Bungie's Back - Part One
Brian Jarrard and Luke Smith on the expansion to the Halo trilogy, managing expectations and new IP
A few weeks ago Bungie released a teaser trailer for a new title on its website, and speculation immediately mounted as to what that would be.
At the Microsoft press conference during this year's Tokyo Game Show that title was revealed as Halo 3: Recon, a follow-up to the main Halo 3 game released last year.
GamesIndustry.biz sat down with Bungie's community and PR director Brian Jarrard and writer Luke Smith to find out more about what this game means for the company.
Q: What are the key details on the game?
Brain Jarrard: It'll be out next Fall, and essentially it's an all-new campaign experience based in the Halo 3 universe, but the big twist is that you're actually going to play from the perspective of an ODST (Orbital Shock Drop Trooper) this time - so it's not about Master Chief, it's a little bit of a new direction.
There's a lot of familiarity, it still feels very much like Halo 3, but it meant a lot to the guys on the team not to just do more of the same and just tack on more Master Chief - so instead this is more of a prequel. The timeline of this game overlaps events in Halo 2 and Halo 3, so you're picking up at a point in Halo 2.
It's not a full-fledged game, but there are eight hours of new campaign experience, and a couple of new twists and turns for fans to experience - but all the great stuff from Halo 3 will still be available, such as four-player co-op, all the website integration, it's all being piled on top of this, and then we're also going to throw in some new multiplayer content in there as well.
So it should really inject a lot of life back into Halo 3 and give fans what they've been asking for.
Q: There was a lot of discussion about how and when the game was going to be announced following the confusion at E3 this year - it must be nice to finally get it out there?
Luke Smith: The team's really pleased to be able to finally talk about it, that's the main thing. We ramped up pretty considerably to be ready to talk, and now that we finally can it's pretty exciting for the guys back home who are working on this project.
Q: Was it a bit of an anticlimax at E3 when you weren't able to make that announcement?
Brain Jarrard: A little bit - I think one of the biggest concerns was that the whole mythos of what happened at E3 started to spiral. It just really put more and more pressure on the inevitable announcement. We're very excited for what we have here, but we were afraid that just the backlash, the repercussions, the expectations would just go to such a huge level that no matter what we did show would never be able to live up to that.
Q: Ultimately though it's Halo, so the expectations were always going to be fairly high...
Brain Jarrard: Yeah - it's a continuation of more Halo 3. We're working on a reduced timeline here, it's a little smaller in scope. I think that a lot of fans are going to love it, and in our minds I think it's going to raise the bar for what people are going to expect from a traditional expansion pack if you will.
We're trying some new ideas here, some things that were left over from Halo 3 that we never fully explored, and like I said rather than just do more of the same, the guys took it as an opportunity to take some risks and give the fans what they've been wanting for a long time. Hopefully next Fall it'll all come together and be glorious.
But it's definitely going to be a little bit different from what people are used to.
Q: So does that make it a two-year development cycle then?
Brain Jarrard: Two years since the Halo 3 release.
Q: How long has the actual development cycle been?
Brain Jarrard: The game started just a little while ago in earnest, so it's nowhere near our typical three-year cycle. This is just a small subset of our team right now. We have three projects underway in the studio at all different levels of status - some further out than others.
But this is a really small, agile team that represents a lot of people that have been around for...
Luke Smith: ...a long time.
Brain Jarrard: Since Halo 1. The lead designer's Paul Bertone - he's been around since the early days, one of the designers on Halo: Combat Evolved, 2 and 3. Joseph Staten is the lead writer, the creative director of the project. He did cinematics and writing for 1 and 2. So there's a lot of old blood, and some new hires and new blood fused into it.
I'm really excited about what that team's going to pull together. They have a really nimble production process and this will be a first for us to put out something like this, in a much more streamlined fashion, and not have the full weight of the studio for three years cranking on it.
