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Please Remain Calm: How Bungie Met The Challenges Of Halo 3: ODST
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Please Remain Calm: How Bungie Met The Challenges Of Halo 3: ODST

September 22, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

From its first trailer that told gamers to "Please Remain Calm" to its release this week, Halo 3: ODST underwent substantial changes. Originally conceived as an add-on for Halo 3, ODST evolved into what Microsoft today bills as a fully fleshed-out experience.

As the final vision of the game took shape, Bungie's 70-person ODST team, which included a five-person core design team, met challenges from a personnel and technical standpoint during the course of the game's development -- which lasted about one-third as long as a typical Halo game.

Gamasutra spoke with Bungie's ODST executive producer Curtis Creamer. He's one of the 165 full-time employees at the Halo studio, which is currently working on the upcoming Halo Reach, as well as another unannounced project (for reference, when Halo 3 shipped, Bungie employed around 110-120 employees).

Here, Creamer elaborated on the hardest part about making ODST, how Bungie adapted to challenges, and the new elements that ODST is bringing to the blockbuster Halo universe.

Can you talk about the hurdles you encountered in the development of ODST? What issues did the team run into, and were people ever at odds, creatively?

Curtis Creamer: Creatively, the team really was pretty cohesive. The biggest challenge behind making ODST was that we were trying to make it in a timeframe that we hadn't made a game in anytime recently. For the previous Halo games, we're talking about three-year development cycles.

In ODST, we were shooting for about a year of development time. The challenges for us were having an understanding of just how much of a game we could make in a year, and also knowing the aspirations we were going to have, and how we were going to pull those off with all of the limitations we had as a studio.

When we were making the Halo games, it was something everyone in the studio was getting on board with, but at the end of Halo 3, we had split up. There were people working on Reach, people working on another project, and people working on ODST. We didn't have the full resources available for the project like we would normally have. We didn't really understand exactly how much we could make and how far we could push the technology.

The biggest challenge for us was with the design of the game. We decided we wanted to focus the story in one location on Earth, in New Mombasa, whereas in the previous games, you were jumping from the Halo ring to Earth to a Forerunner installation to a different side of the ring -- but now it's snowing. The environments were really different.

But with ODST, since we were putting it all in this [one] city, there were a lot of technical and personnel challenges. We had to make a city that, in various parts of the game, you're going to be able to recognize as a cohesive city. You're going to see parts of it from one side at one part of the game, and other parts of it in a different part of the game.

The city itself was really big, so the idea of making a city that had a non-linear type of movement through it was something that the Halo engine had never really been designed to do. That was probably the biggest technical challenge for us -- how are we going to create this gigantic city? How are we going to make it do things the engine was never set up to do? And then, how are we going to do it with fewer people and on a shorter timeline?

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j kelly
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If you use a 3 year old engine, and create what was initially an add on in 1/3 the normal time to make a game, why not pass the savings on to players? We buy the games. Just like in 1982, we'll get fed up with Pac Man and ET if you keep marketing Mirror's Edge, Assassin's Creed, and now Halo 3 ODST with a rock solid price of $60. I understand you're using an engine that took time to build, but Halo has made Microsoft a key player in the console market. Throw a bone or two to the people who buy your products.

Leo Gura
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Wow, first time I'm hearing a major title getting shelved for 4 months prior to release. Is this a possible first step to game releases becoming more like movies? On the other hand, if Microsoft wanted to publish it for the holiday rush, why not give Bungie an extra 4 month's development time?

Christopher Myburgh
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Yeah those 4 months certainly could've been used to at least improve the visuals. Halo 3 and ODST feature some gorgeous effects and HDR but Bungie are otherwise lagging tech-wise this generation. Overall, ODST still just doesn't compete visually with the likes of Gears, Uncharted and Killzone. I'm particularly disappointed with the character's faces and the animation thereof, and Bungie's attempt at hair is outright pathetic. The sub-720p native resolution resulting from every frame being wastefully rendered twice also gives the visuals a noticeable blur.

Austin Ellefson
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@j kelly:

Just because the development did not take as long as a usual game, does not mean that Microsoft isn't going to try to wring as much money out of it as possible. Leave it to Microsoft to gouge our pockets for no reason. The $60 price-tag is what killed my enthusiasm for ODST, and I really do not think I'll be purchasing it because of it's ridiculous price.

@Christopher Myburgh:

Instead of "improving the visuals" they spent that time focusing on what the game was meant to be: an enjoyable multi-player experience with a partial-sandbox single-player. Bungie won't gain or lose a significant amount of their player-base with "sub-par" hair. I'd rather play a well-made, and well-balanced game than a good-looking one.

