The biggest tech product coming out of the Seattle area this year, other than Microsoft’s Office 2010 suite, may be “Halo: Reach.”
Millions of gamers around the world are waiting for Kirkland studio Bungie to release the final installment of the blockbuster franchise that helped establish the Xbox platform.
To prime the pump and smooth any rough spots before “Reach” goes on sale this fall, Bungie and Microsoft are beginning a massive public testing process May 3.
At least 2 million people are expected to try the free online beta version of “Reach’s” multiplayer games, using access codes provided with the “Halo 3: ODST” game, which went on sale last September.
The swarm will stress test the game’s infrastructure and help designers tweak the setup so the game is as balanced and fun as possible.
Bungie is hoping it will be the largest beta test of any console game, according to Brian Jarrard, the 180-person studio’s community director.
“We know that we have passionate fans who we are going to encourage to try to break the game and find these issues now so we don’t have to deal with it in the fall,” he said.
Jarrard and Chris Carney, a former Seattle architect who is now a multiplayer design lead at Bungie, shared details of the beta, the game and more last week. Here’s an edited transcript of the interview:
Q: How many people do you expect to play the beta?
Jarrard: My expectation is it could be upwards of 3 million people. I think that’s a fairly conservative estimate. Certainly there will never be a console beta of this magnitude.
Just for perspective, the “Halo 3″s beta had just shy of 800,000 total unique users over its duration. I think it’s safe to say we’ll be three to four times that.
Q: Will it run on the same online infrastructure?
Carney: There’s a whole back end that supports the game. essentially servers that keep track of stats, handle matchmaking, handle the hoppers so when you go to play online you’re going to get a list of the hoppers you can play, like ‘I want to play [a session of] invasion’ or ‘I want to play slayer.’.”
What the beta does is it helps us stress that, to really get a lot of people playing it, choosing games and voting, so we can see how those systems operate. We also get everyone playing our maps and we keep detailed statistics of that so we can see, like, ‘Hey, everyone’s dying from the rocket launcher because it’s so easy to grab on Powerhouse, let’s move that thing back,’ or ‘People seem to be dying here three seconds after spawning; it’s probably a bad spawn point so let’s shift that around.’ That helps us throughout the game.
Q: How much of the game will change as a result of the testing?
Carney: It’s pretty close to done. We still absolutely will tweak things after the beta, based on all that information.
Jarrard: There are some things that are more or less baked. What you will see is polish to art, to the assets. That stuff usually happens at the very end of the project.
The “Halo 3” beta is a great example of a particular weapon being in the game that immediately became very obvious that it was just way too powerful and didn’t fit into the balanced, nuance of our sandbox so the design team was able to react to that. By the time the game shipped it wasn’t the ‘weapon of the gods’ that it was during the beta.
I think the big thing is armor abilities and really seeing how people exploit these. Ideally it’s all perfectly balanced.
Q: Where will testing occur?
Jarrard: Globally. The beta’s available in every territory where there’s a 360. The vast majority will be in North America. But there’s a lot of things in the matchmaking-networking side that we’ve done that will make the game more accessible and friendly to people outside North America, in terms of being able to match regionally, which in Europe was kind of a challenge with “Halo 3.”
Q: Will that extend the “Reach,” so to speak?
Carney: Yeah, it actually makes it a better experience for those people. Playing in Seattle or Redmond, matchmaking, you never struggle for matches – it’s boom, instantly, hundreds of people to get matched with. If you’re in Europe, we want that to be a quality matchmaking experience.
Q: This is your first major release since Bungie became independent from Microsoft in 2007. Is any of the infrastructure shifting to Bungie?
Jarrard: No, it hasn’t really changed. Everything’s still very tightly woven between Bungie and Xbox Live, the datacenters. None of that stuff has fundamentally shifted.
Q: Who will have the most ownership of players’ personas and the new “Reach” player credits, Bungie.net or Microsoft sites?
Jarrard: The credits are native to “Reach” so it doesn’t spill over. Everything in “Reach” is a self-contained system. It’s still very much Bungie’s game, it’s Bungie’s community and it’s our jobs to finish the game and make the game successful online and support it.
At what point [is] there some changing of the guard? That’s something that will need to be discussed, but it’s not something that we’re talking about right now. We’ll have to sort this stuff out later.
Q: The ‘Reach’ credit system would lend itself to micro-transactions. Will people be able to pay for credits to upgrade their equipment, for instance?
Carney: There’s definitely pieces of equipment that are cheap, but there are also pieces of armor that are very expensive.
