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Bungie's Back - Part Two

Brian Jarrard and Luke Smith on new IP, and the importance of taking care of the community

In the first part of the GamesIndustry.biz interview with Bungie at the Tokyo Game Show, PR and community director Brian Jarrard and writer Luke Smith talked about their forthcoming game - Halo 3: Recon - and the challenges facing any Halo-themed MMO.

Here in part two they discuss new IP and the importance of community, both for the Halo trilogy and their efforts online with Bungie.net.

GamesIndustry.biz So the other two projects that Bungie is working on - is there original IP in there?
Brain Jarrard

There is original IP in there, yes.

GamesIndustry.biz Is that part of the refreshing experience? Was there a feeling within the team that there was creativity there that needed to be expressed in a new way?
Luke Smith

There are definitely segments of people at Bungie who are really re-engaged, really excited about what they're working on now, really excited to be creating something again.

Brain Jarrard

Not to say that we couldn't have explored new IP and still have been owned by Microsoft - it's just different. You know it's your own baby through and through, you know you control your own destiny. And whenever we do decide to do something new, we get to decide the fate of where that goes.

We'll sink or swim, but it'll be by our own doing.

GamesIndustry.biz As a company now, thanks to Halo, you have such a huge reputation that people are going to sit up and take note - whatever you do.
Brain Jarrard

I figure we're entitled to one free shot, right? Honestly, everyone's waiting to see what we do next, like it's an all-or-nothing proposition...

GamesIndustry.biz There must be added pressure for anybody that's had a huge success in the past?
Brain Jarrard

There is - we talk about this a lot, even on record. I mean, Halo itself was a bit of a perfect storm - there were a lot of things happening at the same time, and who knows if we'll ever hit that magic again. I certainly think that Bungie has an awful lot of really awesome game experiences and stories to tell. They'll be very different - are they really going to catch on and become a pop culture phenomenon, spawn dioramas, and worldwide marketing campaigns? Who's to say?

I know the guys who are working on this project are really passionate and invigorated. A lot of it just seems to be going back to the old school vibe of Bungie - now there are guys just doing what they do best, being creative, unrestrained, thinking about what they want to do, and what is our next project?

That's something we haven't done in a long time.

GamesIndustry.biz Is the new IP something you're working closely with Microsoft on? Are you restricted on having to work on Windows or Xbox 360, for example?
Brain Jarrard

No, we're not. We haven't gotten that far yet to be totally honest. In theory we do have every means to go out and find the right ecosystem, the right partners, to align with. We're very happy with Microsoft, the Xbox 360's been great to us and they're a world class publisher.

So who knows what the future will bring us.

GamesIndustry.biz It's a very compelling platform landscape now, with the maturing platforms.
Brain Jarrard

For us the 360 has been great because there's just been this great synergy with Bungie because all of our games have this inherent social community aspect. Everything we've ever done has this very big online component - we, together with the Xbox consoles, have continued to push that Live experience, the whole notion of a party experience forward.

I like to think that we brought a lot of that to the market, and we want to keep iterating on that. In that regard Live has been a great service to us. It's astonishing to look at how well Halo 3 is doing even now, a year after release. We haven't really seen much of a decline in play, and we recently surpassed the lifetime number of games ever played on Halo 2 - so we're talking about four years of Halo 2 boiling down to about 1 year of Halo 3.

It's been pretty astounding, and to see our fans stand by us, it's even more reason why we want to do Halo 3: Recon, just to give something back and extend the experience a little bit longer.

GamesIndustry.biz What sort of lessons did you learn through the Halo 3 experience?
Luke Smith

With Halo 3 specifically we brought this whole new thing to the game which was the file-sharing system. We found that shortly after the game came out that the file-sharing system, getting files from users and certainly finding files on Bungie.net was pretty complicated.

So we actually just rolled out this pretty significant overhaul to Bungie.net to help facilitate file-sharing a little bit better. We introduced a tag system which is pretty much becoming common, but now you can associate tags with files, so that people can search for things more easily. It's creating a lot more discoverability for the file-sharers.

Actually we've found that, as the game has continued to mature, the file-share system has been used more than ever. So introducing something like the tagging system, along with a bunch of other things that we've added, is totally capitalising on that maturity. People are digging further into the game's features.