Christopher Myburgh
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Agreed wrt gameplay > graphics, though I personally dislike sandbox games and multiplayer is always low on my priority list. Irrespective of sub-par visuals Halo is still my favourite FPS and I'm still having a lot of fun playing ODST, even if it is accompanied by a bit of a been-there-done-that vibe. I haven't tried out ODST's multiplayer yet but in that regard Halo 3 is one of my all-time favourites.

sukru tikves
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There were two (public) reasons Halo 3 engine runs at 640p instead of the common 720p.

As far as I know, Xbox 360 GPU has an additional 10MB eDRAM for framebuffer, which gives free 2xMSAA, but only up to that resolution.

And also they render each frame twice to get full HDR lighting (lighting and colors in Halo 3 are spectacular btw).

Finally they are able to run 4 play split screen in 60fps locked 640p. That is more impressive for me than a 720p no-AA, no-HDR, no-split-screen engine.

For ODST, I don't think they had enough time to alter the rendering path enough to go to 720p. From my understanding Halo Reach will the first real HD halo.

Amir Sharar
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sukru tikves said: "Finally they are able to run 4 play split screen in 60fps locked 640p."

Actually it doesn't run at 60fps. Neither in SP or split screen MP. I agree that the implementation of HDR in this game is incredible and yes I do believe there are extra framebuffers used here to achieve that.

sukru tikves
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Amir Sharar, you're right. I did more research, and actually Halo 3 does not even do AA:
pixel-counters-claim/ (they mention Halo 3 being 30fps)

Benjamin Quintero
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It's rough; ODST has been taking somewhat of a beating from gamers. I can't blame them though. I personally passed on this game because I don't care about Halo MP and the SP is said to be 3-5 hours, which is definitely not worth the $60 price point; maybe $29.99. Throwing together the scraps of MP maps and trying to hook players with a Beta key just seemed like a chump move. They might have made more sales with different SKUs; a tiered approach of (1) SP only, (2) Spartan edition with all the MP fluff taped on. I guess I'll just wait until it drops to $30 and re-evaluate if I even care about Halo anymore by then. =(

Gary Voth
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I have finished the game and in my opinion the criticism is unwarranted. The campaign experience is similar in length to previous Halo games, particularly if you enjoy the exploration of sneaking through the New Mombassa streets searching out Sadie's Story. IIRC, the COD: Modern Warfare campaign was shorter than that of Halo 3: ODST, if we're doing simple math.

I found the story compelling and the missions enjoyable. The semi-open world New Mombassa mission is very different from any previous Halo experience, and Firefight is also a great addition to Halo gameplay.

This seems to be a case of mismanaged expectations. I don't fault Microsoft for announcing the game as expansion pack (since this was Bungie's intent at the time), but somewhere along the line, perhaps when the name of the game changed, MGS should have made it clear that the scope of the game had changed and why the game was full-priced.

AJ Beyer
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So despite hesitance due to initial criticisms, I ended up purchasing this game, and have found that some of it was worth it, and some of it definitely was not worth it. As like most things in this world this matter is not black and white.

The story was enjoyable, although I managed to be abused by the non-linear layout of it on at least 2 occasions. So after initially making it to the 4th flashback mission while playing solo, which was all fine and dandy until my roommate showed up and wanted to hop in. Now local co-op has been one of the primary draws of halo for me since Halo(1). So we agreed to continue progress on the game, in co-op, I restarted the 4th flashback mission in co-op, we beat it and started walking toward the next non-linear objective. The next non-linear objective was the first flashback mission. I am sorry, but the story mode in this game is linear, no matter how much you play with the chronology of events that occurred on the day of the story you are still progressing through the game play in a linear fashion, and I did not appreciate that it based what the next mission was on what you had played in your current play through no matter where you started said play through. That said I definitely liked the story, the characters, and the side story associated with the city's AI.

The second upset I had with this game is that ODST itself does not support 4 player split screen. So picture this, after playing some firefight and co-op campaign in ODST I went over a friends house, and brought my whole set-up (Xbox360, 4 controllers, ODST) and was ready to get some good 4 player firefight on because a mode like firefight is a great way to introduce new players to a game. You can help them out, and they can contribute to the overall good of the team. But despite the green 2-4 co-op label on the back of the box, this game has a local max of 2 players for co-op, which I did not notice until i had the whole thing booted up and set-up for 4 local people. This was distinctly the biggest disappointment I have had with the ODST package, seeing as how I had not kept up on my Halo3 map packs, and thought that entire Halo3 MP on a separate included disk was both a last minute concession, and a valuable disk.

Is it false advertisement to have the 2-4 co-op in green on the box? Did anyone else actually check this or did it slip through testing/marketing? Also I apologize in advance if the campaign is 4 player local, but i don't think it is, even though i did not actually try campaign with 4 local players seeing as how i was mid legendary campaign and did not want to have to start from the beginning mission again (see the non-linear issue above).