Halo Reach features an iconic final battle that can't be won. For Microsoft's Tom Abernathy, however, the fact the series was not going to continue offered incredible freedom. The game was able to tell its poignant story because it had an end.
But many developers find themselves inheriting beloved, iconic franchises that offer unique and often significant challenges. With Space Marine, Raphael Von Lierop (now of HELM Studios) needed to balance a very protective IP owner in Games Workshop with the goal of bringing the Warhammer 40k universe to a new and wide audience.
While with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Eidos' Mary DeMarle had to deal with helping passionate Deus Ex fans understand that while some elements of the game would not be like what they remembered, the sense and feel were intended to stay intact.
"You listen to the fans and you read the feedback... and then you stop reading it, because you have to do what you have to do," she says.
"You want to respect the IP," says Van Lierop, "but you also have to [add] your own creative vision."
Obsidian knows from experience: Chris Avellone worked on Fallout 2 at Black Isle, and returned to the series with New Vegas, which inherited the evolutions on Fallout that Bethesda implemented with the third game. Bethesda had two major requirements: Use only the West Coast of the country, and use the same engine.
Other than that, the team had some freedom in what it wanted to add to the sequel, and chose to add a stronger focus on fleshing out the world, story and characters some, with the addition of faction politics and companions.
But all the panelists have some lingering regrets, and for Avellone it's that those important factions could have been more nuanced and made for more interesting choices.
"A big part of the game mechanics in New Vegas was faction politics and faction reputation, and while I thought that was a strong game mechanic, I think internally we realized it's not possible to make those mechanics work if one of those factions isn't as well-developed," he says. If the team could have another pass at the game, they might have taken fairly extreme factions, like Caesar's Legion, and given them more nuanced positive qualities.
Although Obsidian wanted to ensure the player didn't feel forced to work with or keep the game's companion characters around, Avellone also would have liked to have implemented making those characters more important to the story while still being optional.
Van Lierop wanted to create a first-person story for the space marine character as a way of broadening the 40k audience -- but hadn't fully realized the extent to which that would place it up against Gears of War, both in terms of timing window and direct comparison, even superficially. He wishes the game would have focused more on differentiation, creating an experience that played more to the strengths of Relic as a studio.
"In a sense I do believe the right way to develop something like this is to come at it from the point of emotion, fiction, character and passion -- what is it you want to create for your players? ... You're developing the content in that game to support that promise," he says. "I still believe that's the right approach. I just think you have to, if you can, look further into the future and realize where that's going to bring you."
"To do Deus Ex: Human Revolution, we had to be naive," says DeMarle. "If we ever do another one, we have to have courage."
The game offers a lot of choices for the player early on, but further on the frequency of those choices significantly recedes, favoring more one on one dialogue. That's because the team hadn't really grasped how important it was to give the player the ability to roleplay with more choice until well into develoment.
"We wrote all these scripts that had different lines, from the characters' reaction to you, and we spent an awful lot of time focusing on the conversation boss fights," DeMarle says. "But we didnt actually look at the critical path script and say, 'let's really give players the ability to let Jensen say what he wants to say. So we had to do this major rewrite, and we just ran out of time," she says. "My one regret was that I couldnt get all the way through the rest of the script to get those in until the very end."
Communication internally becomes important for consistency, and DeMarle also says she's not fond of the way Jensen seems like a different person in the cinematics versus in the game. "I strongly believe when you're writing games and stories it's a collaboration... eveeryone on the team needs to understand the sense of the characters," she says. "Unfortunately we had a breakdown in communication between the cinematics team and the rest of the writing team."
All the panelists spent a good deal of time visiting other games in the series to understand how they wanted to build their own. Van Lierop says he isn't a huge fan of the 40k board game but is passionate about the fiction, and it was that successful element he wanted to bring with him.
"We always go through a game research phase for all of our projects, in terms of what similar titles are out there and what are the things they do well," says Avellone.
Says Abernathy: "The opportunity to do a final game in the series, for [Bungie], was very liberating, and there was a general feeling in the room that we all wanted to look at what the Halo games had been and had to be and see what we could now do differently from that, because we no longer had to follow that formula in many ways."
To get the feeling of company, fighting with brothers and sisters, the team watched films like Band of Brothers closely to find how to get the sense they wanted to add to the games. "All of us felt there was an opportunity to do something a bit different as the final chapter for Bungie in that process."