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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 29, 2009 at 7:21 AM

Bungie chief on ODST, Halo 4, Natal and being ex-Microsoft

Here’s a supplement to today’s column on Bungie and “Halo 3: ODST” – edited excerpts from an interview with Bungie President Harold Ryan last week at the company’s Kirkland offices.

Ryan has more to say about the Xbox “Project Natal,” competition for Halo and Bungie’s independence from Microsoft. He also touched on Halo 4 – a new game called “Reach” that’s coming next year and already being played within Bungie.

Q: Are you concerned about new competition for Halo?

A: There are a lot of options out there. People are doing a good job and it’s very complimentary, but when you look back at when we first launched Halo 1 to the world, nobody made games like it; everything was more like Quake at the time. Quake really set the tone for what a FPS was. Everybody copied that.

Nowadays you look at the gaming world and a lot of people are making great innovations, but a lot of games are a lot like Halo – a lot of sci-fi shooters these days, a lot of shooters that are trying to do online stats and progression, a lot more moving toward bullet-on-pixel gaming where you’re really giving the player the ability to project power by aiming and pulling the trigger, less about pure stealth or mixed mode martial arts combat.

Definitely, more and more people are closing the gap by building really cool features of their own and picking up some of the cool features that are in Halo itself. The disadvantage for them is we’re successful because of who we are and build what we love. Luckily what we love is what enough people love to make us successful, and that’s what we keep doing.

ODST is a game the team loves to play. It was a mode of play we thought about, built parts of in some of our games historically in the past, but didn’t get the level of polish and execution where it became the primary mode of the game. That’s true of ODST, it’s also true of what’s going to be coming out in Reach. Reach is going to be the culmination of a lot of things technically and from a design point of view. But also as a story in the Halo universe that the team has wanted to play, to experience, as a game. ODST and Reach are really games where we truly focused what we wanted to get in the experience and the game out of pieces of the last 10 years of Halo.

Q: When are you going to unveil more than a peek at Reach?

A: I’m not sure of the P.R. schedule. The game’s fun to play now. That’s sort of the way we build games, by iterating them, adjusting them to how we like it and how we think the fans will love it.

Q: Should we see ODST as previewing Reach – more open world, time travel through flashbacks?

A: I wouldn’t say specifically that elements of ODST are story elements or design elements in Reach. We’ll have more to talk about Reach later. It’s definitely the case that we’re getting better and better at what we like in the games and executing on them. It doesn’t mean any specific feature will carry over. But in each Halo game you see a lot of the best elements from all the previous Halo games pulled into them – that’s true from Halo 1 through ODST. That will happen with Reach, too.

Q: Are you concerned about growing competition for players’ time online?

A: Absolutely. We look at our competition as the entertainment industry in fact, not just other games. You saw that with Halo 3, where we pushed it to become the largest entertainment launch of all time. I think we’re going to sell a lot of boxes not just because it says Halo on the box but because it’s a Bungie game and the strongest marketing vehicle for us, the strongest intent to buy, has always come from word of mouth – from people who play the game, who want to play it with their friends, who tell their friends it’s awesome. That has historically been the case with Bungie games – they built a strong community of people who played it and loved to play it who pulled their friends in. That’s the way we hire most of our employees.

Q: It’s interesting how you’re mentioning Bungie like that. Are you now trying to raise the profile of the studio? Is this a step toward additional games beyond Halo and saying hey, we’re not just ‘Halo, we’re Bungie’?

A: Yeah, definitely. When you go back to the divestiture from Microsoft, that was when we started paying more attention to the Bungie brand. It means something – there’s now an existing game, Halo Wars, that wasn’t built by Bungie. There’s a big difference in the success – in sales, in the review numbers of the title. The Ensemble guys (who made Halo Wars) are great guys, they did a great job with what they did, but I don’t think they made a Bungie game. They didn’t build a game with a community that carried it.