Jarrard: There’s no plan to swipe your debit card, and now you’ve just bought 10,000 credits for Reach.
Carney: But you’re working a lot so you hire Jimmy your neighbor to play the game forever so you can buy this piece of armor that you’ve been waiting to get.
Jarrard: We don’t condone that.
Carney: But that will happen.
Q: Can you use your Microsoft Xbox Live cash points to boost your credits?
Jarrard: No, this is purely an in-game mechanic that’s all contained within “Reach.” This is really about a way to reward and incentivize players to play the game, keep playing the game, reward people for their particular style of play. It isn’t a revenue scheme.
Q: The new melee attacks in “Reach” might lend themselves to Microsoft’s Project Natal motion control system. Will “Reach” use it?
Jarrard: Reach was designed from the ground up to use the traditional controller. We don’t have any plans to employ Natal.
There’s two things going on. First, practically speaking, Natal didn’t exist until “Reach” was already two years into development. That alone creates issues. Secondly, it’s not the type of control experience that we think lends itself to this type of game. We’re comfortable with it; Microsoft is, too.
Natal has unique experiences to offer that are different than what “Reach” has to offer. “Reach” is very much a core, twitch game that really does rely on something that millions of people have spent about 10 years getting accustomed to, so we’re not looking to reinvent that right now.
Q: Some think the game industry may bounce back this year. What role will “Reach” play in any recovery, and what does your competition look like?
Jarrard: We’re very optimistic. We have a lot riding on this game and we have high expectations for it. I think you can expect to see a lot more grandiose marketing efforts; things will be at a much higher scale than they were for “ODST.”
There are a lot of great games coming out this fall, a lot of shooters in particular. I think we definitely benefit from having a really huge built-in audience. We have a huge, high-level pop culture awareness that a lot of other games don’t. The 360 has a much bigger install base than we had back in the “Halo 3” era, so a lot of things are working in our favor.
We certainly feel “Reach” will be the best “Halo” game that Bungie’s ever made, and I think Microsoft’s going to bet really big behind it. This is what Microsoft does really well – big, huge entertainment launches. You’re going to see that happen again for “Reach.”
Q: Will it sell more copies than “Halo 3”?
Carney: We hope so.
Q: Any word on the long-awaited “Halo” movie?
Jarrard: The official word is everyone would like to see a movie. There are no current plans, it’s still sort of on hold. I’ve been quoted as saying “Reach” could certainly be the catalyst to make “Halo” a big deal again and maybe reinvigorate some of those discussions.
Q: How much of a feel of the full game’s single-player campaign will people get from the beta?
Carney: Those environments that you’re playing are also in the campaign. Also the scale of “Reach” — that overall beauty and majesty — is absolutely present in single-player. We weren’t really able to hit that bar as high with “Halo 3.” The “Halo 3” multiplayer maps were beautiful, but they felt like self-contained experiences. Hopefully these maps suggest more about the planet itself and this whole new crazy world you’re playing in.
Jarrard: The feel certainly will carry through the campaign. It’s a true planetary battle that’s even more improved and cunning than it was in “Halo 3.” Multiplayer is a nice way to get trained and acclimated so when the game is released, and you do play the campaign you’ll be familiar. It’s sort of like you’ve gone through boot camp and now it’s time to try and defend “Reach” and the continent.
Q: Does the name “Reach” allude to the bigger environment?
Carney: Absolutely, in the single player experience, “Reach” is a character, like this planet is part of the experience all the way to the end of the game. We did a lot of upfront design: What is this planet, even laid out the continents and did the world map, and really thought about it from – hate to say – from a planetary scale.
How it really feels different to “Halo” 1, 2 and 3 is, those were galactic jaunts from this world to a foreign world through some artifact. This whole game takes place in the planet, so it was important to get that right.
Q: Will people feel like this is an entirely new game, or the final chapter?
Jarrard: Certainly the goal is to make the definitive “Halo” experience. For all intents and purposes we probably won’t revisit the “Halo” universe again as a company. Our next game is definitely not “Halo,” it’s something totally new.
That being the case, we want to pull out all the stops. We can draw on a decade’s worth of experience, refining and crafting all the things that made “Halo” successful. The ideal goal is we carry all the best parts forward, we add even better new things on it like armor abilities and new nuances, and hopefully that all amounts to the best “Halo” game we’ve ever made and the lasting mark in the franchise.
Carney: And something we’re excited to play when it comes out, too.