Is Halo Reach the biggest game of the year? Looking at everything in it - campaign, co-op, multiplayer, Firefight, Forge, theatre and file sharing - it may well be the biggest in terms of content. Join me and Reach's executive producer to talk through it all.
I recently had the chance to chat with Bungie's Joseph Tung, executive producer on Reach and, before that, multiplayer producer on Halo 3. He knows a lot about Halo. Below is pretty much word for word what transpired over the course of our 37 minute interview.
How much Halo Reach have you been playing each day? During production I would play about an hour a day, some campaign, some multiplayer, mess around in Firefight, mess around in Forge. I would try to play as much of the game as possible as often as possible. We always have our daily multiplayer playtest in the office and those are a great way to stay on top of what’s going on and what’s going into the game everyday. So I play quite a bit, probably more than most people on the team.
Do you have any preferences for certain modes? I’m definitely one of the hardcore multiplayer guys on the team. I love four-on-four team slayer with “DMR starts”. But I’ve been playing quite a lot of campaign on Reach. The entire team is super proud of campaign; I think it’s one of our best campaigns yet and so I certainly did my fair share of campaign play throughout production.
Tell me what you like about 4-on-4. It’s sheer Halo multiplayer at its most distilled, especially when you’ve got a good team of four. It’s my favourite mode. It’s the pure chess game of Halo multiplayer and that’s what I love about it.
You’ve got that competitive and co-operative aspect to it. Absolutely, yeah.
Have you got a least favourite mode? You know, that’s like asking which of your kids do you think is ugly.
One of them is always ugliest. [Laughs]You know, I actually love all the modes in the game. I didn’t have the patience in Halo 3 to work in Forge because there were aspects that were difficult. In Reach, even I can go into Forge and throw a map together really quickly and easily; it’s super-engaging, it’s much more fun to use Forge in Reach.
I know you guys track a lot of stats when people play online. Are there any modes that you see get a bit of a bad rap or they get ignored and you’re like, why don’t you guys play this, it’s awesome! Hmm... I actually think the community tends to have a pretty good taste for what’s working well, what’s not working well. We have a good grasp based on the stats that we track of what the most popular modes are and what’s more niche.
What’s great about Halo is that we have such a breadth of experience that even for the game types that may be more niche that there’s room for that in the Halo community. In fact there’s probably some subset of people in the community who are really passionate about that niche. So I guess I don’t feel there’s anything that the community didn’t get...
It’ll be very interesting to see how Invasion takes hold. I think it’s a really interesting game and hopefully anyone who loved Big Team Battle will embrace Invasion.
So you don’t get frustrated when you’re playing Halo 3 online and... oh great, it’s Slayer again? No, that doesn’t frustrate me at all that there’s this huge portion of the community that is wanting to play Slayer. It’s totally the bread and butter, and I don’t hold that against them by any means. I’ll probably be in there myself quite a bit. And I think the really cool thing about Reach is that even for that hardcore, bread and butter experience of Team Slayer with something like Arena we’ve really changed it up a bit.
I don’t know if you got to play the beta at all, but with Arena it’s this really interesting wrapper around the basic 4-on-4 Team Slayer experience that motivates you to play, you know, three times a day and get a daily rating; play three more days to get a season rating and really track your stats on an ongoing basis. It’s not just, “Get to level 50” and then you’re done. So even with stuff like that I think it’s going to be cool and interesting for players.
It’s important to have that rolling persistence rather than there being a defined end for multiplayer. Yep, that’s absolutely the tack we took for Reach and that’s really the whole philosophy behind Arena.
This is the fifth Halo and the fifth to have multiplayer. What was the new goal this time around for the multiplayer in Reach? I think our goal is always, in the broadest possible terms, to keep what’s great and what’s magical about Halo multiplayer, and push it as far as you can without breaking what’s there. And that’s true for Reach as well. It’s a balancing act, you know, you decrement the number of bullets in the assault rifle by one and there’s one player out there who thought that that was the most important thing about the assault rifle.