A Bungie game isn’t just build it, shove it in the box and see what the royalties are. It’s: we build it, we communicate with the fans and we adjust the game, adjust how it’s played through Bungie.net. We adjust how Halo 3’s played all the time, on a daily basis, if needed, certainly even today. A lot of that’s about looking at how people play, how they want to play, what they want to know about the game, by addressing that as we go through. We’re sharing with them what we love, not in the business to make money.

Q: But you have the luxury to take this approach – your games have made a lot of money and your publisher has a for-pay network that’s doing well. Are you getting a share of Xbox Live revenue so you can keep building and sustaining? A lot of studios couldn’t afford this sustained support.

A: For us it’s important to build and maintain the relationship with the fans. Whether we have a business relationship with Live isn’t something I can talk about.

Q: Does your relationship with Microsoft allow you go build games for other platforms besides the Xbox?

A: We absolutely could go onto other platforms. When you talk about our competition out there – look at the guys from Activision, Infinity Ward – they ship on, I don’t know how many platforms, they ship on everything, including the Wii and the DS. But it’s not making that big of a difference in the number of customers they pick up.

If you make a tradeoff in customer quality – because certainly when you play on the DS it’s not what it was designed for, and you’re not building a cohesive community, in my mind you’re fragmenting it. For us our goal is to ship on the platform that provides the best place for a user to experience the game. Right now when you look at Halo games – the way Halo games build and play, the way they connect – right now Xbox Live is the best place to do that. Bungie.net tied to Xbox Live is a super cohesive environment.

Q: Is there a chance you might have extensions or notifications to mobile devices?

A: We have notifications now. We don’t have, you know, an iPhone app that connects to Bungie.net. We’re always looking at ways that are compelling to connect customers to Bungie, to Bungie.net, to their gaming experiences and to extend them. There are a bunch we’ve ruled out because they weren’t the same level of quality experience that we want. It’s hard, for example, to look at a heat map from a Halo game on here (holding up his iPhone) is pretty tough – the resolution is just not quite there, the zooming and scrolling.

Q: I hear Bungie had an early look at Project Natal, the motion-sensing controller for the Xbox coming next year. Will we have to get up off the couch to play Halo one of these days?

A: I think the Natal stuff is awesome. I’ll put one in my house just so when I walk in the living room it will sign me in. I might put one in the garage so I sign in and get my favorite music when I walk in the door. It’s definitely cool. It’s hard to imagine you’re going to replicate pulling a trigger.

I could see my engineering team when I look at it and go ‘this is (bleeping) awesome, we should navigate all the UI with it!’ They’re like, ‘I don’t even know how it works yet, stop adding it to my schedule.’

It remains to be seen what we can get done with it in the timeframe we have for the games under development. It is relatively new. As they said in the (E3) briefing, it’s just now coming out, it’s not coming to market yet. We don’t know when it’s going to be in the market yet. If it’s not going to be in the market we probably won’t spend a lot of time devving for it. If it looks like it’s coming out, we’ll definitely add support where it makes sense in the game. But I don’t think it’s going to be the primary gaming mode for a Halo game – because I think all of my developers and testers would drop dead from attempting to run, duck, crouch, circle strafe…

Q: If Natal came out at the same time as Halo Reach next fall, it could help make the new hardware platform, similar to the way Halo established the first Xbox.

A:: Absolutely.

Q: Could Halo Reach be Natal-enabled?

A: I absolutely think Reach could be enabled with it. Historically we’ve looked at lots of different control methods for the Halo games. Certainly other stuff from Microsoft – new controller layouts, we always work on them and everything else. One of the problems with the Halo games is we’ve got whatever it is, 8 or 10 million or 12 million people who have played and liked the game … a lot of the ones who are playing it all the time are very attached to their control scheme and they’re the most vocal group. We couldn’t do anything that would hurt the state of what people love as we implement new controls.

Q: It seems to me you don’t have to give up the controller with Natal – you could have precision with the controller and still have to jump over logs or whatever in the game.

A: Yep, and make a whole era of fit gamers, which I think would be great.