Q: Is it the best of both worlds to be able to work on something that's close to your heart, but also to be able to flex in other directions?
Brain Jarrard: Yeah, absolutely. I think that was some of the original intention and goals for when we split off from Microsoft last year - just to have the flexibility to explore the various options, and expand in different ways as a studio.
You'd be surprised - in as much as we do have different guys who have worked on Halo for 15 years now, there are certainly people who have kinda had enough. We've also grown tremendously, we've doubled in size since Halo 2 shipped - we have a lot of people who have never shipped a Halo game before, and they only came to join us because of Halo, they're really passionate about the franchise.
So I think there's a nice mix of old blood that has a bunch of ideas they still want to get out there, and a bunch of new blood that wants to get their hands on Halo - so we're not done with Halo. We still love the franchise, but it's also important for us to let our fans know that we're looking forward to branching out in new and exciting ways. There'll be more things to come that are Halo-related.
Q: As far as the company is concerned, from a franchise-fatigue perspective, was there a feeling that doing new things was important for the health of the team?
Brain Jarrard: A little bit maybe. There were some people who immediately moved on to looking at much further non-Halo projects, and were really excited to explore what that might be. But there's still a really healthy core at the studio that's very much into Halo.
Sure it's not our baby any more necessarily, but we still think we can bring a lot of excitement in. We have a huge fanbase that we built up from the ground, and we don't want to turn our backs on our fans.
Halo 3: Recon was a game that we just felt we had to make - a lot of our hardcore fans are maybe mildly disappointed that we're still doing Halo, but I think they'll be pleasantly surprised by what we actually do produce and if they can just be a little more patient I think we'll have broader horizons to get to.
Q: Ensemble are working on Halo Wars, and there are other Halo projects in the works - what's it like to hand over the baton in a way? Does it interest you to see how they're translating that franchise?
Luke Smith: I think it's definitely going to be interesting, and we're excited to see how it plays out, how the Halo franchise is being explored. Halo 3: Recon's a good example - that, with 1, 2 and 3 are Bungie Halos, and now we're going to have Ensemble's take on Halo, and whatever else is on the horizon for that franchise.
We're just really excited to see how it all comes together.
Brain Jarrard: So far we have been very eager - watching and anticipating where the franchise goes - but thus far Microsoft's only tapped top talent to work on the franchise and when Halo Wars was greenlit a while back... those guys are world class developers of RTS games, and if anybody's going to tackle Halo in that genre, they were the best people to pick.
It's good to see that the game looks like it's coming along really, really well. We're sort of watching from the sidelines, taking it all in, but our priority mostly is just making our Halo game awesome for our fans, and we'll stay focused on that.
Q: It came to light recently that Ensemble had put in some initial work on a Halo MMO, which was later canned. Do you think Halo is a good universe for an MMO? Maybe it's too story-driven?
Brain Jarrard: I'm not sure - there are like our lunchtime discussions at the studio. A Halo MMO wasn't something that at the studio we had a lot of purview on. We'd heard rumblings and on paper, if someone says "Let's take Halo, plus Warcraft, equals dollar signs..."
So it was interesting when that whole thing came to light, there was more there than we ever really thought there was. I don't know, we've had a lot of heated discussions - there's a big, vast, rich universe, but then again it's hard for me to imagine. Everybody wants to be Master Chief, they all want to be the Spartan. You'd have to create a whole new layer of fiction and new characters that don't currently exist - not that it couldn't be done.
Q: The Star Wars franchise found a way that didn't mean you had to play as Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker - there were compelling experiences with Kyle Katarn, and so on.
Luke Smith: Like the moisture evaporator farmer in [Star Wars] Galaxies...
Brain Jarrard: I don't know if I would want to invest and become a Warthog mechanic in a garage, when all my friends were out there kicking ass on the front lines. I'm sure there's probably enough there to work with where something could of come of it, but I think it would have been pretty challenging.
Bob Holness was a legend. Interview by Mr Blobby.