Making Halo Anniversary Work

By Brandon Sheffield

[The tough choices and technical hurdles involved in creating Halo Anniversary, a re-release of the 10-year old Xbox classic, as explained to Gamasutra by Frank O'Connor, the series franchise development director at 343 Industries.]

Ten years ago today, Microsoft and Bungie released Halo: Combat Evolved -- the original Xbox launch classic that powered the popularity of Microsoft's original console and birthed a titanic gaming franchise.

Today, Microsoft releases Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary for Xbox 360, a brand new edition of Halo: Combat Evolved developed by Microsoft's 343 Industries, the developer that took over the Halo franchise after series creator Bungie broke off from former parent Microsoft in 2007.

For a bit of nostalgia, players can switch back and forth between updated and original graphics on the fly in Halo Anniversary. The remake uses the original Halo engine, with an additional rendering engine on top of it. The game also has a new multiplayer mode created using the Halo: Reach engine but designed as a throwback to the original game's multiplayer.

In this interview, 343 Industries' Frank O'Connor, the series franchise development director, speaks both to the technical ways in which the product handles this unusual layering and also how 343 made tough decisions about both Reach and Anniversary -- hoping to please fans while doing something that made sense for the franchise.

How does the switching back and forth between original and new versions work?

FO: It's the full engine. It's literally the whole thing, with a second graphics engine moving on top of it, as a second layer. And that's actually given us a lot of functionality.

The only real difference -- and this has been an important difference in development -- is the game is actually running in proper HD resolution, the sort of not-quite 720p, when you switch back to the original graphics. So it is actually a lot sharper to people than it ever did look. Can you imagine this as 480 interlaced?

And it's also widescreen, which it never did on console -- definitely never did. It did 16:9, 16:10, and other aspect ratios on the PC version, but you were never able to play the console version in a proper 16:9 resolution, even in HD. It did support 480p, but it didn't actually change the aspect ratio.

So the fact that the two engines are running simultaneously is what really allows us to do that switch on the fly. And when we first started the game development process, it was something you picked from the menu -- so you chose whether to play it in old or new mode.

And people were so into, like, "I want to see what this looks like!" that eventually we started to push it towards being a feature where you switched on the fly. And we got there -- we got the technology working, we got the rendering working, we got it so that you did it on the fly. And that ended up being almost a pointlessly addictive feature. You just do it for no reason. You're like, "I wonder what this grenade looks like in midair."

You probably know Halo Anniversary's multiplayer mode uses the Reach engine. It was definitely a tough and a controversial decision -- internally, even -- because we knew that a lot of people were going to be really into the original gameplay.

In Halo's day, there was never a proper networking mode. It was System Link only. It was effectively kind of an offshoot. We couldn't roll back the technology; it just wouldn't have worked with things like latency and all other modern Xbox Live-related problems. So we would have had to build it from scratch, and it still wouldn't have been the experience you remember.

If the map design is quite similar, then I don't think people would be too upset.

FO: Well, Blood Gulch isn't in here. Blood Gulch is available as one of the default maps on Reach and so one of the decisions we made -- there are seven multiplayer maps, and when we were picking which maps, there was a combination of factors.

One is, is it available on 360 right now? If the answer was no, it could go back on the list for selection. Will it work with the current Reach physics, things like sprint, jetpack? And what are the fan favorites? So we ended up with sort of a pool of about 12 maps that would really work, to choose from, and the selection we made was based on all of those criteria.

So the maps are taken mostly from Halo 1, but there are a couple maps that aren't. One is from Halo 2; the other is from Halo PC, a map called Timberland. Most people haven't played the PC version -- I mean there's like eight million Xbox 1 players versus two million Halo PC players -- but Timberland was one of our favorite PC maps.

It was something we thought about putting in Halo 2, actually, and we actually prototyped it, and it worked pretty well, but definitely not quite well enough, with dual wielding and some of the features in Halo 2. So it was great to go back and get a chance to revisit that.

When you do the switch, it works even during animation frames -- so when you come back here, it's exactly where it should be, pixel for pixel. Obviously, you have a little fade, but we played around with the effects. The final one is a fade to black. We had a mosaic, and I was trying to get them to do star wipe.

Yeah, star wipe is great! What was your solution for normal pop? Because that's obviously an issue.

FO: Well some of that is taken care of in the fade -- as the screen renders, during the fade. It is popping, but you don't quite see it. But it's actually fairly efficient.

One of the other benefits that we get from the mode of rendering that we have, and actually from the way that Halo 3 works, is that we can support 3D. The way that the two buffers work is that we get that -- not quite for free, I mean, I know a lot of engineers would be super mad if I said that -- but it's effectively a freebie, given the way that we render.

The reticle is kind of confusing, though, because it's at the same depth regardless of what surface it's on. And so, suddenly, it feels like it's way closer to me, when we switch to 3D.

FO: Actually, we have a very cool discreet tuning that we can do on the 3D, even in-game. You can make some pretty sweet adjustments with the 3D, and it's one of those things where if it hadn't been effectively a freebie, I don't think it's something that we'd put as much time and effort into.

Given the percentage of people who aren't going to have 3D TVs, it's not something that you want to sacrifice a level for or, a new 3DSmax build of the Warthog for. But it was actually a really cool added extra, and it was really keeping with the nature of the product. It's 40 dollars U.S., and you have a full campaign, you have the remastered mode.

We've added some fiction to the game as well. We had journals in Halo 3 that were text-based deep fiction -- detail and story. People loved the story, but obviously they're, like, for hardcore players, and hardcore fiction-heads.