So it’s always a real challenge for us, and I think that this time around we’ve pushed it pretty far. I mean, armour abilities absolutely change the game; load-outs change the game; Invasion is an extremely ambitious game mode that’s very different to anything we attempted in Halo 3; and then there’s all the crazy options we threw into Firefight this time around.
So the goal was about adding more variety and more choices for the player? I think we just had so many different goals when it came to different areas of the game. With competitive multiplayer, for example, Invasion was one of the things that we started working on right away; we said, let’s make a brand new mode for people that is wrapped in the fiction, that let’s you play Spartans versus Elites.
With armour abilities we definitely wanted to take what equipment had done [in Halo 3]and make it much more meaningful, a real commitment that you make in the game. I guess it’s sort of hard for me to talk about macro goals because each system had some real design intent behind it.
Well, let’s focus on the armour abilities then. How do you see them as being different to the way we think about classes in other shooters? It’s sort of somewhere between equipment in Halo 3 and classes in other games. Like I said, we wanted to make it more meaningful and make it a choice that you stick with and has more long-term impact, as opposed to Halo 3 where you used the equipment and it was gone. At the same time, we didn’t want to make a class-based game. So in Reach you have the ability to switch between load-outs once you die.
Why didn’t you want to make a class-based game? I think because with Halo, especially Halo multiplayer, there are a few things the team believes are core and sacred... just like everybody else in the world has their things that they believe are sacred.
But your things are more important. Right [laughs]exactly. Choice is one of those things. We don’t want to lock you into the sniper for the entire round if you don’t want to play as the sniper for the entire round. So choice is one of those things and the ability to change load-outs is part of that.
So armour abilities don’t define your role, they simply supplement it? Absolutely. But certainly there are guys at Bungie who the armour abilities do give an opportunity to play a different role in a multiplayer game than they’ve been able to do in the past. Because they’re not the best sniper, they’re not the best headshot guy with the DMR, but now they can pick the load-out with drop shield and they can sort of function as a medic for the team.
We saw that happening a lot in the studio. It’s sort of more of a lightweight role that still allows you to change if you want, or to adapt to certain situations - you know, in a particular CTF map, you might start out wanting the jet pack and then on defence you might want to switch to armour lock, for example.
Broader question now: How do you think multiplayer has changed since Combat Evolved? Wow, that is a broad question! You mean multiplayer in Halo or multiplayer in the industry?
Let’s talk about both. Well, I know for sure that kids have gotten a lot better or I’ve gotten a lot worse. You know, I find it hard to speak for the industry as a whole. As far as Halo is concerned, I think there’s something that hasn’t changed, it’s that magic something about Halo multiplayer at its best that’s just a fantastic experience. Like playing with three of your buddies against four other guys, and it’s so evenly balanced it really is just a chess match. That’s the thing we strive to preserve.
At the same time, sure, we’ve had to add a lot more to the experience to keep it fresh for people, to keep things new - armour abilities are that, Invasion is that. We definitely want to make the experience broader. And that’s true of the game as a whole. It’s the first time we’ve ever put a campaign, fourplayer co-op, multiplayer with all of the new modes and all of the new systems, Firefight, Forge and all the crazy new stuff in Forge, saved films, Theatre mode, player customisation... this is the first time we’ve had that many features in a game all at the same time.
The thing that I love about that is it doesn’t even matter what type of gamer you are or what type of mood you’re in, there’s something that’s interesting to you. Like if you’re feeling hardcore, play Arena; if you want to play multiplayer but not that hardcore, play Invasion; if you just want to have a few beers and play with friends, hop into Firefight; if you want to create something, jump into Forge. It’s an incredible breadth of experience and something that I’m pretty proud of.
Obviously you must be proud of just how popular Halo is. But there’s a game out there that’s now more popular on Xbox Live. Do you guys look at that game and think, “How do compete? How do we beat them next time?”
We certainly aren’t blind to what’s going on in the community and what’s going on in the market. At the same time we absolutely do not look at that game and go, well, what do we need to do to be like that game. I think the bar we really hold ourselves to are our previous games and the audience we seek to make happy is the studio.