Brain Jarrard

That was kind of the whole intent. If you empower the community to really own the game experience it'll spin off from there into infinite numbers of new ways to experience the game, so hopefully it takes on a life of its own.

I've always viewed as the more the game goes on, the more we give control of the game to the community. They're the ones that are going to dictate what goes on in matchmaking, what map variants are the most popular, and we're just going to react to that. We're finally starting to see that happen.

I asked some other guys to pull some numbers together - for year one, life to-date, there's been 54 million files uploaded from Halo 3 to our website. But there's been 533 million files downloaded, which is to be expected, because although there will be people who want to make content, a lot of people are just looking to consume content. So how do we make that stuff easier to discover? That's been some of the motivation behind our recent update.

Some of the other interesting stuff - we've actually had, life-to-date, 760 million games played, just on Xbox Live, just matchmaking games, which represents 9.5 million actual players, including guests.

Right now we have 3.5 million people interacting with our file share, currently sharing 13.5 million files and 20 million screen shots that are available on Bungie.net - so you can see, just trying to get your arms around that, how do you see, sort and browse through the content?

Even now, in the past two months, we're still averaging almost 2 million games per day being played on Halo, which is ridiculous - and close to 700,000 new players every day. Obviously we're seeing peaks and lulls, and we watch Major Nelson's top ten chart - there's us an Call of Duty almost neck-and-neck, but it was always our hope that fileshares for things like screen shots, custom maps and films, would give us the legs to keep them playing and engaged, so we could bring them with us to our next game. Certainly Halo 3: Recon should actually be a good exclamation point to round out the whole Halo saga - in terms of Halo 3 at least.

GamesIndustry.biz You've got three teams working on projects - is the plan for the guys that are working on Halo 3 Recon title to continue working on Halo projects after that?
Brain Jarrard

I don't think so. We've already put a couple of map packs out, we do have more maps on the way. We actually have a Mythic map pack coming out early next year. We don't have firm details or a date yet, but we do have one more map pack coming out, and then we do have some maps associated with the actual Recon retail release.

But I think when this project wraps up in a couple of months that will be the time when that team moves on to something else, and part of that team will move on to something else and part of them will probably be absorbed into one of the other projects that are already on the way.

GamesIndustry.biz So it's a bit like a final statement from you guys?
Brain Jarrard

I think so. We've stood by this game, and we're going to keep standing by it. Obviously apart from the retail products releases we're updating the matchmaking playlist every month on Xbox Live, we're adding fun Double XP Weekends and we just rolled out a bunch of achievements that are all retroactive so people that bought our map packs previously now have about 250 new gamer points to go and achieve.

So it's fan service for us - the audience is there, they demand it, we're still having fun with it, so we're just going to keep going for as long as we can.

GamesIndustry.biz What was the reception like for Halo 3 in Japan?
Brain Jarrard

It's not one of the stronger markets, but that's not a surprise - if you look at the genre alone first person shooters don't tend to do well typically in Japan, much less most of the Asian markets. I have been surprised just to meet a lot of hardcore fans - they are here [in Japan] - and the ones you find are just as passionate as the ones back in North America or Europe.

I couldn't tell you how many units have been sold here, but it's definitely not one of the stronger markets - but who's to say, with Xbox getting a stronger foothold here and Recon being part of the Microsoft keynote at TGS, maybe there's an opportunity to expand and reintroduce people to the franchise.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you have any plans to work with the new Xbox Live experience?
Brain Jarrard

[smiles] Not at the moment. Not at the moment, no.

GamesIndustry.biz Was that a dumb question?
Brain Jarrard

No, it's just a funny subject. Obviously opinions sway heavily in terms of the avatars and things like that. Luke and I have had many discussions on those matters. But we're just focusing on our core game, and none of that has much to do with it.

I do think it's cool that our in-game party system now bubbles up to a platform level, so hopefully that's going to expand on the social web that our game already sort of weaved on Live, and maybe helps people get together and experience Halo.

Brian Jarrard is PR and community director and Luke Smith is writer at Bungie. Interview by Phil Elliott.