Here is more from my interview with Harold Ryan, manager of Microsoft’s Bungie game studio, who was profiled in today’s paper.
This Q&A has been edited a bit for flow and to minimize overlap with the profile.
Q: So does “Halo 3” have more or less animation?
A: Relative to “Halo 2,” there are less true cinematic moemnts but we actually integrated the story much better into the gameplay this time. The story is deeper and better than it was for “Halo” and “Halo 2.” More of it is told while you play, when the player is in control, rather than taking control away from the player in most cases.
Q: Through conversations with Cortana or something?
A: Through conversations, you get messages in various ways. Basically there are story elements you can tell by leaving the player in control but directing their camera or focus while they’re playing.
One of the main focuses for “Halo 3” was actually writing a story that was better from start to finish. We had more time on “Halo 3” to get that right. We spent the last seven years getting better at developing a “Halo 3” story, or “Halo” story. A lot of that work went into “Halo 3.”
Q: A movie version of “Halo” was expected to debut along with the game, creating a really big pop, but the movie is now on hold. Was that disappointing?
A: The team certainly was really excited to see the game brought to theater …. Overall, am I disappointed I don’t have to worry about a game and a movie at the same time? No. I’d love to see the movie happen but I’m glad to have it sidelined for now so I’m not distracted by that.
Q: I wonder if there’s a risk to to the game quality if you overemphasize the story in an effort to make “Halo” appeal to mainstream culture.
A: The thing about our game designers is they are game designers — they’re there to make a game that’s fun to play. Ultimately “Halo” is a first-person shooter. It’s about playing through the environment, growing your own skill, how can the game be balanced by challenging you as you go through it.
There’s enough push here for game-play — enough hardcore gamers on the team and in the fan base — that there’s no real risk that the story will go too far. “Halo 2” did get some feedback that our cinematics were long. We didn’t want to cut back, in fact we wanted to make the story richer and deeper in “Halo 3,” but we made a real focus of having the story play out as you played through the game as much as possible.
So there’s more story in “Halo 3” than “Halo 2,” but like I said, the story’s told while you’re playing much more than it was in “Halo 2.”
Q: Can you talk about how you balance the creative side of game development with the engineering side?
A: You typically start out a game with an idea for how you want to it to play or what you want the story to be. It can start from a couple different roots but typically usually you’re very open, creative, here’s what I’d love to have. There’s what you’d love to have, what you want to have and what you can achieve. We’re constantly pushing polished features in — we spent a lot of time on “Halo 3,” even now, today, there will be another evening after we get done with this where we sit down and look at — based on our full play-through that all the leads did last night of our current build. What’s one thing we would try to add, as crazy as it may be at this point in the schedule, that would really make the game that much better.
There’s a constant push for that all the way up to the bitter end. For me that iterating push was, as a QA manager, was always that [question] of when do I absolutely have to turn them off, because every time you make a change there’s a risk that you’ll introduce a bug or detract more from the final game than the change that you’re trying to make. That’s coming up very soon but we’ll probably squeeze out another couple of days.
I’ll give you a good example — last weekend my core leads and I worked a straight 48 hours iterating on a build to meet our deadline for Monday by trying to get as many features in as we could. We’re putting eveyrting we’ve got into taking it now and polishing it. One of the hard things with a game is you don’t know how it’s going to play out until all the content’s there and it runs at full performance.
As you’re going through development — running at 15 fps, 20 fps — you can’t tell how it’s going to feel when it runs at full speed … That’s a lot of where the last minute polish comes in because you don’t really know whether it’s going to feel good or bad or not quite good enough until you’re close to the very end,
Q: What sort of features might you put in at this point?
A: In some cases you might change a behavior of a character in the game, modify the AI … There are a lot of tools to play with in “Halo 3,” both for the character and the AI. Getting so everybody can use all those in the most fun way possible is a good example of the kind of things we’ll change right now.
Q: What’s the biggest competition for “Halo 3”?
A: Probably the biggest competition for Halo 3 is going to be “GTA” [“Grand Theft Auto”]. It’s certainly, on the scale of units and fan base (that and “Madden”) are probably the only other two games that are close, around the 7 million, 8 million unit per release games.
Luckily for us in Xbox sales they’re both coming out on the 360 so we don’t have to worry about people being only able to play it on the PlayStation or anything like that.
Q: So is “Halo 3” going to be the family-friendly alternative to “GTA”?
A: “Halo 3,” despite its rating of mature, it’s definitely much more family-friendly than many of the other mature games. I haven’t played “GTA4” yet, so I don’t know exactly what it’s going to be like.
My kid’s been playing since he was two. He’s a good kid, he understands the difference between reality and game play.
Q: Will there be more versions — “Halo 4,” perhaps?
A: I think there will always be more stories in the “Halo” universe, absolutely.
I have a stack of game proposals for the “Halo” universe that is everything from back to the origin of the forerunners to a thousand years in the future after “Halo 3” ends. I think there will always be more stories in the Halo universe, absolutely.