We’re really quite self-critical internally. It’s much less about, hey, we need to have these ten features because title X has these features; it’s much more about, do we really think the game is fun yet? Are we going to be proud of this game? Are we going to enjoy playing this game? Honestly those are the questions that drive Bungie internally.
But you look at what happened with Infinity Ward and think “Yes! We’ll get them next time!” [Laughs]No, no... actually I think it was unfortunate to see that happen.
Something my readers always want to know about is matchmaking. Halo’s always sold well here so we’ve tended to not have problems, despite our small population base, of getting lag-free games. But I was wondering if you’ve done anything different for matchmaking in Reach? We’ve absolutely overhauled the entire networking layer, so the online multiplayer experience in general should be significantly better than in Halo 3. We’ve massively optimised that network so that games of a particular size that may have felt laggy in Halo 3 should now be very smooth in Reach. On top of that we certainly used the beta as a testing ground for that code, and paid a lot of attention to the international experience, as we always do.
Can you comment on what you noticed with Australia, specifically? I don’t have that answer right now, but I can certainly get that for you from the networking team. I’ll certainly ask. You know, the international experience is definitely on our mind when we do something like the beta and when we look at something like the network code.
We’ve also got things like online matchmaking preferences so you can set your preferences for connection speed, language, locale, as well as player types that you want to match against - you know, are they super-competitive, chatty, team-based. Every time you use one of these it will definitely slow down your matchmaking experience, so there’s a trade-off. But we want people to be able to match based on much more flexible criteria than we had before.
Since we’re running short on time, I just wanted to jump ahead to Firefight. I loved it in ODST, so I’m wondering what you’ve added to it for Reach? Well, thank you. First of all, we’re supporting matchmaking. That was one feature I think the fans were looking to see, so that’s in.
Secondly, we’ve got a bunch of new game types [he’s scrolling down the list on-screen]Firefight with load-outs integrated... Firefight Classic just like ODST... Generator Defence, which is actually a really unique game mode where the AI will attack a generator instead of you as the player, it’s really a lot of fun... Gruntpocalypse, which is really there to prove a point, I think, that our options are so flexible that if you want to play a round that’s all grunts, all the time, and they all have fuel rods and their heads all explode, it’s right there.
There’s also Rocketfight, Sniperfight... Score Attack is an interesting new mode where it’s tracking you online and you’re trying to beat your friend’s best score. And also Versus mode where you can play Firefight as Spartans versus Elites.
The last thing we’re doing with Firefight is with the options system. It’s very hard to understand just how powerful it is unless you’re looking at the UI yourself. But if you want to change the properties of a round, you can change the skulls, you can change the wave make-up, you can change whether or not they use dropships, you can change the boss wave, you can change player properties, you can customise load-outs... If you want you can go into Firefight with a load-out that’s just invisibility and swords. It’s pretty crazy. And again we’re really excited to see just what the community does with this system.
And all that is able to be shared? Yep, just like everything in Reach, you can upload it to your file share space. If you play a custom mode with friends then they will automatically have it. It gets saved to a temporary history and then they can just save it to their box.
So that applies to multiplayer and Forge as well. If you come up with a really cool Forge variant and it takes off in the community, we’ll know. And we’ll be looking at those and, hopefully, at least our hope is that some of those fan variants are great enough that they’ll get put into matchmaking. It’s a pretty exciting little eco-system change.
Bungie made two Halos for the original Xbox. Now, Reach is the third Halo for the Xbox 360. How much does that extra time with the hardware help you to get more out of it? Oh, hugely. Halo 3 came out sort of near the beginning of the platform lifecycle, and obviously Reach is much further along, and that extra time means our artists know how to get more out of the content they create. Our engineers have a much better sense of where they can push the platform. And of course, it’s also tied to the resources you have to make a project.
