... ODST comes with a solo/co-op campaign that isn't quite as long as Halo 3's, all 21 existing Halo 3 multiplayer maps plus 3 new and exclusive ones, all the same Forge and Saved Film features of Halo 3, and a brand new co-operative multiplayer mode called Firefight that plays like a cross between Left 4 Dead and Gears of War 2's Horde mode.
How does that sound for just one year's work?