[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.