With Reach I think we were fortunate to have a full three years to make the game. With that amount of resources, we were able to do things like tear down the engine and rebuild it from the ground up. The graphical engine, I think, you could call it a brand new engine. The animation system has been totally torn down and rebuilt. Like I said earlier, the networking has had a total overhaul. So in many ways this is a brand new engine.
What can you point to, specifically, and say, “I did not think that was possible” when you were making Halo 3? There’s a whole shitload of things I could point to. In fact, there are things in Reach that I didn’t think would be possible in Reach! The most obvious one is Forge World, which is this dedicated Forge environment, this total blank canvas for users. It originally started out as five separate spaces, again all tailored for Forge. The artist, Steve Cotton, at the time, as he was working on the plan, quickly realised that he wanted to combine them into one large space.
It was one of those things at Bungie where everyone was telling Steve, “You’re insane, this’ll never work, we can’t build an environment like this!” But as soon as we saw it, we knew we needed to ship it - the promise was too great.
So it was simply the sheer scale of the environment that made you think “No, we can’t do this”? Yes.
Did you have to make any compromises to get it working? Sure, I mean, you’re not going to see super, insane, detailed hallways in Forge World, for example. [Tung takes me on a fly-through of Forge World to demonstrate just how enormous it actually is.] A view like this would not have been possible in Halo 3. And it’s only possible in Reach thanks to the Imposter system, our dynamic LOD (level of detail) system that’s brand new for Reach.
This entire space is playable... by the way, beyond that cliff there is Blood Gulch. So this is a giant play space. I could be over here, while you’re over there in Blood Gulch and we both could be Forging simultaneously.
Are there areas of this scale in the campaign? Hmm, I don’t think... I mean, there are definitely some of the biggest environments we’ve ever made in campaign. It was very much one of our design pillars to go back to the big, wide open environments and long draw distances [of the first Halo] . Yeah, I would say there is some stuff of this scale in campaign...
I was wondering, once you realised you could do this in Forge, whether you went back and thought, “Why aren’t we doing this in the campaign?” Well, like I said, the trade-off is detail. You can only do a space this big if you are extremely judicious about your art budget. In campaign, it’s all about making it as beautiful as possible, so it’s a hard proposition. But I would say there are some spaces in campaign that do get to this point.
So, finally, since we really are running out of time now, one question on the campaign... ODST was the first Halo without Master Chief and, to me, that signalled a shift in mood. It was a lot more intimate, more sombre and understated, particularly during the city hub area, and less chest-beating and heroic than previous Halos. So, with Reach again without Master Chief, what sort of mood or tone are you going for? Well, one of the mantras of the team has been “If you know the beginning, you know the end,” right? If you’ve followed the fiction at all, you know it’s like Reach makes it in the end. So we definitely knew from the beginning that it was going to have to be a darker campaign.
It’s a challenge to do a game with Spartans and not have Master Chief, so we immediately set out to make Noble Team real, believable characters. We decided we wanted to tell a story that was “more boots on the ground” than the galactic space opera of Halo 3. So that drove investments in making Noble Team more believable as human beings.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ll notice large investments in the quality of the faces, in the facial animation, player locomotion... all of that comes from this desire to make this team of Spartans truly believable characters. They have a history, they’ve got a lot of backstory, and you’re on the ground with them.
If they’re more real people and less like some sort of faceless superhero, how does that change the way you want to present and pace the combat? We definitely wanted to have a different pace for the campaign. You’ll see that campaign opens really slowly. It’s got a very slow build-up and that’s absolutely intentional. It’s meant to give you a sense of the planet, a sense of the mood, of the tone, before throwing you right into combat.
And that doesn’t only apply to the first mission, it applies to the whole campaign. There’s a very deliberate pacing to the whole campaign.
Sounds a bit like ODST’s campaign. I think I’m probably one of the few people who really enjoyed ODST’s campaign because it had that varied pacing. Well, I hope you’ll like Reach because the pacing is really well done. There are these big tentpole moments and more quiet missions and just generally some really stand-out missions. I’m super proud of it.
Thanks for your time, Joseph.