Q: What’s Bungie’s growth plan for the next year or two?

A: We’re looking to hire as many great people as we can hire. If you look at what we’ve done leading up til now – we shipped Halo 3 in 2007, ODST in 2009 and Reach coming out next year – we’re increasing our capacity to do great games. It’s definitely working really well at this point. As we move on to the next game after Reach we definitely look to keep the tempo going, the team well fed.

Q: So you’re looking at a game a year going forward?

A: It really depends. We don’t commit to ship schedules for our games until we finish what we call pre-production. It’s really at the point we’ve proven to ourselves that the mechanics are good, the story’s good and we believe in the scope and scale of the game and the team we have aligned to build it. One of the downsides of building what you’re passionate about is we wait to commit the business plan until we know we’re going to be passionate about the game. Halo 2, we scrapped the design halfway through and built a completely different game. Whether it’s a game a year or not depends on how well things come together.

Q: Do you have 163 people who work on one game or do you have multiple teams working on different games?

A: A lot of people contribute to the development of the game ideas. Once we come up with an idea we like we’ll form the right team to prove that that game concept can be built into a prototype. At that point we gather the people we need together. As you’ve seen in the last couple of years, we’re at least capable of pulling together three separate teams to kick games out the door. Whether we’ll keep staying with one IP (game franchise intellectual property) as we did with Reach, ODST and Halo 3 or whether we’ll branch off and do multiple IPs at the same time that ship is to be determined. We have lots of different IPs around the team all the time, it’s just a question of which ones stick.

Q: Will the next one be an action sci-fii shooter?

A: Hard to say.

Q: I’d think you’d have to try something else just to keep your mind fresh.

A: Yep. There are two sides to that. An action sci-fi shooter today doesn’t look anything like an action sci-fi shooter 15 years ago. It’s completely conceivable you could make a game that looks nothing like anything anybody would exepct. If it ends up getting called an action sci-fi shooter then, okay. But if you actually looked at Quake and ODST side by side, I don’t think you would see a lot of similarities in how they play and the experience of runing through the games. Both great games, both action sci-fi shooters.

Honestly on this team, there are a lot of people who love shooters, a lot of people who love MMOs, a lot of people who love RPGs. It’s really a question of which concepts bubble up from the team that they really decide they love and want to build next.

Q: What’s it like to be separate form Microsoft?

A: It definitely has been good. There were a lot of great things that Bungie got out of Microsoft. I was a release manager, operations budget manager at Microsoft, when Bungie was acquired, and came over and brought my team to Bungie after we shipped Halo. Bungie’s always been a studio that could make great games. I think what my team brought the most was a level of discipline and software quality that made it a game that 8 million people could buy and play. What that means to the customer is you have a reliable, fun experience – you don’t lose your saved games because it doesn’t fail, it doesn’t lock up on you. You have a balanced, fluid experience while you’re online or when you’re playing through the campaign. That has an effect on the perceived quality. It also means that as the publisher, you can publish 4 million discs for day one because you don’t have to worry about slipstreaming in something that fixes the ‘ooops.’ I think part of what Bungie pulled out of Microsoft when we left was the discipline that allowed us to iterate and ship massively, to connect to massive customers and have them all have a great experience.

Q: What’s different – is this a different place now?

A: Not a lot’s really different. We ran a very insulated environment for Bungie when Bungie was acquired – Bungie had its own custom buildout (offices), ran on our own network, had our own cardkey and security access into the space.

In that way the Microsoft executives back then did a really good job of recognizing the culture of Bungie as being important. I’d say the founders of Bungie did a good job of insisting the culture be protected. Once I took up the role of being the firewall it was pretty well protected. From that extent, there’s not a lot that is different.

We balance our benefits out a little different. We’re not driven by stockholders – we’re a small group that’s highly profitable per head. That allows a little more flexiblity in what you do, but a lot hasn’t changed day-to-day for employees.

Comments | Topics: bungie, Games & entertainment, halo

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