But people did like them, as sort of an easter egg thing. So we made a much more accessible story, with much higher production value -- so it's fully animated 3D and CG animation with fairly high production values, and a fairly approachable story. It tells the story of 343 Guilty Spark on the Halo -- you know, with his hundred thousand years of isolation -- and it gives you some really cool background on the Halo itself, and some hints at the story of Halo 4.

We made a decision, a couple of years ago, to make sure that all the fiction that we added to the game actually mattered, and actually had a purpose. It used to be that we always would say, "Okay, if we're going to tell a story in Halo Wars, we have to make this so that it doesn't impact the rest of the universe." And I think that is a really unhealthy, unsatisfying, and ultimately unfair way to add story, because it meant that the creators who are working have all of these handcuffs on.

It wasn't fair, and they weren't able to have a meaningful impact on the universe, so we changed our strategy, and our philosophy with that. So every single piece of story that we tell is going to have some deeper meaning, or resonance, in the universe.

We don't want to have a situation where you have to read a book to understand the game. I think that would be super dissatisfying for both sides -- but if you have read all the books, and you have played all the games, you'll definitely notice cool connections, and hopefully just feel a little bit more depth than you might ordinarily.

Am I wrong or are you keeping more defeated enemies on screen than in the past?

FO: No, it should be the same, actually. One of the funny things about Halo that we discovered, especially in testing, it hasn't dated in any really meaningful way.

No, the campaign was quite good. It's celebrated as perhaps the best.

FO: Yeah, exactly. And one of the things that you notice when you go back and play it -- especially with a modern graphics engine -- is that we didn't have to touch the gameplay, we didn't have to touch the controls, we didn't even have to touch the difficulty, right?

You will play on Heroic, rather than normal mode, you'll find, because you've had 10 years of practice in games like Halo to get much better at it. And so you find yourself kind of walking through it, if you play it on easy. But other than that we didn't have to touch anything.

And you come out of a session feeling like you played a modern triple-A shooter. You really do. You don't come out saying, "I wish I had X" or "I wish I had iron sights," or some sort of modernized thing. You come out feeling like, "Oh, this is a perfectly modern shooter."

Once you get down onto the Halo, and you're driving around, you realize there are a lot of games that still don't do this stuff in as rich a sandbox as the original Halo does.

I think that's actually a really satisfying part of playing back through it, is that you're able to approach it with 10 years of experience. And rather than feeling redundant, it feels kind of fresh, and you feel like more of a superhero in some ways. You're like, "Yeah, I'm going to ignore this and jump in a Warthog and go deal with that."

Have you gotten many of the original developers' input on the anniversary edition?

FO: We definitely talk to the other Bungie guys regularly, and we're friends with a lot of the guys, and they're not going to charge us for consultation, for one thing. We can talk to them. ...

I had some conversations about the Title Update [for Reach] -- which was one of the trickiest things, because we were effectively changing moments of the gameplay. But [it's good to have] somebody to talk to, about some of the things we do, just things that they'd have spent more time with.

We have the benefit of hindsight, right? Like, there's been a year of people playing Halo: Reach, and bitching about things -- that you absolutely want to make sure you have them taken care of.

But those guys [at Bungie] are fully committed to their next game. It's not like they have spare cycles to come help us with our challenges, on top of everything else. So, no is the short answer to your question -- but obviously we organically have a lot of communication with those guys.

You've said it's running two engines simultaneously, but it's really just two rendering engines, right? The underlying game engine is the same.

FO: There's a little bit more to it, to make it map correctly, and make everything work. And saying "a little bit", well, there's probably some engineer reading this and saying "A little bit? I spent the whole year doing that!" But, I mean, the overall effect is hopefully fairly seamless for the player.

We could quickly switch to Headlong, which is the only level which is from Halo 2. I think I explained the process for that. You don't want to turn into a democracy though, because you end up with some false positives if you just do it.

We were trying to do this in secret, the whole project, but we were fairly confident that Headlong was going to be in the levels -- that was surprisingly popular with the multiplayer set.

And the reason to go with the Reach engine was -- I already explained that there's no real networking engine for the original CE. But I think, more importantly, if we came in with a new Halo game right in the middle of Halo Reach's lifespan and split the ecosystem like that, and split the player base, it would have made a lot more enemies than friends.

And this is supposed to be a celebration. We don't want to say, "Hey, stop playing this! Start playing this!" And we wanted to respect that.

That's a bit of a difficult decision to make there, really.

FO: Yeah, we knew. I mean, even internally, we were like, "Right." When we made the decision, we're like, "This number of people are going to be rightfully irritated or mad about that decision." So that's when we started working on the Title Update with classic gameplay.

So with things like the pistol, we've added ability to move completely, or reduce the amount of bloom on the DMR rifle, and basically make a much more classic Halo experience for when Anniversary ships. You'll be able to go into setup matchmaking play it as close to Halo CE as you can get with the Reach engine.

Have you considered any kind of interoperability between the games? I mean any kind of persistence, for the Halo series going forward?

FO: Yeah and I already touched on that with regards to fiction -- which is a meta-concept, and an easy one to do.

But absolutely Waypoint has become a sort of access for that interoperability, and we're definitely looking at ways -- definitely for your Halo career to continue to exist. But ways for more discreet and functional things.

In fact, we have some things happening in the next couple of months that speak directly to that. Yeah, we have some stuff coming up in the next couple of months that talks exactly to that, and there's some really interesting things, but hopefully without breaking the gameplay experience.

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